Politics & Policy

The scarlet ‘R,’ &c.

A letter popped up the other day. I will reproduce it in toto and verbatim:

Mr. Nordlinger,

Read your comment about racism being dead in this country. Sir you are delusional and out of touch with reality, at best.

What was this strange fellow, or gal (wasn’t clear), talking about? I will tell you, if you’re interested.

Last March, on the day “Obamacare” was passed, I received a letter from a reader. He said he had been struck by two stories in the national news. First, a man in the crowd at an anti-Obamacare rally had used a racial slur — allegedly. Second, a 16-year-old kid had been arrested for making a bizarre racial comment over a Wal-Mart PA system — something about how all black people had to leave the store.

Our reader wrote,

That these things are even remotely newsworthy leads me to one conclusion: Racism in America is dead. We had slavery, then we had Jim Crow — and now we have the occasional public utterance of a bad word. Real racism has been reduced to de minimis levels, while charges of racism seem to increase. I’ll vote for the first politician with the brass to say that “racism” should be dropped from our national dialogue. We’re a good nation, among the least racist on earth . . .

I published that letter at the Corner, our group blog here at National Review Online. I publish a good many letters. And a lot of people didn’t like the one about the Wal-Mart incident, etc.

Keith Olbermann read excerpts from the letter on his television show. He had the words from the letter on the screen. And under the words, the viewer saw, “Jay Nordlinger, National Review.” Broadcast journalism at its finest. Olbermann said to his guest, James E. Clyburn, a black congressman from South Carolina, “Do people say this you suppose because they’ve never been personally the victims of racism? Do they say it to reassure racists that they’re not really racist?”

As I commented later, “If you can think and talk like that, you too can have a show on MSNBC, evidently.”

Clarence Page, the veteran columnist for the Chicago Tribune, got in on the act too. He quoted the reader’s letter. And he referred to its contents as “the Nordlinger thesis.” Swell that they give high perches to such people, right?

I wrote about all this for National Review, in an essay found here. Let me quote myself (obnoxious activity), if you don’t mind:

Racism will never die, of course, until the human animal is dead. But our letter-writing reader had a point: If an alleged N-word at a rally and an adolescent prank at a Wal-Mart are national news, haven’t we achieved some victory? Can we acknowledge racial progress when we see it? Are we terrified of complacency, so terrified that we can never put our racial dukes down? Are we too devoted to America the Racist — a concept drilled into us (many of us) from the cradle — to give it up?

That essay is called “Worst People,” by the way: “Worst People: Some notes on racism and anti-racism in America.” Why “Worst People”? After President Obama gave his State of the Union address last January, I had a long series of observations about him and that speech. One of them was, “Obama looks arrogant, whether he’s arrogant or not. I don’t think he can help it: It’s the upturned chin. When actors want to preen and so on, they turn that chin upward. Yikes.”

For that, Olbermann named me one of “The Worst People in the World.” My statement, you see, had been racist. More accurately, it had been “racist.” This country is plain bonkers. Certainly as represented by Olbermann, it is.

To be a conservative is to be called a racist, sooner or later. It’s written in stone; it’s baked in the cake. If you support colorblindness — if you like the old motto E pluribus unum, “Out of many, one” — you will be called a racist. Because race-consciousness is where it’s at, baby. The great Charlie Rangel called tax cuts racist, remember.

I have a feeling this is especially hard for David Horowitz, Linda Chavez, Abby Thernstrom — people like that. Good old liberals and lefties who crossed over to the conservative side, while retaining, of course, their racial liberalism (and much other liberalism). But because they’re associated with the “Right,” they’re made to wear the scarlet “R” — not for “Right” but for “Racist.”

A few years ago, Al Franken called Horowitz a racist. David popped him but good:

As it happens I marched in my first civil rights protest in 1948 before Al Franken was born. For more than fifty years I have supported minorities and defended their civil rights in public word and deed, and raised millions of dollars to help inner city minorities whom racism has scarred. In fact there is no single cause — except America’s wars against totalitarian foes — to which I have devoted myself more consistently than that of racial equality.

What ever became of Franken, anyway?

‐There is someone who has probably been smeared as a racist more frequently than anyone else in America: Rush Limbaugh. Zev Chafets documents it all in his new biography. I was amazed and appalled as I read. About Limbaugh, you can really say and do anything. And people do.

Take the president of the United States, Bill Clinton. At the White House Correspondents Association dinner in Washington, Clinton noted that Limbaugh had defended attorney general Janet Reno, after Rep. John Conyers attacked her over the Waco disaster. The president said, “Do you like the way Rush Limbaugh took up for Janet Reno? He only did it because she was attacked by a black guy.”


Years later, journalists all over America quoted Limbaugh as saying, “Slavery built the South, and I’m not saying we should bring it back. I’m just saying that it had its merits. For one thing, the streets were safer after dark.” A professor of journalism, Karen Hunter, went on MSNBC to claim that Rush had said the following: “You know who deserves a posthumous Medal of Honor? James Earl Ray. We miss you, James. Godspeed.”

All lies — vile, despicable, stinking lies. Limbaugh has endured much more — again, it’s all laid out, in Chafets’s book. Many of these pages make for infuriating reading.

I will quote a passage that struck a chord with me; it may well with you, too. Here is Chafets:

Rush and I were both raised at a time of racial optimism and naïveté, when the goal of decent white people was an integrated society. We were taught that skin color shouldn’t matter, that we were all basically the same, that we should judge others not by their color but the content of their character. And if we didn’t achieve this in practice, or even try very hard — and most of us didn’t — it was, at least, the ideal that decent people subscribed to.


But things changed.

Oh, did they. Chafets writes,

. . . the American intelligentsia stopped talking in terms of an integrationist, national melting pot and adopted a tribal model, in which righteously disaffected minorities (blacks, women, gays, Hispanics, and Native Americans) made group identity the basis for their politics.

And Rush Limbaugh?

While all this was going on, [he] was in the studio spinning oldies or selling tickets for the Kansas City Royals. When he emerged, blinking, into the harsh light of political combat in the mid-1980s, he came armed with the belief in color-blindness that had been in vogue twenty years earlier. Mort Sahl once said that anyone who maintains a consistent position in America will eventually be tried for treason. Or racism.

I was reading something last night that reminded me of Mort Sahl — and Chafets, and Limbaugh. In a recent New Republic, Leon Wieseltier wrote,

I have nothing against adventure, obviously, especially when it is an expression of dissatisfaction with oneself; but sometimes one finds oneself where one really should be, in a rich and deep place that demands and rewards toil, within defensible limits, with justified beliefs, and the meretricious course would be to move on, to take one’s instructions from the fickle world, to keep up. In our society, there is almost no greater apostasy than the refusal to keep up.

Yes. (For that complete essay, go here.)

‐Earlier, I mentioned Abby Thernstrom, in a lineup of all-stars — and I’d like to say something further about her now. Of late, she has been embroiled in a fight with other conservatives over this New Black Panther business: this episode of voter intimidation, and its treatment by the Justice Department. I am not a student of this case, though I have opinions about it. (What don’t I have opinions about?) Abby and those other conservatives — they are students of the case. And I esteem them all. It pains me to see them at crossed swords. I like a good, healthful intramural debate as much as the next guy. I like good, healthful other debates, too! But I like the swords . . . I don’t know: swathed in protective rubber.

I first saw Abby in 1985 — tough cookie. Wonderful, glorious cookie. Pretty, brainy, principled, bold, exacting, warm — a woman of substance (as the phrase once went). I count it a great asset that she’s on our side. And by “our side,” I mean . . . you know: the National Review side, to use a shorthand. A few years ago, I reviewed a book she wrote with her husband, Steve — Stephan Thernstrom, the Harvard historian. I’m going to quote a big old swath of that review. Hope you find it worth it. I began,

Odd that Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom should be considered big conservatives today. Mrs. Thernstrom spent the first part of her career as an earnest liberal, a civil-rightsy liberal. Mr. Thernstrom is a history professor at Harvard, and a winner of the Bancroft prize (the number-one award in the writing of American history). I don’t mean to shock you, but they usually don’t give the Bancroft prize to conservatives. And, indeed, the book for which Mr. Thernstrom won — The Other Bostonians: Poverty and Progress in the American Metropolis (1973) — is not exactly a conservative tract.

When I was a student under Mr. Thernstrom in the 1980s, I did not detect a rumbling conservatism. I recall that he said to me one day, “I see that you’re interested in conservatism, Jay — have you tried talking to Ed Banfield?” (meaning, the great political scientist who wrote The Unheavenly City). But Professor Thernstrom was a fair and broad-minded historian and teacher, and he did assign one book by Thomas Sowell. He knew that his students should be familiar with that extraordinary man’s work.

It is, to me, the most touching thing about the Thernstroms’ current book — No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning — that it is dedicated to Sowell: “for his pioneering scholarship and unflagging courage.” It is a perfect dedication, in its wording and in its matching of book to dedicatee.

So, did the Thernstroms move right, or did American politics — particularly the Left — just go sort of crazy on them? Probably some of each. Reagan loved to tell audiences, “I didn’t leave the Democratic party — the Democratic party left me.” That was a little too pat, but there was some truth to it. Both Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom took hard looks at the country as it stood in the ’80s and ’90s and found themselves roughly in the conservative camp.

And I make my usual point that it takes amazingly little to qualify as “conservative” these days. This couple has clung to their old values, in particular their love of E pluribus unum and their hatred of racial inequality. Their passion in this direction is probably more intense than ever. But their analyses and arguments are deeply offensive to the Left as it has developed, and they have therefore been made pariahs by their old crowd.

They have been very, very brave in what they’ve done. When you live in the Harvard community, you don’t just drift rightward and go merrily on. There are costs to pay. Others in the community don’t say, “Oh, gee, your pursuit of the truth led you to these particular positions? Very well then. Free for dinner next Tuesday?”

I’ll tell you something about my esteem for Abby. No one hates racial counting and assessing — hates racial identification — more than I do. Everything in me — religious, philosophical, temperamental — screams against it. The sight of those racial boxes makes me want to hurl. You know the boxes I mean: Check here for white, here for black, here for Aleut. I once wrote a piece called “Take Your Boxes and . . .: A nation of race rebels?” You can find it in the collection advertised at the end of this column.

It will not surprise you that I did not want to fill out my census form — at least not the racial stuff. I like that age-old response: Race? Human. But no one knows more about this area of policy, politics, and life than Abby; no one has a keener sense of what is right in these matters. Earlier in the year, she wrote a piece admonishing us all to fill out our census forms. So I did. At least I plan to — I haven’t done it yet. (Will I get jail for this?)

Some of my critics — poisonous bloggers and their e-mailing readers — say that I get my instructions straight from Israel. I like to reply, “That’s not true: I get them from the Israeli consulate in New York.” Actually, as you can see, I take my instruction from Abby Thernstrom.

I love some others involved in the New Black Panther fight. We can read them all and make up our own minds. “You pays yer money and you takes yer cherse.” Only, here on NRO, we don’t pay any money. (A problem, that . . .)

‐You may have heard about the Iranian government and the octopus. Ahmadinejad denounced Paul the Psychic Octopus, a creature that predicted — I’m not exactly sure how — the outcomes of the World Cup matches. The Iranian ruler accused him of “spreading Western propaganda and superstition” and of standing for “decadence and decay.”

Iran, octopus — I had a memory. About five years ago, I was in the presence of an important Arab leader, who was talking about the persistent problems of the Middle East. He said that the Syrian government, Hezbollah, Hamas, other entities — all of these were mere appendages of Iran. They were like the tentacles of an octopus. You had to go after the head — kill the beast at the head. And the head was Tehran. Do that, and all the tentacles would quickly wither and die.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have this confirmed?

‐In the last few months, I’ve taken to mocking the British press for its reporting on America. You remember that story that said Sarah Palin “seems to have ditched the staid and formal ‘hockey mom’ image she appeared to favour during her campaign . . .”? We had some fun with that one. It was from the Daily Mail. And now this paper has struck again:

Ferociously bright, Chelsea [Clinton] studied history at the Ivy League Stanford University before taking a masters in International Relations at Oxford . . .

Listen, it’s hard enough to write accurately about one’s own country . . .

‐A couple of days ago, I wanted some information about Michael Kelly, the brilliant and fearless journalist who was killed at the beginning of the Iraq War. Google took me to his Wikipedia entry, which begins this way:

Michael Thomas Kelly (March 17, 1957 — April 3, 2003) was an American editor and journalist whose career was tarnished by the Stephen Glass scandal at The New Republic. He was also a columnist for the Washington Post. He died in 2003 while covering the invasion of Iraq, a conflict which he had supported in his writings.[1]

Um, does that strike anybody as a snotty opening, as it does me?

‐I like to tell you about Ann Arbor, my dear little lefty hometown. On Monday, I had lunch with two old friends who hail from that burg. One was talking about a little girl he knows, who lives there. She is nine or ten and plays on the school’s field-hockey team. (I believe it’s the school’s; this may be a summer league, not sure.) After a game, my friend asked her, “Well, how did it go?” She said, “We’re not allowed to keep score — but if we were, we won 5 to 3.”

Ah, Ann Arbor. Ah, human nature. Even Ann Arbor can’t drum out the human, I don’t think . . .

‐A big issue in the music world at the moment is James Levine, the great — the pantheonic — conductor from Cincinnati. The Boston Globe began an editorial as follows:

James Levine has served the Boston Symphony Orchestra honorably, and deserves to continue as music director if his health bounces back quickly. If he’s not able to return to full strength in a reasonable time, he should resign and allow the orchestra to search openly for a replacement.

Let me share with you the closing of my June piece for The New Criterion — my “New York Chronicle” for that month:

The Met[ropolitan Opera] is fretting, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra is fretting, about James Levine. He is music director at both places. He has recurring back problems, forcing him to forfeit many operas and many concerts. Managers at both places are thinking, “What’re we going to do?” Opera companies and symphony orchestras need conductors who show up in the pit or on the podium, dependably. A conductor on the disabled list is a huge hassle. Yet, if any conductor should be cut some slack, it’s Levine. I say (not that I was asked), take him when you can get him, and deal with the hassle, to the extent possible. Next season, he may be off the DL altogether — which would put an end to the fretting. Until the time comes for his retirement.

‐Speaking of music, I’ll be in Salzburg for the next stretch, working at the annual festival. I’ll be writing criticism — for NR and TNC — and hosting the interview series of the Salzburg Festival Society. If you’re around, you’ll stop by, right? I am traveling, foreignly and domestically — I know you’ll pardon my grammatical freedom — until mid-September, I think. Impromptus may be very “sparse,” as a friend of mine says, crossly. But I will still be writing like a banshee, in most of the usual places. And I hope you’re enjoying a beautiful summer, wherever you are. See you soon.



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