|By A.D. Freudenheim||
22 December 2002
It is been a very messy couple of weeks indeed! And yet, as always with Washington, the upheaval is never as interesting as it could have been, had just a little more effort been exerted. For instance, if Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas had condemned Trent Lott's racism along with Thomas' own emotional attack on cross burning, we might have had the makings of a really interesting political fight.
Instead, the turmoil looks to me like political cover for all sides. Let's start with the Democrats; their motives for making hay out of Lott's remarks are relatively easy to discern. Lott was an easy target for America's so-called "left," not because the comments he made about Strom Thurmond's presidential campaign revealed once again that he has some not-so-latent segregationist tendencies. The real story for the Democrats was in the "I told you so" angle, the ability to turn to the American voter, particularly those non-white voters (or at least, the one's reading the newspaper and watching CNN) and say, "See, we told you these guys were disingenuous and really racist. The Republican's 'Big Tent' might welcome you in, but you'll still be the servant class." The downfall of Lott himself was only the by-product of the Democratic attack on his remarks, and an unfortunate result at that. (Had Lott chosen to remain in office, he would have made a juicy target for ongoing attacks - thus the reason his own party forced him out.) Showing America's minorities that supporting the GOP was and remains dangerous was the primary purpose of the Democratically-supported firestorm.
Not that it wasn't warranted in either case. Of course the GOP is not good for American minorities; the Republican Party's priorities involve fighting exactly those things that would be most beneficial to impoverished communities, of which (alas) America's minorities are a significant portion. These issues go well beyond efforts to degrade affirmative action. For anyone who does not know this, the Republicans in general and Trent Lott in particular have moved to reduce the welfare funding that helps minority communities; pushed to reduce taxes on the wealthy rather than the poor; and blocked efforts to reform America's privately-funded healthcare system and sought to deny funds to the minimal, government-supported healthcare programs already in existence, to name only a few examples. In as much as it is possible to discern an underlying philosophy, the GOP would like everyone to believe that they represent the meritocracy that America might someday achieve - and I'll throw my support behind that abstract concept of an American meritocracy. The problem, however, is determining how America achieves this meritocracy, and whether those on the bottom of the ladder are subjected to harsher tests and prejudicial conditions as they try to climb to the top.
The pattern of Lott's life and the reasonable consistency with which he has made offensive and anti-Black remarks made him tolerable within the Southern political tradition for years. This is not news, and a close look at the voting habits of some other Southerners - Republicans or Democrats - will reveal truths of which most of us might prefer to be ignorant. (For example, Senator Robert Byrd, a Democrat, has a record on civil rights issues that is worthy of burial alongside the Senator himself when the time comes.) In this context, President Bush deserves credit first and foremost for condemning Lott's remarks in clear and direct language, and for not falling back on the argument Lott himself made - that his remarks were a mistake "of the head and not of the heart." Bush got it, that there could be only one response: to repudiate the remarks and any aspect of the segregationist or racist sentiment attached to them. The rest of the party slowly followed suit, even as some Senators resisted, perceiving a danger in conceding some ground to the President by forcing out their own Majority Leader.
Through all of this, the activity across town at the Supreme Court likely made the situation more complicated for both parties. In speaking emotionally about what he believes a burning cross to represent, Thomas did more than polarize the Court's debate beyond any likelihood of rationality. (See Dahlia Lithwick's piece in The New York Times.) If the Court decides to uphold the Virginia law under consideration - which not only bans cross burning when used to intimidate others but actually bans cross burning outright - then it will have lowered the bar on what is considered legitimately protected free speech. Even The Washington Times gets the danger here, as noted in Clarence Page's excellent column, where he points out that the Supreme Court's protection of flag burning is already supported by a one-vote margin, and a pro-Thomas decision about cross burning could cast flag burning and other forms of currently-protected political speech back into the limelight, with poor consequences for the rest of us.
But it was an ironic twist of timing that Thomas's comments tossed down the gauntlet to any remaining racists in the GOP just as the Lott firestorm kicked into action. Or maybe it gave them political cover, since it will be difficult indeed for anyone on the right to respond to Thomas without looking like a civil libertarian or, well, a racist; therefore the only thing to be done is to support Thomas and the Virginia law whole-heartedly, and hope that all of this blows over quickly. All of this just goes to show how pathetic and weak-kneed are both parties. The Democrats are still stuck in the past, relying on racial issues to shore up voting roles that have seen tremendous flight by white middle Americans; at least, to their credit, they acknowledge their attention to these constituencies and their issues, even if its is why they did so miserably in the last election. The Republicans are the "Big Tent" that never was, split between the remaining Southern conservatives like Lott and the social-moderates/fiscal-conservatives such as Lincoln Chaffee and Jim Jeffords, and denying all the while that there is any kind of rift at all.
It is a shame, really, and not just because I disagree with Justice Thomas or do not see eye-to-eye with Trent Lott. As a Green-thinking left-libertarian, I am somewhere outside the realm of both of our present political parties, and I just keep waiting for the reorganization of political power that seems long over-due. The near-unassailability of Thomas' remarks, and the Republican overthrow of Lott, only remind me how long it will be before there is some true political change. For the moment, we are still stuck in the ideas of another political era - the 1950s, perhaps - when the "us" and "them" of the political landscape refers to whites and minorities, rather than rich and poor, those in need and those not. And there is no end in sight.
Copyright 2002, by A.D. Freudenheim.
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