The only place I run into Americans here is in the synagogue. There is one loud-and-proud right-winger who gets treated to a lot of good-humoured deference. This past Sunday, naturally, he was feeling his oats. I mostly stay out of these political discussions, but after listening to him go on and on about the “elitists” in their “bubbles” who had failed to appreciate the world-historical significance of Donald Trump, I remarked that these were very large bubbles that contained more than half of the US population. He suddenly switched gears and accused me of accusing all Trump voters of being racists, a remarkable feat of projection, given that no one up to this point had mentioned race. No, I said, I’m sure some of their best friends are black.
But I was thinking of this when I recently read this passage in John Ferling’s Jefferson and Hamilton: The rivalry that forged a nation. (Overall, a pretty interesting book, if not especially elegantly or engagingly written) about Hamilton’s attacks on Jefferson in the context of the election of 1796:
Hamilton raised questions about Jefferson and race. He drew on passages from Notes on the State of Virginia to demonstrate Jefferson’s racism.
The context is a society that accepts enslavement of African-Americans, Jefferson owned dozens of slaves, yet evidence of “racism” was seen as a black mark on his character. And Hamilton needed to delve into Jefferson’s writings to find “evidence” that the slave-owner Jefferson was racist. For that matter, Hamilton himself had owned slaves in the past, and probably did even as he was polemicising against Jefferson’s racism.
Anti-racism is self-limiting. As soon as we accept that racism is a terrible thing, there is a natural tendency to absolve pretty much anyone with a name and a face of this evil. Racism exists in the past, or on the fringes of society. People like Trump are just clumsily saying some racist things or appealing to non-PC white voters. (And if he’ll just stop saying racist things for a week or two, problem solved!) Similarly, the NY Times has just today seemed to express sympathy for famous racist and likely Trump cabinet pick, Alabama senator Jeff Sessions:
The poor guy is being trailed by those nasty racial comments. Maybe he can get a restraining order against them!
If you’re not actually burning crosses you’re not a real racist, just as anyone who isn’t Hitler can’t really be an antisemite. (And anyone who recalls the fake-Hitler-diary furore may also recall the breathless coverage that noted the absence of any reference to the holocaust, eager to absolve the Führer of the worst crimes.)
I think often of this exchange from the second presidential debate in 2000:
GORE: …The governor opposed a measure put forward by Democrats in the legislature to expand the number of children that would be covered. And instead directed the money toward a tax cut, a significant part of which went to wealthy interests. He declared the need for a new tax cut for the oil companies in Texas an emergency need, and so the money was taken away from the CHIP program… I believe there are 1.4 million children in Texas who do not have health insurance. 600,000 of whom, and maybe some of those have since gotten it, but as of a year ago 600,000 of them were actually eligible for it but they couldn’t sign up for it because of the barriers that they had set up.
MODERATOR: Let’s let the governor respond to that. Are those numbers correct? Are his charges correct?
BUSH: If he’s trying to allege that I’m a hard-hearted person and I don’t care about children, he’s absolutely wrong.
The words don’t adequately communicate the smarmy expression of offence that Bush displayed. Gore accused him of taking insurance away from 600,000 children. Bush didn’t respond or explain, but simply contended that to mention this fact was to insult him, to call him a “hard-hearted person”.