Are Americans Bigots?

Attacking the motives of those who disagree with elite opinion has become all too common.

When in 1983 Ronald Reagan characterized the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” the reaction from his betters was swift. Writing in the New York Times, Anthony Lewis called it “primitive”—and wondered (naturally) what the Europeans would think. A headline in Time referred derisively to “The Right Rev. Ronald Reagan.” All agreed on one thing: this kind of black-and-white moralizing had no place in American politics.

Now cut to today, where moralizing about the ugly motives of the American people has become common. Whether it’s a federal judge declaring there exists no rational opposition to same-sex marriage, a mayor railing against those who would like a mosque moved a few blocks from Ground Zero, a Speaker of the House effectively likening the majority of her countrymen who did not want her health-care bill to Nazis, or a State Department official who brings up the Arizona law on immigration in a human-rights discussion with a Chinese delegation, the chorus is the same: You can’t trust ordinary Americans.

In his ruling on California’s Proposition 8, federal district court Judge Vaughn Walker gives us the most dressed-up version. Not only does he find the state initiative upholding traditional marriage unconstitutional, his opinion maintains that those who disagree—the majority of California voters—can be motivated only by bigotry.

Among his many findings of “fact” are gems such as these: “Religious beliefs that gay and lesbian relationships are sinful or inferior to heterosexual relationships harm gays and lesbians.” “[T]he evidence shows beyond debate that allowing same-sex couples to marry has at least a neutral, if not a positive, effect on the institution of marriage.” “The evidence shows conclusively that moral and religious views form the only basis for a belief that same-sex couples are different from opposite-sex couples.”

At least when Ronald Reagan invoked the evil empire, he was talking about a totalitarian system. He also took pains to distinguish between the Soviet system, which he thought irredeemable, and the Russian people, whom he believed wanted the same things we do.

Judge Walker, of course, is not alone. In New York City we have a mayor who preens how an Islamic Center built close to Ground Zero is exclusively a test of religious liberty. Surely it is possible to respect religious liberty and nonetheless believe that with a bit of neighborly solicitude, we might reach a workable accommodation by moving the center a few blocks. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg prefers to see the 61% of New York residents who disagree with him as people who ought to be “ashamed of themselves.”

Are there these feelings and expressions on the right? And are some Americans bigots or racists? No doubt. Yet it is striking that the language and examples here do not emanate from the activist fringe. They come from those representing some of our leading institutions.

When asked about the legitimacy of grass-roots opposition to the health-care bill, for example, Nancy Pelosi dismissed protestors as people “carrying swastikas.” Her counterpart in the Senate called them “evil mongers.” How convenient. If turning up to protest a health-care bill makes someone a Nazi or an evil monger, there’s no point to having a real debate, is there?

These kinds of remarks, moreover, tend to be amplified by a press corps that seems to share many of the same prejudices. Look at Internet listserv JournoLlist. In this group, participants felt free to urge various outrages—notably, manufacturing a charge of racism for purely political purposes. They did so, moreover, comfortable that no one would find such suggestions beyond the pale.

Take the Washington Post. When the JournoList emails hit, we learned that the reporter assigned to cover conservatives actively loathed them. Sometimes it spilled out, as when he tweeted that opponents of same-sex marriage are bigots. (He later offered a limited apology.) Does it not say something when the hometown paper of our nation’s capital cannot seem to find a reporter who can control his contempt for beliefs held by millions of ordinary Americans?

American history confirms the need for leaders willing to make strong moral criticisms of their opponents and society. Certainly we could not progress without them. Still, the most successful—Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, et al.—have been those who appealed to the decency of their fellow citizens.

As the controversy over the planned Islamic Center near Ground Zero escalates, we have had many secular sermons on the need to recognize that the vast majority of Muslims should not be confused with the terrorists. No argument there. But how much more fruitful our own debates might be if the Judge Walkers, Mayor Bloombergs and Speaker Pelosis could extend that same presumption of decency to the American people.


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