Just when it seemed the Shirley Sherrod case was receding into Washington's general background noise, some conservative commentators are at it again. This time they're arguing among themselves—about semantics. Specifically, it's about the former Department of Agriculture official's reference, in Andrew Breitbart's now notorious edited video, to a "lynching"—and what the word really means.
It seems the correct definition would determine whether Sherrod lied in remarks she made on the video. In a multipage article in The American Spectator, Jeffrey Lord, who like almost everyone else had attacked Sherrod without doing his homework, admits as much, saying he should have waited to see the entire video or read the transcript before congratulating the agriculture secretary for firing her. “So my apologies to Ms. Sherrod." But he has a different beef: "The problem? I have now done exactly what I should have done originally.”
Lord then goes on to write—at length—about how, in her speech, Sherrod lied. She spoke of the lynching of a black man, when in fact, says Lord, he was beaten to death, not lynched. Lord says there could be a few understandable reasons for her fuzzy memory, but, “There is also a third possibility for what appears to be a straight-out fabrication. Having watched Ms. Sherrod's speech and read the transcript, I think it's abundantly clear that she is a liberal or progressive political activist."
Lord’s own colleagues at the conservative Spectator, like Philip Klein, struck back. “I am rendered speechless by a 4,000-word article that is based around the suggestion that somebody is a liar for saying that a black man was lynched, when he was merely beaten to death by a white sheriff who evidence suggests had previously threatened to ‘get him.’ "
Another colleague, John Tabin, points to the semantics to ask, “What on Earth is Jeffrey Lord talking about on the mainpage? He says that the sentence 'Claude Screws lynched a black man' is untrue."
Tabin continued: "Lynching is defined as an extrajudicial killing by a mob (which can be as few as two people). The fatal beating of Bobby Hall most certainly qualifies. Radley Balko expounds on the specifics, but honestly, even if you mistakenly believe that only hanging qualifies as lynching (which, again, is simply not true), zeroing in on this particular hair as one worth splitting strikes me as utterly bizarre.” Others jumped into the fray, picking apart the difference (or lack of one) between lynching and mob killings, and the meaning of “mob” and so on, and so on.
Lord pushed back on the semantics, but also on what he called the “larger point”: “My colleagues seem not to understand the connection between what they are seeing in the headlines every day—and history. There is, I'm sorry to say, a direct connection between Southern racists of yore and, say, the Obama Administration policy in Arizona. The Black Panther case. And what Ms. Sherrod was doing in her speech when she ever so casually linked criticism of health care to racism, which is to say not supporting a (her words) 'black President.' "
Lord has gone on to offer dictionary definitions of "lynching," en route to suggesting that Sherrod used the word to rev up Democratic voters, and to make his larger point: that the Democratic Party—not the GOP—is the party that, over the years, has been most guilty of racism.
Whether a lynching must involve a person being hanged by a "mob" or can apply to a case in which the person is "merely" beaten to death remains a matter of some disagreement. What is not in dispute is that the Sherrod case will remain under the microscope for a while yet.