Umbrage is such a powerful tool. Ever since Slate’s John Dickerson declared “umbrage-taking” had been “elevated to a high art in the 2008 campaign,” the public has seen scenario after scenario wherein common sense, common decency and the common good are supplanted by the news cycle, by who spun what, when, where and why, and how to re-spin the spin, until “What are we even arguing about?” is a question left to wither on the vine.
Calling any entity—a political party, a news network, a geographical slice of a country, a protest, a union, a national association—racist is as blunt an attack as it gets. Cherry picking polls, comment threads and isolated incidents in order to affirm a charge of racism is intellectually and ethically and morally bankrupt. No one is going to listen to you (other than those who already agree); the word “racism” and all its significance is trampled by the opportunistic.
The past month or so, three major stories have dominated right-wing media (ergo the entire media): the ascension of the New Black Panther Party; the plan to build a Muslim community center/prayer center near Ground Zero; and the firing and subsequent rehiring (well, she hasn’t accepted anything yet) of Shirley Sherrod.
Exhibit A has been the whipping boy (see what I did there?) of FOX’s Megyn Kelley, who has demonstrated a wide-eyed hysteria similarly to segregationists from the 60s. David Weigel, who guest-blogged over at The Daily Dish last week, can’t seem to shake the reality from his eyes:
One of the more jarring passages in Rick Perlstein's "Nixonland" is his recounting of a popular myth that went around Iowa in 1966, the year of the conservative backlash against the Great Society. The myth was that black gang members on motorcycles were going to head from Chicago to ransack Des Moines. Reading this in 2008, it sounded preposterous, the kind of thing that no one could believe in the country that was about to elect Barack Obama. But Kelly, under the guise of journalism, is working to create a rumor like this in 2010. Watch her broadcasts and you become convinced that the New Black Panthers are a powerful group that hate white people and operate under the protection of Eric Holder's DOJ.
All this, broadcasted during the day when FOX claims it’s only showing the news. Russ Smith and other level-headed conservatives can claim that FOX, Palin, et al are not “kingmakers,” but they can’t deny the full weight and measure FOX and its media constituents have on the day-to-day circus that, unfortunately and maddeningly, affects public perception.
But if you want to get lost in the barely plausible legal shades of gray in the above “controversy,” surely you can’t spin away the blatant racism and arrogance that suffuses the Right on all-things-Islam.
Exhibit B. The Cordoba Institute, a middle-of-the-road Islamic institution that explicitly seeks to alienate jihadists and build bridges within the Muslim community so as to confront the forces that create jihadists in the first place, is building a community center two blocks away from Ground Zero. It’s the equivalent of a YMCA—open to the community at large and including a “prayer room” that may in fact be—holy of holies—a mosque.
Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich temporarily abandoned any pretense that they believe in small-c conservatism (that is, local control of local issues) in launching a reverse-jihad against the building of the community center (they only call it a mosque). Amazingly, the community board in charge of such things in that particular part of Manhattan voted, with one exception, unanimously in favor of the project. Near-complete agreement in Midtown; snowballs are piling up on 5th Ave.
Daniel Larison, from The American Conservative (do American conservatives even exist in real numbers anymore?), had this rebuttal:
Anti-jihadists keep making the same errors over and over. Instead of exploiting differences between jihadists and non-jihadists, among different kinds of Islamists, and between different groups of jihadists, anti-jihadists have been perfectly content to roll all of them into a single “Islamofascist” menace. That artificially inflates the strength of actual jihadist enemies by lending credibility to their propaganda, and as a result it makes jihadist causes more appealing. In this case, anti-jihadists are compounding their error by confusing the equivalent of Muslim ecumenists with hard-line Islamists. That is exactly what Gingrich does when he claims that the project is “a test of the timidity, passivity and historic ignorance of American elites” in the face of demands from aggressive Islamists. It’s not just that anti-jihadists are conflating any and all Muslims together here, but they are vilifying as aggressors some of the least aggressive Muslims around.
Ugly stuff. Any level-headedness, any sane conservatism out there on the Web and on the op-ed pages, is utterly supplanted by this sort of court-approved racism. If anyone—anyone—were to say the same thing about a synagogue or a church, the fan would be decorated in fecal matter.
Exhibit C. Shirley Sherrod. This caused a spasm for me the other day. It happens, I guess, but since then I’ve been trying to bat away what I hope isn’t a repeat of 2004 and yet what looks more and more like the same strategy that kept President George W. Bush in office.
Paul Krugman lays out a straight-forward column wherein he summarizes Republican attempts to resurrect the legacy of a president who bankrupted this country with two unfunded wars, unfunded tax cuts and an unfunded Medicare expansion:
The truth, however, is that the only problem Republicans ever had with George W. Bush was his low approval rating. They always loved his policies and his governing style—and they want them back. In recent weeks, G.O.P. leaders have come out for a complete return to the Bush agenda, including tax breaks for the rich and financial deregulation. They’ve even resurrected the plan to cut future Social Security benefits.
But they have a problem: how can they embrace President Bush’s policies, given his record? After all, Mr. Bush’s two signature initiatives were tax cuts and the invasion of Iraq; both, in the eyes of the public, were abject failures. Tax cuts never yielded the promised prosperity, but along with other policies—especially the unfunded war in Iraq—they converted a budget surplus into a persistent deficit. Meanwhile, the W.M.D. we invaded Iraq to eliminate turned out not to exist, and by 2008 a majority of the public believed not just that the invasion was a mistake but that the Bush administration deliberately misled the nation into war. What’s a Republican to do?
My biggest fear is that the answer to Krugman’s question will come from the now-classic Karl Rove playbook—though this time around it will be as subtle as an anvil falling on the DNC headquarters.
Rove made 2004 a referendum on gay marriage, using ballot measures as a means to really gin up the base on election day. It worked, perfectly, and in doing so set back the timeline on equality for all under the law. You might want small government; you might hate regulation; you might cringe over the deficit or the estate tax—no matter what conservative policies you actually endorse, they find their electoral fuel in the manipulation of social issues. Tax policy has nothing to do with gay marriage or the New Black Panther Party; deficit reduction has nothing to do with Shirley Sherrod; slowing the growth of government has nothing to do with an Islamic community center a few blocks from Ground Zero. (It’s telling that the anti-Obama, small-government conservatives have had absolutely nothing to say on the unprecedented growth of the security state as documented by The Washington Post. Why would they?)
And so FOX—which, you know, employs Karl Rove... —and Andrew Breitbart and Tucker Carlson are using their collective bully pulpit to whip up still-malignant and lingering fears of The Other—Muslims, blacks, immigrants, liberals.
It’s sickening; it has nothing to do with policy and everything to do with winning. I can’t blame the Daniel Larisons and Russ Smiths of the political sphere—wherever you are—for wanting more Republicans in Congress and in the White House. I want more Democrats. What my bleeding-heart, effete, over-educated heart can’t stand is the head-in-the-sand attitude I see across the Right. Spirited opposition, feisty minority intemperance—these mean nothing when they’re based on the light-but-but-no-heat demagoguery of race-baiting.