Politics & Policy

Cynthia McKinney’s Last Stand

Why race baiting and free speech don't mix.

I have a confession: It’s very difficult for me to be honest about how stupid I think some black politicians are without either sounding racist or being accused of racism. This is one of the reasons I don’t spend much time on the speeches of Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr. I honestly believe he’s not sharp enough to slice baloney. But, if I were to write about him as I would about any white politician (or, say, Alec Baldwin) who said equally dumb things, I would no doubt be called a racist.

Sometimes, though, a politician is so aggressively stupid it simply becomes a moral obligation to point it out, for fear the contagion will spread. Now is such a moment. I am referring, of course, to one of America’s most pugnaciously ignorant politicians — Rep. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia — and her op-ed in today’s Washington Post.

First, let’s recap a bit. A few weeks ago, a Saudi prince sent Rudy Giuliani a check for $10 million, to be used for post-9/11 relief efforts. It turned out that Prince Alwaleed bin Talal was trying to buy a megaphone with his donation. He seized on the subsequent publicity to argue that America needs to do something about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (as if Saudi Arabia has been super helpful in finding a peaceful solution over there).

“At times like this one, we must address some of the issues that led to such a criminal attack,” Talal said. “I believe the government of the United States of America should reexamine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause.”

Giuliani returned the money immediately.

The mayor’s reasoning was simple. First, Talal argued that the attack on the World Trade Center was the result of America’s policy toward Israel. Whether that’s true or false doesn’t matter (it’s mostly false). To suggest that there was a good or legitimate reason to murder innocent Americans is morally and politically absurd — and especially to the mayor leading the recovery effort. As Giuliani said, “there’s no excuse for murder, and to suggest otherwise is unacceptable.”

Second, if Talal is right and the hijackers were trying to buy a change in American policy with the blood of Americans, then the U.S. government couldn’t possibly “reward” their violence. According to Talal’s logic, the first thing the U.S. should have done after Pearl Harbor would have been not to declare war but to “reexamine” our oil embargo on Japan. The rejection of Talal’s check was a rejection of this logic.

And lastly, using a pile of rubble and corpses as a soapbox, as the prince was doing, is simply in awful taste.

This was Ms. McKinney’s cue. Like a personal-injury lawyer slapping awake an old lady with a broken hip, Ms. McKinney just couldn’t resist the smell of bloody money. She wrote a three-page letter to the prince suggesting — surprise! — that she knew exactly what to do with his $10 million. “Although your offer was not accepted by Mayor Giuliani,” Ms. McKinney wrote, “I would like to ask you to consider assisting Americans who are in dire need right now. I believe we can guide your generosity to help improve the state of Black America and build better lives.”

As an example of an American politician denigrating her own country in order to curry favor with a foreign nation, Ms. McKinney’s letter is really a thing of beauty. There’s no doubt her diatribes about American racism provided much useful filler for anti-American propagandists throughout the Middle East.

(As a funny side note, she also takes time out to bemoan that the “the Black Caucus is shrinking. Yet, sections of the Voting Rights Act will soon expire, and quite frankly, after crippling Court decisions, there is not much left of affirmative action to mend.” While I’m sure Ms. McKinney thinks this news will dismay Prince Alwaleed bin Talal no end, from his perspective this has got to be impenetrable gobbledygook. She seems to have missed the fact that Saudi Arabia has as much use for a Voting Rights Act as my dog has for a bowl of grapes. You can almost see the “Far Side” cartoon — with McKinney jabbering on, and the prince sitting on a pile of money hearing nothing but “blah, blah, blah, blah, Your Highness, blah, blah, blah.”)

In any event, back to our story.

McKinney agreed with the prince about the Middle East. “Let me say that there are a growing number of people in the United States who recognize, like you, that U.S. policy in the Middle East needs serious examination.”

As any objective observer could see, Ms. McKinney was criticized because her timing was bad, her facts and logic flawed, and her opportunism and grandstanding repugnant. Even Ms. McKinney’s fellow Georgian, Democratic senator Zell Miller, called the letter “disgraceful.”

But Ms. McKinney argues today that she was criticized not for what she had to say, but for saying anything at all. “I have been attacked for speaking,” she declares. “I am heartened by those who have defended my right to speak.” And here’s the real kicker: “I believe that when it comes to major foreign policy issues, many prefer to have black people seen and not heard.”

So there are two issues here. The first is the suggestion that her “right to speak” was violated in some way. And the second is that she was criticized for, in effect, speaking while black.

Let’s take the free-speech thing first. The idea that criticism equals censorship is pretty popular these days among Lefty intellectuals and journalists like Susan Sontag and David Talbot, but it’s an idea no less idiotic for their subscription to it. I think this must be the fifth time I’ve written about this, but let me say it one more time: Criticizing people for saying or writing stupid or wrong things is not a violation of free-speech rights but a celebration of them. Ms. McKinney thinks she’s a hero for saying unpopular things. But a bad idea doesn’t become a good one simply because it is unpopular.

Ms. McKinney wants to assume the mantle of a brave dissident, but she forgets that dissent is morally neutral. You can correctly call yourself a dissident because you like to kick puppies, but at the end of the day, you’re just a jerk who likes to kick puppies. Ms. McKinney decided to suck up to a deep-pocketed scion of an authoritarian theocracy in order to exploit a national tragedy for her own political agenda. Her decision makes her unpopular. It doesn’t make her the conscience of the nation.

As for Ms. McKinney’s suggestion that “many” Americans don’t want to hear what African-Americans have to say about foreign policy — this idea is simultaneously arrogant, offensive, and moronic (a trifecta!). It’s arrogant because it doesn’t hold open the possibility that she could actually be wrong on the merits. It’s offensive because, in her arrogance, she assumes that anybody who disagrees with her is not only wrong, but racist.

And, it’s moronic — oh, golly — it’s moronic on all sorts of levels. Leave aside the fact that if Americans don’t care what blacks have to say about foreign policy, then she needs to explain why I keep finding these quotes in my morning paper by Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell. It’s also dimwitted because you simply cannot assume the role of free-speech champion while simultaneously accusing everyone who disagrees with you of racism.

While Ms. McKinney’s Washington Post op-ed is a veritable piñata of asininity, worthy of being whacked from any angle, let’s stick with this last point. Ms. McKinney thinks — as many prominent black activists do — that you cannot disagree with a black person for reasons other than racism. Jesse Jackson Sr. played this game for decades. When he ran for president, for example, he advocated a policy platform ripped from the pages of The Nation. But when critics denounced his policies as hopelessly left wing, his response was to accuse them of racism.

This sort of thing is a terrible impediment to racial progress. George W. Bush denounces, rightly, the “soft-bigotry of low expectations” in our educational system. Well, we should denounce the same soft-bigotry in our political system, and not allow opportunists like Ms. McKinney to immunize themselves from criticism by labeling all disagreement as racism. Taking black politicians seriously pays them a compliment. And when you take people seriously, occasionally you have to say, “You’re 100 percent wrong.” Indeed, instead of bemoaning the bigotry of her critics, she ought to celebrate the fact that they took her seriously for a change. But alas, the compliment, like so much else, went right over her head.


1. I’d like to welcome George Vara to the NRO team. A graduate of Baruch College, George rarely wears underwear — but when he does it’s usually something interesting. Actually, I’m making it up but let’s pretend it’s true. George has been added to our team of web monkeys. It’s his job to make sure the site works properly and, more important, it’s his job to receive flak from you people when it doesn’t. His e-mail address is gvara@nationalreview.com and if he makes more than three mistakes we will publish his home phone number (five mistakes and we publish his mother’s phone number). Anyway, he’s a great new member of the team and we’re lucky to have him.

2. On November 13th I will be debating Nadine Strossen of the ACLU at Appalachian State University (For details click here.) We are going to be discussing whether or not the Klingon conception of an afterlife is more consistent with Zoroastrian principles than…okay I’m making that up too. We’re debating the “Challenges to Civil Liberties” in the wake of 9/11. Since she’s a full-time First Amendment voluptuary and I’m a part-time misanthrope, any interesting article suggestions on this topic would be welcome.

3. Many of you have asked me where Cosmo the Wonderdog has been hiding. Well, sadly, Cosmo heard that Bert of Sesame Street’s oddly gay Ernie and Bert had been seen supporting Osama bin Laden. This infuriated Cosmo and sent him on a Jihad against all plushy sympathizers of terrorism. It’s been a full-time job just keeping the Cookie Monster under raps.

4. Lastly, many of you may have noticed that the Pfizer Forum is running ads throughout National Review Online. I don’t want to be hyperbolic, but you should click on these ads like a monkey in a cocaine-addiction study trying to get one last pellet. You should handcuff your children to the computer and tell them they won’t eat unless they click on it at least 1,000 times. And just so you don’t think this is all about the money, I should point out that the Pfizer Forum is a phenomenal site with all sorts of stuff that we would love to have here at NRO.

5. Thanks to everyone for the great feedback on Friday’s column. For those interested in reading more on the subject, Daniel Pipes alerted me to the fact that he tackled the same topic in National Review of all places in 1994. Check it out.


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