Given the current climate of media opinion on the Gates Affair, Bob Herbert's truth-telling column in the August 1 New York Times has to be seen as an act of courage. Gates, said Herbert, was arrested for nothing other than being "angry while black," an unforgivable offense in the eyes of the establishment and its gendarmerie even if committed by a member of the establishment itself - a Harvard professor, say, or a President.
Black Americans, Herbert countered, should indeed be angry; he concluded his column with a rousing call (even echoing, as you'll see, Malcolm X) for them "to rant and to rave, to demonstrate and to lobby, to march and confront and to sue and generally do whatever is necessary to stop a continuing and deeply racist criminal justice outrage."
Yet back in April 2008, during the Democratic Presidential primary, Bob Herbert devoted one of his columns to the mocking slap-down of Black individual for the offense of doing the very "ranting and raving" he now calls for - the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Wright's denunciations of U.S. racism were perfectly reasonable, both in their content and their tone, but Herbert portrayed him as a self-promoting clown, divisive and - in the context of Senator Obama's presidential candidacy - destructive:
"Feeling dissed by Senator Obama, Mr. Wright gets revenge on his former follower while bathed in a spotlight brighter than any he could ever have imagined. He’s living a narcissist’s dream. At long last, his 15 minutes have arrived.
So there he was lecturing an audience at the National Press Club about everything from the black slave experience to the differences in sentencing for possession of crack and powdered cocaine.
All but swooning over the wonderfulness of himself, the reverend acts like he is the first person to come up with the idea that blacks too often get the short end of the stick in America, that the malignant influences of slavery and the long dark night of racial discrimination are still being felt today, that in many ways this is a profoundly inequitable society."
Wright, said Herbert at the time, needed to sit down and shut up (like Bobby Seale during the Chicago 7 trial, I suppose, who was ordered bound and gagged by the judge) so that Obama could more successfully woo "white working-class" voters away from Hilary Clinton. Has U.S. society changed so much in the meantime, that now more "angry" voices such as Wright's need to be heard? Of course it hasn't, and Herbert knows it. He also knows that if he keeps writing columns like his August 1st one, he won't be working for the New York Times much longer. Chances are he'll be returning to form soon.