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Timothy Egan pulled out The Card, showing us how liberals flounder
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TIMOTHY EGAN, RACE MAN! Timothy Egan pulled out The Card, showing us how liberals flounder: // link // print // previous // next //

A consequential campaign about clothing: In later years, Paul Krugman derided the mindless episode as the press corps’ “campaign about clothing.” The ludicrous conduct lasted for roughly three months in the fall of 1999. It reached its zenith in November of that year, when the press corps howled, keened and wailed and emitted a favorite cry:

Naomi Wolf told Al Gore to wear earth tones!

No one ever showed that this claim was accurate. No one ever really explained why anybody should have cared, even if the claim was true. But that battle-cry would become iconic, tied to three other punishing claims:

Naomi Wolf taught Al Gore to be an alpha male!
Al Gore hired a woman to teach him how to be a man!
Al Gore doesn’t know who he is!

Simply put, the mainstream press corps staged a three-month nervous breakdown as it bellowed out these remarkable claims. The liberal world refused to complain. George Bush ended up in the White House.

We’ve posted another part of this story at our companion site, How he got there. We continue to work on chapter 5, but we’ve posted a new chapter chunk, describing the part of this “campaign about clothing” which predated the trashing of Wolf. Al Gore’s deeply troubling wardrobe was being frisked, and lied about, before the press corps landed on Wolf. To read that part of this consequential story, you know what to do—just click here.

We hope to finish chapter 5 by the end of the month. But this episode was astounding in its scope—and this history should be recorded in something like full fashion.

In these outlandish Times: The uproar over Helen Thomas, 89, helps show how our political culture works. Thomas made an unusual remark; many people took offense. As we’ve read press accounts of what she said, we’ve been struck by how few people have felt the need to explain why they found her remark offensive. (We’re not suggesting that they had no reasons.) Beyond that, very few people have felt the need to explain what Thomas actually meant, to the extent that she knows that herself. (Did she mean that Jews should get out of Israel? Or should they get out of the territories?)

Presumably, the offense could involve Thomas’ cavalier reference to Germany and Poland, where one of history’s greatest slaughters took place in the last century. Presumably, most people would agree that it isn’t wise to be snide or cavalier about such moral enormities. That said, our political culture routinely turns on loud expression of instant offense. In that regard, we were struck by one part of the New York Times’ news report about this affair.

Complete with a raft of photos, this news report dominated the first page of yesterday’s “National” section. (Page A13 in our hard-copy edition.) Rather quickly, Jeremy Peters complained about the “outlandish” questions Thomas has been asking in recent years. Go ahead—read his account! In this passage, we see the kinds of concerns a Times reporter considers to be “outlandish:”

PETERS (6/8/10): This show of respect [for Thomas] continued despite what many in Washington observed to be the increasingly hostile and outlandish nature of her questions in recent years—and despite the fact that her column was not widely read. Though she has worked as a columnist for Heart for the last 10 years, she was known more for her presence at White House press conferences than for her writing. Ms. Thomas seemed to take particular offense to the Iraq war and repeatedly pointed out during White House briefings that the American-led invasion was costing civilian lives. Dana Perino, a press secretary under President Bush, once scolded Ms. Thomas, saying that the United States regretted the war’s civilian toll. Ms. Thomas, unmoved, shot back, “Regret, it doesn’t bring back a life.”

What exactly was so “outlandish” about Thomas’ questions in recent years? Apparently, Peters found it “outlandish” when she asked about the loss of civilian lives!

We’ve never been a particular fan of Thomas, who is 89 years old, after all. But we do have a question here: Has anybody been offended by Peters’ peculiar outlook? In our view, his own remarks were rather “outlandish” in that particular passage. Who knows? Maybe the gentleman’s news report hasn’t been widely read.

TIMOTHY EGAN, RACE MAN (permalink): A few months ago, Frank Rich was nice enough to explain the thinking of the tea party movement. Needless to say, the thinking turned on race, ethnicity and gender. The movement was offended when it saw blacks and Hispanics in power, Rich said—and when it saw white women in power.

Rich’s analysis was strikingly simple-minded, even before yesterday’s elections. Yesterday’s election in South Carolina made his view that much harder to maintain. Recent tea party heartthrobs now include (to borrow from James Watt’s deathless construction) two Indians, a Cuban and a raft of white women. It’s intriguing to compare this record with Rich’s predictable remarks.

Needless to say, race remains a real part of our politics. Candidate Obama lost a lot of votes among whites in several deep south states, when his share of the vote is compared to Candidate Kerry’s—although, by definition, the votes Obama lost in those states were largely the votes of white Democrats rather than tea party types. But while race remains real in American politics, so does the love we liberals hold for playing that pleasing race card.

We liberals love to use The Card as a replacement for thought, as in Timothy Egan’s remarkable recent column. This represents a very poor way for liberals to build a winning politics.

On Monday, Egan was spotted playing The Card in the New York Times. He sounded off against Rand Paul’s “attack” on the 14th amendment. After Emancipation, this amendment was passed to grant citizenship rights to formerly enslaved black people; today, the provision plays an unforeseen role in immigration matters. In this long passage, Egan largely conflates these two issues, letting him ride a very high horse about race. As he rears up on his steed, he quotes Paul complaining about the 14th amendment’s current application to immigration matters:

EGAN (6/7/10): Rand Paul, the Republican Senate nominee from Kentucky, recently attacked the 14th Amendment. That’s the one that called for full citizen rights for ex-slaves, and contains a pair of very muscular clauses on equal protection and due process.

Paul and some of the anti-immigration activists behind the show-me-your-papers law in Arizona don’t have much use for the first sentence of the 14th Amendment. This one: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the states wherein they reside.”

The amendment was part of post-Civil War push to give blacks full standing—the 13th Amendment formally abolished slavery; the 14th got rid of the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, which held that even a freed slave could not be a citizen.

The party of Lincoln, the party that had worked hardest for the transformation of a nation that held human beings in bondage to a nation vowing to treat all people equally, is now going after one of the most powerful equalizers in the Constitution.

This time, they want to exclude an ethnic minority, rather than include one. Their target is Latinos, particularly babies born to illegal immigrants who become citizens by their birth.

“We’re the only country I know that allows people to come in illegally, have a baby, and then that baby becomes a citizen,” Paul told a Russian broadcaster. “And I think that should stop also.”

Paul is quoted making a factual claim about other countries—a claim Egan never disputes. Nor does Egan ever say why it makes sense, in the abstract, to grant citizenship to newborns in the way we do—in a way no other country would, if Paul’s assertion is accurate. You see, when we liberals pull out The Card, we rarely dirty our hands with reason, analysis or argument. Instead, we quickly turn to The Snide, as Egan does in this next paragraph:

EGAN (continuing directly): Of course, race has nothing to do with it, these situational constitutionalists say. But you have to wonder if their concern over citizens by birth would have extended to big Irish Catholic families of 100 years ago, some of whom came to the United States through illegal border crossings from Canada.

Egan is held in chains of bondage too. He feels no obligation to speak to the merits of Paul’s position. But he does feel forced to wonder what Paul might have said about something else, a century ago.

“You have to wonder” about that, he says. But actually, no—you don’t have to. Instead, you can actually speak to the merits of the current case. Egan never does.

Let’s be clear about one point. There is little reason to think that anyone is going to amend the constitution to change our current arrangements. But when liberals “argue” in this snide, race-baiting way, other voters frequently notice. Egan notes an unsurprising fact: “Some polls have found majority backing for Paul’s position” on this matter. It isn’t hard to understand why that would be, since our current practice doesn’t really make sense, absent the constitutional requirement which is an accident of history. (An “accident,” because the 14th amendment was written to address something totally different.) And alas! When those majorities see prominent liberals “argue” this way, they tend to lose respect for liberals and liberalism. This is one of the ways pseudo-liberals like Egan have long undermined the advance of progressive interests.

Is Paul right or wrong on the merits? Absent constitutional mandate, does our current practice make sense? Since Egan never quite bothered to say, let’s undertake a thought experiment, involving a young working-class couple in or around Detroit.

This young couple can be of any race or ethnicity. Whatever floats your yacht.

Imagine that this young couple is struggling badly in the workplace, as many young couples are. Imagine further that this couple is about to give birth to a child. Then, imagine that the couple get a bright idea: They decides to cross into Canada to give birth to their child.

Will their child thereby be a Canadian citizen, eligible for full Canadian health care? Beyond that, would it make sense for Canada to institute such a policy—a policy whereby young couples could access Canadian citizenship, for their child and perhaps for themselves, in that manner? Under current arrangements, wouldn’t lots of young American couples want their newborns to get Canadian health care? Would it make any earthly sense for Canada to let them do so?

Let’s say it again: Almost surely, no one is going to change the constitution to end our current practice. But in all honesty, our current practice is an historical accident; absent constitutional mandate, it really doesn’t make much sense, as everyone except high-minded Card Players can pretty quickly see. In our view, Egan’s column is remarkable for the way it simply refuses to argue the merits of Paul’s position—for the way it turns instead to use of The Snide and The Card.

But then, pseudo-liberals have always played the game this way. This helps explain the political drift of the past fifty years, in which progressive outlooks, viewpoints and frameworks have tended to die in the yard.

We wouldn’t vote for Paul ourselves—but why not go back and look at his statement? No other country does this, he says.

Was he actually right about that? Egan’s response was The Card.