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Something Happening Here

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Maybe it's Obama. Something is going on, something bubbling up. I feel it all around me. Don't you? Not just nationally but locally. Some kind of touchiness. Not touchy-feely. Touch-pokey.

Things are complicated all of a sudden.

When Russell Fish and I had lunch last week, the first thing we talked about was Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price and the black hole thing. I keep up with Price, because I'm an ultra, off-the-charts liberal. Russell does because he's an ultra, off-the-charts conservative.


John Wiley Price

We figured we were among the few white guys on Earth last week who didn't call Price a moron for suggesting the term "black hole" is racist. We each have things we could call him. Not a moron.

You know about this. On July 7, a committee of Dallas County Commissioners and other officials were debating problems with a money-collecting system for traffic tickets. Ken Mayfield, the commissioner from District 4 in the western part of the county (Grand Prairie, Irving) said the system has become a "black hole" into which paperwork disappears.

Price, who was arguing with Mayfield about the system, pounced on the black-hole remark as if Mayfield had said something racially offensive. Mayfield laughed. It would have passed—a forgettable moment—but then Justice of the Peace Thomas Jones, a black judge from JP District 1 in South Dallas, went Price one better by demanding a formal apology from Mayfield.

Of course Mayfield immediately threw his nose in the air and refused. I would have done the same thing, although I'm not sure I would have played it quite so much like Sydney Carton at the guillotine in Dickens' Tale of Two Cities ("It is a far, far better thing that I do...").

What both Fish and I thought was hilarious and absurd, on the other hand, was the incredible din of outrage and moron-calling that ensued over the next few days from white people all over America. You'd have thought a team of masked foreign America-haters had sneaked into Dollywood amusement park in Tennessee and desecrated the "Christmas in the Smokies" show.

It was all over the place. Lou Dobbs got into it on CNN. Jonah Goldberg at National Review Online cited Price's words as a heinous example of the persecutions suffered by conservative victims of political correctness.

"The Left uses Western society's admirable desire not to offend to bludgeon competing ideas and arguments," he said.

Oh, no! The conservatives are being bludgeoned? That's awful. I hope they haven't been too badly bludgeoned. I might support a light bludgeoning. But Fish would not. He'd rather bludgeon me.

You have read about Russell Fish in the Dallas Observer before ("Crazy Fish May Redefine Computer Industry," by Glenna Whitley, November 15, 2007). He's a computer genius, inventor, entrepreneur and self-described "conservative with libertarian leanings," active in open records and education issues, who cheerfully concedes he would like nothing more than to destroy public education in America.

He and Price go way back. Price wants to save public education. Nine years ago Fish tried to force the Dallas school system to cough up documents that would have shown how many incompetent teachers were on its rolls. One way district bureaucrats fought him was by telling school board members he was going after black teachers (a lie).

Price stood up big-time. He said if there were black teachers in the district who couldn't teach the kids, then they should be identified and fired. "This is about our children," he said, "not our jobs."

Price and Fish are both ultra-wonks. Both love diving into miles-deep printouts the way I crave a day at the beach. They spit out factoids like machine-gun bullets. A statistical anomaly snaps their heads around like a rattlesnake's. They both suffer fools poorly—very poorly.

The second reason Fish likes Price is that Price is the fiscal conservative on the county commission. Conservative political activist Sharon Boyd has written about this on her blog, Dallasarena.com: "John Wiley Price blows up every so often," Boyd wrote on July 10, "but most of the time he's watching out for my tax dollars.  Seems like a fair trade to me."

It's not a matter of ideology. Price, in his sixth term as the commissioner from District 3 in the southeast corner of the county (South Dallas to Combine) just knows by now where the bones are buried. That's why he's been getting into it lately with fellow Democrat, Sheriff Lupe Valdez.

For a long time after Valdez was elected four years ago, Price maintained Democratic Party discipline by defending her from critics. Lately he's become her biggest critic. Know why?

She's totally incompetent. She has no control over her money or her staff. For Price, total incompetence trumps party discipline. Too bad the party doesn't agree.

None of which is what Fish and I talked about. We both agreed that Price, when he wants to, can be the consummate intimidation artist. If you want to do business with him—and we both have over a long period of years—you'd better be up for his game.

Fish told me a story I hadn't heard before, about a deal he tried to broker years ago between Price and a well-known conservative white political figure in the city. The white guy wouldn't go meet Price. Price wouldn't go meet the white guy. So Fish went to Price's office and brought along a young female attorney who was the white guy's emissary.

"We go over to John's office, and he says, 'I'm fasting,'" Fish told me, laughing as he related the rest:

"Here's this little, blond, Turtle Creek kind of Dallas attorney, who's really a nice person," he said. "John says, 'Look, when I'm fasting, the first thing I do is drink a quart of olive oil in the morning.' He goes on and on about what this olive oil does to him."

The olive oil, apparently, exerted a powerful laxative effect, which Price described in some detail. You get it, right? Price was not pleased with the appearance of an emissary in the place of the man with whom he was supposed to be negotiating. Obviously his intention was to run off the emissary without having to admit explicitly that he was running her off.

"Did it work?" I asked.

"It did," Fish said with a rueful laugh. "It did."

If Price can get one over on you, he's going to get one over on you. If his talking about elimination is going to destroy your composure, prepare to be decomposed.

I'm not offering this as a blanket excuse for everything that comes out of his mouth. Right after the black hole moment at the commissioner's court meeting, Price stood on the steps outside and offered these remarks:

"If I'm bartering with you, Saul, I'm OK. I'm OK. But if I try to 'Jew you down,' oh, is that racist? I thought it meant the same thing. Oh, maybe it doesn't."

We could get really complicated with this. For one thing when I listened to the clip, I thought he pronounced the name as sah-ool, the Spanish pronunciation, not sahl, which would have been the preferred pronunciation in your standard anti-Semitic remark.

So was this about black people talking to Mexican-American people about Jewish people?

Nah. Let's not make it that complicated. "Jew you down" is not complicated. It's anti-Semitic. There isn't a debate about that. Tossing that expression into the pot at a moment like this only served to evoke a long, ugly history of anti-Semitism in the black community in Dallas.

But it's also a mistake to try to read somebody's mind—white or black—from a single remark. My two-bit take on things is this: 20 years ago white people were divided by a line—avowed racists on one side, liberals on the other.

As the Obamaphenom unfolds, I get a different picture: The big middle of white society is sort of wishy-washy liberal, wishy-washy racist, and it doesn't take much of a poke to push us one way or the other.

Meanwhile we still bring personal histories to the table. Last week I met with Tom Dunning, former chairman of the Dallas Citizens Council, a private community leadership group, who was not happy with me over remarks I had made about his group's use of the term, negro, to describe black people in a recently published history of the Citizens Council.

I wrote an item last week for our blog, Unfair Park, in which I said I thought it was remarkable that the Citizens Council, in a published document no less, would use that word—not in quotes but as its own contemporary term—in the year 2008.

Dunning, a lifelong Democrat, said to me: "I think there's probably more important things to criticize."

OK. I see that. But "negro?" In the Year of Our Lord 2008? Are you kidding me?

But Dunning is universally respected in the city for always having been on the right side of these issues. Should I have made a big deal about the word? Or is it just gotcha? I'm not sure anymore.

I think something is going on. Some period of years ago—15 or 20, maybe?— everything ethnic and racial went underground. White people in particular figured out that they could screw up their jobs by saying the wrong thing. A more diverse society promoted real growth in understanding.

People got more careful about what came out of their mouths. Now that is changing again. Some level of inhibition has lifted. People are poking on each other again. Jesse Jackson even does it to Obama.

Is it a good thing? A bad thing? I know this much. It's a thing. And we are in for one very interesting season ahead as this thing works its way through the body politic. Maybe what America really needs is a quart of olive oil.

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