Mr. Atheist needs to apologize now

By Jonathan Jacobson

There are generally three possibilities in the modern media frenzy. One, the victim becomes the aggressor. Two, the aggressor becomes the victim. Three – and by far the most likely – everybody forgets and changes the channel (or finds a new Web site, or turns the page).

Two weeks ago, Ill. House Rep. Monique Davis, D-Chicago, found herself in the midst of a scandal for a verbal thrashing she gave to Rob Sherman, an atheist activist seeking to keep a state grant from finding its way into a local church’s coffers.

Rep. Davis, allegedly frustrated after hearing that day about a recent Chicago Public School killing, took out some of her aggression on Sherman, who was testifying before an Illinois House committee.

“It’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists!” she yelled at Sherman. “I am fed up! Get out of that seat!”

For her performance, Davis earned MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann’s exalted “Worst Person in the World” award. But on Monday night, in a twisted turn of events that could only take place in the context of the American media jungle, Olbermann – 21st century Benedict Arnold that he is – switched his allegiances, conferring his award on Sherman.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
Thank you for subscribing!

What happened? Well, it’s complicated.

In my column last week, I published a sentence from Sherman’s Web site that read: “Now that Negroes like Representative Monique Davis have political power, it seems that they have no problem at all with discrimination, just as long as it isn’t them who are being discriminated against.”

Although Sherman removed the sentence in the wee small hours of the morning my column came out, both the sentence and the column eventually made a trek through the blogosphere, landing at the Chicago Tribune, the Capitol Fax (an Illinois state politics blog) and, ultimately, Olbermann’s show.

I called for an apology both from Sherman and from Davis, since it is fairly clear, even to the least discerning eye, that they were both wrong: Davis for her misplaced and inappropriate tirade, Sherman for a line that – even devoid of the word “negroes” – is pushing the limits of good taste and bordering on racism.

Davis apologized. Sherman did not, which is probably why that blurry, pixilated image of him appeared on MSNBC late Monday night.

I have spoken to Sherman twice since the controversy began, and he was very pleasant both times, though he underestimated the import of his comment and has since refused to apologize. Sherman seems to believe that the problem of the sentence was merely the word “negro.” It was not.

Certainly, “negro” is obsolete lingo that has the capacity to offend. But his use of the word – justified by his self-proclaimed love of Dr. Martin Luther King and his “I Have a Dream” speech that he says he carries around in his briefcase – represents only a fraction of the damage he did to himself by publishing that sentence on his Web site.

The real issue is his blanket statement, which characterizes black politicians “like Monique Davis” – a vague classification, to be sure – as tolerant of discrimination that doesn’t directly target them. It is the overall sentiment, not merely the individual word, that is offensive.

Referring to myself and others who have picked up the story as “Caucasian journalists” – a phrase concocted to take the wind out of our sails because we are white, not black, and, therefore, have less of a stake in the outcome – Sherman injected another off-base argument into the controversy.

“The White journalists have demanded that I apologize to Rep. Davis for not using a euphemism that Caucasian journalists approve of,” he wrote on his blog this Tuesday.

Trying to skirt a debate about the politics of language here is impossible. Aside from the fact that any black, white, purple or orange journalist who uses the Associated Press style guide knows not to use “negro” in reference to blacks, Sherman should understand that language and acceptable usage are dynamic and, yes, often political. Instead, he’s been left in the rhetorical dust.

Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, who has followed Sherman’s laudable crusade against religion in government for 20 years, wrote to me that he believes Sherman’s original quote was simply “a very inelegant, infelicitous attempt to make an argument.” I believe that barely scratches the surface.

The strange thing is that Sherman has something to lose. He’ll be running for a seat in the Illinois House this November under the banner of the Green Party. That would be a first for the Greens in Illinois, who, according to their Web site, have not a single member in the Illinois legislature.

Even without this minor scandal to drag his heels, it’s clear Sherman would be fighting an uphill battle. But his refusal to apologize is only hurting his chances. There is certainly something to be said for a man who stands up for his principles, however unpopular. But the only principle that seems to be keeping Sherman from an apology is self-righteousness.

There’s enough of that in politics already.

Jonathan Jacobson is a senior in English and rhetoric. He remembers, and it seems like ages ago, when this was a debate about a government grant.