When I was growing up, parents and teachers used to tell us “it isn’t whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” Honor was a higher goal than winning. Playing fair, displaying sportsmanship, generosity in winning and gallantry in losing were the goals. Adults worthy of our admiration and respect were those who modeled such behaviors.
Need I say that times have changed?
There has been a great deal written about the Shirley Sherrod fiasco, and plenty of egg for all the faces involved. A right-wing blogger and Fox News favorite, Andrew Breitbart, was evidently offended by the NAACP’s demand that the Tea Party denounce those among them who had exhibited racism. In another echo from my childhood—nah, nah, you’re a bigger one—he posted a videotape purporting to show a speech by Sherrod, an African-American employee of the Agriculture Department, in which it appeared she was sharing anti-White sentiments after receiving an award from the organization. The tape, it turned out, had been doctored—when viewed in its entirety, it was a heartfelt plea to get beyond racism of all varieties.
The elderly farmer who was the supposed object of her bigotry emerged to protest the smear; his wife told how Sherrod had actually saved their farm. Fox News, which had heavily promoted the Breitbart version, backpedaled. Before the whole story emerged, however, the Obama Administration demanded Sherrod’s resignation. No due process, no fact-checking, despite Sherrod’s long and distinguished tenure with the agency.
Let me suggest that none of this was really about accusations and denials of racism. It was about game-playing.
American politics has become so rancid, so sordid, that lying to advance one’s party is evidently considered a perfectly acceptable tactic—so acceptable that even those of us who try to follow the news and separate fact from convenient fiction find it increasingly difficult to know what is true and what isn’t. Organizations like snopes.com and factcheck.org can help, but most of us haven’t the time to sit at our computers double-checking every “fact” uttered by self-serving politicians.
Historically, we relied upon the mainstream media to do our fact-checking. But in the mad dash for eyeballs and audience share, in the era of the 24-hour “news hole,” even the outlets trying to practice legitimate journalism too often fail to check the accuracy of the charges and countercharges that have all but entirely replaced principled policy debates.
And what about those we have elected, ostensibly to run the agencies of government? The saddest feature of contemporary politics is the wholesale abandonment of seriousness and policy expertise for game-playing. And what an ugly game it is, where control of a day’s news cycle is more important than the destruction of a lifelong public servant’s reputation.
It’s bad enough that these political operatives never learned the lesson that how you play the game is more important than winning or losing, but what is really depressing is that self-government has degenerated into a game to be played.