Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Sherrod Case: Defining Decency Down

There is no Atticus Finch or Joseph Welch in all this. On the 50th anniversary of "To Kill a Mockingbird," we are back in a time when McCarthyism played on fears to spread hatred and destroy lives of people in public life.

The President, who won an election by putting the Civil Rights era behind him, will have to revisit that time before his birth and make things right not only with Shirley Sherrod but generations of Americans who have struggled for decency not only in race relations but political discourse.

In his campaign speech after the Rev. Jeremiah Wright uproar, candidate Obama offered a vision beyond "politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism," but his first year and a half in office, to his evident dismay, have been dominated by that and much more.

“We are getting used to a lot of behavior that is not good for us,” the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in 1993 in his now-famous American Scholar article, “Defining Deviancy Down,” arguing that society keeps adjusting for the amount of unacceptable conduct it can tolerate.

The Sherrod case defines not only deviancy but decency down. It takes us from Rev. Wright's inflammatory videos, which actually existed, to a distortingly edited version of the impassioned speech of a woman who has fought for social justice to make her appear prejudiced.

Such slime would have been unworthy of passing comment if it had not triggered, in this era of debate about Tea Party racism, instant overreaction not only by the NAACP but Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who ran briefly for President on a platform of bringing "good judgment" to government.

To their credit, Secretary Vilsack and the White House are trying to make amends to Ms. Sherrod, but who will remind all involved, in the words of Joe Welch, to recall our "sense of decency at long last" and to remember the lesson of Harper Lee's novel, that to destroy innocent life is a sin?

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