Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Liberal Fairy Tale

I’m a great admirer of Michael Tomasky. So it gives me pause when I see him attempting some unlikely conceptual back flips. Here he’s talking about the Tea Partiers in a post entitled “So Maybe They Are” (my emphasis):

“There's a new study out of the University of Washington that looked at the racial attitudes and resentment of tea party people vs. the general population, Newsweek reports. And guess what:

“‘The data suggests that people who are Tea Party supporters have a higher probability" - 25 percent, to be exact – ‘of being racially resentful than those who are not Tea Party supporters,’ says Christopher Parker, who directed the study. ‘The Tea Party is not just about politics and size of government. The data suggests it may also be about race. . . .’

“Again, a point I've made a bajillion times: people can be personally not racist toward individual African Americans in their orbit, and thus plausibly say that they are not at all racist and they resent being called it, while still holding attitudes about black people at large that are different than their attitudes about other groups. Personal conduct and broad social attitudes are two different things.”
Let’s work back from Tomasky’s back flip. By insisting that “personal conduct and broad social attitudes are two different things," he's saying that you can be a racist in a sufficiently substantial sense to discredit your political views about seemingly nonracial issues even if you make a point of treating people of other races as well as you treat people of your own race. You have to ask yourself why someone as smart and intellectually scrupulous as Tomasky would say something that implausible.

The answer, I suspect, is that he’s enthralled by a proposition that liberals have been reciting with feeling for the last forty years, viz., that the things Republicans or conservatives say about a wide range of seemingly nonracial issues are “code words for racism” or “dog-whistle politics” in that they transmit malign messages audible only to other racists. Liberal intellectuals of Tomasky’s stature seem to have a huge psychological investment in saying such things. That’s why they go to lengths to guarantee that facts will never get in their way.

Let’s: (1) grant the contestable proposition that asking Tea Party supporters whether they agree with statements like “if blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites" or that “blacks should work their way up without special favors as the Irish, Italians, and other groups did” is a good measure of whether the whole population of Tea Partiers is more racist than the general population; and (2) credit the study’s finding that, by that measure, the Tea Partiers are. How do you get from there to the conclusion that what the Tea Partiers say about government spending, ObamaCare and taxes are “about race” or an “expression of” or “code words for” racism?

Not by any known rules of logical inference or empirical cognition. Assume (not implausibly because they’re probably disproportionately Roman Catholics) that the Latinos now demonstrating in the streets against Arizona’s recently passed immigration law are more likely than the general population to disapprove of abortion. Does that mean that the demonstrators’ complaints against Arizona’s treatment of immigrants are really “about,” or “a code word for,” outlawing abortion? Were you to say any such thing, you wouldn’t be enunciating an empirical hypothesis since there’s nothing the demonstrators could say or do to refute it—remember, “personal conduct and broad social attitudes are two different things.” You’d be putting fingers in your ears to keep from hearing what the demonstrators are saying about Arizona’s immigration policies.

That’s what a lot of liberals are doing with respect to the Tea Partiers. They’re reciting a fairy tale that makes them feel better about the elections they've lost over the last thirty years. Liberals won’t stand a chance of winning the argument over the proper role of government in our society until they get over it.

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