A guy I know -- and have come to avoid -- makes a practice of trying to intimidate his friends into backing his myriad racial-justice causes.
The causes are mostly worthy, though not always as clear-cut as he sees them, and most of his friends have joined him in at least a few of his fights. But now and then, one of them will choose not to join a particular fight. What follows is sadly predictable.
The friend will be vilified -- publicly -- as a phony who never really backed the interests of the poor, the young or the downtrodden; who is out for himself alone, who thinks he's better than the little people and who is, not to put too fine a point on it, not a real black man at all but a racial sell-out.
He comes to mind now because of the controversies surrounding Secretary of State Colin Powell and Tiger Woods, the world's foremost golfer.
Powell was attacked by his friend Harry Belafonte as -- gasp! -- a house slave, a willing puppet of his white master, because he declined to speak out against a prospective U.S. military attack on Iraq. Woods, though not similarly vilified, has been under tremendous pressure from some in the women's rights movement to join their fight against the men-only membership policy of the Augusta National Golf Club, home of the prestigious Masters tournament.
Is the pressure unfair? I surprise myself by responding differently to the two cases.
I tend to see Woods as more of a victim -- partly because of his age (26) and partly because there's no particular reason he should be dragooned into a fight he is reluctant to enter. Have famous white male golfers been similarly importuned? The reason Woods has been singled out is that, as the guy whose crowd-drawing play butters the bread of professional golf, he may be the one player who could make Augusta National rethink its policy. After all, his presence on the golf scene has had a lot of clubs rethinking their race policies.
But does the fact that he could do it obligate him to do it? I'm not so sure. And part of my uncertainty is the fact that, while both may be odious, men-only rules aren't quite in the same category as white-only rules.
Powell is a different case. To begin with, he is not merely a famous man being asked to use his fame to influence policy. He is a member of the inner councils of the administration whose policy is at issue. Listen to what Belafonte said on CNN's Larry King show:
"Whenever somebody within our tribe, within our group, emerges that has the position of authority and power to make a difference in the way business is done, our expectations are raised. . . . But when such an individual is in the service of those who not only perpetuate the oppression, but sometimes design the way in which it is applied, it becomes very, very, very, very critical that we raise our voices and be heard.
"Where is Colin Powell's conscience in a time when the world is getting ready to go up in flames in a war that's hugely ill-advised?"
A couple of responses. To begin with, if the idea of a unilateral military attack on Iraq, with the clear purpose of eliminating Saddam Hussein, is as insane as I think it is, why should Colin Powell be singled out as insufficient of conscience? Belafonte's talk of the importance of having members of the "tribe" in positions of authority suggests that America's fixation with Saddam Hussein is somehow especially a problem for African Americans. By my lights, the tribe that matters in this instance is the human tribe. All of us who see the potential disaster of our Iraq policy have a duty to do what we can to change it.
Which brings me to my second response: Powell may already have done what Belafonte so passionately demands of him.
It seems to me that people in Powell's position (being a prominent part of an administration that is about to make a huge policy blunder) have two choices. They can make a principled resignation and tell the world why they are doing so. Or they can make a principled behind-the-scenes effort, using their authority, their influence and their wit to effect change.
After a string of policy-debate losses that had some of us urging principled resignation -- an interim state for Palestine, reengagement with North Korea, a containment approach to Iraq -- I'm thinking that Powell may finally have won one by getting the president to work through the United Nations.
House slave? I don't think so.