2009: Leonard Pitts, The Miami Herald
8/7/2009
ASNE Staff
Award for Community/Column writing
Friday, August 7, 2009
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Commentary/Column writing


Leonard Pitts

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Detroit mayor: `You should be ashamed'

April 6, 2008

It is not difficult to understand why Barack Obama has a fear of scarves.

In the 17 months he's been pursuing the presidency, the senator has faced a crude and shameless campaign from conservative pundits, GOP functionaries and assorted ignoramuses in the peanut gallery to prove him a secret Muslim -- a "Manchurian candidate, " as one put it -- trained from birth to subvert America from within and, I don't know, make us all eat falafels or something.

On about a half-second of intelligent reflection, the flaw in that theory is apparent: If unfriendly forces had indeed inserted a secret Muslim among us, said Muslim would have blonde hair, blue eyes, flag pins out the wazoo and a name like Joe Smith. Too bad intelligent reflection is a stranger to the people in question. With a grim fanaticism, they seize upon every perceived crumb of Obama's "Muslim-ness" to press their case, using everything from his middle name to his disdain for the cheap patriotism of the American flag lapel pin to a photo of him wearing native dress on a trip to Somalia.

So it's easy to see why workers for his campaign barred two women wearing hijabs, Muslim head scarves, from sitting behind him, within range of TV cameras, at a June 16 rally in Detroit. When someone is throwing at you, you don't hand him rocks.

But that doesn't make what the workers did right.

Yes, Obama apologized profusely. Good for him. It would be easier to take the apology seriously, though, if: a) somewhere in the last year of manifold denials that he is a Muslim, Obama had found the time, space or guts to point out that there's nothing wrong with being a Muslim, particularly in a nation that enshrined religious freedom in its founding documents; b) he hadn't spent so much time treating the American Muslim community as one does the carrier of a contagious disease.

Indeed, as The New York Times reported last week, members of that community are feeling well and truly snubbed by Obama, who has visited a number of churches and synagogues, but has yet to find his way to a single mosque.

Again, the politics of this are no mystery. Obama has spent the last year and a half being pilloried as the Other, representative of something so alien and strange to American values that even greeting his wife with a simple fist bump is fodder for a week of commentary.

He is required to walk an unprecedented political tightrope, to be one part John F. Kennedy, one part Jackie Robinson. More, he is required to prove his American-ness like no other candidate before him. Pictures of him speaking in a mosque would not, putting it mildly, be helpful.

But see, the thing that has made Obama a phenomenon is this sense that he Gets It, that he won't play the same old games by the same old rules. He comes across as a man brave enough to reason and to expect that voters will do the same, a man brave enough to treat intelligent adults like intelligent adults.

His campaign, more than most, is an implicit promise to never put that which is politic above that which is right.

This standoffishness toward American Muslims is a denial of all those things.

Until Sept. 11, 2001, that community was poised for assimilation, poised to submerge itself in the American mainstream like the Jews, Irish and Italians before them. The actions of a handful of their co-religionists on that fateful day wrecked that trajectory beyond recognition and unleashed something base and ugly in the American character.

Muslims were snatched from the threshold of acceptance, painted once again as the alien and vaguely threatening Other. Can you imagine how that must feel? It is galling and painful to see yourself reduced to a caricature based on someone else's fears.

And Barack Obama should know that better than most.


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A father's letter to his daughter on her graduation

June 1, 2008

Dear daughter:

I have loved you from the moment I met you. You were still wet from the birth canal, hair matted to your scalp, eyes squeezed shut. They dried you off, cut the cord, placed you in a bassinet under a warming light. I went over to you. My hand covered your torso.

And I loved you.

That was 17 years ago, 17 years that have moved as cheetahs move. The infant is a toddler, the toddler is a little girl, the little girl is an adolescent, the adolescent is you, a girl on the verge of womanhood, graduating high school -- with honors! -- this spring, going to college in the fall.

You are facing the future. I am facing the past, sitting here looking at old pictures of you and listening to songs whose lyrics make me sad.

There you are with a plastic pig snout from some restaurant strapped over your nose, looking up with crossed eyes. And the Temptations are singing about sunshine on a cloudy day. My Girl.

There you are walking with your arms folded and your lips poked out, pouting because that bad old ground had the nerve to skin your knee. And Paul Simon is singing "there could never be a father who loved his daughter more than I love you."

There you are in your senior picture, your hair glossy and long, wearing a white cap and gown, facing the camera, smiling your confidence. Stevie Wonder is singing, "isn't she lovely?" And she is.

There's this other song that really gets me, though. It's called If I Could.

A meditative keyboard and guitar frame the melody, and Peabo Bryson sings of watching his little girl playing in the leaves, of kneeling by her side to say bedtime prayers, of snapping pictures, trying to "hold on to the memory before the whole things slips away."

He sings:

"I wish I could save these moments and put 'em in a jar.

I wish I could stop the world from turning, keep things just the way they are.

I wish I could shelter you from everything not pure and sweet and good.

I know I can't. I know I can't. But I wish I could."

Honey, you know your dad. Your dad doesn't cry unless there's a death in the family or a loss in the playoffs. But I swear, that song brings me too close for comfort every time. Every doggone time.

You know why? Well, in the last 17 years, I have used a Nerf gun to chase off the monsters under your bed, given you my shoulders as a throne from which to look down on the world, waited outside with other parents while you sat in the arena cheering some pop star who had stolen your heart away from me. I have endured your rolling eyes, your heavy sighs and your indifference (hated your indifference most of all).

But what comes now is harder than all that. Because what comes now is the beginning of goodbye.

Yes, I know. You're not going anywhere. You still live in that landfill down the hall you call a bedroom.

But see, I am losing my little girl. She is waving her last farewells to me here and now. And some woman is about to take her place. Giggly, excitable and gawky on high heels, but a woman, all the same.

There is much I want for this woman. I want success for her. I want adventure and travel, dancing and laughter, discovery and joy. I want challenges, but I want contentment, too, that peace that comes from knowing you are exactly where you are meant to be in life, doing exactly what you are meant to do. I want her to be happy.

You see, I haven't met her yet, but already, I love this woman.

And yet, I'd give anything to make her go away, to cast her back beyond the horizon. I would trade her without a second thought for just one more chance to take out a Nerf gun and slay any monsters that dare trouble my little girl.

Oh, I know I can't. But I wish I could.


Article list

Obama must confront Muslim issue

June 29, 2008

It is not difficult to understand why Barack Obama has a fear of scarves.

In the 17 months he's been pursuing the presidency, the senator has faced a crude and shameless campaign from conservative pundits, GOP functionaries and assorted ignoramuses in the peanut gallery to prove him a secret Muslim -- a "Manchurian candidate, " as one put it -- trained from birth to subvert America from within and, I don't know, make us all eat falafels or something.

On about a half-second of intelligent reflection, the flaw in that theory is apparent: If unfriendly forces had indeed inserted a secret Muslim among us, said Muslim would have blonde hair, blue eyes, flag pins out the wazoo and a name like Joe Smith. Too bad intelligent reflection is a stranger to the people in question. With a grim fanaticism, they seize upon every perceived crumb of Obama's "Muslim-ness" to press their case, using everything from his middle name to his disdain for the cheap patriotism of the American flag lapel pin to a photo of him wearing native dress on a trip to Somalia.

So it's easy to see why workers for his campaign barred two women wearing hijabs, Muslim head scarves, from sitting behind him, within range of TV cameras, at a June 16 rally in Detroit. When someone is throwing at you, you don't hand him rocks.

But that doesn't make what the workers did right.

Yes, Obama apologized profusely. Good for him. It would be easier to take the apology seriously, though, if: a) somewhere in the last year of manifold denials that he is a Muslim, Obama had found the time, space or guts to point out that there's nothing wrong with being a Muslim, particularly in a nation that enshrined religious freedom in its founding documents; b) he hadn't spent so much time treating the American Muslim community as one does the carrier of a contagious disease.

Indeed, as The New York Times reported last week, members of that community are feeling well and truly snubbed by Obama, who has visited a number of churches and synagogues, but has yet to find his way to a single mosque.

Again, the politics of this are no mystery. Obama has spent the last year and a half being pilloried as the Other, representative of something so alien and strange to American values that even greeting his wife with a simple fist bump is fodder for a week of commentary.

He is required to walk an unprecedented political tightrope, to be one part John F. Kennedy, one part Jackie Robinson. More, he is required to prove his American-ness like no other candidate before him. Pictures of him speaking in a mosque would not, putting it mildly, be helpful.

But see, the thing that has made Obama a phenomenon is this sense that he Gets It, that he won't play the same old games by the same old rules. He comes across as a man brave enough to reason and to expect that voters will do the same, a man brave enough to treat intelligent adults like intelligent adults.

His campaign, more than most, is an implicit promise to never put that which is politic above that which is right.

This standoffishness toward American Muslims is a denial of all those things.

Until Sept. 11, 2001, that community was poised for assimilation, poised to submerge itself in the American mainstream like the Jews, Irish and Italians before them. The actions of a handful of their co-religionists on that fateful day wrecked that trajectory beyond recognition and unleashed something base and ugly in the American character.

Muslims were snatched from the threshold of acceptance, painted once again as the alien and vaguely threatening Other. Can you imagine how that must feel? It is galling and painful to see yourself reduced to a caricature based on someone else's fears.

And Barack Obama should know that better than most.


Article list

Politics and the English language, GOP-style

July 7, 2008

We need change, all right. Change from a liberal Washington to a conservative Washington. We have a prescription for every American who wants change in Washington -- throw out the big-government liberals." -- Mitt Romney, Sept. 3, 2008

And then the gorilla run knee socks paint porno on the Cadillac. But school laughed and didn't we sing hats?

Ahem.

Maybe you wonder what the preceding gobbledygook means. I would ask which gobbledygook you mean: mine or Mitt Romney's? If he's allowed to spew nonsense and people act as if he's spoken intelligently, why can't I? If he gets to behave as if words no longer have objective meaning, why can't I?

I mean, baffle grab on the freak flake. Really.

And again, ahem.

If you're a regular here, you've heard me rant from time to time about intellectual dishonesty. By this, I mean more than just your garden variety lie. No, to be intellectually dishonest means to argue that which you know to be untrue and to substitute ideology for intellect to the degree that you'll do violence to language and logic rather than cross the party line.

Yes, we're all intellectually dishonest on occasion. But no one does it like Republican conservatives. They are to intellectual dishonesty what Michael Jordan was to basketball or the Temptations to harmony: the avatar, the exemplar, the paradigm. They have elevated it beyond hypocrisy and political expedience. They have made it . . . art. Which returns us to the astonishing thing Mitt Romney said while addressing the party faithful in St. Paul. You want to walk around it the way you would Michelangelo's David, admiring the elegance of the workmanship. You hesitate to touch it, much less pull it apart. To do so seems almost an act of desecration.

Unfortunately, some of us are too plodding and earthbound, too blind to the seductions of art, too stubbornly wedded to some vestigial notion that intellectual honesty matters, to walk past a steaming pile of bovine excreta without calling it a steaming pile of bovine excreta.

So excuse me, beg pardon, so sorry, but I have to ask: what liberal Washington is he talking about? The federal government has three branches. The legislative, i.e., Congress, was under conservative control from 1995 until 2007. The judicial, i.e., the Supreme Court, consists of nine justices, seven of whom were nominated by conservative presidents. The executive, i.e., the president, is George W. Bush. Enough said.

Washington is already what Romney wants to make it. Our current state of affairs, love it or loathe it, is indisputably a product of conservative governance. I wish that mattered more than it does.

That it doesn't matter much at all you can credit to conservative politicians who have, over the years, trained their followers to respond with Pavlovian faithfulness to certain terms. Say "conservative, " and they wag their tails. Say "liberal" and they bare their fangs. More to the point, say either and all thinking ceases, so much so that a representative of the ideology that has controlled most of Washington most of the last 12 years can say with a straight face that his ideology needs to seize control of Washington to fix what is broken there. And people hear this Orwellian doublespeak . . . and cheer. Why not? They have been taught that words mean what you need them to in a given moment.

Sadly, it has proven an easy lesson to impart. Turns out, all it requires is a limitless supply of gall and the inherent belief that people are dumber than a bag of hammers.

And all it costs us is language, the ability to have reasoned and intelligent political discourse, the idea that words do, and should, have weight, dimension and intrinsic meaning. Maybe you disagree. In which case, let me just say this:

Piffle crack eat monkey snow. Really.


Article list

A crowning moment for blacks

November 5, 2008

"For the first time in my adult lifetime I am really proud of my country. And not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change." -- Michelle Obama, Feb. 18, 2008

I always thought I understood what Michelle Obama was trying to say.

You are familiar, of course, with what she actually did say, which is quoted above. It provided weeks of red meat for her husband's opponents, who took to making ostentatious proclamations of their own unwavering pride in country.

But again, I think I know what the lady meant to say. Namely, that with her husband, this brown-skinned guy with the funny name, making a credible run for the highest office in the land, she could believe, for the first time, that "we the people" included her.

It is, for African Americans, an intoxicating thought almost too wonderful for thinking. Yet, there it is. And here we are, waking up this morning to find Barack Obama president-elect of these United States.

In a sense, it is unfair -- to him, to us -- to make Tuesday's election about race. Whatever appeal Obama may have had to African Americans and white liberals eager to vote for a black candidate is, I believe, dwarfed by his appeal to Americans of all stripes who have simply had enough of the politics of addition by division as practiced by Karl Rove and his disciples, enough of the free-floating anger, the holiday from accountability, the nastiness masquerading as righteousness, the sheer intellectual dishonesty, that have characterized the era of American politics that ends here.

But in the end, after all that, there still is race.

And it would be a sin against our history, a sin against John Lewis and Viola Liuzzo, against James Reeb and Lyndon Johnson, against Fannie Lou Hamer and Martin Luther King, against all those everyday heroes who marched, bled and died 40 years ago to secure black people's right to vote, not to pause on this pinnacle and savor what it means. It would be a sin against our generations, against slaves and freedmen, against housemen and washerwomen, against porters and domestics, against charred bodies hanging in southern trees, not to be still and acknowledge that something has happened here, and it is sacred and profound.

For most of the years of the American experiment, "we the people" did not include African Americans. We were not included in "we." We were not even included in "people."

What made it galling was all the flowery words to the contrary, all the perfumed lies about equality and opportunity. This was, people kept saying, a nation where any boy might grow up and become president. Which was only true, we knew, as long as it was indeed a boy and as long as the boy was white.

But as of today, we don't know that anymore. What this election tells us is that the nation has changed in ways that would have been unthinkable, unimaginable, flat-out preposterous, just 40 years ago. And that we, black, white and otherwise, better recalibrate our sense of the possible.

There was something bittersweet in watching Michelle Obama lectured on American pride this year, in seeing African Americans asked to prove their Americanness when our ancestors were in this country before this country was. There was something in it that was hard to take, knowing that we have loved America when America did not love us, defended America when it would not defend us, believed in American ideals that were larger than skies, yet never large enough to include us.

We did this. For years unto centuries, we did this. Because our love for this country is deep and profound. And complicated and contradictory. And cynical and hard.

Now it has delivered us to this singular moment. Barack Obama is president-elect of the United States.

And we the people should be proud.

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