Tag: Philip Kennicott

The Boys Who Cried “Racist”

Some people on the left can’t see any excuse for opposition to collectivism except racism. (Which is, of course, as Ayn Rand said, “the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism.”) Today it’s Paul Krugman:

But they’re probably reacting less to what Mr. Obama is doing, or even to what they’ve heard about what he’s doing, than to who he is.

That is, the driving force behind the town hall mobs is probably the same cultural and racial anxiety that’s behind the “birther” movement, which denies Mr. Obama’s citizenship.

That is, Paul Krugman can’t understand why people would oppose government control of health care — or skyrocketing deficits, or a federal takeover of education, energy, and finance along with health care — unless they’re driven by racism. But he’s not the only one who sees racists under every bed. Take Washington Post cultural writer Philip Kennicott yesterday, in an essay titled “Obama as the Joker: Racial Fear’s Ugly Face”:

[T]he poster is ultimately a racially charged image. By using the “urban” makeup of the Heath Ledger Joker, instead of the urbane makeup of the Jack Nicholson character, the poster connects Obama to something many of his detractors fear but can’t openly discuss. He is black and he is identified with the inner city, a source of political instability in the 1960s and ’70s, and a lingering bogeyman in political consciousness despite falling crime rates…

Superimpose that idea, through the Joker’s makeup, onto Obama’s face, and you have subtly coded, highly effective racial and political argument. Forget socialism, this poster is another attempt to accomplish an association between Obama and the unpredictable, seeming danger of urban life.

He’s talking about a poster that depicts Obama as the Joker from last year’s Batman movie over the word SOCIALISM. It’s not a very effective poster; what does the Joker have to do with socialism? But it’s ridiculous to see racism in it.

More serious thinkers also try to tar the entire limited-government argument with the brush of racism. Take Cass Sunstein, the celebrated Harvard law professor who has been appointed to a high position in the Obama White House. In his 1999 book with Stephen Holmes, The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes (and you wonder why Obama chose him?), he made such a sweeping argument, called out here by Tom G. Palmer:

[I]mmediately after gallantly conceding that ‘‘Many critics of the regulatory-welfare state are in perfectly good faith’’ (p. 216) they turn around to tar all critics of the welfare state with the charge of racism: ‘‘But their claim that ‘positive rights’ are somehow un-American and should be replaced by a policy of nonintervention is so implausible on its face that we may well wonder why it persists. What explains the survival of such a grievously inadequate way of thinking? There are many possible answers, but inherited biases — including racial prejudice, conscious and unconscious — probably play a role. Indeed, the claim that the only real liberties are the rights of property and contract can sometimes verge on a form of white separatism: prison-building should supplant Head Start. Withdrawal into gated communities should replace a politics of inclusion’’ (p. 216).

The classical liberal ideas of individualism, individual rights, property rights, “negative liberties,” and limited government date back hundreds, even thousands, of years. They find their roots in the Greek and Hebrew conceptions of the higher law, the Scholastic thinkers, the Levellers’ ideas of self-ownership and natural rights, the political theory of John Locke, the economic analysis of Adam Smith, and the political institutions of the American Founding. To suggest that the case for freedom and limited government — or the application of that theory to contemporary proposals for the expansion of government — must be attributable to racism is uncharitable, ahistorical, thoughtless, and indeed contemptible.

It cannot be the case that every parody of a president who happens to be black is racist. And it is not good for democracy to try to counter every opposing argument with such a blood libel. The good news for advocates of limited government is that our opponents are displaying a striking lack of confidence in the actual arguments for their proposals. If they thought they could win a debate on nationalizing health care, or running trillion-dollar deficits, they wouldn’t need to reach for such smears.