Jonathan Chait

My Rodney King Moment

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A photo of President Obama, with his feet on the desk in the Oval Office while speaking to advisers, is making the right-wing email rounds, along with outraged commentary about Obama's "attitude":

Wonkette waxes sarcastic:

Can you believe this guy? Our queen gave us this holy desk back when his people were still slaves or whatever, and now he’s putting his feet on it?

Oh, the wingnuts. How crazy they make themselves, every day, all because it’s no longer acceptable even on Fox News or talk radio to say the “N word.” ...

But don’t worry, it’s still okay if the white guy does it.

...and includes this pic:

It's a good slam. But why must it be accompanied by an accusation of racism? Oh, sure, it's entirely possible that many of the people forwarding this email have created a double standard based on racism. But isn't it more likely that they've created a double standard based on partisanship? It's not as if racial animus is the only explanation for wildly hypocritical right-wing attacks on a Democratic president. I could certainly imagine the same outraged emails being circulated if Bill Clinton were president.

In general, it seems to me that the right and left treat accusations of racism and anti-Semitism in completely parallel ways. The right casually flings around accusations of anti-Semitism in discussions of the Middle East, and is interested in racism primarily insofar as it is a false accusation by the left intended to intimidate Obama's critics. The left, by contrast, casually flings about accusations of racism, and is interested in anti-Semitism primarily insofar as it is a false accusation by the right intended to intimidate Israel's critics.

If I can get earnest for a moment, I think the public discourse would improve if more people would refrain from inferring bigoted motives in their opponents. If you can show that somebody's idea is wrong, then why do you need to also say that it's racist (or anti-Semitic?) Conversely, if you can't show that his idea is wrong, then you have no business labeling it racist or anti-Semitic.

I'm not saying it should be completely impermissible to call bigotry by its name. But it's an accusation of motive that's necessarily difficult to prove, and should be reserved for the most obvious cases. And the gravity of the charge deserves more respect than its promiscuous use. So can we all try to cut back on the imputations of bigotry, and content ourselves to argue with -- or, if necessary, insult -- each other?

Thank you.

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