26 August 2004

Al Sharpton and other thoughts

This evening, my younger son and I sat down at my computer and watched a video recording of Al Sharpton's July 29 speech to the Democratic National Convention. I had already told him that I thought it was the best oratory of the convention, but I was also aware of the scorn that had been poured on it by political micropundits. We sat there together, and about two-thirds of the way through the speech, my son said, "He put the spirituality back into politics."

That was what I had thought, too, when I heard the speech for the first time. However, having heard some of the cynical analyses, and having my own memories of Sharpton's less edifying political interventions in the past, I was listening hard this time for any evidence to back Judy Woodruff's charge that he had "hijacked" the convention or for any "off-message" grandstanding. Quite simply, there was none. In fact, for someone accused in the past of rhetorical reverse-racism, this speech was remarkably inclusive. For someone accused of bringing his own agenda to the podium, the speech was very direct in its unconditional endorsement of the party ticket and its warm personal recommendation for his primary-season debating partners Kerry and Edwards. For someone accused of "ranting" and "riffing," the speech was tightly constructed.

But what was evidently meaningful to my son was that the speech "put the spirituality back into politics." Later, he added that Sharpton's ability to be both rational and passionate might give voters a reason to be less passive. Sharpton's eloquence was not in the service of a mean, small political victory, it was in the service of rallying the community around a set of shared values that threatened to be swamped by cynicism - both the cynicism of power-and-wealth politics and the cynicism engendered by trivial, tertiary punditry on the part of the media.

I am going to stoop to trivia for a moment myself. I was moved by Sharpton's mention of the black voter's ballot being "soaked in the blood of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner," referring to the trio of civil rights workers who were murdered on June 21, 1964, near Philadelphia, Mississippi. It was disconcerting to see several news outlets reduce this reference to "... soaked in the blood of good men (inaudible)...." It probably wasn't lack of audio, but lack of history, that caused this lapse.

Al Sharpton's speech, with its clarity and passion, was the high point of the convention for me. Kerry and Edwards were disappointing in their obvious pandering to militarists and caution in confronting policy issues head-on. (That pandering has contributed to the current rehashing of Vietnam.) But the bitterest disappointment has been the mainstream media, who ought to be probing where politicians fear to tread, who ought to focus on content but instead obsess on the minutiae of delivery.

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