“G”-dropping, phoneme deafness, dessert, playing hardball with LeBron James: Practically anything can be racism in the 21st century — except racism. Internal memos from Senator Dick Durbin’s office reveal that he took special care to sabotage the court nomination of Miguel Estrada because “he is Latino,” a fact that made him “politically dangerous.” Jesse Jackson can use anti-Semitic epithets all day, Philadelphia mayors can attest that “the brothers and sisters are running the city” (small boast!), Joe Biden can mistake Apu from The Simpsons for documentary evidence about the lives of Indians in the United States, and Robert Byrd can use the most offensive racial epithet in the English language in front of millions of people, but . . . can we talk about “microaggressions” instead?
The Left needs racism, because unlike their good, old-fashioned Marxist forebears, the postmodern Left’s politics is not rooted in economics or history but in narrative — the most adolescent narrative: Good Guys and Bad Guys. (You could call it Cowboys and Indians, but that would be . . . ) If the other side is Hitler, then almost anything is acceptable, because Hitler can’t win. But, unfortunately for the inventors of national crusades, you don’t get a lot of Hitlers. So Hitlers must be invented. This is one of the reasons every social issue adopted by the Left (and a few adopted by the Right) becomes the “moral equivalent of war” — War on Poverty, War on Drugs, etc. Hitler was many things: nationalist, socialist, central planner, advocate of substantial “investments” in national infrastructure projects, in favor of generous spending on the arts. And, of course, a racist. The GOP checks off none of those boxes, the Democrats check off a few, but Republicans are Hitler because somebody on Fox News said Santa is white. It makes sense, if your worldview depends on its making sense.
At this point in history, the Left needs a spectral standard of evidence when convicting its opponents of racism because there is so little actual evidence to be found. Right = Racist is an article of faith on the left, facts be damned. The Republican party has relatively few black officeholders, which is taken as evidence of Republican racism. But the Republican party is also extraordinarily solicitous of its black officeholders: Mia Love is in many ways an impressive mayor, perhaps the best mayor Saratoga Springs, Utah, ever has had, but it is difficult to believe that a middle-aged white male Mormon Republican who could not manage to win a House race in Utah would have become a superstar of comparable incandescence. But the Left’s story is that Republicans have few black officeholders because they are racist, and if they try to encourage black candidates, that’s racist, too, just another quest for a “black man who knows his place.” So Republicans are racists both when opposing affirmative action in the public sphere and when practicing it in the private sphere. And Democrats are pursuing virtue when they block a judicial nominee simply because he is Latino. Those are the new rules.
The old rules were better. To accuse a person or a movement of racism is a serious thing. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. had a deep appreciation of that fact, which is one of the reasons he often pointed out that Barry Goldwater was not himself a racist, though he opposed civil-rights measures for which the Reverend King and his associates fought and bled. Perhaps there is something about the literal bleeding for a cause that makes men more serious. Another reason that MLK did not call Senator Goldwater a racist is that he did not wish to look like a fool, the charge being utterly unsupportable. But, really, how reliable was the Reverend King on this issue? His heavily Anglicized pronunciation of German names suggests, to the educated ear, a lack of full appreciation for “the extreme ambivalence and complexity of ideologies about German in the United States,” and perhaps more than a bit of pandering to “anti-German sentiment.”
— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review. This article originally appeared in the December 31, 2013, issue of National Review.