Saturday, October 25, 2008

Whose Black Eye? The Ashley Todd Story and Repair of the World

“May we soon behold . . . the repair of the world” (Siddur, Jewish book of daily prayer).

I have hesitated to write about the Ashley Todd story. I’ve kept silent for all kinds of reasons. Chief among them is that it’s a toxic story, and even mentioning it in a critical context—exposing it for the string of lies it comprises—abets the viral dissemination of hate speech.

It’s designed to be that way. In confronting its lies, one spreads them further. In calling for responsibility on the part of those who jumped on this story and ran with it in the face of abundant evidence that it was manufactured, one plays into the hands of those who want to invert core values in our political process and turn Todd into a martyr when she’s been exposed as a liar.

The story is a carefully crafted inverted parable that seeks to take well-warranted criticism of the McCain-Palin campaign for inciting racial hatred in this election, and to turn that criticism on its head, making the object of the hate rhetoric into those whom we are to fear.

Sick. Disgusting. Noxious. Hateful. And, in seeking to combat it, one can focus on hatred to such an extent that one is drawn into the shadows and away from tikkun olam, the repair of the world that is a core obligation of people of faith.

But now that Ashley Todd has admitted she made up her story of being assaulted by a 6’4” “very black” man, it’s impossible to avoid this story and what it teaches us about ourselves on the eve of this presidential election. And though writing about it on the Sabbath is abhorrent to me, perhaps it's appropriate, if we can use the story to teach ourselves how to engage in healing and repair of the world more creatively than we have done in the past.

Here’s what needs to be said about this story.

This is not a story that ought to have been difficult to unravel from the get-go. From my first encounter with it, I sensed something in it so unwholesome that I realized even talking about this story would end up serving ends directly counter to those I’m pursuing on this blog. And if I could sense that, along with countless numbers of bloggers from the moment it broke, the first thing to ask about the story is why the mainstream media immediately ran with it with such alacrity, though the story was clearly off-kilter in all kinds of ways.

Nothing in the account made sense. There were the instant hysterical claims all over the internet that Todd, a McCain campaign volunteer in Pittsburgh, had been mutilated by a very black man who was 6’4”, who robbed her at an ATM and then, pinning her on the ground, fondling her and risking capture by the police, took time to knife a B into her face. For Barack, doncha know.


There was the mysterious picture that suddenly cropped up with viral suspiciousness on right-wing websites, whose origin no one could track, showing the B not carved but scratched into Todd’s face—and backwards, as if she had done it to herself in a mirror.

There was the “black eye” that was clearly dark make-up, with no redness or swelling around the eye or anywhere on her face, though she claimed she had been kicked and pummeled. There was the fact that she refused any medical treatment. And that the ATM cameras did not corroborate her story, though the media tried valiantly to spin that damning fact by stating that she was attacked out of camera range.

There was Ashley Todd’s Myspace site, with its epigraph, “Lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking her cloths [sic] off.” There was her transparent trail of twitters prior to the alleged incident, asking people to pray for her as she drove into what she claimed was the wrong side of town, but what is actually a stable Italian-American neighborhood. Setting up the story . . . .

There’s the fact—which should have leapt out immediately at the media, given the other reasons to doubt the story—that this nasty little lie is one in a long series of similar lies that constitute a stinky trope of racism running through our nation’s history, in which white women concoct whoppers about assault by big black men when it serves their interests to divert attention from their own unsavory motives or actions.

There was, in other words, every reason in the world not to place faith in this story of brutal assault until it had been verified.

But that is not how those promoting the story behaved. Not at all. I first read of this attack within minutes after the story broke—on websites in which right-wing Catholics were logging in to promote their one-issue approach to voting. Somehow, as the news entered that right-wing Catholic demi-monde, it became a nifty little narrative about how baby-killer Barack would not merely promote abortion but was now provoking knife attacks on good God-fearing Christians trying to save the land.

A nifty little lie that I don’t see any of those good God-fearing Christians retracting now that Ashley Todd has admitted she manufactured the whole malodorous tale.

From those abortion websites, I googled for more information and landed on right-wing political websites immediately high-profiling this story of a white girl assaulted and mutilated by a huge, very black man. I found those websites full of postings about the need for good Americans to stock up on guns now and prepare to defend life and liberty against the assault of Barackian hooligans (presumably tall very black ones).

The Ashley Todd story demonstrates the lengths to which “values voters” will go to distort and invert authentic values—the core values of all major religions of the world; the civic values necessary to bind us together as a body politic—in order to gain political power. The story also reveals a point I keep making on this blog: the inversion of values by some values voters, such that shouting about baby killing becomes equivalent to shouting about menacing gays or hooligan blacks—as religious leaders who claim to be all about repair of the world remain conspicuously silent.

Please note that I’m not talking about Todd herself in making these observations. I’m talking about those who were only too willing to spread her lies around without any fact-checking, when an abundance of evidence suggested reasons for caution before moving ahead with this story.

Not merely the right-wing news sites and websites that immediately jumped on this story and spread it far and wide, but the mainstream media as well, have (with seeming gleefulness) participated in a campaign of lies that turns upside down one of the key concerns we all ought to have as this election season closes: the possibility of real hate-engendered violence as a result of the rhetoric of those using this story to decry fictional violence supposedly arising from those victimized by the hate rhetoric!

This inversion of values is immoral. It should seriously concern people of faith and shepherds of faith communities. It underscores the need of those communities and their pastors to speak out clearly about the inroads hate speech is now making into our political life at the very center.

We should be equally concerned about the fact that news reports are now demonstrating that, even when there were clear reasons to doubt the truthfulness of Ashley Todd’s story and before the story had been verified, the Pennsylvania communications director of McCain’s campaign was informing reporters that the B scratched on Todd’s face stood for Barack ( The McCain campaign is now understandably trying to distance itself from this story, and is seeking to depict those raising questions about the use of the story by the McCain campaign itself as cold-hearted critics of a possibly disturbed young woman.

In my view, one can feel real compassion for a young woman who might be so unhinged (or so indoctrinated?) that she would concoct a passel of toxic lies targeting a racial minority and would mutilate herself, while one continues to hold to the fire the feet of media and political groups who helped disseminate these toxic lies. The level of violence in the rhetoric of too many Americans in this election, and the potential for real violence, coupled with ugly racism, should make us very hesitant to drive social wedges even deeper—and through outright lies.

There is another reason for profound concern both about the Ashley Todd story and the quickness with which mainstream media and some political leaders bought it. This is, as I have noted, that it trades on stereotypes deeply imprinted in our cultural psyche by recurrent narratives that make “innocent” white women the prey of nefarious black men.

It says much about us as a nation that anyone continues to think she can continue to get away with telling such tales. And that, when she is exposed, she is actually somehow the martyr rather than the disseminator of violence. The fact that this narrative is cropping up again in our culture in this election says much about how far we still have to go towards repairing our world, when it comes to confronting the deep roots of our racism.

On the positive side, what happened with Ashley Todd’s story underscores a point I have made repeatedly on this blog: this is the power of good citizen blogging to change the way we do business in our political life. In the past, when false narratives of black men molesting white women have found their way into our political discourse and thus into the media, it has taken quite some time to uncover the lies at the root of these narratives.

In this case, citizen bloggers were all over the story from the beginning, even as the mainstream media gave it viral force. That’s good news. It suggests that, through speedy dissemination of accurate information on the internet, citizen bloggers have the capability of defanging hate narratives before they do all the damage of which they're capable.

Finally, I have to say it again: where are the leaders of our faith communities? This story unfolded in western Pennsylvania, a Catholic battleground area on which I have focused several times in posting this week. This is a state in which cultural and religious battles are being fought in this election, and in which Catholic pastoral leaders are taking a key role.

It is a state in which the voice of pastoral leaders to challenge hate and unmask lies would make a world of difference—as it would at a national level. Any religious leaders who remain silent as hate spikes in a nation deserve to find themselves out of business when those contesting the hate finally push it to the margins and begin building a culture less toxic.