EDITOR’S PAGE

Why Shoot the Messenger for Bearing the Bad News?

It was the Dallas Chamber of Commerce’s annual passing of the torch luncheon; a pat on the back for 2,000 or so civic boosters; a day to feel good about the city and its thousands of volunteers-sung and unsung. The keynote speaker was the outspoken, charming octogenarian Stanley Marcus, who stepped up to the podium and offered a line attributed to Adlai Stevenson: “I’m here to talk, you’re here to listen. If you get through before I do…”

Most of us prepared for that inevitability. Idly, I began to follow Marcus’s remarks as outlined in my press kit, when it became clear that the words I was hearing bore little resemblance to those that I read.

Marcus praised the honesty and efficiency of our city government; then, suddenly, he jarred the audience with blunt criticisms of the D/FW Airport Board, which continues to waft “the stench of scandal over Dallas”; of the DISD, “whose major educational and administrative accomplishment is failure”; and, at least by implication, DART. Said Marcus, “We have wasted more time and more money on transportation than any other city problem.”

At this point, a number of people sat bolt upright in their chairs. But the rest of the speech was by the the book.

I presume that the address was not well received on the dais, which was weighted with past and present city leaders. And I disagree with at least one of Marcus’s assertions. I think our schools have made steady progress considering the obstacles thrown in front of them. But I still found the episode to be a welcome taste of reality in a town forever rinsing with mouthwash.

Dallas has taken some important steps lately toward honest and forthright dialogue on difficult issues. Linus Wright declared openly that racial tensions threaten the very health of the DISD. The mayor and some city council members (admittedly, under pressure from Hispanics) began working to accommodate that 15 percent of our population with no elected representation. Our recent budget process, though marked by tough decisions on increased taxes and painful service cuts, was exemplary in its rationality, its unanimity, and its general orderliness.

But for every step forward around here, we seem to take at least one step back. A potentially explosive book on the history of local race relations, written by Dallas Times Herald columnist Jim Schutze, met an untimely demise last month when a local publishing company abruptly canceled plans to publish it (see “Inside Dallas,” page 15). Poor pre-publication sales was the official reason for the cancellation, but the decision came amid heavy speculation that the book would portray some Dallas leaders as hindrances to Dallas’s early efforts to integrate. And that, according to local tradition, is a no-no. It’s not nice to spear Father Sacred Cow.

Dallas has got to put that kind of thinking behind it. The case can be argued (and it is, forcefully, in Schutze’s book) that the racial tensions that bubble just below the boiling point today are directly rooted in Dallas’s long history of painting itself in a flattering light, even when cold self-criticism is in order.

It should matter less that we struggled with racism yesterday than it does that we refuse to face up to our mistakes today. And the irony is that the book will be published anyway. What might have been an airing of local history, with little instructional value outside of Dallas, has become a full-blown media event. Already there has been national coverage replete with quotes and accusations about how self-conscious Dallas can’t tolerate anything but “nicey-nicey” pap. And can’t you just see the fiery-red cover lines that will scream at you to buy “THE BOOK THAT DALLAS WOULDN’T PRINT”?

Of course some subjects-racial issues paramount among them-are difficult and often painful to discuss with candor. Politicians from President Reagan to Bill Clements to Annette Strauss repeatedly mask their agendas in Orwellian doublespeak. No, the release of U.S. News & World Report correspondent Nicholas Daniloff was not tied in any way to the subsequent departure of Soviet spy Gennady Zakharov. No, I will not support a tax increase to end our states $2.8 billion debt, the largest state deficit in American history. No. I could never support any measure that our legal advisers say might not stand up in court, even if it’s something as dear to rny heart as the anti-apartheid movement….

It is, then, often left to the writer, the commentator, the lecturer, the professor, the critic, to straighten the forked tongue. Judging from popular perceptions of such folk (especially if they are part of the Big Bad Media), such an occupation is an increasingly thankless one. A friend recently treated me to a ten-minute diatribe on that scurrilous creature known as the critic (sneer when you spit out the word): “How anyone can collect a paycheck for doing nothing but attacking another human being’s work …” It seems to me that as the nation moves slowly but steadily toward the right, those who question authority are suffering a loss of esteem. How many eighth-graders today would name among their heroes Ralph Nader, or Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein?

Our more orderly times may well be an improvement on the chaotic, dissident Sixties. But I hope that in our enthusiasm for a realignment with traditional values, we don’t lose the spirit to redress life’s injustices by bucking Big Time icons. I don’t believe that Jim Schutze wrote his book simply to make villains out of any important figures in Dallas’s past. But those who would seek to quiet him make villains of themselves.

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