Bill Kristol and Rush Limbaugh: The Right's Leading Race-Baiters

How have they reacted to Occupy Wall Street and harassment allegations against Herman Cain? Playing the card conservatives claim to abhor most.

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In college and for some time afterward, I believed that the conservative movement was earnestly against using race as a political cudgel. It isn't that I had no knowledge of political history. I knew about the Southern strategy, the wrongheaded opposition to the Civil Rights Act, and the stubborn persistence of racists on the fringes of the political right (and the political left). But hadn't things changed? On college campuses, I saw that invocations of racism were sometimes cynical, intended to empower the accuser -- shortly after I graduated, for example, a professor faked a hate crime against herself -- and seeing 18, 19, and 20 year-old campus conservatives speak out against such nonsense, even as they were earnestly anti-racism, made it that much easier to nod along to the conservative movement's critiques of Al Sharpton's bad behavior and certain attacks on Ward Connerly, who sought to repeal affirmative action policies at California public universities, and other incidents too. The critics made sound points.

I still think some on the left are guilty of cynically using race as a political cudgel. I've written about the Duke players falsely accused of rape and prosecuted by both a grandstanding Mike Nifong and the left-wing media; about the New York Times columnist who said that minorities who attended a Tea Party rally were minstrels; and about Lawrence O'Donnell questioning Herman Cain in a way it's difficult to imagine him questioning a black Democrat. It is true, as Matt Yglesias is fond of pointing out, that racism remains a much bigger and more urgent problem than false accusations of it. Nevertheless, using race as a political cudgel is corrosive and ought to be called out.

What I no longer believe is that the conservative movement (as opposed to many individual conservatives) is earnestly against the cynical use of race as a cudgel. I haven't believed it for a long time now. You'll still see peripheral figures on the left, the present day equivalents of Sharpton and Nifong, behaving dishonorably. But the new status quo in the conservative movement is something different. In the conservative movement, extremely prominent figures race bait in the ugliest, most transparent ways. And no one complains. Despite decades of denouncing this sort of behavior as ugly, illegitimate, and immoral, the movement right is unperturbed.

How bad have things gotten? Recall the outrage on the right when people like Janeane Garofalo tarred the whole Tea Party as racist, citing some racist signs in their midst. To be clear, Garofalo was absurdly sweeping in her comments. Now look at how Bill Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, is characterizing Occupy Wall Street in a new ad put out by a group he leads (he's quickly becoming America's foremost producer of disgusting video spots):


The antisemitism in those clips are execrable, and ought to be roundly denounced, but how little integrity must you possess to present such hate speech as if it defines all of your adversaries in a political controversy? And in just the way that your ideological allies were complaining about mere months before! (See Reason TV's excellent coverage from Occupy Los Angeles for an example of journalists who neither shied away from the creepy racist element in the protests nor misled their viewers into an exaggerated impression of its prominence.)

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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