Politics

Bigots and Enablers

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On the surface, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul do not appear to have a lot in common. Yet, there is one respect in which they are strikingly similar: Pundits on both the right and the left have been all too eager to give their least defensible traits a pass. At this point, there is almost an accepted style for such rationalizations. David Brooks, for instance, began a recent column by avowing, “I’m to Rick Santorum’s left on most social issues, like same-sex marriage and abortion.” Then, after several more sentences, came the pivot“But having said all that”and what followed were 700 words of fulsome praise. Michael Gerson conceded that “Santorum is far from a perfect candidate.” But several sentences later, he also wrote, “If Santorum does not win the nomination, the winner would be wise to listen to him.”

Plenty of liberals, meanwhile, have taken a similar “yes, but” attitude toward Ron Paul. “I have big problems w/Ron Paul on many issues,” tweeted Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel in December. “But on ending preemptive wars & on challenging bipartisan elite consensus on FP, good he’s in.” Timothy Egan of The New York Times noted Paul’s history of publishing racist newsletters but went on to argue that, “as the iconoclast among the toy warriors seeking to be the next president, Paul has performed an admirable service.”

Nuanced punditry is a fine thing. Agreeing with a candidate on certain issues but not others is a perfectly reasonable practice. Yet, when it comes to Santorum and Paul--whose histories on certain issues can only be described as deeply bigoted--all this “yes, but” commentary from left and right is more than a little troubling.

By now, the trail of intolerance from both men should hardly need to be restated. In 2008, The New Republic’s James Kirchick broke the story that, for years, Paul had published newsletters containing grotesque sentiments about blacks, Jews, and gays. About the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Paul’s newsletter said: “Order was only restored in L.A. when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks three days after rioting began.” Another newsletter included this speculation about the 1993 World Trade Center bombing: “Whether it was a setup by the Israeli Mossad, as a Jewish friend of mine suspects, or was truly a retaliation by the Islamic fundamentalists, matters little.” Yet another included this sentiment about gays: “I miss the closet. Homosexuals, not to speak of the rest of society, were far better off when social pressure forced them to hide their activities.”

Ever since our piece was published, Paul has defended himself by saying he didn’t write the newsletters and disavows them. This is too little, too late. What kind of person would allow newsletters to go out for years and years under his own name, sometimes written in the first person, containing noxious statement after noxious statementand never bother to put a stop to it?

To be fair, we disagree with other parts of Paul’s agenda, including many of the elements that other liberals find so appealing. Where others see an admirably modest view of U.S. foreign policy, we see a committed isolationist who detests foreign aid. But, when it comes to Paul, legitimate disagreements about the proper American role in the world should be beside the point. If someone allows bigotry to be expressed in his name for years on end, that person should not be taken seriously as a presidential candidate.

The same goes for Rick Santorum, but here it is conservatives rather than liberals who are refusing to grapple with the full dimensions of his bigotry. To be sure, when it comes to gay rights, Santorum’s policy positions are not much different from those of the other Republican contenders. And, at the GOP debates, it has been common to hear offensive attitudes toward gays and lesbians from a number of candidates. (We must also note that, while President Obama’s views and record on gay rights are far superior to those of any Republican hopeful, we are looking forward to the day when he stops “evolving” on gay marriage and actually does the right thing.)

But anyone who has followed the GOP field knows that the particular venom Santorum has displayed toward gays and lesbians is in a category of its own. The most notorious expression of his attitudes came in 2003, when he compared homosexuality to “man on dog”but that statement was hardly out of character. A consistent and unapologetic homophobia has been one of the central aspects of his long career in politics.

Yet now we are told by conservative pundits that we should be grateful for his presence in the race because of his views on other issues? This is nonsense. Homophobia, as both liberals and conservatives should recognize, is a form of human ugliness. And politicians who spout itlike politicians who spout other forms of bigotryshould never, for any reason, be able to count mainstream pundits among their admirers.

This article appeared in the February 2, 2012, issue of the magazine.

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