I’ve been mulling over Dan McCarthy’s rich meditation on intellectual splits in the right, evoked by the Jack Hunter controversy. Salon editor Joan Walsh was right to observe that the attack on Hunter was really an attack on Rand Paul for his father’s skepticism about imperial wars and American obeisance to the Israel, a skepticism assumed to have been at least partially transmitted to his more mainstream son. The writers who have gone to town in attacking Hunter—Alana Goodman, Jamie Kirchik, Jennifer Rubin—are all well-entrenched in right-wing Zionist advocacy journalism. Though photographs of a top Senate aide in a Confederate mask do make for entertaining imagery on the local news, no one else seems to care very much.

Walsh notes that in the modern GOP there are leaders “correct on the righteousness” of the Civil War or the Iraq War, “but rarely both.” If, as she and I assume, the smart positions are pro-Lincoln and anti-George W. Bush, the simple explanation is that northern moderates are now rare in the Republican Party. Five of the seven GOP members of Congress who voted against the Iraq war resolution were moderates from non-Confederate states, unlikely to have Stonewall Jackson memorabilia in their dens. Add to them Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chaffee, the sole GOP senator to speak out against the Iraq War, and you have a fairly representative slice of the vanishing brand of moderate Republicanism, absent perhaps its Rockefeller-Jacob Javits pro-Israel wing.

The intellectual skeins of this transformation may be tangled, but the result is not: a cultural transformation in what sort of racism is accepted, and often admired, in Washington, and what sort merits the most vicious condemnation. One of Dan McCarthy’s commenters, Neil Murray, makes this point:

Lots of political battles are just Who? Whom? pillowfights
where different classes of Americans hash out their fears, anxieties and prejudices of one another underneath the guarded language of “positions” and “ideologies”. Both the witch-hunt against Jack Hunter and Jack’s position on the Civil War might be partly explained by his Southern background. Like neo-conservative support for Israel, the position is as much a result of identity as it is from ideology.

In the early decades of the last century, the wounds of the Civil War were salved: the bloody shirts put away, as business enterprises acquired national scope under a somewhat unified Protestant upper class. Carolinians and Virginians began to matriculate to Harvard and Yale in great numbers, and the heirs of abolitionists learned to look the other way at the South’s increasingly noxious racial segregation practices. The ability of southern blacks to enjoy the rights of citizenship was given about as much consideration, even by powerful northern liberals in FDR’s time, as the right of West Bank Palestinians to attend a university without being harassed at Israeli checkpoints or denied visas to travel and return is given today. That is to say, virtually none.

The blunt truth is that the attack on Hunter was less an exercise in anti-racism than it was the use of anti-racist tropes to shore up American support for Israeli racism, growing out the vague fear that Rand Paul might not be terribly interested in investing American resources for this purpose.

It might be tiresome here to replay the myriad and growing number of laws, practices, and statements which justify labeling Israel as “racist”—they are aptly summarized in the new Israeli demand that the world recognize Israel as a “Jewish” state rather than as a state for all its citizens with (or without) a Jewish majority. Probably many Israelis realize that the ethnic particularism in that demand is, for both better and worse, an anachronism in the democratic West today. “We are all multiculturalists now,” Nathan Glazer wrote some 20 years ago. Except, he might have added, where Israel is concerned.

I see no great moral distinction between the Southern segregation apologist who wants the federal government out his state’s business and the American Zionist who wants America to butt out of Israel’s ongoing ethnic cleansing operation, while, of course, continuing to give it financial and diplomatic support it can receive nowhere else. The important distinction is that the supporters of Netanyahu’s government are culturally powerful in American politics, the supporters of the Old South (either antebellum, or ante-civil-rights revolution) far less so.