Friday, October 26, 2001

It’s Not Racist to be Against Al Sharpton. It’s Racist to be for Him

Let’s try to imagine the following scenario. A white clergyman or public figure joins with rabble-rousers to accuse a prosecutor of kidnapping and raping a young girl, smearing excrement on her and committing other horrible acts. From the outset, the accusation had little credibility and eventually it was exposed for what it was, an ugly fraud. Let’s imagine further that the clergyman or public figure, a man who had already been accused of playing fast and loose with taxes and charitable funds, was ordered after a drawn-out trial to pay modest damages to the wronged prosecutor and he evaded that obligation. It is certain that there would be universal condemnation of his behavior.

Well folks, welcome to the Al Sharpton story or really only a part of the sordid story. Only the color has been changed. But instead of being universally condemned, Sharpton is a leader, given respect and regarded in certain quarters as a statesman. Candidates grovel for his support and the names–in-the-news glitterati cozy up to him. In this brave new world of celebrityship, being famous trumps being decent.

Moral standards are not a variable to be determined or altered by skin color or nationality or religious background. If what Sharpton did would be considered as far beyond the pale for a white public figure, his behavior cannot be regarded as less odious because he is Black. That is why to make excuses for Sharpton is blatant racism.

He has, of course, a large following, as was amply demonstrated in the Democratic primary, and his endorsement was a key to Freddy Ferrer’s strong run. The flip side is that it is fair game for those who are repelled by Sharpton’s history and antics to punish a candidate who provides him with a featured role. Mr. Ferrer has a decent record and I was planning to vote for him, but he rightly paid a price for the opprobrium attached to his political bedmate.

That’s why the pre-primary posters of Ferrer and Sharpton suggesting that Reverend Al would have great influence in a Ferrer administration were entirely appropriate. Sharpton was not merely a third-rate pol giving a meaningless endorsement. Had Ferrer triumphed, he would have been a powerhouse.

My modest suggestion is that before candidates go hat in hand beseeching Sharpton’s blessing, they go to Duchess County - it’s a short trip – to speak to Steven Pagones, the victim in the Tawana Brawley affair. They then might understand why Sharpton’s outrageous behavior and his cruel refusal to express remorse continue to evoke pain and anger. Even without the permanent stain of this matter, Mr. Sharpton’s career would scarcely merit a good-citizenship award. There are the pesky questions about money, the demagoguery and the inopportune embrace of anti-Semitism, as in the harassing of Jewish merchants in Harlem.

There are times – perhaps moments of weakness – when I feel sorry for politicians.

They are underpaid, work long hours, get kicked around by opponents and the media, live in glass houses and must become expert at toadying, including to nobodies and crooks. Their lives are on the run. Sooner or later, nearly all of them lose, with the more fortunate losing sooner. Those who are elected are constantly forced to say things they don’t believe, embrace people they detest, attend meetings they want to avoid and do favors for the undeserving.

But then I think of the other side of the picture, especially their lemming-like instinct to give access to people who represent no one other than themselves and whose agenda inherently undermines the public good. This is especially apparent in relations with ethnic groups where the practice is to elevate those who spread money around. It matters not at all that what is being sought is personal gain or that the so-called ethnic leaders may constitute a community of one. Importantly, Al Sharpton is different because he has a huge following, which distinguishes him from the rest of the pack in this regard and ensures that candidates will do handstands to get his support. Then, again, none of the others have befouled public life as he has.

Not surprisingly, our community – and here I mean the Orthodox – has not been immune from the tendency of politicians to give prominence to no-goodniks who cynically understand that they can parlay their contributions and Orthodox exterior (inside they may be rotten to the core) into personal gain. This is a sordid story that has become more sordid in recent years because of the gullibility and cupidity of political leaders.

As one critical example, two scoundrels gained extraordinary access with Governor George Pataki. They made their political contributions and the Governor – not merely members of his administration – but Mr. Pataki himself – was all too eager to embrace people of low repute. He was warned about this, but to no avail. The smell of money was stronger than the smell of corruption. He raced through the red lights, signaling to lower officials that it was appropriate to do favors for scoundrels.

There are other examples, including in the current city administration that is nearing its end. While we have a long way to go to equal Mr. Sharpton’s depredations, there are reasons for deepening concern about the unholy alliances between unsavory characters in our community and politicians.