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Television and radio journalist Michel Martin (ABC Nightline, National Public Radio) took issue with Ishmael Reed’s article, “How the Media Uses Blacks to Chastize: The Colored Mind Doubles,” first published in CounterPunch and a week later in BC. Ms. Martin does some chastising of her own, including accusing BC of lacking “civility.”

From Michel McQueen Martin:

I was one of the people Ishmael Reed criticized in a piece entitled: “The Colored Mind Doubles: How the Media Uses Blacks to Chastize Blacks.” It was originally posted at Counterpunch and on NABJ Forum, where I saw it and posted a response.

In that response I discussed some of what I found most objectionable about Reed’s piece: his leaps of logic; statements that smacked of resentment of other people’s success masquerading as political argument; his tendency to draw conclusions based on slim evidence – such as his interpretations of other peoples’ demeanor of all things – and his insupportable underlying assumption that black officials (presumably of the left since I’ve see no similar protectiveness of those on the right) are somehow beyond questioning (or chastising for that matter).

Now that has seen fit to reprint the piece, I would like to add to my response on a different topic: its tone. And let me set a tone up front by thanking the publishers for agreeing to post it.

First, let me say I can see why Reed’s piece may have struck a chord despite its shortcomings. What I consider most wrong about Reed’s piece: that it was uncivil.  One reason may be that we have all been struck by those people whose claim to the black community’s support seems unmatched by any commitment to it. Many of us are troubled by the fact that views that are well outside the political consensus of the black community seem to find a ready audience in the mainstream media, even when those attitudes supported by the community are marginalized or dismissed.

And let’s admit it, haven’t we all privately speculated about the mental health of a rare few black people (“What’s wrong with that brutha/sistah?”) who seem to go out of their way to support people or policies that most of us consider hostile to the needs and goals of the rest of us? Finally, on a more personal level, haven’t at least some of us working in corporate America been victimized by black career assassins who seem to take it upon themselves to hold black people to higher standards than they would ever hold whites; and to punish us excessively when we fall short?

Some of these issues are unique to our community but most aren’t: this year’s study on the State of the Media by the Project for Excellence confirmed what many have long suspected: there are more news outlets but they are covering fewer stories…which means less coverage of a lot of important topics because everybody’s chasing the latest missing (white) woman. The consolidation of media companies has affected the coverage of local issues and voices across the country – consider how little radio programming these days is locally produced. It is also a fact that the media are drawn to the critic-on-the-inside: Think John McCain or Chuck Hagel or any classic whistleblower. So it shouldn’t be surprising that blacks criticizing other blacks might find willing ears, as do  Republican lawmakers criticizing a Republican president.

But none of that excuses what I consider most wrong about Reed’s piece – and quite frankly too much of what I read from the black left:  that it was uncivil.  Not just rude, or mean spirited –although I think it was those things. It was more than all of those things: it was uncivil to a degree that is at least as destructive to community consensus as that which he criticized.

This is no trivial matter.

Civility has its roots in the Latin civitas, which means city, the same word from which civilization comes. Thus, its defining characteristic, as the writer P.M. Forni reminds us in a helpful little book called “Choosing Civility,” is its connection to society and community. Civility is not a matter of putting on a false face, of lying, or of covering up hard truths. It is not, to paraphrase the prophet Jeremiah – a matter of crying peace, peace when there is no peace. It is a matter of choosing respect for others as an extension of respect for oneself.  But civility is a matter of ethics.

A lack of civility in our public discourse is not unique to the black community, but like most other social maladies,  we suffer more from its effects. While others get the cold – hurt feelings, coarsened communications – we get the pneumonia of shredded relationships, uninhabitable neighborhoods and leaders too diminished to make much difference. Who among us has not cringed to see a black mother cursing and berating her young children, their eyes widening in fear at her rage, or worse, not reacting at all? Who among us has not held our breath as young men curse and insult each other on a corner, and wondered when the last word will take a turn to deadly violence? What woman among us has not passed a kind word to one of our own on the street and been rewarded with a barrage of epithets and crude sexual remarks? What man has not wondered whether spilling a drink or a minor traffic accident might cause him to lose his life?

How many among us have not damaged a relationship, professional or otherwise, by saying one thing too many or too loudly, or too hurtfully? And how many qualified people with something to offer the community through public service have refrained from doing so because they do not wish to have every aspect of their identities – their skin color, relationships, choice of college, religion, etc. – turned into a litmus test of racial loyalty?

It’s not hard to understand why we are so rough with each other. One legacy of slavery and ongoing oppression has led many of us to believe that no matter what Jesus said about the meek inheriting the earth, that in this life the strong do what they will and the weak what they must. Many of us still whip and beat our children in the misguided belief that we must teach them their place so white people won’t kill them; conversely many of us have such a tenuous hold on self respect that we react to slights as if our very lives depend on it. Many of us have only each other to insult; we have no wider world.

But many of us do. And while some of us don’t know any better, most of us do. And those of us who do know better have a responsibility to speak and act toward each other in a matter that seeks to bury the legacy of the lash once and for all. We have a responsibility to create the kind of society where we can truly experience the respect, the humanity, and yes, the love, that has been too long denied us.

What disheartened me about Reed’s piece – and frankly what I see too often in Black commentator – are strong ideas weakened by cheap shots. For example, this publications’ otherwise cogent and legitimate critiques of black policymakers too often degenerate into name calling that makes it impossible to distribute to a wider audience.  In the same way that the widespread use of the word “nigger” among our own folks now makes it harder to deny its use to our enemies, so does the slash and burn style of political discourse legitimize the hate speech masquerading as commentary by others. How do you call out a white talk show host for calling one of our own “a ho” or a “ghetto whore” when we consider it appropriate to call each other “Uncle Tom” and the like? All political conversations are now public; there is no closed door. And thus it behooves us to set the tone for how we wish to be spoken to, by speaking to each other that way.

Rudeness is not radical; Civility is radical. It is radical because it is rooted in love: the transcendent, prophetic love of a Gandhi, or a King. Civility is rooted in strength, not weakness. And as I said before it is rooted in respect for self.  Brother Reed, I respect you. And all I ask is that you do the same.


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May 4, 2006
Issue 182

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