Friday, July 18, 2008

Can Rev. Jesse Jackson's credibility be rescued?

In the United States, a lot of commentators, pundits and seasoned political observers have already written Rev. Jesse Jackson's political obituary. Rev. Jackson has apologized repeatedly for remarks he made when he was off the air in a Fox News interview earlier this month about Senator Barack Obama. Jackson, as most of us know by now, said he wanted to "cut off his nuts." It is now known that Jackson remarked, "Barack...he's talking down to black people...telling niggers how to behave."

A short time later came Rev. Jackson's apologies:

I am deeply saddened and distressed by the pain and sorrow that I have caused as a result of my hurtful words. I apologise again to Senator Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, their children as well as to the American public. There really is no justification for my comments and I hope that the Obama family and the American public will forgive me.

Well, that's a start. But Jackson has already used up some of his 9 lives in the political world. In January 1984, he referred to Jews as "Hymies" and New York City as "Hymietown." His critics have also pointed to other, lesser known flubs, strategic mistakes and errors in judgment on his part (too numerous to list here). Which begs the question: Is there any way he can rescue his credibility?

But it is important to remember that, in addition to his notorious blunders, Rev. Jackson has also been at the helm of many great progressive triumphs. His brilliantly organized Rainbow Coalition in the 1980s brought together a number of marginalized groups -- gays and lesbians, veterans, disabled people, working-class families, Native Americans, etc. -- into a massive united front that, if nothing else, showed that progressives were still a force to be reckoned with, even in the Age of Reagan. Jackson rallied this support in his two runs for the presidency, first in 1984, then again, even more impressively, in 1988. His speech at the Democratic National Convention that year was absolutely electrifying -- maybe one of the finest American speeches ever delivered in the final quarter of the Twentieth Century.

Rev. Jackson has said -- and done -- some regrettable things in his political career. It is difficult to forgive or forget his flagrant anti-Semitism from 1984.

And then there was his use of the so-called "N-Bomb" in his rant earlier this month (this is the same Jesse Jackson who condemned comedian Michael Richards for using the N-word two years ago his incendiary, self-destructive stage routine). Equally unsettling was his crass, gangster-like reference to cutting off Obama's testicles. Rapper/actor/director Ice Cube (right) offered some especially insightful comments about Jackson's outburst: “It’s kinda sad, for one thing for a black man to even consider cutting off another black man’s nuts. Especially in a country like America, where that’s happened to us over the years countless and countless times, being sanctioned by the government. It’s kinda sad that he would even think about that. Even though it’s not literal, it’s just as painful.”

It isn't enough to say that Jackson should be careful about these sorts of outbursts in the future. For every one of these crass comments Jackson makes in public -- whether it's about "Hymies" or cutting off someone else's gonads -- you have to wonder how many equally vulgar statements he makes in private, beyond the reach of the microphone. The damage has been done and it can't be undone.

But it would be a shame to allow those comments to take away from the legitimacy of the progressive work that Jackson has done and the noble things he has accomplished. Down the road, historians will likely pass a verdict on Jackson that he was an incredibly complicated man, fraught with contradictions. Compassionate yet judgmental, visionary yet reactionary, bold yet self-destructive, perceptive yet narrow minded. Sadly, many conservative commentators are pointing to Jackson's remarks as proof that old-school Civil Rights leaders who still play the "race card" are merely delusional fools who do not understand that racism is a relic of the past. On the contrary, racism still permeates and plagues so much of American society, despite Obama's grand achievements. That is why Jesse Jackson's ideas -- rooted in the age of Martin Luther King, Jr., yet tempered by the realities of post-Civil Rights America -- are so important in today's dialogue on race relations. Sadly, the more he stumbles like he did earlier this month (and like he did in 1984), the less credibility and weight his vision of social justice carries in the eyes of the American public.

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