It probably shouldnt have come as a surprise. After all, as a conservative of fairly recent vintage, Ive seen how easy it is for liberals, assisted by a compliant press, to cast ideological foes as moral reprobates and thus avoid engaging their ideas. Hadnt it happened to a slew of judicial nominees, from Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas to, most recently, Thomas Pickering and Priscilla Owenas well as to a long line of conservative politicians and social critics? Such attacks, coming as they do from those who assert their passionate tolerance, succeed because they are so hard to respond to. They are like the classic below-the-belt question: When did you stop beating your wife? But todays underhanded questionWhen did you become a sexist or a homophobe or (worst of all) a racist?is even more lethal: the accusatory word cuts short any argument and puts the target on the defensive, as those whom youd expect to stand firm for principle melt away.
Again, I knew all this theoretically. But I truly didnt know how bad it could be.
Then it happened to me.
To be sure, mine was a rather small-time case, a kind of mini-smear. Perpetrated in faraway Texas, it never made national headlines. Still, trust me, it was a gruesome thing to go through.
It came about as a result of a speech I gave in early May at the behest of a Dallas-based group called the National Center for Policy Analysis. Before receiving its invitation, Id never heard of the NCPA, but its website described it as a non-profit public policy research institute seeking innovative private sector solutions to public policy problems, which sounded just fine, as did the honorarium. The groups literature features photos of people like Texas senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and Wall Street Journal editorial-page editor Paul Gigot, and the other speaker on its Spring 2002 Event Schedule, co-sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, due later in the month.
Id been invited to talk about a book of mine, called How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy (and Found Inner Peace). As the title suggests, it is a good-humored approach to a serious subject: the journey that I, like so many others these last 20 years or so, have taken, often to our own surprise, from the precincts of the Left toward neoconservatism. Having by now given eight or ten talks on the subject, Id worked up a solid 20 minutes or so, a balance between personal anecdotal stuff and ruminations on the state of the culture and republic. It had always gone over well.
Thus it was that, at noon on May 9, I found myself in the auditorium of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. On hand, in addition to NCPA members and those from the Dallas Fed, I was told, was a contingent from the Federal Reserves San Francisco branch, with whom the Dallas bunch had been meeting that morning. At the pre-speech lunch, I was seated beside the individual responsible for my being there, a most agreeable guy named Bob McTeer, president and CEO of the Dallas Federal Reserve. As McTeer explained in his introductory remarks, hed run across my book by chance, found it amusing and provocative, and thought Id have some interesting things to say.
He didnt know what he was getting himself into any more than I did.
As always, I began by reading from my books back cover a list of How to Tell if Youve Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy'
Youre actually relieved that your daughter plays with dolls and your son plays with guns.
You sit all the way through Dead Man Walking and at the end still want the guy to be executed.
At your kids back-to-school night, you are shocked to discover the only dead white male on your tenth-graders reading list is Oscar Wilde.
And by the end of the night you realize the only teacher who shares your values teaches phys ed.
These got the requisite laughs and some nods of recognition, and I moved on to the meat of the talk. I described my hard-core left-liberal suburban childhood, how I grew up hearing of the heroics of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and rooting for sports teams based on how many blacks were on the roster; how, in college during Vietnam, my fellow student journalists and I, utterly certain of our own rectitude, cavalierly turned the school paper into a vehicle for New Leftism; and how, a few years later, views intact and the opposite of repentant, I was able to move seamlessly into mainstream journalism.
As was the case with so many others, I began to rethink things seriously only after I became a parent. I described how, in my case, the pivotal event was my wifes decision to stay home with our baby, a choice all but unheard of in our circle of driven New York professionals, full of feminist moms spouting the then-prevailing wisdom that day care was actually best for infants. So when my editor at Esquire wondered if I might want to contribute to the magazines upcoming issue on women, I suggested a piece that would examine those assumptions, based on interviews with prominent pediatricians and child psychologists. In retrospect, the resultant piece was pretty mild, doing little more than posing questions about the possible long-term effects of early day care; but instead of bringing about the meaningful conversation Id expected, the article prompted a ton of mail denouncing me as a vicious woman-hater.
As I told the Dallas audience, this experience proved only the first in a series of eye-openers about the degree of intolerance of the ostentatiously tolerant when it came to dissenting ideas on key social questions touching on race or sex. The fact that these are precisely the issues that most cry out for free and open debate seems to matter not at all. In the increasingly illiberal world of orthodox liberalism, competing ideas are answered not by argument but by a pose of moral superiority and by-the-book invective. In the end, this is the ugly, destructive essence of political correctness: it undermines the robust back-and-forth so essential to the democratic process.
I concluded the speech with a story about my son. As a high school sophomore, he had an English teacher, a white liberal, who began the unit on Huckleberry Finn by announcing that, though he was obliged to teach it, he wasnt happy about it. It was a racist book, he said, the word nigger appearing with appalling frequency. There has, of course, been a lot of this lately. Twains masterpiece, a work not only famously cited by Ernest Hemingway as the progenitor of all modern American literature but widely esteemed as the most moving attack on racism ever written, routinely appears on lists put out by groups like the ACLU and People For the American Way of works under most sustained assault by book bannersa target, as columnist Michele Malkin succinctly observes, of those too busy counting Twains words to understand them.
Indeed, Twain himself wrote that he intended Hucks growing recognition of Jims humanity to reflect the nations ongoing struggle with slaverys legacy of deeply embedded racism. For any even semi-sentient reader, it is all there in the pivotal scene where Huck agonizes over whether to send the letter hes written to Jims owners betraying the runaway slave, knowing that, as the beliefs of the time had it, failing to do so will mean forfeiting his soul: I was a-trembling because Id got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: All right, then, Ill go to hell,' and I tore it up.
My son, already very familiar with the Twain classic, raised his hand and told the teacher that, in fact, it was an anti-racist bookindeed, one of the most powerful ever written. Thus began an increasingly heated back-and-forth that went on for a good 15 minutes, culminating with the teacher saying, Its clear you have to work on your racial sensitivity. Are you calling me a racist? my son demanded, deeply aggrieved. When the teacher turned away, refusing to answer, he stalked out of class. He returned home from school that day remarking: Well, Im starting out with a C in that class, and working down from therea prophecy that proved, alas, all too accurate. But, as I told the Dallas crowd, I was never prouder of him in my life. That concluded my talk. I got a round of applause and waited for questions.
Immediately a black guy in the middle of the room stood up. Later identified as William Jones of the San Diegobased CityLink Investment Corporation, described in a Fed press release as an enterprise that acquires, develops, and manages real estate ventures and helps to renew urban areas, he announced that he didnt have a question, but a statement. He said he was very personally offended by your jokes about black people and your seemingly rationalizing the use of the word nigger.' Im a businessman, my wife is a prosecutor, my children go to college, we pay our taxes. The overgeneralization doesnt really help to further what I think you really want, which is understanding.
I stood there for a moment at the podium, stunned, not knowing how to respond. I hadnt the slightest idea what Id said to provoke such a response. Told jokes about black people? Not only had I not remotely done such a thing; the suggestion that I ever would was beyond outrageous. Rationalized the use of the word nigger? I was describing what had happened between my son and his teacher. It was the word Twain used, what the two of them were arguing aboutthe very point of the story!
Then, again, the tenor of his comment suggested that he perhaps hadnt even really heard what I was saying, beyond the offending word. Or that if he had, what he truly found so distasteful was a discussion of race that, since it challenged liberal verities, struck him as both unfamiliar and deeply unsettlingand was therefore far easier to tag as racist than to confront with argument. But, too, something else was at play here: in this room full of white business executives, he was playing the race card. As the brilliant black social critic Shelby Steele observes, there is in this country a pervasive adherence to good racial manners, which dictates, among other things, that on matters of racial sensitivity blacks hold the moral upper hand; and that even when whites feel themselves blameless, the appropriate response to such a challenge is to defer, retreating in sober self-reflection, if not outright apology. In fact, for an increasing number of us, this is a key part of the problemand one that should be called by its rightful name: condescension. Far from helping us address the many morally complex and deeply divisive issues involving race, it has the opposite effect of silencing those who question the liberal orthodoxy and otherwise cutting off meaningful dialogue.
I certainly had no intention of being confrontational, but I am not a racist and wasnt about to back off from anything Id said. After a moments hesitation, I replied that race was obviously a complicated and highly charged issue, but that it was one I thought essential to deal with openly and honestly. And while liberal voices tend to dominate the conversation, there were other voices that also needed to be heard more widely, ones that might take us beyond the familiar formulation of black victimhood/white guilt. For instance, perhaps he might look into what such black neo-cons as Shelby Steele and John McWhorter had to say on the subject. That was it. Unsettled as I was, I thought my response was more or less on point. After a few more questions, the Q&A session ended. I autographed some books, including McTeers, posed for a few photos, and, running late for my plane, made a dash for the exit. On the way out, a young woman from the NCPA intercepted me. What that guy had said was awful, she said, bristling. He was part of the California contingent, and it was as if he hadnt heard a word I said.
Well, I offered, people out in that part of the world do tend to be so marinated in P.C. that they often find different ideas deeply shocking. I joked that it was just lucky Id had the presence of mind not to include another of my How to Tell observations: Someones going on about how fantastic San Francisco is, and it suddenly hits you thats the one place on earth you never want to live.
I laughed too soon. The next day, back home in Westchester, I picked up the phone and found a guy from the NCPA on the other end. Somethings come up, he said, clearly shaken. Youre going to be hearing from a reporter named Mike Lee from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Not liking the sound of this, I didnt wait but called the reporter first.
In retrospect, Id have been better advised first to call a friend of mine, Stephen Michaud, a reporter at the Star-Telegram himself from 1994 to 1998. As he told me when I reached him while researching this piece, in its approach to social issues, and especially race, the Star-Telegram is a model of heavy-handed P.C. When the current executive editor came in, he sent around a memo saying we were all to heighten our P.C. awareness and diversity sensitivity. This was to be a line item in annual job reviews, and it was to extend even to the copy editors, though no one could explain how copy editors could increase a newspapers coverage of diversity.
When I called him, Mike Lee got right to the point. They had reports that Id made racially inflammatory statements, he said. What did I have to say about that?
I replied that it was absurd and explained in some detail exactly what the speech had been about.
Well, might I have inadvertently made offensive remarks?
Look, I told him, starting to get seriously upset but trying to hide it, its not the first time Ive given this speech. I know what I said. Its based on my book: why dont you take a look at that?
But my heart was sinking further by the second. Clearly, I thought, the story was essentially pre-written. I was about to be accused of racism. To be smeared on this of all subjects! Ive cared passionately about racial justice as long as I can rememberevery bit as much today as when I was a teenage civil rights worker, picketing and singing We Shall Overcome. Would it have been worth bothering to explain that to this guy? Or, indeed, that my ideological shift was brought on in part by my belated recognition that liberalisms feel-good, shopworn approaches to the race question, so reliant on the proposition that you can solve discrimination by discriminating against someone else, could only increase racial animosity?
No, none of that mattered. This is disgraceful, I told him instead. Its Kafkaesque, and I want you to quote me on that.
For just a moment I thought I might have actually gotten through. Well, he allowed, he was still trying to track down those whod attended the session; hed call to give me a chance to respond to any complaints before he wrote up the piece.
Early the following week, I heard from a friend who lives in Dallas. What the hell did you say down here?
Mike Lees article, co-written with a staffer for the paper in Washington, was an exceedingly nasty piece of work, a catalog of half-truths and insinuations, profoundly unfair, but also rather deft, in that none of that was readily apparent to the untrained eye. Starting on page one and running over 1,100 words, it began with a fundamental mischaracterization of what had occurred and took off from there: Federal Reserve Bank directors from the Dallas and San Francisco districts were stunned when a conservative authors luncheon speech at the Dallas bank turned into a lecture about political correctness, blacks, gays, and women who put their children in day care.
Throughout, things I had said were taken out of context, stripped of tone and otherwise misrepresented. Lee had been granted access to a video of the speech but was highly selective in what he used. On the key issue, the Huck Finn anecdote, the point I was making is nowhere to be found, but Joness noble-sounding declarationwith its damning accusation about my seemingly rationalizing of the word n-' is quoted in full. (In fact, thats the only reason I can reproduce it verbatim here.) Of course, my response goes unrecorded. What, then, had provoked Joness outburst in the first place? [Stein] also described an argument his son had with a teacher about Mark Twains The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and repeated a racial slur that is in the book.
Jones evidently refused further comment for the article, but the reporters played big a statement they elicited from a spokesperson for his associate, Robert Parry, the head of the San Francisco Fed, to the effect that Parry had found the speakers choice of words to be offensive and inappropriate for a gathering held at a Federal Reserve bank. Needless to say, no one who actually liked the speech was quoted; but, in the sort of flimsy pretense to fairness such reporters describe as balance, the conservative author whod stunned the gathering with his offensive and inappropriate remarks is allowed a single quotation in self-defense: When I was telling the Huck Finn story, he just heard the n-word,' Stein said. Ninety-five percent of the people in that room got it.' But lacking the essential context that my point was the books powerful anti-racist message, even the most astute reader surely wondered: Got what?
It is truly a sickening feeling being slandered in this way, the outrage mixing with a profound sense of helplessness. Yet rereading the article, I finally grasped something else: I was not really the main target here. Bob McTeer was.
A quick visit to the Internet shows why. Well liked and well respected, with a squeaky-clean reputation, he is a favorite of conservatives, and has been described as the leader of the free enterprise fed. Alone among FOMC members, notes Lawrence Kudlow in a March 2002 column, McTeer uses real-time financial and commodity advice to guide his policy views. . . . [I]t remains unlikely that Alan Greenspan will serve out his full term as Fed chairman through 2004. To promote non-inflationary growth and monetary reform, why not Bob McTeer?
And, sure enough, there it all was near the top of the Star-Telegram story: Bob McTeer, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, quickly apologized to his colleagues, but the flap has reached officials in Washington, D.C., where McTeer, popular for his folksy manner and steadfast belief in free markets, has been considered a possible successor to Fed chairman Alan Greenspan.
In fact, McTeerwhose photo illustrates the pieceis a very classy guy, and his apology-under-duress proved to be about as tepid as they come: I personally didnt think [the author] was out of line,' McTeer said, but added, I regret it and Im sorry that it happened.'
Over subsequent days, as other papers around the state not only picked up the story but cast it in ever uglier terms, each of them similarly featured McTeer as a principal. The Dallas Morning News story, appearing the following day, began: In a speech on political correctness last week, conservative author Harry Stein made comments about affirmative action, blacks, gays and feminism that offended some audience members, including several members of the Dallas and San Francisco Federal Reserve Banks. Of particular offense to some was Mr. Steins use of a derogatory racial term for blacks. The article added that the speech had also caught the attention of lawmakers in Washington and quoted Representative Ken Bentsen (D-Houston), a member of the House Financial Services Committee, as observing that the incident could have the potential of hurting' Mr. McTeer in Senate confirmation hearings. In addition, there was the report in the Austin American-Statesman, which, after dutifully reporting that I had repeated a racial slur, added, In Washington, a spokesman for the Federal Reserve declined to say whether McTeer faced disciplinary action as a result of the speech, which shocked people in the audience.
Hardly incidentally, the beleaguered McTeer now came forth with a new and stronger statement, saying, Certain derogatory terms for racial and religious minorities are so inflammatory and offensive that they have no place in a serious policy discussion. Our speakers use of these words deeply offended many present.
Given the pressure McTeer was under, I understood and even sympathized. But of course the damage was done. Should he ever be nominated for higher office, there is now a potentially fatal landmine buried in his record.
Watching it all from afar, emotionally involved yet physically detached, I was struck most by the alacrity with which so many who might have done the right thing ducked for cover. Particularly notable for its inaction was the NCPA, an independent organizationunlike the Fedand ostensibly libertarian. Though I did get a couple of e-mails from members of the group whod been present, remarking on the irony of a speech decrying political correctness itself being subject to the most heavy-handed P.C.one rightly referred to McTeer as having been Borkedthe groups leaders were silent, failing to stand up and publicly decry the false accusations of racism against its invited speaker.
It didnt take long for things to settle down. After a few days, there was no further mention of the episode in the papers. Though I was told that staffers for the racially opportunistic Maxine Waters, who sits on the House Committee on Financial Services, which oversees the Fed, were calling around about the episode, barring the 61-year-old McTeers nomination to a top post, it would likely not surface publicly again.
Why then bring it up here? I do not, believe me, have a martyr complex; for a while there, the mere mention of the city of Dallaseven of the Texas Rangers baseball teammade my heart skip a beat.
Still, the mere fact that this calumny is out there, on the record, makes my blood boil. My wife and kids are incensed. Reluctant as I was to get into it all again, the thought that this slur would be allowed to win the day is enough not to let me just walk away.
Working the phone to report this article strengthened my resolve. William Jones of San Francisco, the man whose remarks after my speech started it all, never returned my calls. I did reach Mike Lee, the reporter for the Star-Telegram, who picked up his own phone. In the 15 or so minutes we talked, there were many silences from his end, repeated suggestions that I take the matter up with his editor, and a slew of non-answers. Why hadnt he called back as he said he would? I thought I did. Its been a while. You saw a video of the speech: was there anything even remotely racist about it? I dont think we called you a racist. But you very strongly implied I was, didnt you? That was certainly the impression everyone seemed to get. A very long silence. I think you should talk to Lois, he said for the fourth time.
I did. Lois Norder, the Star-Telegrams northeast editor, embodied every one of the attitudesthe smug self-assurance, the presumption to superior virtue, the pose (in the face of an avalanche of evidence to the contrary) of disinterested objectivitythat makes so many dislike todays mainstream press. Her position was that since the paper had never explicitly called me a racist (or, at any rate, hadnt used the actual word), my complaints about the pieces objectivity were unfounded. When I asked Norder whether she herself thought Huck Finn was a racist book, her frigid, expressionless voice got even flatter. The story is well sourced, she said dismissively. The story is fair.
Fair! Doesnt the truth of what happened even matter? You guys wanted to stir up a controversy when there wasnt anything thereand thats what you did! She didnt miss a beat. As a journalist, you should understand that someone involved in something does not have an unbiased view. Youre seeing it through your filter. Our job is not to see it through any filter.
So there it was: not only was I (at the very least) racially insensitive; I wasnt even a serious person. And what was most unsettling, finally, was that the woman probably wasnt even being cynical. Given her conception of her role as a journalist, she probably didnt experience a flicker of self-doubt or bad conscience; after all, the P.C. filter through which she sees the world not only presumes that every accusation of bigotry is valid but that anyone who doesnt toe the liberal line is fair game. Weeks after my speech, someone who was present wrote me a supportive letter. Given the shameful dénouement of the whole episode, he observed, It is a miracle the story didnt end up on page one above the fold in the New York Times.
Point well taken. Then, again, who knows? Should McTeer be nominated for high office or the need otherwise arise, it could still happen.