by BAR executive editor Glen Ford
Things are getting ugly in Black misleadership circles, as Rev. Al Sharpton attempts to send Tavis Smiley into permanent purgatory for being “notoriously anti the president.” But Smiley won’t go quietly. He’s taking names of those who continue to give Barack Obama a “pass.”
Smiley vs.Sharpton: A Potemkin Drama
by BAR executive editor Glen Ford
“Sharpton and his crowd have devolved to meek and ridiculous access-seekers with no significant agenda to ‘ballyhoo.’”
Last week’s live broadcast confrontation between Tavis Smiley and Rev. Al Sharpton was a perfect window into the incoherence and utter ineffectuality of what passes for African American leadership. Smiley, the media entrepreneur, for ten years (2000-’09) staged an annual electronic facsimile of Black political life, purporting to represent, as spelled out in the production’s title, the “State of the Black Union” – SOBU. Smiley choreographed the event, a ritualized “coming together” that gave the illusion of Black “unity” and motion when, In fact, the showcase was structurally incapable of effectively addressing – much less resolving – any issue of importance. Nor was it meant to be anything but a media happening, a kind of Black Potemkin Village where luminaries strutted, pandered and pontificated on cue – a manufactured drama creating an aura of relevance and the impression of movement: a substitute for a real Black people’s Movement.
Tavis sold lots of books along the way, preaching a “covenant” that would bind his show’s performers and a hungry Black audience to a preached-at but not fought-for state of being that could be achieved through presentation, alone.
Smiley cemented his status as Grandmaster of a holographic politics consisting of a soundstage, on which electronic icons pushed the envelope of contention no farther than the theatrical constraints of an agreed-upon “unity” would allow – never nearly enough to reveal any contradictions demanding resolution for the sake of future of The Race.
”Black political theater was bum-rushed by the Obama phenomenon.”
Then came Obama, and the undoing of Smiley’s skillfully crafted media diversion, trumped by the mega-show of a serious (i.e. corporate-funded) Black presidential campaign. Black political theater – even Smiley’s choreographed and meticulously casted all-Black format – was bum-rushed by the Obama phenomenon, which plumbed the brass-ring aspirations of an eternally marginalized people. All hands rushed to get on the Showboat, where dreams rooted in at least one side of the Black brain might be realized – and where the money surely was.
Smiley attempted in two successive years to lasso candidate Obama onto his stage set for a SOBU appearance. But such an association was anathema to the politician who made his deepest impression on the mass white psyche with his 2004 Democratic National Convention declaration that there was “no Black America…only the United States of America.” Of course Obama would not come to a “State of the Black” anything. Blacks were to be neutered as a prerequisite of national unity – and Obama’s political fortunes.
Smiley protested on the righteous political grounds that a candidate whose entire strategy was to lock up the Black vote by virtue of his own ethnicity and then proceed outward, should at least find time to appear in the Black political Potemkin Village. He might as well have cursed God. After 11 years as commentator on the hugely popular Tom Joyner Morning Show syndication, Smiley was forced out in April, 2008, by "the hate he's been getting regarding the Barack issue – hate from the black people that he loves so much," said Joyner, who had himself joined the mob. Smiley held the last of his “State of the Black Union” gatherings in 2009, although maintaining his public radio and TV programs.
Rev. Al Sharpton had long been one of the stock performers in the televised SOBU mini-spectacles. An acolyte of entertainer James Brown and sports hustler/gangster Don King, Sharpton is programmed to cut a deal – for himself. He keeps bad company and tends to wind up, like most people who parlay with low-lifes, being captured by them. Or more likely, he is himself hopelessly degraded. Thus it was not strange that his 2004 Democratic presidential campaign came under the control of Roger Stone, a far-right Republican political hit man whom even polite GOPers find unsavory (see The Black Commentator, February 5, 2004) – an underground passage Sharpton has navigated so often it must be considered his modus operandi.
Following the scent of bottomless corporate pockets, Sharpton in the Obama era made common cause with New York billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg’s vast political/financial network, a capitalist empire fully enmeshed with Barack Obama’s own Wall Street lifeline. With $500,000 laundered through Bloomberg cronies’ accounts, Sharpton joined arch-racist Newt Gingrich for a salt-and-pepper tour touting Obama’s campaign to replace public schools with charters and break teachers unions, nationwide. He has graduated to full-fledged operative of the White House/Wall Street nexus, and will advocate nothing that might seriously upset his sugar daddies. Sharpton is finally playing in the big casino.
“Sharpton made common cause with New York billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg’s vast political/financial network.”
The National Action Movement leader joined NAACP president Ben Jealous and National Urban League chief Marc Morial for a snow-packed Black History Month meeting at the White House, February 13, from which the trio emerged proclaiming that “we have a president who get’s it” about the need to address Depression-level Black unemployment – albeit without directly targeting the particulars of the Black condition or promising any program adequate to the general crisis. (See BAR, “Sharpton, Jealous and Morial Make Small Talk at the Big House.”) Sharpton volunteered that the Black “leaders” might be of use in persuading Republicans to cooperate on the jobs issue.
The president did not dignify the meeting or his Black admirers’ analysis with a comment.
The previous week, Sharpton was reported to have told the New York Times the president was “smart not to ballyhoo ‘a black agenda’” – the meaning of which quote would become central to the radio throw-down between Tavis Smiley and Sharpton.
Tavis is not Mr. Smiley unless he is building Potemkin Villages in the airwaves. Eager to get back in the center of the magic circle, Smiley returned to his old forum, the Tom Joyner Morning Show, to market yet another gathering of “leaders,” set for March 20 at Chicago State University. This time, it would be a great debate over a Black agenda. Some folks in the circle, he tried to convey, were singing the wrong song:
“The President doesn’t need a Black agenda, they sing. He’s not the president of Black America, he’s the president of all America, and he need not focus specifically on the unique challenges Black America is facing, they sing.I know ‘What’s going on.’ I know ‘We shall overcome,’ but I don’t know this new tune, ‘the president doesn’t need a Black agenda.”
Smiley called out the off-key performers, and produced a list of others who, he vouched, had remained in tune with the ancestors:
“I say this lovingly, they’re all friends and freedom fighters…but Al Sharpton, Ben Jealous, Charles Ogletree, Valerie Jarrett, Marc Morial, Dr. Dorothy Height, will also be joined by some other crooners who I think do want us singing a different song…Barbara Lee, Angela Glover Blackwell, Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, Jesse Jackson, just for example.
“Other invited singers include Louis Farrakhan who hasn’t been singing much of late, but who has a solo I’m told he’s ready to share. Should be some kind of choir rehearsal to get us all singing the same song, Saturday, March 20, in Chicago, on national television.
“Do we think that we can give President Obama a pass on Black issues and somehow when he’s no longer in office, just resurrect the moral authority to hold future presidents accountable to our concerns? How does that work? You give one president a pass on Black issues, but when he’s gone, you go right back to trying to hold the next president accountable. I don’t get how we’re going to do that.”
A great debate, or an attempt to choreograph an exercise in false “unity?” Smiley appears to think he can pull off both, simultaneously. But later that day Al Sharpton was in his junkyard, howling.
In the studio for his daily radio show with his guest and buddy, Harvard Professor Charles Ogletree, who taught both Barack and Michelle Obama, Rev. Sharpton accepted Tavis Smiley’s call:
SMILEY: How are you?
SHARPTON: I was fine until you started messing with me this morning. What’s wrong with you?
SMILEY: We need a conversation about whether or not there needs to be a Black agenda…. When there are certain African American leaders…who are quoted [as saying] that this president doesn’t need to have an African American agenda, given that Black folk are getting crushed, I said we need to come together to have a conversation about what that means. I think there’s a disconnect between those kinds of quotes and Black people [interrupted]…
SHARPTON: No, I think there’s a disconnect between what you’re saying and what was said. First of all, we never said that, and the New York Times never said we said that. [Smiley tries to interrupt] And if you thought we had said that you should have picked up the phone and asked us.
Smiley read the relevant Times copy aloud, but Sharpton’s awesome powers of obfuscation were in full display:
SHARPTON: I said that if you were getting ready to have an event then you’d be smart not to ballyhoo a certain segment of the event. That does not mean I don’t think you should have the event or emphasize something. What you just read is nowhere near what you said, Tavis.
And so it went, with Sharpton characterizing Smiley’s challenge on the Tom Joyner show as “disingenuous” and “lies.” But the Times didn’t take Sharpton’s statement that Obama was “smart not to ballyhoo ‘a black agenda’” out of context, and Smiley’s reading of the remarks was correct. The Reverend and his fellow unrepentant Obamites have been giving the president a “pass” since he first appeared on the national scene, allowing him to tack further to the Right with every passing day. And they are demanding a pass for themselves, as well, for wholly abdicating their responsibility as “leaders” to formulate a Black agenda worthy of the name, and to confront power with demands based on that agenda. Sharpton and his crowd have devolved to meek and ridiculous access-seekers with no significant agenda to “ballyhoo” – except the president’s own, corporate agenda.
“The Reverend and his fellow unrepentant Obamites have been giving the president a ‘pass’ since he first appeared on the national scene.”
These inert human objects cannot even be described as annexes to the administration, since Obama finds it politically inconvenient to recognize them as such. Their irrelevance is near total.
Although meek as a lamb with Obama, Sharpton played by Don King rules in lashing out at Smiley, whom he would eject from the inner sanctum for being “notoriously anti the president.” Tavis has no right to call a leadership meeting in Chicago or anywhere else, said Sharpton. “Some of the objective people who have not been pro or con the president should convene it.” At any rate, “I’m not going to be there.”
In truth, there is little point in organizing a gathering of people who will not fight. No matter how huge the herd, sheep are still sheep. Leadership is not to be found on a sound stage, but in struggle. As we build a new movement, we will grow a new leadership.