In the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Saint Peter asks Christ how often a person should be forgiven? “As many as seven times?” Not seven times, answers Christ, “but seventy times seven.” If one took that literally (and one shouldn’t), the 491st sin is unforgiveable.
For Conservatives, the 491st sin is an accusation of racism. It’s the last refuge of a scoundrel, but it’s also effective since no charge arouses greater opprobrium. In American politics, it’s a Grosse Bertha, a bunker-breaker which demands that the racist be shunned by all, which labels him a moral leper.
It’s what the accusation of heresy meant, during the wars of religion, or communism during the days of Joe McCarthy. And so it’s not surprising to hear it from Hillary Clinton, and especially so when Trump is courting her supporters in the African-American and Hispanic communities. It’s not even surprising to hear her dip into McCarthyite smears, the charge of guilt by association. She didn’t exactly say Trump was a racist, only that “alt-right” people are, that they support him, and that that kinda, sorta makes him a racist.
I don’t much know the alt-right people. From casual observation, a few seem to be racists, most decidedly not. I wouldn’t even say that they’re the biggest racists around. If you’re looking for racism, the Black Lives Matter movement would be a good place to start. And you might also take a gander at Hillary Clinton. Asked to choose between “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter,” she chose the former. Then there was the Hillary Clinton who voted for an unrepentant Klansman, Robert Byrd, as president pro tem of the Senate. As for Bill Clinton, let’s not forget his 2008 remark that “a few years back Barak Obama would be getting us coffee.”
On the right, the biggest racists I know are libertarians, white friends who have an unhealthy fascination with IQ scores. They take a guilty pleasure in The Bell Curve by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, for it seems to tell them what they long to hear, that they belong to a superior class, that they deserve their reward in a meritocratic country in which intelligence is thought to count for everything and virtue almost nothing.
Not that they’d be impolite to the African-American they deem inferior. Just the opposite. They’d be exquisitely solicitous, and determined to show through officious expressions of sympathy just how kind and thoughtful they really are. Perhaps that explains why I don’t know too many African-American libertarians. People who don’t think they’re inferior don’t welcome condescension from false superiors.
So before we start bandying around charges of racism, let’s ask who’s the least racist person around. It’s not going to be the religious Christian, who judges people according to their virtues — what Martin Luther King called the “content of their character” — and whose belief that we all have souls is the foundation of Western egalitarianism. The sincere Christian might be a bigot, just not a racist.
Nor is the racist a nationalist. By definition the nationalist accepts all fellow citizens as his peers. He might be a chauvinist, perhaps even a xenophobe, but not a racist, not in today’s America at least. If there might have been a time when America was ethnically homogenous, say in Jamestown in 1607, it’s not that today, and the nationalist will accept America as it is, not as the racist would want it to be. The racist Anglo-American might prefer the English foreigner to the African-American citizen, but not the nationalist.
The nationalist will judge our immigration system by how well it serves America citizens, not so much whether it helps foreigners. We’ll fault our foreign policies if they foolishly seek to reform the world at the expense of people in this country. When we evaluate our trade agreements, we’ll examine the American ledger without taking gains to non-American into account. We won’t be indifferent to people in other countries. But we’ll prefer our own, including Americans of every race.
From what little I know of them, the alt-right people are nationalists, not racists. In any event, Trump himself is a nationalist, not a racist, and that’s true of his supporters as well, all save the marginal people to be found at the edge of any party. So it’ll be interesting to see who picks up the accusation that Trump supporters are racists, especially amongst the Trump-haters on the right. People like Jonah Goldberg, for example, who anticipated Hillary Clinton by telling us that nationalism is simply a code word for “white identity politics.”
I’m waiting to see who amongst the NeverTrumpers picks that up. I’d advise them not to go there. Because it’s the 491.
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