Idiocy of the week

It's a jowl-to-neck race between Bob Novak and Ann Coulter, and their bizarre defenses of Trent Lott.

By Andrew Sullivan
Published December 20, 2002 12:28AM (EST)

The Lott brouhaha has been revealing in many ways. It reveals how many liberals simply believe all Republicans are racists under the skin. It reveals how many conservatives actually aren't racists under the skin. And it's a good indicator that some in the Republican Party, who chose to run to Lott's defense, do have serious "minority issues."

But two fatuous comments stand out. The first is by Bob Novak. I've long wondered whether Novak's ubiquity on cable talk shows is some kind of Democratic plot. Just on a purely visceral level, he exudes contempt for his opponents, sneers at every opinion, and almost always assumes bad motives on the part of his rivals. He's about as unlovable a media entity as you could possibly find, and he revels in the fact. But he's also an old guy, a man of his generation, the kind of guy you'd expect to be befuddled as to why anyone could ever take offense at the notion that segregation was once a good thing.

In the New York Times Wednesday, he opined, as good ol' boys might, that Lott has "been treated badly by the White House, I think he's been treated badly by his colleagues, for what was certainly, in my opinion, not a hanging offense ... The Democrats wouldn't have kept it alive if conservatives had said let's not keep it alive. The conservatives all piled on, and when the president in his speech last Thursday said what he did, that opened the door wider." The last part is indisputable. The pressure on Lott was largely created by conservatives and Republicans. But Novak's assumption is that Lott's voiced nostalgia for segregation was no big deal, that it was a one-off gaffe. Is Novak aware that Lott had said just such a thing in public before? Is he aware of Lott's almost bizarrely troglodytic voting record? Has he thought for a second what the implications of that remark were? After all, it wasn't a gaffe, a joke. It was an argument. And a completely repulsive one.

There was more from Novak: "He's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. The same [Republicans] were saying, 'We can't have a racist,' then he comes out and says, 'I'm for affirmative action,' and they say, 'Oh, we can't have that.'" This statement assumes what some left-liberals assume: that your only two choices are to favor affirmative action or be a racist. But the whole point of the new conservative position on race is that there is another way -- to empower minorities through greater choice in education, welfare reform, incentives for family cohesion, lower taxes and so on -- that does not rely on quotas or crude racial categorization. If Novak hasn't assimilated this, he's as distant from the current conservative movement as Lott is.

The second fatuity came from Ann Coulter. She told the Times, "I don't remember liberals being this indignant about the 9/11 terrorist attacks." This is just gob-smackingly weird. First off, what does it matter what "liberals" think about this? The question is: What does Coulter think about this? Was Lott right or wrong? Second, plenty of liberals were indignant about the 9/11 attacks -- although a few leftists weren't. To tar all liberals with the Sontagian brush is unfair. Some were indeed pusillanimous with regard to the Afghanistan campaign; many of the same people are being equally craven when facing down the threat from Saddam. But many other liberals saw what was attacked on 9/11 and are now part of the battle to protect the West. And it does no one any good to ignore this. Instead, we should welcome them aboard. Some of them, after all, were here from the beginning.

Andrew Sullivan

Salon columnist Andrew Sullivan's commentary appears daily on his own Web site.

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