Tyler, My Eyes Are Open

There are some great things about The New York Times. For instance, I have a binder full of great recipes from their food section. And people like Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott make the film section a treat. If The New York Times was a cultural and gastronomical digest, it’d be one hell of a paper.

But a news outlet is responsible for letting people know what’s happening in the world, and occasionally making a judgment about what it all means. Sadly for all of us, The Times treats this responsibility with an unappealing combination of pompous milquetoast smugness (typified by its editorials, and writers like Friedman, Dowd, and Brooks), and an elevation of fair-mindedness to the point of moral cowardice and delusion. The best recent example is probably The Times’ Executive Editor, Bill Keller, who dismissed the significance of the paper’s decision to stop referring to waterboarding as torture the moment the Bush administration told The Times it wasn’t torture.

But there are also web series like The Thread, which purports to provide an “in-depth look at how major news and controversies are being debated across the online spectrum.” We’ll set aside the usefulness of this particular service, which seems to do nothing than add more reverb to the already deafening crosstalk between blogs and opinion writers.

No, what I find telling is this meandering essay on the modern “race card” and who has been playing it lately and how that’s been received. The point of departure for this discussion is an NAACP resolution that calls on the Tea Party movement to renounce the racists among its leadership. After looking at several arguments of when it is appropriate to call someone or something racist, Tobin Harshaw concludes with this irrelevance:

It’s pretty complicated here as well, to the point that this week arguments that were initially about health care, national security and the economy are now all about race… Roslyn Brock, the new chairman of the N.A.A.C.P., told the group’s convention this week that “contrary to popular belief, we do not live in a post-racial society.” Based on this week’s evidence, it seems that nobody much held that belief in the first place.

What raises this from a merely boring article to something banally sinister is its failure to cite one important development in this story. Namely, a leading Tea Party figure writing something obscenely racist. The author, Mark Williams, has since taken it down. But The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates has the original text:

Dear Mr. Lincoln

We Coloreds have taken a vote and decided that we don’t cotton to that whole emancipation thing. Freedom means having to work for real, think for ourselves, and take consequences along with the rewards. That is just far too much to ask of us Colored People and we demand that it stop!

In fact we held a big meeting and took a vote in Kansas City this week. We voted to condemn a political revival of that old abolitionist spirit called the ‘tea party movement’.

The tea party position to “end the bailouts” for example is just silly. Bailouts are just big money welfare and isn’t that what we want all Coloreds to strive for? What kind of racist would want to end big money welfare? What they need to do is start handing the bail outs directly to us coloreds! Of course, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is the only responsible party that should be granted the right to disperse the funds.

And the ridiculous idea of “reduce[ing] the size and intrusiveness of government.” What kind of massa would ever not want to control my life? As Coloreds we must have somebody care for us otherwise we would be on our own, have to think for ourselves and make decisions!

The racist tea parties also demand that the government “stop the out of control spending.” Again, they directly target coloreds. That means we Coloreds would have to compete for jobs like everybody else and that is just not right.

Perhaps the most racist point of all in the tea parties is their demand that government “stop raising our taxes.” That is outrageous! How will we coloreds ever get a wide screen TV in every room if non-coloreds get to keep what they earn? Totally racist! The tea party expects coloreds to be productive members of society?

Mr. Lincoln, you were the greatest racist ever. We had a great gig. Three squares, room and board, all our decisions made by the massa in the house. Please repeal the 13th and 14th Amendments and let us get back to where we belong.

Sincerely

Precious Ben Jealous, Tom’s Nephew
NAACP Head Colored Person

This is news. This is not some nut at a Tea Party rally with an Obama-witch doctor poster. This letter comes from the spokesman for the Tea Party Express. Its omission from the Times piece is exactly what makes that piece subtly toxic. Harshaw’s piece asks whether the Tea Party is racist and portrays the entire issue as nothing more than competing points of view. There is no truth, only arguments. So the truth revealed by this communique from Mark Williams, that the NAACP was right about the Tea Party having some seriously racist leadership, doesn’t make it into the final draft.

Coates says something at the end of his post that’s worth repeating here.It speaks to a lot of the way mainstream outlets cover the news now, and the way a lot of us have started conceptualizing issues.

I would not endeavor to speak for anyone but myself when I say that I owe the NAACP a debt of gratitude. I have, in my writing, a tendency to become theoretically cute, and overly enamored with my own fair-mindedness. Such vanity has lately been manifested in the form of phrases like “it’s worth saying”  and “it strikes me that…” or “respectfully…”

When engaging your adversaries, that approach has its place. But it’s worth saying that there are other approaches and other places. Among them–respectfully administering the occasional reminder as to the precise nature of the motherfuckers you are dealing with.

    • Bping
    • July 18th, 2010 9:56am

    I strongly disagree with your negative characterization of the NYT as a whole. Rather, I think they employ some of the best and brightest journalists in U.S. media. And NYT staff consistently deliver (some of) the most well rounded, well researched, well cited, and otherwise excellent news I have the privlege to read.

    That may sound like I’m laying it on a bit thick, but I was just watching the not-so-serious Wordplay documentary (about the NYT crossword) last week when I realized just how much I respect them as an instituion of intellectual truth in the vast sea of dishonest/purely-sensationalist poo known as the U.S. media. (I’m not into crosswords though..) Along with groups like NPR and PBS, the NYT brings an educated lens to complicated questions and does, imo, a pretty darn good job at teaching me something every time I read a story.

    But I didn’t start this comment to disagree with you. I happen to have just read ‘The Thread’ earlier this evening, and I couldn’t agree with you more. Meandering? Yes. Inexplicably designed as a worthless echo chamber, intended solely for regurgitating select quotes from opposing-sides’ memos? Apparently so.

    That ‘race’ article was so devoid of insight that I scarcely believed it when I reached the end.. I guess all threads for the week’s news lead to whatever random story they pick.. is that how this works? Clever stuff.

    And I didn’t even know about Mark William’s letter, thanks for sharing. Not that anyone should be surprised though. As I heard someone say on NPR today, it’s not a matter of the NAACP condemning the *whole* Tea Party as racist. It’s a matter of the individual Tea Party groups generally dragging their feet, responding evasively/defensively, and refusing to simply, unequivocally, repudiate racist themes and call for their exclusion from Tea Party activity.

      • Flitcraft
      • July 18th, 2010 3:32pm

      The reason I write stuff like this about the NYT is because I do generally respect the paper so much, but their editorial failing are obvious and sometimes egregious. The deference shown to the powerful and connected, for instance, is a serious failing. When the US starts torturing people as part of national security policy, you don’t cleanse the vocabulary just because the powerful don’t like people being honest about what they do. That’s not how you go about being an institution of intellectual truth. It’s how you go about being a guardian of consensus, misleading readers who trust you tell you the facts, not an anesthetizing spin on it.

      And that’s why I single out stuff like this. Yeah, this is a bad article by NYT standards, but it’s bad in a way that exemplifies certain problems with the paper and how its staff interpret events.

      As for the NAACP resolution, I think the problem for the Tea Party is that racism in the form of racial grievance is deeply intertwined with the movement. Both the NAACP and the Tea Party know it, which is why that resolution was both justified and clever. The Tea Party can’t go about denouncing racism because many of its leaders and members hold racist beliefs without actually knowing they’re being racist. Mark Williams reaction to complaints about his letter is a perfect example. He thinks people are objecting to his use of “coloreds”. He doesn’t get that his entire attempt at satire was a racial slur.

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