Friday, July 11, 2008

Malefaction Jackson

There’s no denying that Jesse Louis Jackson has been a soldier on the ramparts of the civil rights movement. His role in black American life since the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, his in-your-face method of speaking truth to power, helped to fill a vacuum of inspiration and leadership at a critical time. But in more recent years, Jackson’s been a self-fulfilling parody, a loose cannon of half-baked strategies, slurs and personal missteps that have badly compromised his standing as a national leader.

That decline on the national stage got worse this week. By now you probably know the dirt: Jackson was preparing for an interview on “Fox & Friends” on Sunday, and sitting before a microphone he didn’t know was live. Responding to a fellow guest’s inquiry about speeches on personal responsibility that Obama has given recently at black churches, Jackson whispered what may be his real feelings about Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee — the man who realized what Jackson had failed to achieve in his two abortive runs for the presidency.

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The whispering Jackson appeared to barely suppress anger at Obama, in the wake of the senator’s Father’s Day speech in which Obama called for black fathers to more fully assume the responsibilities of fatherhood and reject the pernicious legacy of out-of-wedlock births, part of the panorama of nihilistic behavior that vexes black America today.

“We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception. We need them to realize that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child - it's the courage to raise one.” Obama said as a part of a wide-ranging speech that addressed many issues of black social pathology — a speech that really didn’t say anything that hasn’t been said before by others in the black community, from Bill Cosby to Louis Farrakhan — to Jackson himself (remember his condemnation of "babies making babies"?).

Jackson, apparently, lost sight of that historical perspective that he’s a part of when he made his comments Sunday on the Fox News set. When he said … what he said. Some embarrassments don’t deserve to be excerpted; you need to see the whole thing. Here it is:

“I wanna cut his nuts off.”

There hasn’t been more attention paid to the word “nuts” since 101st Airborne Division commander Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, besieged by the Nazis during the Battle of the Bulge and offered the chance to surrender, sent that one-word reply to the Germans, in a much-celebrated show of American determination.

Jackson’s use of the word was hardly so heroic. There may be no more psychically corrosive symbol of the subjugation of black Americans than the prospect of castration — a fate suffered by countless black men through American history. Castration was part of the ritual degradation of lynching stretching back to Reconstruction, after the Civil War. Jackson’s sotto voce call for symbolic emasculation of the most successful black presidential candidate in American history spoke volumes about a lingering history we can’t put behind us fast enough.

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Apologizing later, after his comments were broadcast Wednesday on Fox's "O'Reilly Report," and after the gravity of what he’d said began to resonate, Jackson called Obama’s campaign “a redemptive moment for America.”

"For any harm or hurt that this hot-mike private conversation may have caused, I apologize," Jackson said in a written apology released Wednesday. "My support for Sen. Obama's campaign is wide, deep and unequivocal."

It was part of an All Apologies Tour for Jackson, who furthered the written mea culpa with a series of televised appearances essentially repeating the same thing.

It’s a long comedown for Jackson, perhaps the last beneficiary of the perception of unified black thinking in America, in the wake of King’s assassination. It was he who, according to an Associated Press-AOL Black Voices poll in February 2006, was voted “the most important black leader” trailed by none other than Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The whisper incident was maybe the best evidence of something black America has known for years: Long ago, the mantle of black national leadership moved, not to one individual in the mold of King or Malcolm X or Farrakhan or any other singular personality, but to no one in particular. With King’s passing 40 years ago, the notion of one person speaking for a monolithic black America largely vanished — right along with the idea of there ever having been a monolithic black America in the first place.

“We have formally entered the post-Jackson reality,” said Rev. Eugene Rivers of the Azusa Christian Community Church, on MSNBC’s “Hardball” on Thursday. The question going forward, he said, “is how do we frame a post-civil rights agenda that … dovetails with the pragmatic politics that Senator Obama brilliantly personifies?”

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But other questions remain: Were Jackson’s sentiments merely the proof of a once-powerful spiritual and political leader realizing the degree of his own eclipse? Or were they evidence of a generational divide within black America — the same kind of split apparent in the controversy over comments by Rev. Jeremiah Wright, earlier this year?

Despite the fulsome apologies, how valuable can Jackson possibly be now in solidifying black support for Obama in his quest for the presidency?

And finally … after two generations in the public eye, how could he be so tone-deaf to the history of his own people? How could he just get it so wrong, after so long?

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jackson's spiritual mentor, referred to himself more than once in his too-brief lifetime as a "drum major for justice." With this latest accidental revelation, Jesse Jackson's shown that he's a drum major marching in his own parade.
Image credits: Jackson: Still image from Fox News. McAuliffe: Public domain.

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