Why He Fears the Fist: A Response to Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg's regular column in the Los Angeles Times is usually an awkward grab-bag of right-wing talking points backed by an incredible lack of historical knowledge. Goldberg stepped on to my beat this last week with a column about the 1968 Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who infamously raised their fists on the awards podum in protest against state-sanctioned racism in Africa. His piece was such cheap, dishonest scribble, I feel compelled to respond.

The column's starting point was the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, given to Smith and Carlos at the recent 2008 ESPY Awards. Lest you had any doubt about Goldberg's take, the headline blares, "'68 Olympics salute deserves no honor: ESPN ignored the violent extremism behind the black power salute given by two medalists at the Mexico City Games."

You could tell right away that Goldberg didn't read a book, an article, even a fortune cookie, about the 1968 Olympics before whipping out his laptop. Smith and Carlos never advocated any kind of violence. Furthermore, they saw their symbol as a sign of resistance that would connect broadly across ethnicities, not a narrow expression of "black power."

But the title turns out to be the intellectual summit of the piece.

Goldberg writes, "The stench of self-congratulation surrounding ESPN's decision [to honor Smith and Carlos] is thicker than the air in a locker room after double overtime.... The argument that Smith's and Carlos' critics must dine on their denunciations rests on an inch-deep nostalgia and the triumph of celebrity culture."

Note that Goldberg doesn't mention a word about why Smith and Carlos made their stand and why his intellectual forbearers "must dine on their denunciations." Smith and Carlos wanted South Africa and Rhodesia banned from the 1968 games because of their apartheid politics. They demanded more black coaches in sports. They sought to hold Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Committee, accountable for what many black athletes thought to be policies of barely concealed racism. They wanted Muhammad Ali to have his heavyweight boxing title restored after it was stripped because of the Champ's refusal to fight in Vietnam. Goldberg never makes clear if he even knows this history. I'm guessing he doesn't.

And yet he continues:

"In today's culture, is it even worth trying to remind people that the black power salute was, for those who brandished it most seriously, a symbol of violence--rhetorical, political and literal--against the United States? It was the high-sign for a racist militia, the Black Panthers, which orchestrated the murder of innocents and allied itself with America's enemies."

This is little more than an ugly screed against the Black Panthers. They were popular inot because they were a "racist militia" but because they were seen as standing up to racism. They armed themselves to challenge police brutality. They set up breakfast programs and health clinics in neighborhoods deteriorating from neglect. They were popular enough that J. Edgar Hoover called them "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country" and set out a plan to kill their leaders and destroy their organization. There are many reasons to raise criticisms of the Panthers but not by someone who seems to have done little more than read the David Horowitz Cliff Notes on the subject. And I have to ask, what the hell is a "high sign"? Is that Goldberg trying to be hip?

Jonah continues:

But even a more benign view of the salute shouldn't obscure the intense contradictions of ESPN's decision to honor Carlos and Smith. Both men were members of the Olympic Committee for Human Rights, which wanted a complete black boycott of the '68 Olympics. The committee considered an entire generation of heroic black athletes--including Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson--to be Uncle Toms.

Here we have an error followed by a lie. Their organization was called the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), not the "committee." A Google search would have cleared that up. And it is a lie is that they called out Jackie Robinson as an Uncle Tom. The truth is that Robinson supported OPHR.

As Robinson said, "I do support the individuals who decided to make the sacrifice by giving up the chance to win an Olympic medal. I respect their courage. We need to understand the reason and frustration behind these protests.... it was different in my day; perhaps we lacked courage."

As for Jesse Owens, the 1968 Olympians were angry with him because he worked with Avery Brundage to undermine their protest both publicly and privately. Owens later came to regret his involvement in criticizing Carlos and Smith, writing an entire book in 1972 called I Have Changed.

But let's turn back to Jonah. It gets better.

Another important distinction that should matter is that this was 1968, not 1938. By the end of the 1960s, the United States had seen two decades of steady--if too slow--racial progress. The black power vision of an irredeemably "racist Amerikkka" was all but blind to the desegregation of the military, the accomplishments of Owens and Robinson, and the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, 1964 and even 1968. One hopes ESPN disagrees with those views as well.

Does Goldberg have even a basic knowledge of American history? Does he really think black people were feeling good about the US in 1968? Did he hear about that guy who got shot in Memphis that year? Dr. Martin Luther Somebody? And when he was shot how there were riots in every major city in the country? Did he know that Smith and Carlos were profoundly affected by this, wondering how they could represent a country that could breed such hate?

Jonah concludes:

But the question is not, and never has been, whether the Olympic ideal can be achieved but whether it should be pursued. By embracing those who spat on that idea, it seems ESPN thinks the answer is no.

Smith and Carlos weren't spitting on anything. They were challenging the hypocritical ideals of an Olympics that welcomed apartheid nations, employed a paucity of African-American coaches and had an open white supremacist, Avery Brundage, at its helm. Once again, Goldberg simply makes no effort to engage with the actuality of that moment. He never mentions the flood of hatred and death threats Smith and Carlos brought upon themselves. He could care less about the toll it took on their families, their friends, and their pocket books. Jonah Goldberg, like some kind of dull-witted, dime-store propagandist, can only unleash a one-dimensional hateful diatribe on a period and moment that he simply doesn't understand.

But I have to admit there is a small part of me that took great satisfaction in seeing this column. It demonstrates that after forty years, the audacious gesture of Tommie Smith and John Carlos still holds the power to upset all the right people.

Dave Zirin is the author of Welcome to the Terrordome: the Pain Politics and Promise of Sports (Haymarket) and the forthcoming A People's History of Sports in the United States (The New Press). and his writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Sports Illustrated.com, New York Newsday and The Progressive. He is the host of XM Radio's Edge of Sports Radio. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.

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