Wednesday, July 7, 2016. Race in America was the hot news, again. A few days earlier, one black man had been shot by local police in Louisiana, then 24 hours later, another black man was shot in Minnesota.
Although the incidents were entirely unrelated, a frenzy of social media connected the two dots of the two black victims and began to “trend” the story as rampant, routine, rampage of police killings of blacks.
A loosely-coordinated confederation of local groups coalesced under the banner “Black Lives Matter” and organized simultaneous protest marches in several cities – including Dallas, Texas – for the evening of July 7th.
Datelined that day, Michael Eric Dyson, who is credited as “a professor of sociology at Georgetown . . . [and] a contributing opinion writer,” posted to the Times an op-ed he titled “What White America Fails To See.” In that, he wrote –
It is clear that you, white America, will never understand us. We are a nation of nearly 40 million black souls inside a nation of more than 320 million people. We don’t all think the same, feel the same, love, learn, live or even die the same.
. . .
You will never understand the helplessness we feel . . .. That the police are part of an undeclared war against blackness.
You can never admit that this is true. In fact, you deem the idea so preposterous and insulting that you call the black people who believe it racists themselves. In that case the best-armed man will always win.”
Then, within several hours, one armed man, from a sniper’s perch, killed five Dallas police officers and wounded others, who were doing their duty, keeping order alongside the protest march, protecting the protesters’ Constitutional rights.
Mr. Dyson’s words suddenly seemed prescient. Or inciteful. Too much so, evidently, even for Mr. Dyson, as will presently be shown.
No, Mr. Dyson’s exercise of free speech cannot be indicted for actually causing a sniper to shoot to kill five Dallas police officers (if only because the sniper didn’t likely read the New York Times, or seek Mr. Dyson’s imprimatur).
A polemicist’s main objective is to persuade. More rare, and more gratifying, is to inspire others to action. One’s ability to persuade or to inspire – particularly from so prominent a podium as the New York Times – imposes a duty to speak with circumspection. To be mindful of one’s ramifications, to own up to the foreseeable consequences, and where wrong, to admit the wrong and recant. There, Mr. Dyson breached his trust.
Shortly after the Dallas massacre, Mr. Dyson “updated” his op-ed ostensibly to “reflect news developments.” Actually, he supplanted his original piece with a sanitized version. His new title “Death in Black and White,” endeavored to blunt the militant separatist tone of “What White America Fails To See.” He inserted a disclaimer that “[T]here’s one thing most of us [not all?] agree on: We don’t want cops to be executed at a peaceful protest . . ..” He deleted his incendiary prophesy (or was that a Trumpian threat?) that “the best-armed man will always win.”
Mr. Dyson posted his revisionist version with the same dateline and under the same URL, a patent effort to expunge – instead of modify – his original declamation. His original words were removed from the Times’ website.
The point of this writing now, nearly two months later, is not to argue that Mr. Dyson’s original op-ed was wrong. He evidently knows it was wrong, which must be why he expunged it.
The point here, rather, is to denounce Mr. Dyson’s cover-up and the once-venerable Times’ complicity in it.
They had an honorable alternative. They could have – should have – published Mr. Dyson’s before-Dallas and after-Dallas versions side-by side. Mr. Dyson could have – and should have – explained why he no longer stood by his original view.
He might have acknowledged that he’d changed his mind or that his views had “matured.” He might even have recanted what he came to realize was a flawed view, one that proposed a justification for violence. But Michael Eric Dyson did not.
A candid and public admission to modifying one’s beliefs is entitled to respect, where it is genuine and honest. That requires personal courage and intellectual honesty.
One acts surreptitiously where those are lacking.
Postscript: These points were made in an email, on July 7th, to the New York Times’ “Public Editor,” whose “office deals specifically with issues of journalistic integrity at The New York Times.”
The Public Editor’s response to numerous readers’ similar comments described a scene where it was the Times editors who took the initiative to sanitize Mr. Dyson’s tone and language in response to the Dallas killings (although they were content with it before). As for Mr. Dyson, the Public Editor quoted him as saying, “If the first piece sounded more Malcolm and the second more King, that’s O.K. by me” – which sounds like a chameleon willing to be played as a pawn, under his own byline.
The Public Editor’s verdict: “There was no crime, just a cover-up . . ..” Mr. Dyson’s original version is now reposted.
This rendition raises further questions: How are Times readers to know what of an op-ed’s content the writer actually stands for, and how much is post-editorial, possibly politically-correct, whitewash? Can the Times remain a “newspaper of record” when it unapologetically claims the right to revise what it publishes, retroactively and surreptitiously?
Ron Litchman, Chair, The Manhattan Libertarian Party. RonL@manhattanLP.org.
(My own views, not necessarily the Party’s or any other individual’s)
Photo credit: Gil C / Shutterstock.com