The Magazine

Secondhand Hate

Another step downhill for modern liberalism.

Jan 4, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 16 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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"They have ardent supporters who are nearly hysterical at the very election of President Barack Obama," Senator Sheldon Whitehouse roared about his Republican opponents in the closing hours of the Senate health care debate on December 20. "The birthers, the fanatics, the people running around in right-wing militia and Aryan support groups. It is unbearable to them that President Barack Obama should exist." Two weeks earlier, Majority Leader Harry Reid likened opponents of his bill to those who opposed the end of slavery. On August 10, met by angry protesters at a town hall meeting, Michigan Democrat John Dingell told journalists, "The last time I had to confront something like this was when I voted for the civil rights bill and my opponent voted against it. At that time, we had a lot of Ku Klux Klan folks and white supremacists and folks in white sheets and other things running around."

For years now, those on the left have conflated resistance to any item of their agenda--high taxes, extravagant spending, laxity on crime, what have you--with motives of a dark nature: racism, nativism, fear of "the other," and various species of "hate." Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, a reaction to overregulation, stagflation, and the foreign policy failures and weakness of one James Earl Carter, was described as the bigots' revenge for the civil rights era. The midterm elections of 1994, a reaction against Hillarycare and the Clintons' malfeasance, were seen as a Confederate renaissance. After Bill Clinton was impeached for lies under oath (and terminal tackiness), his allies floated the theory that some of the votes against him came from Southern conservatives, because he was friendly to blacks. (As the "first black president"--vide Toni Morrison--Clinton was fond of this sort of rhetorical legerdemain until 2008, when his wife ran against a real black for president, and these tactics were turned against him.)

But it was the appearance in 2009 of the real first black president that lifted this theme to a whole new level: The left, which invented first "hate speech" (opinions they didn't like) and then "hate crimes" (crimes judged less on the criminal's actions than on what he was presumed to be thinking), has now gone on to its epiphany, which is "hate" defined not by your words or deeds but by what other people have decided you really think. "Hate" is no longer what you do or say, but what a liberal says that you think and projects on to you. You are punished for what someone else claims you were thinking. It hardly makes sense, but it does serve a political purpose. You could call it Secondhand Hate.

Case number one was New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who was listening to Barack Obama's September 9 health care speech before Congress, when Congressman Joe Wilson burst out "You lie!" at the president. Everyone, starting with the congressman himself, agreed this was a breach of manners. But Dowd heard something more--a voice shouting, "You lie, boy!" This voice, of course, was in Dowd's head, not Wilson's, but she managed to convince a number of people that it had popped from his brain into hers. -MSNBC's Chris Matthews was one of those who seemed to believe this had happened: "She sort of heard the word, almost sub-audibly, that word we don't like." Marc Ambinder at the Atlantic also believed this, and added his own voice, which was very long-winded: "This voice tells me [Obama's opponents are] motivated by tremendous anxiety about the direction of history, and how it seems to be moving away from them--white, traditional, bounded--and toward something else--global, multicolored, unbounded, experimental. This is the Silent Majority, the neo-Bircherite majority, the reactionary id that resents affirmative action, ethnic integration, and gays." At Salon, Joan Walsh said, "Wilson's shriek [it was more like a mutter] served as an exclamation point on an undeniable trend: Obama steadily lost support among white voters during this long, hot summer of hate."