Politics & Policy

Selective Moral Outrage, Part II

Why only be outraged at Lott's remarks?

On September 24, 2002, the Senate Democrats set aside time during morning business to pay tribute to Strom Thurmond. What’s remarkable about every one of these statements is that they were effusive in their praise of Thurmond, and none contained any negative reference to Thurmond’s 1948 presidential bid as a Dixiecrat, let alone any reference to his segregationist past.

What are we to make of this? Are these senators sympathetic to segregation? Of course not. Clearly, it would have been inappropriate to use the occasion to disparage Thurmond. Their purpose that day was to honor him. And they did.

Some have argued that their grievance with Trent Lott is more particularized. During Thurmond’s 100th-birthday celebration, Lott said, “I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”

Lott says he was not referring to Thurmond’s segregationist views. Many Democrats aren’t buying this explanation. While refusing to label Lott a racist — who, in fact, is a cautious legislator who tends to seek comity rather than confrontation — they apparently insist that his comment was intended to be racist.

Well, then, what are we to make of Democrat Senator Carl Levin’s September 24th praise of Thurmond? Among other things, Levin said, ” … I am pleased to join my colleagues in paying tribute to Senator Strom Thurmond and honoring him for his unparalleled record of public service to this Nation.” And then a few sentences later, Levin says, “In 1948, while he was still Governor, [Thurmond] ran for President as a State’s Right Democrat and received 39 electoral votes, the third best showing by an independent candidate in U.S. history.”

Are we to conclude that Levin was honoring Thurmond for, among other things, his historic showing as a segregationist candidate in 1948? If not, why else would Levin have mentioned it in the context of praising Thurmond’s career?

Of course, Levin’s not a racist, either. He made this statement in the same vein as Lott did. Yet, there’s no condemnation of Levin — either from Democrats or Republicans. And so goes the politics of selective moral outrage.


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