Sweet Despair: A Friend Who Explains It All

Ten and a half years ago, I mentioned in passing to John Sicher, The Observer ‘s first editor, that we might send a reporter upstate to look at the Tawana Brawley trial. Three editors later, we still have the chance.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, C. Vernon Mason and Alton H. Maddox Jr. have been found guilty of the libel suit that former assistant district attorney Steven A. Pagones brought against them. But they will appeal. Their inevitable loss on appeal will slow them down no more than their first loss, the 1988 grand jury ruling that Tawana Brawley’s story was a hoax.

Here are some of the statements that brought the Rev. Al Sharpton into court. On Geraldo : “We have said publicly that an assistant district attorney in [Dutchess] county, Steven Pagones, participated in this act.” On Donahue : “She said and has proven to us that six white men, one named Steven Pagones–I’ll repeat it again … were among those who attacked her.” On Nightline : “We have the facts and the evidence that an assistant district attorney … did this.” On The Morton Downey Jr. Show : “I’ll name them [the attackers] again: Steven Pagones … ” On WWOR-TV: “We are saying Steven Pagones did it. Now if he didn’t do it, why isn’t he suing us?”

So Mr. Pagones sued. Early on, a judge ruled that Mr. Pagones, as an assistant district attorney, was a public figure according to the law–meaning that not only falsehood, but actual malice had to be proven in order to find his enemies guilty of libeling him. Mr. Pagones had to show that Mr. Sharpton and his colleagues either knew that their charges were false when they made them, or showed reckless disregard of the truth (e.g., had not bothered in any way to check controverted statements). This is a higher threshold of proof than private citizens face. But after years of evasion and theatrics, Mr. Pagones cleared it in court.

Mr. Maddox has been suspended from the practice of law, Mr. Mason disbarred. Their only future is the kook church circuit–Nation of Islam covens with crosses on top–which is unfortunately quite large. Their belief in Mr. Pagones’ guilt remains unabated. Mr. Sharpton, who has been running for office and attending swanky parties thrown by George , took a different legal tack: He was only exercising his rights as an advocate. “I had an obligation to respond to the call of a mother,” he told the press. When a mother calls, what does Mr. Sharpton do? Grab the nearest white man.

We got here in the first place because of one of the New York economy’s only successful exports of the 1980’s: the race show. The race show begins with ugly white violence–hopefully true, though that is not necessary. Mr. Mason, Mr. Maddox and Mr. Sharpton came to fame because of Howard Beach. The race show they put on there was partly true, partly false. A mob of white kids beat and killed a black motorist–that was true. The showmen charged an unrelated white kid, who was driving along a highway with his black girlfriend, of having circled back to Howard Beach to help the mob. That was false. The District Attorney’s failure to indict this obviously innocent party led them to demand a special prosecutor. Bigger show, more race fireworks. When Tawana Brawley was found in a garbage bag in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., smeared with filth and scribbled over with abusive epithets, the showmen hit the road.

They did not fare so well among the hayseeds. Miss Brawley, it turned out, was a typical modern 15-year-old. She was a mess: imaginative, dishonest and with a violent stepfather who gave her excellent reason to cultivate both qualities in self-defense. To excuse her late hours, she pulled her bag act. Mr. Pagones’ libel suit originally named her as well; since she did not respond, a judge ruled her guilty by default. The trial of her advisers ground on. The rest is social, and now legal, history.

Forget about it, because there is something else here, more interesting, and worse. Call it the Comfortable Klan. How did Tawana Brawley try to get herself out of the jam of coming home late? By putting herself in a larger, racial one. The scrawls on her body when she was found read “KKK” and “nigger.” Is the man of the house going to beat me up? Well, look what the Man did to me first. White racists were her imaginary companions, her solace, her help in time of trouble.

She is not alone. Was Howard Beach awful? Make it worse by imagining additional white criminals. Was Ennis Cosby killed by a white immigrant thug? Then deny, as his mother has, the obvious explanation that he was victimized because he was a rich guy in a fancy car, and say instead that his murderer learned racism from seeing slave owners like Ulysses Grant on our currency. Come to think of it, Bill Cosby gave money to the cause of Tawana Brawley.

When actual Klansmen are loose, like the crew that dragged a black man to death in Jasper, Tex., it is hard to imagine why black people would multiply them. The reason is that despair is pleasant. It ends anxiety, explains failure, and then relieves the burden of working or thinking. Conservatives, who have far less reason to indulge it, also know the pleasure of despair. In its mildest form, it produces symbolic noncandidates for President, like Alan Keyes or Gary Bauer. At a psychotic extreme, it leads to shooting abortionists and blowing up Federal office buildings. Mr. Sharpton, Mr. Maddox and Mr. Mason are far from violence, or even advocating it. But, like pro-death pro-lifers and the militia fringe, they prefer a shadow world of ubiquitous, omnipotent enemies to–the world.

The irony of Mr. Sharpton’s career is that he longs to maneuver in the world he rejects. Why would a man who believed that there was a conspiracy against Tawana Brawley run for office? What could he do even if he won? Would the Man let a black man change anything, just because he was a senator, or a mayor? Yet his talents and his desires keep tugging him away from his worldview. At bottom, Al Sharpton is not a bad guy. He just keeps doing bad things.

Sweet Despair: A Friend Who Explains It All