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16 October 2013

Playing the Racism Card in the Shutdown

By Jonathan Tobin

The government shutdown has brought out the worst in our political class but the same is true of pundits. It’s bad enough when politicians call each other terrorists and hostage takers or, as Barbara Boxer did yesterday, to compare them to those who commit domestic abuse. We know that’s what Democrats have always thought of Republicans and it takes very little provocation to get them up on their high horses seeking to turn a political disagreement, however bitter it might be, into one in which the other side is depicted as pure scum rather than merely wrong. But the willingness of liberals to speak as if all those who disagree with Barack Obama are, almost by definition, racists, is about as low as it gets.

The attempt to paint the Tea Party as a warmed over version of the Ku Klux Klan has been a staple of liberal commentary for over three years. The fact that race has played virtually no part in the argument about the stimulus, ObamaCare and the current shutdown/debt ceiling crisis doesn’t deter the left from branding its foes as motivated by prejudice rather than just by different views about which decent people can disagree. That’s the conceit of much of Roger Simon’s column in Politico yesterday. Jonah Goldberg rightly called it “fairly trollish” and used it as an example of how formerly respected reporters turned columnists expose the liberal bias of much of the mainstream press in an excellent post on National Review’s The Corner blog. I made a similar point in a piece about a related topic on Sunday. But Simon’s piece exposes a different angle of the bias issue that I’d like to explore further.

The headline of his article was “Government shutdown unleashes racism” and it was accompanied by a photo of Tea Party demonstrator waving a Confederate flag in front of the White House at a demonstration this past weekend. But the headline promised more than Simon could deliver as the only points presented in the piece that backed up the accusation lodged in the headline was the flag and a comment made on radio by “Joe the Plumber,” the conservative pseudo celebrity of the 2008 campaign who said in his blog that America needed a “white Republican president” to replace Barack Obama. Other than these two items, Simon’s piece was just the standard denunciation of the Republican stand on the shutdown and it was that theme rather than racism riff that was its substance.

I happen to agree with Simon, and probably most other Americans, that what the plumber said is racist and has no place in our public discourse, though if liberal pundits weren’t recycling the writings of the artist otherwise known as Samuel Wurzelbacher, I’m not sure that most of us would be aware of them.

I also agree that there is something offensive about waving Confederate flags in just about any context other than a Civil War reenactment. I know that those from the Old South see it as part of their heritage but I think we should be able to evolve as a nation away from the “Gone With The Wind” view of the War Between the States. Which means that the rebel battle flag is, whether inhabitants of the old Confederacy like it or not, a symbol of racism and treason (a term I know I employ at the risk of generating a host of angry comments from those unreconstructed Confederates who think the Civil War was about state’s rights rather than slavery and who believe recycling Jefferson Davis’ views about the right of secession isn’t irrational). While the attempts of many liberals like Chris Matthews to interpret all criticism of President Obama as being motivated by racism is slanderous as well as utterly disingenuous, I will concede to Simon that anyone who waves the stars and bars in front of the Obamas’ current residence is pretty much asking to be labeled a bigot and should get no defense from any responsible conservative.

The bias in discussing this issue doesn’t stem from a desire to condemn people who do such stupid things. Rather it is in the unwillingness to place them in reasonable context.

After all, at the height of the public protests against the Iraq War, the mass demonstrations in major American cities convened by liberal groups included large numbers of people who were more or less the leftist moral equivalent of the flag waver at the White House. You didn’t have to work hard at these events to find considerable numbers of those demonstrators waving signs accusing George W. Bush and/or Dick Cheney of being Nazis. Nor was there any shortage of rhetoric from these people demanding the ouster of the government of the republic by any means necessary. Yet that didn’t stop the mainstream liberal media from depicting the demonstrations as being in no way tainted by extremists who were along for the ride or from asserting, probably rightly, that they were a reflection of a large segment of American public opinion.

Just as the vast majority of those who wanted out of Iraq were able to see the difference between Bush/Cheney and Hitler, playing the racism card against the Tea Party is intellectually lazy as well as wrong. Both the left and the right need to do a better job policing those on the margins of mainstream movements. But that is not the same thing as painting an entire ideological segment of the public as a function of the fever swamps. Call Republicans who hatched the shutdown strategy misguided or even stupid if you like, but associating all those who want to restrain government spending and taxing and to repeal Obamacare, with racism is slander, not a rational argument.

That liberal pundits can’t resist the temptation to play off this meme says more about media bias than it does about problems on the right.

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