Friday, May 28, 2010
Leonard Pitts' Way Back Machine
Patrick McIlheran is properly put out by Leonard Pitts' column claiming that Rand Paul's musings about the Civil Rights Act prove, once again, that social conservatives are always "against us" - "us" being African Americans. Pitts cites arguments against the Act made by segregationists like Richard Russell which, in his view, are similar to Paul's defense of private property.
Pitts commits two errors - a category mistake and an anachronistic fallacy. First, it is not clear to me that Paul is a social conservative. He is pro-life, but there is a huge tension between social conservatives and libertarians. (The most preeminent social conservative in the academy, Robbie George, recently referred to libertarianism as "heresy.") More fundamentally, Richard Russell and other Southern Democrats who opposed the civil rights acts were not necessarily "conservatives" in the sense that we use the term today. They were often progressives who tended to support New Deal and Fair Deal policies. Russell, for example, had little or no concern about limiting the power of the federal government or respecting private property in other areas. He was a staunch supporter of the New Deal and considered his most important legislative accomplishment to be the National School Lunch Act of 1946.
Second, it makes little sense to speculate about what Sarah Palin or some other contemporary conservative "would have" done in 1964. Their political views have been formed during a time - and consistently with - a national consensus that racial discrimination is wrong. (In fact, opposition to affirmative action is an application of that principle, albeit not one that all of those who oppose racial discrimination accept.)These people are what they are. Pitts doesn't like them. But it is intellectually dishonest to smear them by imagining that, if they were different people born at a different time, they would have taken positions that they do not, in fact, take.