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.

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, a scam. The most coherent form of "activism" where it's concerned issimple: Don't buy it.