Also published at Star Tribune.
By Mitch Pearlstein
On the chance you’re ever of the mind that yahoos have a special affinity for what some people think of as the political “right” — I’m alluding most immediately here to an ugly public invocation, try Googling “Bush” and “Hitler” together.
I did so one morning and up popped 19.3 million citations, led by a series of graphics depicting the American president as the genocidal Nazi.
I trust it’s fair to assume that the overwhelming bulk of the words which followed were the handiwork of people who happily describe themselves as left of center.
I might also suggest that no matter how harsh some signs at Tea Party rallies might get, you really haven’t seen harsh unless you’ve been at “peace” rallies with pacific folks holding signs saying things like “Death to All Juice” (sound it out).
So let’s agree that all sides have bigots and jerks.
And one House Speaker in Minnesota did exactly what he was morally required to do by apologizing for allowing an anti-pastoral Religious to serve as a House chaplain, given what the latter implied about President Obama’s faith, as well as what he’d said prior about gays and lesbians.
The fact that the Speaker’s voice was more emotional and passionate than I’ve ever heard it was telling and appreciated.
Yet while all sides have less-than-ecumenical clergy (I seem to recall the president’s former minister), as someone who leads a conservative organization, my responsibility for speaking out when supposed conservatives say vile things is greater than when others do so.
I do so here.
For conservatives to acknowledge that it’s morally unacceptable for people to say things like the vitriolic chaplain did and then assume that all is fine doesn’t cut it. Political reality demands we deal with the fact that conservatives routinely shoulder heavier burdens in matters like these.
Take, for prime example, the issue at the core of the current controversy, same-sex marriage.
To the extent that conservatism is construed as being in opposition to it (non-conservatives may be surprised by how less-than-uniform such opposition is), leaders of the right need to contend with the fact that it can be intellectually demanding to persuasively argue against what many others view as a basic civil right.
It also can be demanding to argue against what many Americans view as a simple question of justice and equality.
“Tell me again,” a supporter of same-sex marriage might ask an opponent, “how does my getting married threaten your marriage?”
Such questions are not the kind that can be answered superficially — if they’re to be answered compellingly.
Just as proponents’ claims in the name of justice, equality and fundamental human rights cannot be effectively countered without a nuanced sense of history, human nature, the well-being of children and the complicated rest.
All that being the case, there simply is no way for the opponents of same-sex marriage to prevail if they are seen as motivated, not by what they genuinely see as the best interests of society, but rather by insufficiently good hearts.
To this difficult mix, one might add the understandable reluctance of most same-sex marriage opponents to engage in any substantial conversation on the subject whatsoever, given the strong possibility of being demagogically labeled a lousy excuse for a human being, no matter their generosity of spirit.
Much the same holds, I would argue, when it comes to various other family issues, especially as they touch on questions of race.
If past is prologue, conservative scholars and journalists will remain more likely than liberal ones to write candidly about what I have long described as the overwhelming social disaster of our times: massive family breakdown, most acutely in our great cities.
For conservatives to be viewed as suspect when it comes to matters of racial fairness makes it easy for others to dismiss anything we might say on the topic.
Modern conservatism took root in the 1950s, in large part because William F. Buckley Jr. let it be known that racists, anti-Semites, John Birchers and other assorted crackpots had no place in any movement in which he was a member.
One of the sterling developments of the last half century-plus is that the number of such fools throughout America is radically smaller than it had been.
But that doesn’t mean we’re free of everyone — often mislabeled as conservatives — whose ideas of freedom and decency are corruptions of all that is good and holy about our country.
And when they do show up and spew in civically sacred places like state capitols, my conservative colleagues and I need to be first in condemning them.
Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of Center of the American Experiment.