Editorial: It’s Not Racism, It’s Just Plain Stupid

By Becky O’Malley
Friday July 27, 2007

Once again I’m exercising my editorial privilege of previewing opinion contributions and responding to them the same day they’re printed. I’ve read the comments from Jean Damu and Alona Clifton in this issue, and I both agree and disagree with the points they raise. 

Let’s get one out of the way first. I don’t think the way Dave Lindorff and others on the left bank of the Internet stream have been bashing John Conyers is racism, exactly. Even though I’m white myself I’m usually no apologist for the average white person, including the average leftist white person. I’m fully aware of spoken and unspoken assumptions that can affect the way persons of European-only descent treat those who have some ancestors who came from other continents, even when the intentions are benign. But in this case it’s more complicated than that. 

Background: some people, with Cindy Sheehan and Medea Benjamin the big names out front, think that the main agenda for activists against the Iraq War is impeaching the responsible parties right now, from Bush on down. On Saturday a group of such people went to the Washington office of John Conyers, chair of the House judiciary committee, to press their point of view, and when he declined to agree with them instantaneously, saying he didn’t have the votes, they announced that they wouldn’t leave his office until he complied with their demands.  

This was all planned in advance—anyone can track the planning on the Internet, on the Daily Kos site among others. And surprise, surprise, when their plans were carried out, the sitters-in were arrested. Now they, or some of their friends, are whining about it. 

You know what? It’s called civil disobedience. Getting arrested, if you choose to disobey the law, is part of the program. We always told our daughters not to get arrested by accident, but getting arrested on purpose for a good cause is an honorable tactic in some circumstances. Whining after the fact ruins the whole point of the protest.  

The subsequent personal attacks on Conyers, a brave man doing his best, are outrageous. One lamebrain web-site, supposedly pro-impeachment but probably hosted by the contemporary equivalent of Cointelpro or perhaps the Republican National Committee, shows his picture with a big X across his face, and calls for defeating him in the next election because the protesters were arrested in his office. Evidently they don’t realize that if Conyers were actually to be defeated, his successor would not be chair of the Judiciary Committee, and its discussion of impeachment would come to a grinding halt. Oh, and of course Bush would also be out of office by then, wouldn’t he? And succeeded by whom? 

Lindorff, a prolific polemicist, has another such attack posted in all the usual places. I haven’t bothered to find out what his previous history is, but one of his barbs caught my attention: “As one angry activist in the hallway remarked, ‘Where is today’s (Rep. Allard) Lowenstein or Father Drinan. There is none!’ ”  

As it happens, I have in my desk drawer this very day a fading copy of a bill of impeachment introduced against Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War, authored by priest and congressman Robert Drinan and—John Conyers, then as now U.S. Congressman from Detroit’s First District. And as it happens, I knew Al Lowenstein, even before he was in Congress, in the mid sixties when he toured the country looking for a candidate to run against Johnson, long before Lindorff was out of high school.  

Drinan and Lowenstein are both dead now, but Conyers was their good friend and is the worthy inheritor of their pragmatic tradition. If they were alive today, they’d certainly support his decisions.  

Lindorff and others also compare Conyers negatively to Rosa Parks, whom I met many times when she was a field representative for Conyers’ Detroit office. Perhaps he doesn’t know that when she sat down on the bus she wasn’t just a spontaneous protester, but was the carefully chosen “respectable” and well-trained representative of a tightly organized and coordinated long-term game plan. And she never whined about being arrested. 

So why is this not exactly conventional racism? Well, for one thing the same crowd is also attacking the white Rep. Nancy Pelosi. (Cindy Sheehan has announced that she’s running against Pelosi, wasting her own time and ours.) That’s not conclusive, of course, because as long as both African-Americans and women as groups are in less-powerful positions in American society (i.e. they’re not White Males) they are both easy targets for attackers. But this particular incident looks like it’s just another case of the deplorable historic tendency of leftists to prefer internecine warfare to engaging the real enemy on his own turf, more than it’s about race. 

As a genetic WASP, I can’t remember many jokes and I tell them poorly. But one I do know and tell often is about the guy who’s crawling around on his knees one dark night under the streetlight outside his house. A neighbor lady asks him what he’s doing. He says he’s looking for his car keys, which he dropped as he was getting out of the car.  

“But the car’s over there at the curb!” she says. “Why aren’t you looking there?” “The light’s better here,” he answers. 

Ray McGovern, one of those arrested in DC, spent 27 years in the CIA, proving that some people are mighty slow to get the word. Now he has a web post reprinted on Commons Dreams which is headed “John Conyers Is No Martin Luther King,” wherein he also accuses Conyers of having Alzheimer’s.  

Well, some of us around here do remember Martin Luther King, and Conyers surely does too. We remember that he loved to quote the words of an old spiritual: “Keep your eyes on the prize, move on!”  

It’s much more convenient for Lindorff, McGovern, Sheehan, Benjamin and their cohorts to attack their friends, but it’s much less effective. When John Conyers says he just doesn’t have the votes to do what you want, believe him, don’t go for his throat. Instead, keep your eye on the many real bad actors, or on the possible swing votes in Congress—don’t start organizing one more circular firing squad.