30 August 2010

Populists Can't Be Bigots, Can They?

Charles Krauthammer's latest column is a case study in the cynical manipulation of perceived populist sentiment in the country. He wants to incite people by suggesting that the Obama administration and the Democratic party consider them "the great unwashed." The proof of this contempt, Krauthammer claims, is liberals' attribution of any opposition to liberal policies to bigotry. Any charge, any suggestion that bigotry persists in some quarters, the columnist asserts, is just liberals' sour-grapes way of explaining the public's considered rejection of the liberal agenda.

Krauthammer applies this analytic tool across the board. He claims, in effect, that liberals ascribe all opposition to Obama to bigotry, though he can offer no evidence that liberals have said this. The only liberals quoted in the column are President and Mrs. Obama, who are denounced anew for daring to say that some Americans are "bitter" or "mean."

Getting down to specifics, Krauthammer considers the three issues most recently provocative of populist sentiment: the Arizona illegal-immigration controversy, the court rulings regarding gay marriage, and the agitation over the "Ground Zero mosque" in New York City. The first of these is ultimately a question of jurisdiction that has been manipulated cynically by left and right alike. Bigotry is a factor in the controversy but not a decisive one. Krauthammer, however, goes out of his way to endorse bigotry in this case. It's not enough for him to state that Americans have a right to believe that "illegal immigration should be illegal." He goes on to assert for the presumed majority a right to "determine the composition of its immigrant population." That is, he would see nothing wrong with Americans passing laws excluding certain nationalities (or faiths?) from the country for any reason they please. As far as I can tell, Krauthammer wants to give more scope for bigotry than most opponents of illegal immigration have even asked for.

Meanwhile, neither homophobia nor Islamophobia are bigotries as far as Krauthammer is concerned. On the gay-marriage question, he writes: "is it so hard to see why people might believe that a single judge overturning the will of 7 million voters is an affront to democracy? And that seeing merit in retaining the structure of the most ancient and fundamental of all social institutions is something other than an alleged hatred of gays — particularly since the opposite-gender requirement has characterized virtually every society in all the millennia until just a few years ago?" Simple answers follow. Many civil-rights milestones in this country have overturned the will of voters. Antiquity is not inconsistent with bigotry. The struggle for homosexual equality is the civil-rights struggle of the 21st century, and resistance to equality in civil rights is bigotry by default.

We've already considered Krauthammer's Islamophobic stand against the mosque, but here's a recap: "This smug attribution of bigotry to two-thirds of the population hinges on the insistence on a complete lack of connection between Islam and radical Islam, a proposition that dovetails perfectly with the Obama administration's pretense that we are at war with nothing more than 'violent extremists' of inscrutable motive and indiscernible belief." Never mind that Obama's pretense was Bush's as well; simply observe that Krauthammer's defense against the Islamophobia charge is to reassert his own Islamophobia! To review: you are an Islamophobe if you believe that every Muslim has to prove his innocence of complicity in either the September 2001 attacks or a conspiracy to impose the dreaded Caliphate on America. The "insistence on a complete lack of connection between Islam and radical Islam" is what we Americans call a presumption of innocence. The denial of this presumption of innocence to any Muslim is Islamophobia. On this issue in particular, where there is no refuge in a positive argument for the necessity of the heterosexual couple for parenting purposes, there really is nothing but bigotry and its opposite, except for those few touchy-feely bleeding-heart types who may not be Islamophobes themselves but want us to be oh-so sensitive to the Islamophobia of the bereaved from 2001. Krauthammer does not belong to the latter group.

Personally, I've never blamed all the opposition to Obama on bigotry. Selfishness and crackpot economic notions have been constant factors in the right-wing resistance and certainly count for more, for most opponents, than mistrust of the President's race or suspicions about his religious affiliation. But I can't agree with what Krauthammer writes, because he charges falsely that liberals blame all opposition on bigotry, and implies quite smugly that none of the opposition is based on bigotry of any kind. In his eagerness to ride with the herd to an expected victory in November, Krauthammer is offering an indiscriminate endorsement of populist majoritarianism that he might regret later. Today, because "the great unwashed" appear to agree with him, he declares implicitly that they, the presumed majority, are always right. When they stop agreeing with him, I suspect that no amount of rhetorical soap will make them less "unwashed" in his own eyes.

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