When the Facts Get in the Way

My family and I have spent most of July in Tennessee, which has put me in the position of being in touch with but not obsessed by the news cycle. (Though there is not really a cycle to news anymore. It is more of a treadmill.) My first glimmer of things comes from my e-mail, with its news alerts, and last week, inevitably, I found myself following the strange saga of Shirley Sherrod, a hitherto unknown employee of the Department of Agriculture.

You know the story by now. A conservative Web site posted a misleading excerpt of remarks Sherrod made to a meeting of the Georgia NAACP earlier this year. The video was edited to suggest that Sherrod, who is African-American, had discriminated against a white farmer back in 1986. The moment of purported reverse racism roared around the Internet, onto Fox News, and into the mainstream media.

There was one problem, however: the story was not true. Sherrod had been sharing an account of redemption, telling her audience how she had overcome racism (in 1965 her father was killed by a white man; an all-white grand jury refused to return an indictment). The white family under discussion said Sherrod was instrumental in helping them keep their farm; they were perplexed by allegations that she had been racist.

Yet the frenetic way we live now meant that facts would not be allowed to get in the way of a hectic rush to judgment. The Obama administration—Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack took full responsibility—did what it says it does not do, which is cave to the cable gods of the moment. It was yet another object lesson in the perils of life in a hyperpartisan and hyperactive media climate, an ethos that encourages hyperbole and haste. And one thing is certain: Sherrod's case, which illustrates both the seasonal and structural realities of the current era, will not be the last such gloomy hour for the political class.

The seasonal issue is one particular to the age of Obama, if universal to American politics: the underlying role that white prejudice against blacks plays in our national life. The Sherrod video was posted in order to execute a bit of sulfurous jujitsu. See, the right wing was saying, they really are after us. Look what happens if you let them have power: they screw us. A difficult but inescapable irony is at work for President Obama. As he continues to win legislative battles, he will face an ever more irrational and radical opposition. Appeals to racial fears are only the most extreme manifestations of a reflexive and ultimately unhealthy habit of mind that casts everything the president does as somehow un-American.

We have been here before, of course; in fact, for all our generational self-absorption, we are really returning to our 18th- and 19th-century politics, in which partisan media promulgate often-coordinated attacks. Just because something has happened before, however, does not mean it is not happening now, or that it does not matter.

It does matter, a lot. Hence the structural issue the Sherrod moment underscores. We are living in a frenzied, ill-considered political atmosphere, one that devours individual lives and reputations and allows the peripheral to appear to be central. What sets 2010 apart from the founding and middle years of the Republic is the immediacy and speed of political life. I have long been skeptical about this point, believing that a Jeffersonian republican or an Adams federalist reading a paper in 1800 was, by his lights and in the context of the times, also experiencing something more immediate and tactile than earlier generations had. I have, however, changed my mind of late. Technology is not totally to blame, but it is now a necessary and sufficient condition for the triumph of the extreme and the trivial.

Everyone is complicit in this, including people in the administration. In an interview with Good Morning America about financial reform—which, by the way, was just signed into law—Obama correctly diagnosed the problem, saying: "We now live in this media culture where something goes up on YouTube or a blog and everybody scrambles. And I've told my team and I told my agencies that we have to make sure that we're focusing on doing the right thing instead of what looks to be politically necessary at that very moment." Easier said than done, naturally, but most things worth doing are.

There was, by the way, another set of e-mails last week that I found interesting. The Rockefeller Foundation and Yale professor Jacob Hacker developed and released an Economic Security Index. Its first finding: one in five American families in 2009 and 2010 experienced at least a 25 percent loss in income, a significant rise in economic insecurity. We will be dealing with the implications of that long, long after Shirley Sherrod has gotten her life back.