A few years ago, a business trip took me through some of the great battlegrounds on this continent. Birmingham. Montgomery. Tuskegee. Selma. To my tour guide at the time, a liberal white judge from Alabama, they were as sacred to the American text as Gettysburg and Yorktown. He spoke with deep reverence about the struggle of black pilots to fly in the Second World War, the bus boycott, the Freedom Riders, and the bombings in Birmingham. He didn't shy away from the personal history, either, and strongly recommended Diane McWhorter's Carry Me Home, the memoir of the daughter of a white supremacist family in Birmingham. Her story, he said, was the story of thousands of white sons and daughters of Alabama.
When we walked through the brilliant Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, he had a quiet suggestion: things change, Alabama has changed, we've all changed.
And he was right. We have changed. But lately, I've come to feel we're not as far down the road as many of us think we are. Even as Alabama does a bonanza business in civil rights tourism, the history feels nearer; the bigots in our grand American tapestry are not so neatly sown into the margins. They're right there in the middle. They have a place in the national party of bigotry.
One national political party does business with bigots - openly and in thinly-coded language.
One national party came to power on the strength of a regional strategy aimed at scratching the scars of the civil rights era till they bled, and delivered a stream of bloody-red electoral votes.
One national party tolerates bigoted speech at its national gatherings, on its mainstream blogs, and on the lips of its grand commentators and media wizards.
That party is the Republican Party - the only national party where bigotry is accepted and in some quarters, openly encouraged.
In what other political movement could a prominent commentator call another human being a "faggot" at a national conference and still possess a career or a pulpit; or worse, have apologists line up to wave it off as "humor." The Republican candidates all issued the usual statements about Ann Coulter's anti-gay attack on John Edwards, but they sounded like a platoon of little captains dressed like Claude Rains in Casablanca. Shocked, one and all.
"With a single word, Coulter sullied the hard work of hundreds of CPAC participants and exhibitors and tarred the collective reputation of thousands of CPAC attendees," mourned Michelle Malkin.
But Malkin's got it wrong - Coulter didn't sully the hard work of CPAC's tribe; she represented it. She didn't tar their collective reputation; she embodies it.
Keep in mind, these people cheered and applauded wildly after Coulter's remark. These are people who believe it was fair game, that they're fighting a righteous battle against the "homosexual agenda." Coulter didn't offend any of them.
Don't believe me? Go read the comments on Malkin's blog, or over at FreeRepublic, or any of the "mainstream" clubhouses where conservative Republicans hang their virtual hats. Or take a look at some of the hats and t-shirts they were selling in the hallways. Or watch MSNBC: I just watched Pat Buchanan call Coulter "courageous" and Tucker Carlson agreed with him. Intolerance sells to this crowd. Any candidate who speaks to CPAC must know that. Indeed, this was a return appearance for Coulter. They like her. Here's what she said last year, to raucous applause:
"I think our motto should be post-9-11, 'raghead talks tough, raghead faces consequences.'"
Coulter's word offended like a back-hand to the face of our political conscience, but Newt Gingrich showed what the real Republican Party apparatus thinks in his remarks about New Orleans at the self-same Conservative Political Action Conference. Hurricane Katrina, declared almost-candidate Gingrich, merely uncovered:
"...the failure of citizenship in the Ninth Ward, where 22,000 people were so uneducated and so unprepared, they literally couldn't get out of the way of a hurricane."
Mmmmm. Those folks in the Ninth Ward aren't good citizens. We get it, Newt. We get it. Ever since Reagan's successful and utterly calculated southern strategy, one party has leaned hard on its end of the pool table - and done its best to collect the bigot vote. As blogger John Cole - no liberal - puts it:
Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter are the same visible, high profile, symptom of the problem with what is modern ‘conservatism.’ Throw in Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, Dinesh D’Souza, and the rest, if you still don’t understand....the reason her comments are a problem is that the majority of the ‘conservative’ movement is dominated by people who think there is something wrong with homosexuality and that there are few things worse than being a “faggot.”
Prejudice doesn't leave us easily, and our collective march toward real civil rights is not as far along as many of us think. In this year's race for President, we have a woman, a black man, and a Mormon and each has taken the arrows of bigotry. After all, this is a country where Rush Limbaugh is a millionaire and Maureen Dowd collects a paycheck from the New York Times on the basis of her ability to stereotype; in her world, Barak Obama is a little boy in need of wise (white) counsel while Hillary Clinton is a "feral" woman, conniving and calcuating.
I started this post recalling a trip to Alabama for a reason. Two Democrats were in Selma this weekend to commemorate the historic march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge, and while the press played the civil rights gathering as a battle between the Clintons and Obama for the black vote (some truth to that), I was struck by how the entire legacy of civil rights is anathema to Republicans and conservatives. It was easy to recall how the conservative intellectuals of the 50s and 60s, led by a young William F. Buckley, opposed civil rights.
Their legacy is a party in which hate and intolerance are winked at, shrugged off as humor, used in barely-coded language, and celebrated in electoral victories as "true conservatism."
UPDATE: Digby, as usual, gets it right: "For forty years the Republicans have been winning elections by calling liberals "faggots" (and "dykes") in one way or another. It's what they do. To look too closely at what she said is to allow light on their very successful reliance on gender stereotypes to get elected."