The Magazine

The Wages of Sensitivity

The Democrats' politically correct chickens come home to roost.

Jan 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 19 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Sometime back in the 1990s, when the culture wars were the only ones we thought we had going, a cartoon showed three coworkers viewing each other with narrowed and questioning eyes. "Those whites don't know how to deal with a competent black man," the black man is thinking. "Those guys don't know how to deal with a powerful woman," the woman is thinking. And what could the only white male have been thinking? "They don't like me. They know that I'm gay."

So far as we know, there are no gays in the mixture today, but the cartoon nicely captures what the Democrats face as they try to wage a political war in the age of correctness, which is, they are finding, an impossibility. The Democrats are the party of self-conscious inclusion, of identity politics, of sensitivity training, of hate crimes, hate speech, and of rules to control them. A presidential campaign, on the other hand, is nothing but "hate speech," as opponents dive deep into opposition research, fling charges true, half-true, and simply made up against one another in an attempt to present their rivals as slimy, dishonest, disreputable, dangerous, and possibly the worst human beings who ever drew breath.

This has been true of this country's politics since at least 1800, when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were vilified roundly, and has gone on ever since--an accepted and even a much-loved tradition. Until recently, it went on without murmur, as all the main contestants for president were white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males, with the exception of Michael Dukakis and three Roman Catholics, two of whom looked like WASPs. Now, however, in its campaign season from hell, the party of sensitivity has found itself in a head-banging brawl between a black man and white woman, each of them visibly loathing the other, in a situation in which anything said in opposing one of the candidates can be defined as hateful, insensitive, hurtful, demeaning, not to say bigoted, and, worst of all, mean. Looking ahead to the general election, Democrats were prepared to describe any critique made of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton as an example of the racism and sexism that they like to believe permeates the Republican universe. But this was before their own race became quite so close, and so spirited. They never seem to have stopped to think what might occur if they turned their sensitivity bludgeons against one another. They are now finding out.

Exhibit A is Bill Clinton, our first (white) black president, who lit into Obama in time-honored fashion, denouncing the Illinois senator's claim to antiwar purity as "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen." That this was "hateful" (as well as mean and insensitive) was quickly made clear. "For him to go after Obama using 'fairy tale,' calling him a 'kid.' .  .  . It's an insult," said Donna Brazile, the long-time (black) Democratic political operative, who helped manage the Gore campaign in 2000. "I find his words and tone to be very depressing," she said. Other black politicians called the comment "a mistake," "unfortunate," and an act of ingratitude, as blacks had been the ex-president's most reliable defenders in his scandal-wracked hour of need.

Bill had barely followed the lead of Don Imus in bending a knee to the Reverend Al Sharpton when Hillary herself came under assault for suggesting that President Lyndon B. Johnson might have had something to do with passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This was taken as a denigration of the historical role of Martin Luther King and led to similar charges of insensitivity. This is what would be referred to in a different context as a "chilling effect." As John Fund wrote in Opinion Journal, the Clintons were warned "that they will have to tread carefully in going after Barack Obama" by James Clyburn, third-ranking House Democrat and a political powerhouse in South Carolina, where both Obama and Clinton are courting black votes. "Mr. Clyburn told the New York Times he was deeply disappointed at comments the Clintons made that he said diminished the role of African Americans in the civil rights struggle." Fund concluded: "The bottom line is that Team Clinton has been put on notice that hard-nosed campaign tactics against Mr. Obama will have to be carefully weighed against the potential risks they pose. Were Mr. Clyburn to endorse Barack Obama .  .  . the impact on the race in South Carolina would be immense."