President Obama's opposition should thank him. His election has boosted the audiences for right-wing talk shows, especially those that appeal to the easily frightened.
It also appears to have liberated conservatives from liberal political correctness, if only to construct an equally delusional conservative version: Some of the movement's leading lights no longer want to take racism seriously, unless it is "reverse racism" against white people.
You could see and hear this impulse among elite conservative voices as the House vote for Obama's health care overhaul neared and rage by protesters against it boiled over in the streets and hallways on Capitol Hill. One black Democrat, Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, was spat upon. Racial slurs were shouted at two other black congressmen, including Georgia Democrat John Lewis, a hero of the civil rights movement. Barney Frank, an openly gay Massachusetts Democrat, was taunted with an infamous slur against homosexuals.
Yet National Review senior editor Jay Nordlinger advanced a peculiar thesis about race on the magazine's Web site, which he quoted from a letter sent by a reader. The ugly episodes on Capital Hill are evidence that "Racism in America is dead," the letter averred, because of all the attention they have received. After the abominations of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, the letter writer observed, all this fuss over the "occasional public utterance of a bad word" is evidence that "real racism has been reduced to de minimis levels," which is Latin for no big deal.
Yet, the writer noted, "charges of racism seem to increase." Therefore, he continued, "I'll vote for the first politician with the brass to say that 'racism' should be dropped from our national dialogue."
That makes one of us. I'd feel more enthusiastic about Nordlinger's and his friend's rush to delete the R-word from our national dialogue if willful ignorance of a problem could cure it. Unfortunately, even in the days of Jim Crow, there were segregationists who tried to chill race talk as no big deal, just the "meddling" by "outside agitators" and "briefcase totin' liberals" against "states' rights."
Yet the Nordlinger thesis has received attaboys from allies like talk show host and former Education Secretary William Bennett, who I believe knows better but loves to argue. "Is there occasional racism, of course," he said on-air last Monday. "But this country's been transformed on the issue of race." For example? "You talk to young people, they don't even understand how people could have judged people by race," he said. If not, you can thank older folks who were unafraid to pass on lessons about the evils of racism.
That message apparently was lost on the 16-year-old prankster who made news -- and got himself charged with harassment and bias intimidation -- by announcing over an unguarded public address system in a New Jersey Wal-Mart, "All black people, leave the store now." Ah, kids today.
Unfortunately the logic of racial denial turns in on itself. If the shouting of racial epithets proves that racism is dead, the shouting of "socialist" by Obamaphobes must mean that socialism is extinct.
Racism doesn't always come dressed in white sheets. Besides racial hate, there's also the racism of irrational anger, fears, suspicions and resentments. Radio star Rush Limbaugh offers ample examples.
I am not unhappy to see political correctness knocked down a few pegs. PC is unhealthy when it stifles honest, candid discussion. But free speech should help America's many diverse groups to learn more about each other. Otherwise we only help to keep hate alive.