Monday, April 6, 2009

The Audacity of Sensitive Silence

First published on BlogCritics on 16 March 2009

A recent Blogcritics article contended that, "Today’s abject blanket of silence placed on anyone of a conservative or Republican voice is something new, and rather terrifying." I think that statement is pretty far over the top. Lots of voices from the right, middle and left are available, and I have seen no evidence of such a blanket of silence, abject or otherwise. Perhaps we don't listen to other voices as often as we should, but they are there. If platoons of brown-shirted thugs were burning media outlets because of their presentation of obnoxious opinions, we would notice it. I think those on the right would come to the defense of those on the left, and vice versa. At least I hope so.

However, there is a form of silencing which is less noticeable. The on line version of the National Review posted a fascinating article on 16 March pointing to a form of voluntary silencing which may well happen fairly often but is rarely addressed — perhaps because it is not noticed.

On 5 March, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th circuit published an opinion, announced a few days previously, dealing with egregious attempts in Mississippi to disenfranchise minority voters. The opinion affirmed the decision of the trial court that such had happened, blatantly, and held that the remedy provided by the trial court had been proper. The National Review article tries to explore why this decision was overlooked by the media. I Googled the case, and couldn't find any report concerning it either, aside from the National Review article and a few quite marginal sites with which I am unfamiliar, plus other conservative sites with which I am familiar. There may have been something else after the National Review article appeared.

Why would there be such a loud silence about the blatant disenfranchisement of minority voters in Mississippi? Such disenfranchisement is supposed to be quite rare nowadays; a Court of Appeals decision concerning these matters is rare as well. One might imagine that when such things are found, the "man bites dog" rarity alone would grab the attention of the press. Apparently not.

Admittedly, the facts of U.S. v. Brown are unlike those commonly associated with voter disenfranchisement: Black disenfranchisement of White voters was at issue. As the article notes,

When the Fifth Circuit issued its decision on February 27, there was complete silence from Justice. The department typically issues a press release after any significant litigation victory, and the Civil Rights Division trumpets every success. But not here. The silence from the nation’s leading news outlets was also deafening: Not a word was published about the case by the New York Times, the Washington Post, or any other major publication. Why? Because the offensive conduct at issue did not conveniently track with the Left’s view of race discrimination
The Noxubee County case presents a deeply disturbing account of some of the most egregious racial discrimination the Justice Department has encountered in decades. In Noxubee, 80 percent of Democrats are black; 20 percent are white. (There are some Republicans as well, but the number is negligible.) The chairman of the Democratic party, Ike Brown, is black, and he, along with the Noxubee County Democratic Executive Committee, set about to effectively disenfranchise white voters.

The salient facts are well set forth in the Fifth Circuit opinion linked above, and anyone interested in reading it is invited to do so; there is no need to expand this article as would be required in order to present them here.

There had been, according to the article, lots of resistance within the Justice Department to bringing the action.

This is probably one of the worst cases of intentional voting discrimination that the Justice Department has prosecuted since the 1960s. But the lawsuit was filed only after a vicious internal fight in the Civil Rights Division. Left-wing career lawyers in the Voting Section made it abundantly clear that they didn’t want to use the Voting Rights Act to protect white voters, no matter how egregious the violations. The former Voting Section chief even deleted the recommendation to file suit from the memo sent up to the Bush political appointees running the division. Other partisan career lawyers refused to work on the case. One who went to Noxubee County as an observer admitted to another lawyer that if he had seen the same type of illegal behavior being committed against black voters, he would have been outraged. But he wanted nothing to do with a suit filed on behalf of white voters.

The attorneys who ultimately worked on the case, and brought it to a successful conclusion, "endured significant criticism and abuse from their colleagues for their work on the case and probably jeopardized their career advancement." This was during the administration of George Bush the Illiterate Jerk; the District Court case was filed in 2005.

I have no idea as to the accuracy of the account of the internal workings of the Civil Rights Division, the criticism and abuse suffered by the trial attorneys who prosecuted the case, or as to the likely impact on their career advancement. It may all be wrong. However, based on my brief employment with the Department of Justice back in 1971, and my rather longer time as an attorney in private practice dealing with the Federal Communications Commission, these things do not seem far-fetched.

This type of voluntary silencing has nothing to do with "Vast Right Wing" or "Vast Left Wing" conspiracies. Nor is there any need for such conspiracies. Political Correctness may well be an important factor, however. Few wish to appear to suggest that racism, and its close friend, racial discrimination, are used against anyone other than traditional minorities. Apparently, to suggest such a thing would mark one as prejudiced and lacking proper insight into discrimination against such minorities in years gone by.

Yet, Attorney General Holder considers those who decline to discuss race to be cowards. "In things racial we have always been and I believe continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards." For this, President Obama mildly chastised him,

The president said he is not someone who believes that constantly talking about race can solve racial tensions. "To address that problem, it will mean fixing the economy, putting people to work, making sure that people have health care and ensuring that children are learning," Obama said.
"I think if we do that, then we'll probably have more fruitful conversations," Obama said in the interview Friday aboard Air Force One.

Well, maybe. Or maybe these comments from Black Media Agenda are right:

It's been only a month since a gaggle of know-nothing, arrogantly racist and essentially cowardly white men ran the Justice Department. In the space of eight years, they turned the agency into a den of corruption and criminality where no "justice" could be found, and the term "civil rights" was an epithet. By the time the Bush men were through, "virtually all" of the career lawyers that were hired were right-wing ideologues opposed to the very concept of affirmative action, or the mere idea of "diversity." The Justice Department - and especially its Civil Rights Division - had been largely transformed into a racist club.
For this reason, it was vitally necessary that the nation's top lawyer use the occasion of Black History Month to shake up the department, and let the rest of us know that it's a new day, that George Bush and his Ku Klux klavern are really gone - something that is not so evident in the rest of the Obama Administration, for example, at the Defense Department.


It strikes me, nevertheless, that if there are to be fruitful discussions of race, i.e. if we are to cease to be a nation of cowards, there must be discussion — even of race-related topics which many of us find distasteful.

I have no idea whether the then still pending Ike Brown case linked above had anything to do with Attorney General Holder's February 18th Black History Month address to Justice Department employees. Perhaps he did not deem it appropriate to comment since the case was sub judice. Or, perhaps it was because the case was brought back in 2005 when, according to Black Media Agenda, "George Bush and his Ku Klux klavern" were in charge of the Justice Department. Perhaps Attorney General Holder found the position taken by the Department of Justice in Ike Brown embarrassing. The Department's failure to put out the customary press release when the Ike Brown case was decided, or when the opinion was released several days later, may suggest the latter. Despite the numerous press releases issued in February and March, there is no mention of that case that I could find.

There are many ways to stifle debate, and some of them are more subtle than others. To avoid race related discussions as politically incorrect because they might be seen by some as hurtful is one way to do it. For the media, by and large, to find less than newsworthy a Court of Appeals decision such as that in Ike Brown, results in the same effect, and probably the same cause. So, for that matter, does the entire notion of politically incorrect taboos.

It is not nice to hurt anyone's feelings, even inadvertently. However, to forgo discussion of topics where that is likely to happen is not a good solution. The voluntary sterilization of debate to avoid giving offense is cowardly, and we should know better.

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