If conservatives talk about welfare reform, it’s really about race. If we talk about religious liberty, it’s really about sex. If we talk about balancing the budget, we demonstrate antipathy for the poor. If we talk about marriage as it has been understood for millennia, and about the complementarity of men and women, and about the societal benefits of stable, procreative unions . . . well, then, we’re homophobes. No matter what we say, in fact, our words are evidence that we are bigots, nativists, jingoists, hypocrites — and nasty, brutish, and short.
We probably kick furry little animals just for fun, too, and we cheated while playing Candy Land when we were toddlers.
Such is the portrait the Left paints of conservatives. Such are the excretions from their professional smear machines. Such are the toxic tactics they use against honest and sincere debate from the right. At best, the Left meets logic with sophistry — but that’s only when leftists want to think hard enough even for that, rather than resorting to their default option of impugning conservatives’ character and sliming our motives.
So, when Representative Paul Ryan last week aired some thoughtful and well-intentioned analyses of the plight of the poor, the Left went bananas (if I wrote “went ape,” they’d say I was racist) about how racially insensitive he was. When the Little Sisters of the Poor dared oppose Obamacare’s abortifacient mandate, it wasn’t just a misguided assertion of religious liberty; it was conservative prudery and oppression.
And so on. We all know the drill.
The question is, how to respond to it?
The first answer is, stop apologizing, unless there really is something for which to apologize.
Ryan, for example, needed not admit that he “was inarticulate” in saying impoverished communities need to replace welfare with a culture of work. He wasn’t inarticulate; he was telling an inconvenient truth, one little different in kind and import from what Daniel Patrick Moynihan was saying 50 years ago. Ryan’s laudable goal wasn’t to condemn, but to assist, and his words made that clear — so why play into the Left’s favored narrative by regretting phantom smoke when there was no fire?
There is much more to be said (in future columns) about Ryan’s proposed anti-poverty agenda, but racism never enters into it. Lefties who want to say otherwise should be ignored and left to stew in their own fetid juices.
The second answer, when one’s motives are pure and one’s subject is important, is to “double down.” Use to one’s own favor any new publicity that arises from the Left’s false attacks. Take advantage of the attention to make one’s point again and again, strengthening and honing it each time in whatever way makes it most compelling and convincing.
This isn’t to say that one should sink to the Left’s level of (non-)discourse, much less to gratuitous insult or invective. The objective isn’t to disparage leftists (though they may deserve it), but to attract and edify the public. Use the spotlight provided by the Left’s attacks to give the lie to those attacks, by demonstrating one’s own superior character and temperament.
Example: If the Left accuses us of wanting to “control women’s lives” merely because we insist on the primacy of religious liberty, call a press conference to tell the stories of impoverished women whose lives were rescued by the Little Sisters. Then call not just for a defense of religious freedom, but for a re-expansion of its rightful territory.
The third response to leftist calumny, if the opportunity presents itself rather than its needing to be forced, is to make sport of the other side’s foolish fulminations. Reader’s Digest always had a section called “Laughter, the Best Medicine,” and the section’s name is correct. Not only does humor work wonders at attracting sympathy for one’s side, but it also drives opponents to distraction by turning their oh-so-serious verbal tirades into objects of fun. (The evil Saul Alinsky told the Left much the same thing, but his tone was that of a nasty humor, intended to cause deep wounds. We’re better than that. Conservative humor should be of the winsome, Reaganesque kind, perhaps including a wee bit of good-natured self-deprecation. If they scowl while we smile, we win.)
No matter what the Left says, we conservatives aren’t ogres. We don’t kick bunny rabbits and we didn’t cheat at Candy Land. We shouldn’t act so brittle — or is that peanut brittle? — when the smear merchants ply their trade.
— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. You can follow him @QuinHillyer.