Frowning on Smiley

The popular TV show host's new book is little more than vapid self-promotion.

Doing What's Right: How to Fight for What You Believe--and How to Make a Difference

by Tavis Smiley


144 pp.

In a justly famous passage from "Twilight of the Idols," Nietzschecondemns what he calls the "moronofication" of a too syrupy and self-satisfiedChristian culture. Kierkegaard was another premier 19thcentury critic of the facile equation of Christianity with morals,religious faith with "doing what's right." Both men had books like TavisSmiley's, "Doing What's Right" in mind.

The most inspired dimension of the book is its author's biography.A former aide to Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, Smiley has beenan activist in and out of government since, while attending IndianaUniversity, he saw local cops shoot a black student. The incident, hesays, opened his eyes to institutional racism, and inspired his own early forays into activism. Today Smiley hosts a talk-show on theBlack Entertainment Television cable channel called "BET Tonight." "Whenadvocacy meets media," Smiley tells us, it is "combustible," and in "Doing What's Right" Smiley offers a chronicle of his discovery of the power of such combustion.


But he offers little else besides. "Doing What's Right" begins with awell-worn trope: there is a profound sense of moral slippage in thenation, evident in all the polling pundits do. More worrisome is the sense thatthere's nothing to be done: citizens feel disengaged, disempowered;activism and volunteerism are dying arts.

All of this seems accurate, and well worth our moral concern. ButSmiley's remedy appears to be the trumpeting of a series of tiredtruisms, many of which contradict one another. You needthe courage of your convictions. But you've got to pick your fights.Details and statistics make your case. But don't lose "the big picture" ina sea of needless detail. Anger is an important emotion. But you must bedispassionate and never, ever offend. Be personal. Keep it general.Failure is an inevitable part of the activist's life. Failure is not anoption.

We are told that phone trees work. We are warned to start our websitesright away--a woman claimed Smiley's name for a website address withoutpermission and held it hostage for $70,000 (he's at www.travistalks instead).Smiley is so troubled by this story that he tells it twice.

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