Thursday, September 17, 2009

Someone get Jimmy Carter a muzzle

Is Jimmy Carter a courageous advocate of racial equality, or a senile old man? The fact that Carter repeated his claim that opponents of President Obama are motivated by racism after Obama himself rather pointedly downplayed the role of race in opposition to his policies begs the question. The instances of hateful speech Carter cites - of people likening Obama to Hitler, or claiming he should be buried alive with Kennedy - are indeed beyond the pale, and have no place in civilized political discourse. They are not, however, substantively different from similar things said about George W. Bush by irate liberals. For Carter to suggest that these sorts of comments, unhinged though they may be, are motivated by racial animus, without any proof thereof, is inflammatory and irresponsible. It is also deeply unfair. Congressman Joe Wilson behaved in a boorish and uncivil manner when he heckled Obama during the healthcare speech, and was rightly rebuked for it; given that he has never exhibited any sort of racist behavior in the past, and that he has since apologized for his outburst, it is tantamount to slander for Carter to accuse him of being a bigot.

It is certainly true that there are still racists in America - but I think the country has gotten to the point where the racist vote is such a small portion of the electorate that any mainstream politician who exhibits racial prejudice is likely to lose more non-racist votes than they are to gain racist ones. This seems to be true even in the south - after all, many people attributed George Allen's stunning defeat in the Virginia Senate race in 2006 to his "macaca" moment. While race is undoubtedly a factor for at least some people who oppose Obama's agenda, it should not be assumed that if one despises the policies of the first black President one therefore despises black people. If it is, we have not come as far as I'd like to think we have. I find it reprehensible that people like Rush Limbaugh are willing to resort to open race-baiting in the name of ratings - it inflames prejudice and poisons the political discourse. I don't think it's any less inflammatory or toxic for Jimmy Carter to intimate that people who are a tad too strident in their rhetorical opposition to government-run healthcare belong under the same white tent as the local Klan wizard.

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