An “outrageous, unfounded and potentially inflammatory remark about race.” That’s what Janet Daley, writing in The Daily Telegraph, said about Jimmy Carter’s contention that Joe Wilson’s outburst “You lie!” during Barack Obama’s address to Congress was “based on racism.”
Daley was absolutely correct. Carter’s comment was as outrageous as it was unfounded. I disapprove of Wilson’s expostulation just as much as I disapproved of all those who disrupted President Bush’s speeches with similar epithets. What I find even more unlikeable, however, is the cowardly, politically correct grandstanding of the U.S. House of Representatives, which just voted 240-179 to rebuke Congressman Wilson. According to a document called “Decorum in the House and in Committees,” members of the House may still “challenge the President on matters of policy” but are henceforth forbidden to
- call the President a “liar.”
- call the President a “hypocrite.”
- describe the President’s veto of a bill as “cowardly.”
- charge that the President has been “intellectually dishonest.”
- refer to the President as “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.”
- refer to alleged “sexual misconduct on the President’s part.”
But what if the President prosecutes his policy by delivering a hypocritical and mendacious speech that is as cowardly as it is intellectually dishonest? What if he pursues a foreign policy that, in the considered judgment of a member of the House, gives aid and comfort to the enemy? What if the President — not this President, but some other — in fact was guilty of sexual misconduct and we have the cigar, or at least the blue dress, to prove it? What then? Is it part of the Decorum of the House that the truth may not be told?
But I digress. Let me return to Carter’s “based on racism” comment. In fact, the operative “R” word here is not racism but revulsion. Rep. Wilson’s outburst was an expression of outrage, frustration, and revulsion at Obama’s studied mendacity. (And note, by the way, that it is perfectly OK for the President to accuse others of being liars and worse.) But Carter played the race card for the same reason that Charlie Rangel did when people stated asking about why he understated his income to the IRS by $500,000 or why Henry Louis Gates did when he was arrested for disorderly conduct by Sgt. James Crowley. In our culture, the charge of racism is not only a conversation-stopper it is a thought-stopper. We cannot publicly tell the truth about race, so the charge of racism always carries with it not only an element of intimidation, but also an element of exposure. Everyone knows that Al Sharpton, say, is a mountebank, but we must be chary of saying so because of his race. Ditto with Henry Louis Gates: his scholarly accomplishments are modest, to say the least, but we must not point that out because of his race.
When Obama was elected, many people, even many who voted against him, hoped that one collateral benefit of his election would be progress in the intellectual and moral swamp that oozes around the charge of racism. “At last,” it was hoped, “we can move beyond all that and deal with people on the basis of their real promise, accomplishments, and failings. Finally, we’ll be able to take the spurious idea of race out of the equation.”
No such luck. If anything, Obama’s election has heralded a marked upswing in racialism. Now, more than ever, if you criticize the ideas or behavior of someone who happens to be black, you run the risk of being called racist.
It is an epithet that overuse has more or less emptied of intellectual content. But it still carries a toxic political payload. The problem, as the philosopher Sidney Hook observed some years ago (and I’ve quoted this before in this space), that spurious charges of racism, far from making us more sensitive to the real thing, have the effect of dulling us to genuine instances of racism. “As morally offensive as is the expression of racism wherever it is found,” Hook wrote,
a false charge of racism is equally offensive, perhaps even more so, because the consequences of a false charge of racism enable an authentic racist to conceal his racism by exploiting the loose way the term is used to cover up his actions. The same is true of a false charge of sexism or anti-Semitism. This is the lesson we should all have learned from the days of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Because of his false and irresponsible charges of communism against liberals, socialists, and others among his critics, many communists and agents of communist influence sought to pass themselves off as Jeffersonian democrats or merely idealistic reformers. They would all complain they were victims of red-baiting to prevent criticism and exposure.
In my view, the Obama administration is shaping up to be a monument to incompetence. Not being a member of the House of Representatives, I am still allowed to say such things. The fact that his administration has at once made it incalculably more difficult to be honest about race even as it pursues policies that themselves are racialist (see Holder, Eric) is probably a small thing in the context of its large-scale assaults on individual liberty, economic prosperity, and national security. I can’t helping thinking it is important, though, if for no other reason that Obama’s post-post-racialism is a potent impediment to telling the truth.