Chew­ing up the in­no­cent

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

Last week, the con­ser­va­tive ou­trage ma­chine tried to chew up Shirley Sher­rod. You are fa­mil­iar with that ma­chine if you have ac­cess to the In­ter­net or Fox News. As the name im­plies, it ex­ists to stoke and main­tain a state of per­pet­ual apoplexy on the po­lit­i­cal right by feed­ing it a never-end­ing stream of per­ceived sins against con­ser­va­tive or­tho­doxy.

While the ma­chine will use any avail­able fuel (health care, im­mi­gra­tion, Mus­lims) to man­u­fac­ture fury, it has a spe­cial fond­ness for race. Specif­i­cally, for sto­ries that de­pict the God-fear­ing white con­ser­va­tive as a vic­tim of op­pres­sion.

So Sher­rod must have seemed a god­send to blog­ger An­drew Bre­it­bart.

Last Mon­day, he posted an ex­cerpted video of Sher­rod, an African Amer­i­can em­ployee of the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, telling a NAACP au­di­ence how she once hes­i­tated, be­cause he was white, to help a farmer stave off bank­ruptcy. “Ev­i­dence of racism,” Bre­it­bart sniffs righ­teously in an ac­com­pa­ny­ing post. Ex­cept that it wasn’t. Af­ter the NAACP pro­nounced the video ap­palling, af­ter Bill O’Reilly called her words un­ac­cept­able, and af­ter the USDA de­manded her res­ig­na­tion (all have since apol­o­gized) the truth came out, via the full video.

It turns out Sher­rod is a daugh­ter of Baker County, Ga., which she de­scribes as hav­ing been the sort of proudly un­re­con­structed place where a black man might be mur­dered by a white one and de­spite three wit­nesses, the grand jury would de­cline to in­dict. In 1965, Sher­rod’s fa­ther was that black man, one of many.

So there she is in 1986, work­ing at a non­profit agency es­tab­lished to help farm­ers, and in comes this white farmer she finds con­de­scend­ing. She didn’t do all she could’ve for him, she told the au­di­ence. In­stead, she handed him off to a white lawyer, fig­ur­ing one of “his own kind” would take care of him.

Which would in­deed be ap­palling and un­ac­cept­able, ex­cept that when the white lawyer failed to help that farmer, Sher­rod re­solved to help him her­self, to over­come the bit­ter­ness and bias of her own heart. That farmer cred­its her with sav­ing his farm.

Bre­it­bart used a snip­pet of video to mis­rep­re­sent her as a black bu­reau­crat brag­ging of how she stuck it to the white man. Sher­rod’s For­mer USDA of­fi­cial Shirley Sher­rod ap­peared Thurs­day on ‘The Early Show’ on CBS. point was ac­tu­ally about rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, re­demp­tion, learn­ing to em­brace the whole­ness of hu­man­ity.

In­vited by CNN to ex­plain the dis­so­nance be­tween his video and the truth, Bre­it­bart chose in­stead to re­it­er­ate his charge of “racist” sen­ti­ment. For Bre­it­bart, the video was an at­tempt to em­bar­rass the NAACP, be­cause it re­cently passed a res­o­lu­tion de­nounc­ing racist el­e­ments in the tea party move­ment. This is not about Sher­rod, he in­sisted, though she might beg to dif­fer.

In the in­ter­view, Bre­it­bart came across as not overly concerned with “truth,” and much less with racial in­jus­tice, ex­cept in­so­far as it can be used to fur­ther his cause.

And isn’t it telling how of­ten con­ser­va­tives will dis­cover their burn­ing con­cern over race just when it be­comes use­ful to them? We saw this last year. In a nation where one state may soon re­quire Lati­nos to show their pa­pers, con­ser­va­tives hy­per­ven­ti­lated over the “racism” of So­nia So­tomayor ex­tolling the virtues of a “wise Latina.” Now, against the back­drop of an Agri­cul­ture Depart­ment that long ago ad­mit­ted to decades of dis­crim­i­na­tion against black farm­ers, Bre­it­bart weeps over the “racism” of Shirley Sher­rod re­fus­ing to as­sist a white farmer — right up un­til she did.

It is prob­a­bly use­less to say Bre­it­bart should be ashamed. There is lit­tle ev­i­dence he pos­sesses the abil­ity. But Sher­rod is pon­der­ing a defama­tion suit, and a judg­ment in her fa­vor might help him fix that de­fect.

May she win big. And may the ou­trage ma­chine choke on the bill.

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