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," Nietzsche condemns what he calls the "moronofication" of a too syrupy and self-satisfied Christian culture. Kierkegaard was another premier 19th century critic of the facile equation of Christianity with morals, religious faith with "doing what's right." Both men had books like Tavis Smiley'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 been an activist in and out of government since, while attending Indiana University, he saw local cops shoot a black student. The incident, he says, opened his eyes to institutional racism, and inspired his own early forays into activism. Today Smiley hosts a talk-show on the Black Entertainment Television cable channel called "BET Tonight." "When advocacy 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 a well-worn trope: there is a profound sense of moral slippage in the nation, evident in all the polling pundits do. More worrisome is the sense that there'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. But Smiley's remedy appears to be the trumpeting of a series of tired truisms, many of which contradict one another. You need the 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" in a sea of needless detail. Anger is an important emotion. But you must be dispassionate and never, ever offend. Be personal. Keep it general. Failure is an inevitable part of the activist's life. Failure is not an option.

We are told that phone trees work. We are warned to start our websites right away--a woman claimed Smiley's name for a website address without permission 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 he curiously insists on referring to as "my beloved Big Mama." "My grandmother 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 the basis of the cause is one thing; deciding to get involved because you think you can win is something else again. Ultimately, Smiley is on the side 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 help yourself, you imitate another, aspire to the life another person has created. Smiley has simply marketed his life and turned it into a commodity. You can do anything, he suggests, you can achieve the success I have achieved, if only you really believe--if only you're savvy enough to package 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. He admires Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln and FDR. He loves Jesse Jackson. 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 has been, how family connections--and other people's money--have consistently contributed to his own advancement. His trajectory is made to seem very nearly a Horatio Alger tale of the moral life. It would be more apt to compare 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 is simple: Don't buy it.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad