Editor’s note: This commentary is by Dave Gram, a longtime Vermont journalist who hosts “The Dave Gram Show,” which airs 9-11 a.m. weekdays on WDEV. The opinions expressed here are his own.
Dante famously said that the worst parts of hell “are reserved for those who, in a time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”
That’s a tough notion to swallow for many journalists, or even pretend journalists, for example, conservatives who try to use the tools and tropes of journalism to slow progress on the road to justice.
This phenomenon of conservatives dressing up (they actually need to dress down) as journalists is quite a thing in Vermont lately, manifesting itself in the Vermont Daily, TrueNorth Reports, News Done Right and other such organs.
So just as they’ve latched onto the worst of postmodernism with their claim that facts don’t matter or that alternative facts are OK, many conservatives will steal a page from a reporter’s notebook and cry “neutrality” when progress is what’s needed.
Here’s an allegedly “neutral” statement: Racism by Blacks should be considered just as big a problem as racism against Blacks. Sounds fair and balanced, right? Just like Fox News is “fair and balanced.” Trouble is, the truth is something completely different.
I could try to deny my white privilege by pointing to my visual biography. I was born nearly blind. I got glasses at 5; my slowly improving eyesight allowed me to cross the threshold to where I was no longer legally blind at 14 and to where I was finally able to pass the eye test to drive at 27.
When I was a kid, my eyes bounced wildly back and forth as I tried to focus, and the other boys at summer camp when I was 9 nicknamed me “Eyeballs.” I hated it, and have sometimes wondered if the sting was a bit like what a Black person must feel when hearing someone use some of the more common racist epithets.
But the truth, once again, is something different. The “E-word” didn’t pack nearly half a millennium of slavery and Jim Crow and Klansmen coming after me and housing, academic and job discrimination and cops beating me — or worse — for no good reason.
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So now comes a “journalist” — a conservative with a video recorder — demanding to know why Gov. Phil Scott won’t equate graffiti saying “Black lives matter” with other graffiti saying “BLM is racist,” and require that either both or neither be removed from the state’s roadways and bridge abutments.
That would be neutrality, right?
At Scott’s July 17 news conference, Guy Page of the Vermont Daily and Vermont Water Cooler told Scott of a news report in the Chester Telegraph that someone had painted “BLM is racist” on the surface of a state highway, and a state highway crew had removed it.
“Given your administration’s direction to not remove graffiti that is not profane or grotesque, or unsafe to traffic, are you concerned that VTrans may now be selectively eliminating graffiti based on the content of the message?” Page asked.
Scott asked Page if he was suggesting that “‘BLM is racist’ isn’t a racist comment?”
Page replied, “I don’t know. I think there are people who have a point of view that says that they believe that BLM is racist in some ways. But my point is, you’ve got a political point of view here where it seems VTrans may be discriminating — this message is OK, this message isn’t — when the original direction was not profane or grotesque or unsafe to travel.”
Scott then looked for a moment like a unicyclist in reverse. He told Page “your point is well taken.” He promised to talk with legislators about the VTrans policy and to get the state’s Racial Equity Task Force to look into the matter. “We want to make sure we provide equity across all perspectives,” the governor said.
That would be one way to go. The other would be to add “racist” to the list that already includes profane and grotesque and for the governor to go back to his initial instinct that caused him to ask, “‘BLM is racist’ isn’t a racist comment?”
If we want to get to the truth of whether “BLM is racist,” we can cherry-pick individual quotes by people involved in the hugely diverse and diffuse Black Lives Matter movement to try to “prove” it’s a racist outfit. Or we can ask if its overall purpose is to reduce racism in America. If the latter is the case, then to promote the idea that “BLM is racist” is, in fact, racist.
Page said in a follow-up email to this writer that his question to Scott came “not because I oppose BLM goals, but because the same government censorship could be used against other groups. It sets a bad precedent.”
But if we “want to make sure we provide equity across all perspectives,” do we hoist a Confederate flag above the Statehouse just as the last Southern holdout states are taking them down?
Governor, the choice is clear: Formal neutrality of the sort Page is seeking and Dante excoriated, or leadership toward a better Vermont. I have confidence you’ll choose well.