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The Wages of Sensitivity By: Noemie Emery
The Weekly Standard | Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Sometime back in the 1990s, when the culture wars were the only ones we thought we had going, a cartoon showed three coworkers viewing each other with narrowed and questioning eyes. "Those whites don't know how to deal with a competent black man," the black man is thinking. "Those guys don't know how to deal with a powerful woman," the woman is thinking. And what could the only white male have been thinking? "They don't like me. They know that I'm gay."

So far as we know, there are no gays in the mixture today, but the cartoon nicely captures what the Democrats face as they try to wage a political war in the age of correctness, which is, they are finding, an impossibility. The Democrats are the party of self-conscious inclusion, of identity politics, of sensitivity training, of hate crimes, hate speech, and of rules to control them. A presidential campaign, on the other hand, is nothing but "hate speech," as opponents dive deep into opposition research, fling charges true, half-true, and simply made up against one another in an attempt to present their rivals as slimy, dishonest, disreputable, dangerous, and possibly the worst human beings who ever drew breath.

This has been true of this country's politics since at least 1800, when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were vilified roundly, and has gone on ever since--an accepted and even a much-loved tradition. Until recently, it went on without murmur, as all the main contestants for president were white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males, with the exception of Michael Dukakis and three Roman Catholics, two of whom looked like WASPs. Now, however, in its campaign season from hell, the party of sensitivity has found itself in a head-banging brawl between a black man and white woman, each of them visibly loathing the other, in a situation in which anything said in opposing one of the candidates can be defined as hateful, insensitive, hurtful, demeaning, not to say bigoted, and, worst of all, mean. Looking ahead to the general election, Democrats were prepared to describe any critique made of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton as an example of the racism and sexism that they like to believe permeates the Republican universe. But this was before their own race became quite so close, and so spirited. They never seem to have stopped to think what might occur if they turned their sensitivity bludgeons against one another. They are now finding out.

Exhibit A is Bill Clinton, our first (white) black president, who lit into Obama in time-honored fashion, denouncing the Illinois senator's claim to antiwar purity as "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen." That this was "hateful" (as well as mean and insensitive) was quickly made clear. "For him to go after Obama using 'fairy tale,' calling him a 'kid.' ... It's an insult," said Donna Brazile, the long-time (black) Democratic political operative, who helped manage the Gore campaign in 2000. "I find his words and tone to be very depressing," she said. Other black politicians called the comment "a mistake," "unfortunate," and an act of ingratitude, as blacks had been the ex-president's most reliable defenders in his scandal-wracked hour of need.

Bill had barely followed the lead of Don Imus in bending a knee to the Reverend Al Sharpton when Hillary herself came under assault for suggesting that President Lyndon B. Johnson might have had something to do with passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This was taken as a denigration of the historical role of Martin Luther King and led to similar charges of insensitivity. This is what would be referred to in a different context as a "chilling effect." As John Fund wrote in Opinion Journal, the Clintons were warned "that they will have to tread carefully in going after Barack Obama" by James Clyburn, third-ranking House Democrat and a political powerhouse in South Carolina, where both Obama and Clinton are courting black votes. "Mr. Clyburn told the New York Times he was deeply disappointed at comments the Clintons made that he said diminished the role of African Americans in the civil rights struggle." Fund concluded: "The bottom line is that Team Clinton has been put on notice that hard-nosed campaign tactics against Mr. Obama will have to be carefully weighed against the potential risks they pose. Were Mr. Clyburn to endorse Barack Obama ... the impact on the race in South Carolina would be immense."

At the same time, Team Obama was being put on notice, this time by Hillary's feminist backers, who made it clear they would not tolerate having males of any hue look down on their favorite candidate. Some observers trace his loss in New Hampshire to the exchange in which he assured Hillary Clinton that she was "likeable enough," a slap that feminists thought was a perfect example of male condescension, and of two boys (Barack and John Edwards) ganging up on one girl. To Eleanor Clift, it was "reminiscent of the Anita Hill hearings," an "all-male inquisition" of a helpless lone female that drove women everywhere into frenzies of vengeance. "Many don't like Hillary ... but when the guys start piling on ... the tribal impulses kick in," Clift tells us, quoting sensitivity maven Deborah Tannen as saying "gender is fundamental to how we order the world, more fundamental than race." Ever since she endorsed Obama in Iowa, Oprah Winfrey has been deluged with letters from irate female viewers who accuse her of betraying her sex.

In fact, the question of whether sex or race cuts more deeply may determine who wins the race. Women are slightly more than half of the electorate nationwide (somewhat more in the Democrats' primary contests), but they are hardly monolithic, and not all are open to feminists' pleas. Married women and white women often go more for Republicans, and Ronald Reagan carried the female vote in 1984, when Geraldine Ferraro was put on the Democrats' ticket as another chance to "make history." (The history was made instead by Reagan, who came within sight of a 50-state landslide, losing only Walter Mondale's home state, Minnesota, by less than 4,000 votes.) On the other hand, blacks are just 13 percent of the population but a near-solid bloc for the Democrats. Add to this the fact that the party's main interest groups and fundraising machines are heavily tilted to race-gender concerns, and you have a dynamic in which neither the feminist nor the civil rights interest is a bloc the party or its nominee can afford to offend.

Hence the hysterics with which the Obama and Clinton campaigns try to straddle both worlds. The stirring story of Change that would have accompanied either the first female or black contender has been undercut by a counternarrative that places each in a somewhat less flattering light. Hillary Clinton is (to some people) an inspiring figure trying to shatter the biggest glass ceiling. But she is also a blue-eyed and (bottle) blonde honky, from privilege, not above playing the race card, as some of her surrogates now have undoubtedly done. Barack Obama is also an inspiring figure, Tiger Woods without golf clubs, the harmonic convergence of Kenya and Kansas of which we all dream. But to the sisterhood, he is just another chauvinist swine in the boys' club, a patriarch-in-waiting who "just doesn't get it," an annoying and swaggering ... male.

When the results in New Hampshire came in way out of line with polls and expectations, some Democrats pointed to the "Bradley effect" (named for Tom Bradley, the black Los Angeles mayor who lost a 1982 governor's race in which polls said he was leading). In other words, white voters were suspected of having lied to pollsters out of shame at their prejudice, and then voted their sinister hearts in the booth. But these voters were Democrats, mainly older white women of limited means, a key constituency for the party. Were some members of the party suggesting that others were racists? Maybe they were. "Too many of us are still too unwilling to vote for people who are different than we are," Bill Clinton said in 1993, speaking on behalf of the inept and Carteresque David Dinkins, suggesting that the only reason New Yorkers could have for wishing to oust their calamitous mayor was bias against him because of his color. Now the same slander--with much the same justice--is being leveled against Clinton's wife.

For the Clintons, with their sense of private entitlement running head on into their boomer assertion of moral enlightenment, all this must come as a shock. As Matt Bai wrote on the New York Times website, "It must be a kind of nightmare for both Clintons to be running ... against a talented black man, to be caught in an existential choice between losing their mythical status in the black community, or possibly losing to a candidate they feel certain does not deserve to win." It's all the worse as they are in part the authors of their own misfortune: "The Clintons embody the generation that invented identity politics and political correctness," as Bai informs us, and so sprung the trap on themselves.

They embraced Anita Hill, and her (unproven) story of feminist grievance, and helped ride it to victory in the Year of the Woman; they promised a cabinet that "looked like America" (though not quite as much so as George W. Bush's), hectored opponents of affirmative action, and suggested impeachment was a device thought up by southern conservatives to punish the Clintons for having black friends. Now they find themselves unable to criticize a black man for what they think are legitimate reasons, because they helped to teach people that criticism is bias in disguise, and they can't complain that their words have been misinterpreted, because the theory of hate speech maintains that the listener can project on to words uttered by others whatever motives he wants to see in them. If he declares himself offended, the listener has the last word.

Add this to the unforeseen clash of two groups who have been told for years by liberals that they are victims of everyone, and the result is explosive. It is, David Brooks writes, "a Tom Wolfe novel" beyond even Wolfe's imagining. "All the rhetorical devices that have been a staple of identity politics are now being exploited by the Clinton and Obama campaigns," Brooks continues, "competing to play the victim ... accusing each other of insensitivity ... deliberately misinterpreting each other's comments in order to somehow imply that the other is morally retrograde. All the habits of verbal thuggery that have long been used against critics of affirmative action ... and critics of radical feminism ... are now being turned inward by the Democratic front-runners. ... Every revolution devours its offspring, and it seems that the multicultural one does, too."

Let us recall that this is not the first instance in which we have seen such a turn. In 1991, after accusations of harassment nearly brought down Clarence Thomas, liberals thought they had found the magical weapon to take out conservative males. After this, no congressional hearing was complete without charges of "insensitivity" being leveled against politicians, military figures, and nominees of Republican presidents. It was all such fun that in 1994 feminists prevailed upon President Clinton to sign into a law a provision allowing the prosecutors in harassment suits to delve deeply into the defendant's past, seeking evidence of a pattern of swinish behavior. It was in the course of the sexual harassment lawsuit brought by Paula Jones against Clinton that the name came up of a White House intern whose many visits to the Oval Office had caught people's attention. Does anyone doubt that without Clinton's impeachment, we would be now in our eighth year of the Gore administration?

In retrospect, this was an inferno waiting to happen, the moral debris of more than three decades into which mischievous fate tossed a match. For years, the Democrats' most effective candidates have been men from flyover country, who positioned themselves as not-overly-liberal, and for a time it appeared they might have come up with two. But Evan Bayh and Mark Warner took themselves out of contention, leaving the field to John Edwards, a "person of pallor" (as James Taranto has it) of the male persuasion and southern nativity, who is still in the contest. But he is also, alas, a white southern pretty boy, a high-maintenance dude who gets haircuts for what constitutes monthly rent for his favorite voters, lives in a compound the size of a village, and was famously caught on tape fluffing his hair up for four minutes, which defeats the whole purpose of being a white southern male.

Meanwhile, the comic relief (Dodd, Biden, and Richardson) washed out fairly quickly, and the two left standing were Obama and Clinton, each one a possible First. For a year or so in which Hillary seemed to be cruising, things were civil, until she hit a speed bump in Iowa. And then, as she put it, "the fun part" began. In short order, surrogates for her campaign were describing Obama in colorful terms, calling attention to his self-confessed cocaine use when younger, his Muslim relations, and his middle name Hussein, which (though given him in 1961) is the same as that of a notorious dictator and murderous sadist deposed by American forces in 2003.

New York attorney general Andrew Cuomo, son of the former governor, said Obama would have to do more than "shuck and jive" if he planned to be president. Billy Shaheen, Hillary's New Hampshire co-chairman and husband of the state's former governor, warned about what the mean Republicans would do with Obama's drug use, in terms insinuating Obama had not only used drugs but sold them to others. Then Bill Clinton himself boiled over, in a red-faced tirade against the pretender. The rest is now herstory.

This sort of combined assault proved effective in combating Ken Starr, but Starr was not an attractive young African-American man with a stunning family, a message of hope, and a real chance of becoming president. People recoiled. Obama's supporters fought back, and the only surprise was the Clintons' surprise that their offensive had bombed.

There are signs now that both sides are trying to draw back from the struggle, but the bitterness appears unabated, and the surrogates continue feeding the flames. No one knows who will win the nomination of either party, much less which party will win the election, but one can hope that the group-think, identity politics, and hypersensitivity to criticism of recent decades will burn themselves out in the bonfire. But this may be too much to ask.

All one knows now is that in retrospect it might have been better if the first black and first woman to emerge as plausible national candidates had been Republicans--and in fact, they both were. Colin Powell in 1996 and Elizabeth Dole in 2000 were the first black and the first woman to be able to run on something more than the protest or symbolic level, the first able to run on their merits and résumés, who would have been taken seriously by voters and analysts everywhere if they had been white and/or male. If Powell had run, if Dole had run more successfully, even if they had run against one another--it would have been something exceedingly different from the spectacle of this year's Democratic primaries; a far more civil affair.

The reasons lie in the DNA of the conservative universe, which has a different structure than that of the left. Republicans (conservatives especially) more than Democrats define themselves by ideology--the objections to Powell were based on what the right saw as his deviationist liberal tendencies--and regard everything else as an afterthought. Republicans tend to disdain appeals on the basis of victimhood. They are resistant to group-think and allergic to identity politics. And their major donors and interest groups are race and gender neutral--the right to life movement, the Club for Growth, the National Rifle Association. The only ethnic lobbies they court are purely local affairs (like Miami's Cubans). There are no ethnic and gender spokesmen to deal with, no agendas to speak of, no interest groups to appease.

Both sides are happy to see barriers broken, but for different emotional reasons: Democrats are happy when barriers fall because they think it empowers vast numbers of people, and it lifts the burden of guilt from their shoulders, and brings new perspectives to government. Republicans are happy because it frees individuals from unjust restrictions, reinforces the principle of equality of opportunity, and means that many more people of talent will have the freedom to realize their dreams. They would have run campaigns like the one run by John Kennedy, not like the one run by Hillary Clinton, in which the candidate's "difference" remained in the background, a factor, but not the main element. Some people voted for Kennedy because of his religion, and some voted against him for the same reason, but the number of each was held to the minimum, because of the way that he ran. And after he won, religion died out as an issue. Eugene McCarthy and Jerry Brown--men who had once studied as priests--ran in 1968 and 1976, and this raised not an eyebrow. Joe Lieberman in the 2000 election seems to have helped and not damaged Al Gore. Someday, the appearance of nonwhites and women as candidates will arouse the same lack of interest. That day cannot come soon enough.

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