The Magazine

Secondhand Hate

Another step downhill for modern liberalism.

Jan 4, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 16 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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The attempt to cast former governor Palin--an Alaskan born in Idaho and raised in the northernmost state of the Union--as the titular head of what the left thinks of as the neo-Confederate wing of the Republican party is one of the stranger contortions of the Secondhand Hate movement. The fact that her book tour drew a largely white fan base was viewed as revelatory by some. "They look like a white crowd to me," Chris Matthews said, viewing the footage of fans in Grand Rapids lined up for her autograph. "Not that there's anything wrong with it, but it is pretty monochromatic up there. .  .  . I think there is a tribal aspect to this thing .  .  . white vs. other people. .  .  . She is pretty smart about this." What was "smart," by Matthews's reckoning, was her saying that the Fort Hood mass killer, a Muslim with a record of inflammatory comments regarding jihad and its merits, should have been "profiled" because of "what his radical beliefs were" and dismissed from the armed forces. Matthews saw this as code for rousing hatred. "Profiling has a particular meaning," he said to his panel, which concurred with his findings. "Everybody knows what profiling is. It's driving while black."

Kathleen Parker, a columnist who can't stand Palin or Southern conservatives, lost no time in tying the two in one package, making the belle of the tundra the natural heir to Nixon's Southern strategy, with its ambience of "sweat, cigar smoke, and rage." In an August 2009 column, Parker asserted that that same Southern rage returned in the fall of 2008, "stimulated by a pretty gal with a mocking little wink. Sarah Palin may not have realized what she was doing, but Southerners weaned on Harper Lee heard the dog whistle .  .  . a sense of a resurgent Old South and all the attendant pathologies of festering hate and fear." This was catnip for Matthews, who asked Parker if Palin was "a poster girl for racism. .  .  . Is Sarah the dog whistle that says, yeah, that's what it's all about?"

This line of "analysis" was presaged by Timothy Noah of Slate, who argued on August 4, 2008, that references to Obama's "skinniness" (or his big ears) were racist, since they directed attention to his physical being, one characteristic of which is his color. "When white people are invited to think about Obama's physical appearance, the principal attribute they're likely to dwell on is his dark skin." Noah titled this aperçu "When 'Skinny' Means 'Black.' " By his logic, almost anything could be construed to mean "black." In other words, there was nothing that a critic might say about Obama that could not be interpreted as a racist attack on him. When Noah first wrote this, he was ridiculed widely. But not, it now is apparent, ridiculed widely enough.

The most conclusive rejoinder to the contention that "socialism" is a racist code word comes from a poll taken by the Democracy Corps (the firm founded by James Carville and Paul Begala), which delivered the verdict that while tea party protesters were insane by the partisan standards of Bill Clinton's backers, the protesters' concerns were what they said they were--taxes and spending; the expansion of government--and were not about race. The pollsters began discussions among older, white, and conservative voters and found "race was barely raised, [and] certainly not what was bothering them." Indeed, some tea partiers "talked about feeling some pride at [Obama's] election." Their flashpoint wasn't his race, but liberals' claim that racism was their motive. "The charge that opposition to Obama is racially motivated," the pollsters noted, "bothered conservative Republicans and independents alike. .  .  . [They] could not let it go and returned to the issue." They believed "the racism charge is being used to prevent them from stand[ing] up to Obama and his agenda. They see no difference in the opposition Obama faces and the opposition other liberals have faced." What's more, "they freely volunteered without any prompting that [Obama himself] was not part of this effort" to tar them--and focused their anger on Obama's media supporters instead.

Liberals fixate on the GOP's Southern strategy of the 1960s as the key to the modern Republican party, and for a time Nixon did court the Dixiecrats. But by 1980 the Reagans and Kemps had remade the party on a new set of issues and had formed new coalitions. Those active in the '60s and '70s are now in their sixties and seventies. Younger conservatives (which means most of them) grew up with integration, and take it for granted. They are obsessed not with race but with their causes and principles, oppose all who attack them, and embrace warmly and without reservation all who embrace their own causes. They venerate Thomas Sowell. They embrace Clarence Thomas (and his white wife), embrace Jeb Bush (and his Latina wife), support Marco Rubio against Charles Crist in Florida, and elect Bobby Jindal in Louisiana, which is as deep in the South as it gets. But to Obama's acolytes, the Old South is eternal. And so, when it's useful, are all of its old wars.

Liberals might take the political battles of the last year as they are--an ardent struggle over size-of-government and other first principles--but the emotional payoff would be nowhere near as satisfying. Why have a routine tug of war over taxes when you can replay a great moral drama, casting yourselves as the just and the righteous, and your foes as the ignorant and benighted rabble you know in your hearts that they are?

How large a part does pure condescension play in this story? Anyone wondering might take a look at these words of Joe Klein:

Teabaggers .  .  . are primarily working-class, largely rural, and elderly white people .  .  . freaked by the economy .  .  . also freaked by the government spending .  .  . that was necessary to avoid a financial collapse. (I'm not sure Keynes is taught in very many American high schools.) But most of all, they are freaked by an amorphous feeling that the America they imagined they were living in--Sarah Palin's fantasy America--is a different place now, changing for the worse, overrun by furriners of all sorts: Latinos, South Asians, East Asians, homosexuals .  .  . to say nothing of liberated, uppity, blacks.

Poor addled things, clinging to "God and guns out of bitterness." What a good thing that we are so much better, that we can see what they can't in their motives; can read hatred of "furriners" into a call for less government spending, and flip the association of the word "boy"--in connection with Barack Obama--into Joe Wilson's mind from our own. And then, having made them both haters and hateful, we can proceed to despise them, with all the insularity of which we claim they are guilty.

This is a farcical tic, not a serious argument: nothing but secondhand hate.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.