The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Friday, April 29, 2005

Behind the Spotlights

Tom Maguire posted yesterday on the troubles experienced by Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP, who apparently tended to promote women who had done him sexual favors. His primary source is the Washington Post:
Speaks could mount a credible claim of workplace harassment because of "the impression [that was] created that a woman must provide sexual favors to Mr. Mfume or his associates in order to receive favorable treatment in the workplace," the lawyer wrote in the memo.

The Post's treatment of Mr. Mfume is discreet to the point of euphemism: the headline refers only to "Mfume Accused of Favoritism". Mr. Maguire notes this, and contrasts this with the treatment of former Senator Bob Packwood.

This type of double standard has been noted several times in the past, as well. The evolution of power in America created a dichotomy between those wielding power and those calling them to account, between bosses and watchdogs. The NAACP was conceived as such a watchdog; but it is now a power in its own right, with a $27 million annual budget and advisory control over far larger cashflows.

Though the dichotomy has outlived its applicability, it is a useful illusion to those who can portray themselves as watchdogs. The claim to be disinterested seekers of truth and justice is claimed, for example, by media and by minority advocacy groups (see here for an example from academia). By making this claim, they are trying to maintain their priveleged role as the askers of questions (details here). Anyone can play, except of course corporations.

The NAACP claims the right to shine the spotlight of publicity on racist, or insufficiently proactive, behavior; what happens in the darkness behind that spotlight, we are not meant to inquire.

The current dichotomy between bosses and wattchdogs is a false one, based on an outdated dialectic. We should not forget that it has provided valuable service in the past: the reason Boeing or Merrill Lynch now run a cleaner show than the NAACP is not that they are staffed with better human beings, but that scrutiny has obliged them to do so. In the process they have become more meritocratic and more efficient. As this scrutiny doubles back on the self-styled guardians of righteousness, the process will be painful for some of them, but the majority will survive and be more honest and effective.