Sunday Night Journal — August 22, 2010
I’ve been thinking about writing this piece for some months now, and putting it off because I really don’t want to do it. I’d rather write about something else. I’d rather think about something else. But the phenomenon keeps forcing itself on my attention.
I tend to avoid situations, either in life or online, where I will encounter angry bigots engaged in denouncing whatever they are bigoted against. But sometimes it pops up unexpectedly: on Facebook, for instance. A few months ago I read a wild flight of anti-conservative vituperation, a friend of a friend commenting on something the friend had said, and it occurred to me that what I was reading was nothing more or less than bigotry. It revealed a mental process not significantly different from that of a KuKluxer speaking of African-Americans. The vocabulary and grammar were better, the speaker being more educated, but the uncompromising hostility was the same. It was liberal bigotry.
What do I mean by “liberal”? I mean it in the currently popular and casual sense. As everyone who has the least acquaintance with the history of the terms “liberal” and “conservative” knows, the ways in which they are used now are only loosely connected with the way they were used a hundred and fifty years ago, and with their dictionary definitions. I know this drives a lot of people crazy, particularly the analytically-minded for whom precise definition of terms is of the essence. But even these know who is being referred to when Nancy Pelosi denounces conservatives, and when Sarah Palin denounces liberals. And I’m using the term “liberal” in that context. Someone who thinks Rush Limbaugh is a hateful menace to society and Keith Olbermann is a courageous truth-teller is a liberal. Etc.; I really don’t think I need to multiply the examples.
What do I mean by “bigotry”? Merriam-Webster’s definition serves perfectly well for my purpose: “A person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats a group (as,a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.”
Let me stipulate from the start that conservatives are certainly capable of bigotry, and plenty of them engage in it. It’s safe to say that few would argue with me on that point. (Many liberals would go much further, and say that conservatism is more or less identical with bigotry. And it’s just at that point that liberalism itself becomes bigoted.) But this is more than just a tu quoque (“oh yeah? Well, so are you!”) argument. Bigotry is deplorable in any context, but it is especially a problem for a liberal, because it is a crucial part of the liberal self-conception that liberalism is the negation of bigotry: liberalism is, among other things in this self-conception, openness to other people and their opinions, and a willingness to engage ideas on the basis of reason rather than prejudice and emotion. Bigotry is, among other things, the determined refusal of both those impulses.
Bigotry in a conservative is a character flaw. But bigotry in a liberal is a fundamental contradiction. It isn’t hypocrisy, exactly. Hypocrisy consists in saying one thing and doing, usually in secret, another. And it implies a consciousness that the thing is at least in principle wrong. Liberal bigotry generally does not operate that way; on the contrary, it is proud and open and gives no evidence of an uneasy conscience. It is comparable not to a televangelist secretly frequenting prostitutes, but—I will have to invent something, because I can’t think of any actual event that makes the point—to a televangelist openly running a prostitution service and advertising it at the bottom of the screen during a sermon on chastity, never noticing the distance between words and deeds.
The essence of bigotry is always to look, and to be sure you find, only the worst in the group you hate, and never to be fair, never to open the door to sympathy, never to attempt to understand. That is an accurate working description of the habitual attitude of far too many liberals toward conservatives. Two developments of the past few years have provided clear examples: the Tea Party movement, and the recently passed Arizona law attempting to stop the influx of illegal immigration into that state.
I’m not a huge admirer of, much less a participant in, the Tea Party movement; I do sympathize with some of its views and basic grievances, but it seems inconsistent and simplistic. And I don’t have a position on the Arizona law, though I believe the residents of that and other border states when they say that illegal immigration is in fact a problem for them. My concern is not to justify or defend either of these. But my basic sense of fair play is offended by the way the non-Fox media and punditry have treated them, as well as the violent denunciations of them I’ve heard in semi-private venues like Facebook.
In both cases the liberal reaction seems to arise from a sort of emotional syllogism: we hate people because they are racists; we hate these people; therefore these people are racists. The Tea Party was accused of racism from the moment it appeared, and convicted on evidence that ranged from flimsy to nonexistent. The one big allegation, involving Tea Partiers screaming racist remarks at black congressmen, has been pretty thoroughly exploded, because video of the scene did not support it. Even the New York Times finally admitted that the event seemed not to have occurred as originally reported (I thought I had bookmarked that story, but now I can’t find it).
That there are racists in the Tea Party, I have little doubt. That there have been occasional racist signs and remarks at Tea Party rallies, I am willing to believe. But there is no reason to believe that that the movement is racist in its essence—apart, of course, from one’s conscious or unconscious choice to assume so: always look for the worst; never be fair.
There have been any number of nasty people involved in liberal and left-wing movements in recent decades. (See this page for some recent examples in the anti-war movement.) There were communists in and around the civil rights movement, to say nothing of the anti-war movement(s). But no reasonable person—that is, no person who actually wants to understand what these movements are about, why they exist, what they want, and whether we should want them to succeed or not—treats that as the last word, and writes them off as, simply, communist operations, or otherwise defines them by the most extreme or repellent people found in their midst. That is what bigots do.
At some point over the past thirty or forty years liberalism ceased to be defined as a way of approaching politics in a spirit of openness, generosity, and reason, and instead began to identify specific opinions as the necessary products of that spirit, and to treat anyone who came to different conclusions as an enemy to be destroyed. Liberalism tells us to be open to the Other, to accept the challenge of seeing the world through another’s eyes; it has largely closed itself to the Other who votes Republican.
Of course this does not apply to all liberals any more than it applies to all conservatives. But a liberal can be forgiven for concluding, on the basis of listening to Limbaugh, Hannity, et.al., that hostility and bluster are the marks of conservatism. And likewise, a conservative can be forgiven, on the basis of listening to Olbermann, Stewart, et.al., that hostility and snark are the marks of liberalism. It’s time for liberals to stop congratulating themselves on a virtue which they no longer, as a group, possess. Better yet, start practicing it. And that goes for all of us.