Another week, another celebrity leveling criticism at the Tea Party movement for its alleged racism. This time, however, the statement raised my ire enough to elicit a retort. To quote Joseph N. Welch, "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"
The celebrity is Sean Penn, who is well known for his admiration of South American dictator Hugo Chavez and his hatred of the nation which brought him fame and wealth, which tells me all I need to know about his discernment and judgment. The statement, however, was outrageous even for him:
If you ask a representative of the Tea Party, ‘OK Social Security, socialist. Get rid of it?’ They’re going to get very confused,” he said. “At the end of the day, there’s a big bubble coming out of their heads saying, you know, can we just lynch him?
Ignore for a moment the condescension in his assumption that we can't cogently argue the issue of Social Security without becoming confused. In fact, I'm confident we can discuss the issue with more knowledge and alacrity than he can - see my previous comments regarding his discernment and judgment.
The accusation, however, that Tea Party members harbor a secret desire to lynch President Obama, or anyone for that matter, is beyond the pale.
For one thing, his statements show his absolute ignorance of the legitimate political debate over the proper role of government, a debate that even President Obama has acknowledged as dating back to the formation of our republic and is not based even peripherally on race. I referenced in my book the president's response to NBC News reporter David Gregory's question on the nature and intensity of the Tea Party's criticism of his agenda:
I think you actually put your finger on what this argument’s really about, and it’s an argument that’s gone on for the history of this republic, and that is, what’s the right role of government? How do we balance freedom with our need to look after one another? . . . This is not a new argument and it always invokes passions.
For another, it is an assault on the morality and integrity of millions of Americans who are good citizens and good neighbors, and have never threatened anyone with harm. In fact, the one time I've heard someone openly called for the lynching of a black man with whom they disagree, it didn't come from the Tea Party.
These everyday Americans who are notable for their respect for the rule of law and one another, these decent people who have invested their hard-earned dollars and cents in making Sean Penn wealthy and famous, are not deserving of such a vicious and baseless charge.
Worst of all, however, is the way in which such casual and reckless statements about lynching diminish the absolute terror of a time in American history to which practically no one, left or right, seeks to return. The photos and press accounts from that era are sickening, and it is incomprehensible to me that such atrocities could take place in a nation whose hallmark is "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Witnessing in these images the juxtaposition of dangling human corpses, often mutilated or burned beyond recognition, with the celebratory faces of the murderous crowd, among them everyday citizens - men, women and even children - and community leaders, is to gaze upon pure evil.
Those who question the distinction we Tea Partiers make between democracy and a republic need look no further than these grisly images. In a democracy, the majority decides who is worthy or unworthy of life, and the victim is at their mercy, regardless of what they may or may not have done. In a republic, respect for the rights of all people takes precedence over mob rule, and the law prevails over passion or prejudice.
Most of us are familiar with the old saying, "Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner." For far too long, democracy in America meted out untimely and violent death to thousands of people, primarily to create a climate of compliance in the black community based on fear.
The Tuskegee Institute records 3.446 blacks and 1,297 whites lynched between 1882 and 1959, and some historians consider those numbers to be conservative. Civil rights organizations like the NAACP, southern white organizations like the Commission for Interracial Cooperation, the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, and several other women's groups, southern newspaper editors, and the federal government all contributed to a decline and the eventual cessation of lynching as a tactic of social control.
Lynching in America was a horrific stain on the American fabric, one that has been washed away only by the passage of time and generations, and our collective and ongoing journey toward the more perfect Union our founders envisioned. Like the reign of the Third Reich, it is a singularly demonic episode in history that should not be trivialized by using it to score political points or smear an opponent.
So I ask you, Mr. Penn, have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?