In the 1966 movie
A Man for All Seasons
, Sir Thomas More and his future son-in-law argue over who deserves protection under the law. Will Roper is aghast when he hears how far More will go.
"Now you give the devil benefit of law!"
"Yes," More replies. "What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the devil?"
"Yes," is the vehement reply. "I'd cut down every law in England to do that."
I was reminded of Roper's zeal to root out evil after hearing some recent accusations of racism. Eliminating racism is certainly a worthy goal, but lately some people who should know better seem ready to cut down professional ethics, due process, and even facts in order to get their way. And that way seems to have little to do with challenging racism. Often, the real goal is to silence political opposition.
Start with Joe Wilson, the congressman who chose the path of boorishness to become a household name. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd declared that Wilson didn't just shout "You lie!" to President Obama during a joint session of Congress. She wrote that she also "heard ... an unspoken word in the air": Wilson really meant "You lie, boy!" because he couldn't stand the thought of a black president.
The evidence? Slim to none. But Wilson is Southern. He's white. He's conservative. He's Republican. Any of those means racist in certain circles.
I accept that newspaper journalists must try new things for the industry to survive. However, regurgitating the voices inside our heads as fact shouldn't be one of them.
Then Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former President Jimmy Carter weighed in. "I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he's African American," Carter told NBC.
And he knows this because right up until the day before Obama's inauguration, conservatives were advocating for hundreds of billions in economic stimulus, universal health care regardless of cost, a tax-heavy cap-and-trade program to deal with global warming, trillion-dollar deficits, federally financed benefits for illegal immigrants, and enough tax increases to pay for all of the above. Only racism explains why conservatives suddenly might be against such things.
The current president wisely didn't take the bait. He understood, as he did during the '08 campaign, that blanket, evidence-free accusations, while a matter of faith for some, don't help you win elections - or reelection. Besides, why remind voters of his own "the heck with due process" moment, when he sided with his friend, the black Harvard professor, over the white Cambridge police officer, without benefit of evidence, in what was incorrectly labeled a racial-profiling case?
Next, consider the ACORN videos, in which a fake pimp and prostitute seek help from the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now to set up a brothel, commit tax fraud, and engage in sex trafficking of underage illegal immigrants. ACORN employees at five offices seemed happy to help. When the tapes were shown on Fox News, ACORN trotted out a variety of weak defenses, including racism.
"It is clear and not coincidence that Fox continues to attack and divide our nation along racial lines," Margaret Williams, an ACORN board member from Maryland, said in a statement.
So to challenge ACORN is to attack the African American and Hispanic communities it serves. Clearly a desperate ploy, but the Washington Post lent credence to the charge in a Sept. 18 story on the "pimp," James O'Keefe: ". . . he said he targeted ACORN for the same reasons that the political right does: its massive voter registration drives that turn out poor African Americans and Latinos against Republicans."
Except O'Keefe didn't say that, neither in the story, nor, apparently, in real life, as the Post admitted in a subsequent correction after being challenged by the blog Powerline.
It's hard enough sifting through legitimate accusations of racism and discrimination, with their mix of facts and accusations, and with the need to divine intent and impact. But crying wolf cheapens the charge into irrelevance. Race becomes merely an easy fallback to taint, and thus silence, political opposition. Maybe it pleases elements of the Democrats' base, but this strategy is fraught with peril.
Take note of Sir Thomas' reply to Will Roper: "And when the last law was down, and the devil turned round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? . . . Do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? . . . Yes, I'd give the devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake."
So should we all.