Thursday, April 26, 2007

Soft-pedaling racism

-- by Dave

It really wasn't surprising, I suppose, that a progressive like Alexander Konetzki would eventually have to part ways with an employer like The American Conservative. Certainly, my experience over the years has been that ideological absolutism eventually destroys otherwise healthy personal and professional relationships, and that's clearly what happened in this case.

But what was really noteworthy about the incident was what the response to the incident from the right revealed about them, in stark outlines.

The Editors have a rundown, and it largely goes like this:
Well of course he left! He just couldn't take the conservatism!

Probably Russ Douthat epitomizes the response:
If you're not at least somewhat conservative, you probably shouldn’t go to work for a magazine called, um, The American Conservative. And if you do, you probably shouldn’t get all outraged and resign in protest when they turned out to be, um, conservative.

So does, um, conservative now also mean, um, racist?

Because the reason he left, as Konetzki explained in some detail, was that American Conservative chose to publish an almost nakedly racist screed by a writer widely regarded as someone skilled at selling a soft-pedaled version of racism with a phony academic veneer, and it did so with callous disregard for its factual truthfulness.

A couple of years ago Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting put together a report on Sailer (discussed in greater detail here) that placed him firmly in the center of the "academic" racists who have been prospering on the far right for the past decade:
As American Prospect Online found (12/7/04), a little research reveals Sailer as a leading promoter of racist pseudoscience. As a principal columnist on the white nationalist website, named for Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the "New World," Sailer (e.g., 2/23/03; 12/12/01) extols the work of academic racists who say Africans as a group are innately less intelligent than whites or Asians. He is also a staunch defender of the Pioneer Fund, a primary funder for such racist research (as well as of

On the rare occasion Sailer gives race a rest, it's usually to make some other mock-Darwinian argument, as when he ruled out the possibility of a gay gene, suggesting instead that homosexuality is a disease, possibly caused by a germ (, 8/17/03): "An infectious disease itself could cause homosexuality. It's probably not a venereal germ, but maybe an intestinal or respiratory germ."

Sailer also produced this noteworthy observation in the wake of Hurricane Katrina:
It also should have been expected that a large fraction of New Orleans's lower class blacks would not evacuate before a disaster. Many are too poor to own a car, or too untrustworthy to get a ride with neighbors, or too shortsighted to worry...

In contrast to New Orleans, there was only minimal looting after the horrendous 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan—because, when you get down to it, Japanese aren't blacks.

The American Conservative hit piece attempts to paint a portrait of Barack Obama as a black militant in the tradition of Huey Newton:
From adolescence onward, Obama wanted a race to belong to, a team whose accomplishments would reflect well upon him. Of course, it was unthinkable in his liberal white family to take pride in the achievements of his mother's race, so Obama gloried in being part of his absent father's race.

Obama was accepted into posh Occidental College in Los Angeles, which then had a black mayor, Tom Bradley. But Oxy wasn't black enough, so in search of a community to belong to, he transferred to Harlem ... well, to be precise, to that prestigious university on the edge of Harlem, Columbia. (A recurrent theme in Obama's career is Power to the People gestures and Ivy League results.)

The piece goes on endlessly in this mode. And as Konetzki tried to explain to his bosses at the magazine, in doing so it also violated basic editorial norms of factuality and accuracy:
But it was the Obama piece that revealed the office's political divisions to be unworkable. The weekend after Kara and Scott dismissed my objections to Sailer's essay, I read Dreams From My Father. I realized that, in addition to the racist associations he employs, Sailer frequently quotes Obama out of context and makes assertions about Obama's racial identity that the book flatly contradicts.

For example, Sailer relates an anecdote from the book in which Obama's white grandmother wants a ride to work because she had been threatened by a black panhandler while waiting for the bus the day before. Obama "is outraged -- at his grandparents," according to Sailer, who offers the story as further evidence of Obama's anger toward his white family. But in the book the situation is far more nuanced than Sailer lets on. In fact, it's Obama's grandfather who's outraged that his wife was scared because, in her words, "the fella was black." Obama describes these words as "a fist in my stomach." But he tells his grandfather that although his grandmother's attitude bothered him, "Toot's fears would ... pass and we should give her a ride in the meantime." Putting his hand on his grandfather's shoulder, he says it's all right, that he understands.

In a further attempt to document Obama's alleged black nationalism, Sailer claims that "The happy ending to Dreams is that Obama's hard-drinking half-brother Roy -- 'Actually, now we call him Abongo, his Luo name, for two years ago he decided to reassert his African heritage' -- converts to teetotaling Islam." Roy does do these things, but the book's happy ending is the wedding of Barack and Michelle, which brings Obama's black and white relatives together in celebration on Chicago's South Side -- a poignant symbol with which to end a story about "race and inheritance." Dreams is not at all about Obama's "rejection of his white maternal family in favor of his unknown black paternal family," as Sailer asserts. It's about the loving bond Obama forms with the African paternal family he never knew, and how that not only helps him discover who he is, but also allows him to reconcile the tension between black and white he'd always felt within himself.

I arrived at the office on Monday prepared to make these points and many more -- not as a progressive who admired Obama, but as an assistant editor responsible for fact-checking. I sent an e-mail to Kara requesting a meeting that was never answered. And when I went to her office with Obama's book in hand, asking again whether we could discuss things, she called across the hall to Scott, who said, "Yeah, look, Alexander, this matter has already been decided. The piece is being published as it is." I pointed out that I had read the book, and Sailer's characterization of Obama was factually incorrect. "I have too many other things to worry about," Scott said coldly. "Steve Sailer is a longtime friend of the magazine, and if you and he read a book differently, well, I'll take his reading over yours any day."

Konetzki, unsurprisingly, cleared out his desk that day. The abiding issue for him, as it would be for any serious journalist, was that not only was the magazine about to publish a profoundly nasty and racist hit piece, but that it was willing to publish brazenly false information in order to do so.

Konetzki discovered what so many of us have found over the years in dealing in good faith with movement conservatives: lying is not only something they blithely do for the sake of the "cause," but it is in fact an essential component of their behavior and agenda.

It's not a bug, it's a feature. Ideologues are always innately untrustworthy, but right-wing ideologues come predisposed for dispensing falsehoods. Eventually, those of us who might otherwise find common ground with them are forced to choose between these relationships and their own integrity. It's not a hard choice to make.

But in the process, we can also watch the spectacle of movement conservatives, all too willing to unmoor themselves in the name of their "cause," drifting off into a Sargassan sea of old-fashioned racial and ethnic bigotry. It isn't a pretty sight.

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