Civil policy discussions should be based on this simple premise, regardless of one's point of view:
I'm right, and you're wrong.
That starting point means both parties respect each other, but they believe they have information and analyses that bolster their point of view...that their adversaries have not seen or, perhaps, understood in the same way.
That's the ideal, but we all know that it's hard to achieve. It's so tempting, at times, to suggest your debating adversary is not just wrong, but wrong because he or she is stupid (see Newsweek's latest cover) or....evil.
This "evil adversary" meme has taken a particularly distasteful turn ever since Barack Obama was elected president. In the past three years, those who disagree with the president have regularly been called racists. The incidents are so numerous, I won't bother to link to examples. Anyone who shares the center-right or conservative worldview can probably offer up dozens without much effort.
Now we have the latest entry in this narrative--a New York Times opinion piece by Lee Siegel describing Mitt Romney as the "whitest white man" to run for president in living memory.
After reading Siegel's piece, I knew precisely what he was up to--he's "telegraphing" to Times readers, otherwise unwilling to call their ideological opponents "evil," that they can be comfortable with labeling the president's adversaries as closet racists, and they should feel free to pour their ideological sympathy on those backward folks even while sadly recognizing the roots of their opposition. This point was made brilliantly in this New Republic rebuttal by John McWhorter. Here's a McWhorter snippet:
"...is Wonder-fully white Romney 'signaling' that he is 'not black'? There’s no case for that in any meaningful sense, other than to allow Siegel to flatter himself and his readers as sophisticated enough to be immune to the racism that is still 'out there.'”Despite gussying up his argument with supposedly thoughtful ponderings on how someone like Romney "telegraphs" to those dumb conservatives that he is not going to scare them like that dark-skinned fellow now occupying the Oval Office, Siegel is just doing some old-fashioned grade school name-calling. He should have skipped the philosophical posing and merely written "Your mother wears Army boots, you conservative hicks who oppose Obama."
Like my fellow travelers, I've listened to this trope for three years now. It's the same old "I'm right, you're evil" line used for centuries by cowardly debaters. "I'm right, you're racist" is but a variation on that theme.
Rep. Allen West, himself an African-American Republican, has also weighed in, not specifically on the Siegel piece, but with a plea for the president and his handlers and supporters not to use unfounded racist claims in the coming election. Here's a link to his piece, and here's one of his best lines:
"According to a Washington Post poll in September 2011, the proportion of black Americans with a 'strongly positive' view of President Obama has slipped from 83 percent to 58 percent. It would obviously be absurd to say the black community’s changing view of President Obama is racially biased, so how can one make the same claim about white members opposing his policies?"
Good question, Allen. But I'm not holding my breath for a civil answer from the likes of Mr. Siegel.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist.