New York Times Editorialist, on "Kill the bill" chants: "It throbbed in the ears, like an infection."


For my money, the only redeeming quality of that little bylined "Editorial Notebook" slot at the bottom of the New York Times' unsigned editorial stack is that it provides brief glimpses into the worldviews of the people behind one of the most irritating Institutional Voices in the biz. In today's example, Lawrence Downes describes his existential/patriotic horror at attending an anti-health care reform rally outside of Congress on Sunday:

A few hundred Tea Party-types clustered on the south end of the Capitol on Sunday, trying to kill health care reform, fouling the crisp spring air with shouts of violence and loathing.

Wow! Those must have been some juicy direct quotes!

"Kill the bill!," the people chanted, cheering House Republicans who came out to the balcony now and then to feel the hate. […]

Kill the bill. It throbbed in the ears, like an infection.

Downes' only other direct quote from the allegedly loathesome violence-shouting was this:

The ones who had hurled racist and antigay epithets and spat at congressmen earlier in the day were lying low in the late afternoon. Now the crowd screamed, "We want Stupak!" Not to hail Representative Bart Stupak's staunch antiabortion convictions, but to take his head off for supporting the bill.

How does Downes know that protesters "had hurled racist and antigay epithets and spat at congressmen earlier in the day," and were now "lying low"? Unless he is somehow sitting on his best material, he knows no such thing–the reported, awful-if-true outbursts, the details of which are under dispute, took place the day before. Also, the only person in this tale talking about taking anyone's "head off" is the author. And I'll give Downes $100 out of my own pocket if he believes Bart Stupak's "antiabortion convictions" are worth hailing; it is neither an inscrutable head-scratcher nor an act of hypocrisy that protesters who were gathered in opposition to a monumental piece of legislation would focus their ire on the guy whose vote-switch sealed the deal.

Surely, though, an eyewitness so shaken by what he experienced can bring some other evidence of loathesomeness to bear? Well, here it is:

Instead of pitchforks, they hoisted revolting signs. Some showed Barack Obama as a whiteface Joker, and some as Mao and Hitler. The Democrats were traitors and vermin; "government" was an evil beast. […]

The eruption had an underground source, ugly and not always unspoken. A huge spray-painted banner acknowledged it. A ponytailed guy held it up, advising "All Tea Party" on what to do "if u hear a racial slur": step away, point, boo, take the person's picture and post it on the Web.

Wait, what? The fact that a guy urged his fellow protesters to document and shame any bigot eruption is evidence and acknowledgment of racism?

Let me pivot here in sympathy with the author's worldview. I really do despise facile comparisons of American politicians to murderous totalitarians. I do not like political hyperbole (except when it's really funny). And given that multiple eyewitnesses, including American hero John Lewis (who did more to advance freedom in this country in a single afternoon than a thousand congressmen will manage in their lifetimes), have said they heard the word "nigger" shouted on Saturday, I'm inclined to believe that it happened, even if the only corroborating sources that I'm aware of (please educate me in the comments) were professional Democrats with a big stake in the outcome of the weekend's political events. Though I have written previously that in my experiences with Tea Party Nation I have seen almost no evidence that race is any kind of sizable motivator or policy concern, that doesn't mean there aren't individual examples that make me wanna hurl. Like this:

But here's the thing. If racism is indeed the "underground source" of public protests against a flawed bill that a majority of Americans disapprove of, then smoking-gun evidence shouldn't be that hard to come by in this age of ubiquitous camera-phones and maximally documented demonstrations. "Kill the bill" does not clear the bar, nor does totalitarian hyperbole, which has been a staple of political protests of every flavor certainly for the quarter-century that I've been covering them.

Once you've decided that your political opponents are fundamentally venal–not just on the opposite side of a policy debate, but motivated by the basest of human emotions–then when you encounter them in the disgusting flesh, you see what you want to see, and you hear what you want to hear. Even moreso when you're not actually there, and can instead extrapolate an entire broad-brush portrait from a single reported data point. See Paul Krugman's latest correction for how that mental process can play out, or if you prefer, refer back to anti-immigration types counting Mexican flags in the sea of Old Glories at the 2007 pro-immigration rallies, or pro-war Republicans during the Bush administration documenting every outrageous sign and T-shirt at International A.N.S.W.E.R.-sponsored rallies.

The inverse of this notion, obviously, works, too–when it's your own team, you don't notice the Mao paraphernalia. In fact, the pro-immigration rally on the National Mall this Sunday that Downes favorably compares the Tea Party gathering to featured at least one dude selling a bunch of Mao/Marx tracts, a data point that I'm confident escaped the attention of those many who wrote favorably about the event. And rightly so–it was just a guy selling books. But had there been a guy selling David Irving books in the middle of the anti-Obamacare rally Sunday, I'm confident we would have heard about it.

Democrats congratulating themselves today for smiting down evil racist protesters are exactly as impressive, to me anyway, as Republicans who hi-fived one another for making A.N.S.W.E.R. sad back in 2003. At some point, policy matters more–a lot more–than the worst behavior of the powerless fringe that most vocally opposes it.

And as I've said before, if the Tea Party movement is at all significantly a racial phenomenon, we will find out about it, and it will deservedly fail. With so many journalistic commentators dedicated to seeing racism even when the evidence they marshal doesn't show it, I have no doubt that any actual outbursts will be brought immediately to our attention.