Now, let’s get on with the business of unabashed criticism.
For those not familiar with the recent kafuffle between Steele and conservative, shock jock radio host Rush Limbaugh, here’s a quick summary:
During an interview over the weekend with CNN’s D.L. Hughley, Michael Steele was quoted as saying that “Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. Rush Limbaugh—his whole thing is entertainment. Yes, it's incendiary. Yes, it's ugly." When Hughley referred to the radio host as "the de facto leader of the Republican party." Steele replied decisively, "No he's not. I'm the de facto leader of the Republican party,"
Bravo, Mr. Steele for taking to task the biggest blemish on your party’s new and improving reputation. It was, I hoped, a forecast of other house cleaning to come.
But my excitement was short-lived.
Limbaugh promptly responded as most imbeciles do to the truth: with anger and incredulity. Within hours, Mr. Steele retracted his honest and courageous statements so quickly and completely, I had to google the story to make sure that it hadn’t all been a figment of my imagination.
“I looked back at that tape and I realized words that I said weren’t what I was thinking,” Steele said. "It was one of those things where I thinking I was saying one thing, and it came out differently. What I was trying to say was a lot of people … want to make Rush the scapegoat, the bogeyman, and he’s not. I’m not going to engage these guys and sit back and provide them the popcorn for a fight between me and Rush Limbaugh. No such thing is going to happen. … I wasn’t trying to slam him or anything.”
Seriously? Because the last time I checked, Rush Limbaugh was, actually, the boogeyman.
More insightful than that finer point, is this: To have the official, appointed head of the Party cow-towing to a hot-headed radio personality either dramatically inflates Limbaugh’s importance or actually confirms and exposes the reality that Michael Steele tried to disguise in his original statement: Steele is but a figurehead, beholden to the same old guard leadership, rhetoric, and one can assume, divisive and separatist strategies of the Republican party.
I have, up until now, given Mr. Steele the benefit of the doubt. I cringed when progressives and African Americans called him Unlce Tom and Sambo for daring to be a black Republican.
Perhaps my willingness to forgive him his place within an overwhelmingly racist and classist political party comes from my own religious experiences. Indulge me if you will this dissimilar but analogous comparison:
I have been a member of my non-denominational but Baptist/Pentecostal-leaning church since I was 9 months old. My parents, its founding pastors, started the church in our basement and since then have grown it, beyond my father’s untimely death in the pulpit nine years ago, into a small but thriving community. Throughout the course of the past 25 years however, and in particular during my academic and professional awakening, I have developed decidedly liberal political and thus theological views as compared to the rest of my congregation and its clergy (still led by our fearless pastor, my mother). Despite these differences of theory, and sometimes practice, I hold several leadership positions within the ministry due in part to my love for the people and the fundamental (not fundamentalist) principles which provided a foundation for my growth, spiritual maturity and wellbeing.
The justification for my staying despite some pretty significant differences in theological interpretation is that without me, I fear that the church I so desperately love might become more conservative on issues of choice and sexuality, and thus farther and farther away from where I believe they are actually called to be. In short, I love them too much to not believe in their eventual enlightenment.
It is with this background and context that I, perhaps foolishly, identified with Michael Steele. I believed his pleas that there could be open-minded, balanced, people – people of color, for that matter - within the Republican party just as I hope many believe my cries that there can be open-minded, politically progressive people within a largely evangelical religious institution.
So against my better judgement, I turned the other cheek during his 2006 Senate race when it was discovered that someone paid homeless people to distribute inaccurate fliers in my home county, an overwhelmingly Democratic precinct. The materials blatantly lied and said that the Ehrlich-Steele ticket was a Democratic ticket.
Maybe he wasn’t capitalizing on the ignorance of low-information voters and in particular voters of color in my neighborhood. Maybe the voter suppression ploy had nothing to do with him, and he was just a victim of the type of dirty politics that his colleagues played, just as well-meaning Hillary supporters were often victims of the guilty-by-association racism that was instigated by other anti-Obama Democrats.
I tried to turn the other cheek…again against my better judgement… several weeks ago when he began throwing around phrases like “bling bling” and talking about “off the hook” strategies to recruit young people to the Party. Maybe he wasn’t tokenizing young people and in particular, young people of color, and in particular, young people of color who identify with hip hop culture. Maybe he’s just an old guy trying to understand the MTV generation?
But I’ve now run out of cheeks to turn (or at least any that I’d like to include in this metaphor).
Michael Steele’s apology as the head of the party to Rush Limbaugh could be compared to me ascending to senior pastor, arguably the penultimate position of leadership within my church, and still espousing, allowing or supporting beliefs that wholly represent the congregation that are contrary to my own. Even worse, it would be like me as the senior pastor, cowering under the reprimand of a loud-mouthed usher who happens to have the meanest, ugliest church members behind her .
Why backtrack on the three kernels of truth said during the interview? 1. Rush Limbaugh is entertainment. 2. He says ugly things. 3. Steele is the confirmed leader of the party.
To say that this was a misstatement all but shouts that 1. Rush Limbaugh is more than entertainment – he is certified, significant leadership and the things that he says on his shock jock radio show are to be taken as serious, substantive views that represent your party. 2. What he says is not ugly, and even his most incendiary remarks are not worthy of reprimand. 3. Even you must answer to him, because you are an impotent RNC chairman.
Mr. Steele, if you are going to continue to do your traveling road show, attempting to convince everyone, and in particular communities of color, that you are the breath of fresh air that the Party so desperately needs, we’re going to need some proof. (Or has us hip hoppers like to say – We don’t believe you. You need more people.) Start bringing to the forefront some fresh leaders – the ones who you swear up and down have been biding time during the Bush years feeling as if the rhetoric and policies of hatred, oppression and fear don’t represent them as loving, positive, open-minded Republicans. Because until I see you practicing what you preach and unveiling at least a solid contingency of your party that values diversity, equality, and civility as much as you say you do, you’re going to have a difficult time changing the party from inside Rush Limbaugh’s shadow.