Frowning on Smiley

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

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Smiley culls his gems from relatives, friends, and the woman hecuriously insists on referring to as "my beloved Big Mama." "Mygrandmother used to say to me that while there were some battles that are not worth fighting even if you win," Smiley writes, "there are others that are worth fighting even if you lose. My father, military man that he is,put it more succinctly: "Son, pick your hills." They were both saying be selective. Choose the fights that really matter, the ones where you think you can be most effective."

We begin to see the trouble here. Deciding questions of activism on thebasis of the cause is one thing; deciding to get involved because youthink you can win is something else again. Ultimately, Smiley is on theside of the winners: "If you surrender you've failed. Do you really want to be a failure? I don't know about you, but I ain't into waving white flags!"

This sounds more like self-help than activism. In fact, the book suffers from the prime paradox of the ever-growing "Self-Help" shelf: to helpyourself, you imitate another, aspire to the life another person hascreated. Smiley has simply marketed his life and turned it into acommodity. You can do anything, he suggests, you can achieve the success I haveachieved, if only you really believe--if only you're savvy enough topackage your message well.

The book, in fact, is not about activism at all; it is about its author.The book offers little more than a chronicle of his likes and dislikes. Headmires Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln and FDR. He loves JesseJackson. He lives on a different planet from Jesse Helms. There's nothing more to be said or done with Clarence Thomas. He thinks "tree-huggers"have gone a little too far.

In all this, Smiley seems painfully unaware of how privileged he hasbeen, how family connections--and other people's money--have consistentlycontributed to his own advancement. His trajectory is made to seem verynearly a Horatio Alger tale of the moral life. It would be more apt tocompare it to Amway.

The book, in short, is a scam. It is a scam because Tavis Smiley, Inc.is a scam. The most coherent form of "activism" where it's concerned issimple: Don't buy it.

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