When many conservatives were jumping on the bandwagon declaring Sotomayor to be a racist/racialist, I marveled at the short-sighted, self-defeating nature of the attacks. Of course, the bigger problem was that these charges against Sotomayor were baseless and ridiculous, and conservatives who kept propagating them were discrediting themselves and were distracting from the legitimate objections to the nominee’s judicial philosophy. What was more striking about the campaign to derail Sotomayor, which failed yesterday as everyone knew it would, was how it opened conservatives up to the most absurd, baseless charges of racism and lowered the standard by which an idea, statement or action should be considered racist. Now Paul Krugman has managed to discern racial antagonism in the vocal, sometimes obnoxious opposition to Democratic health care legislation at town hall meetings. Krugman writes:

But they’re probably reacting less to what Mr. Obama is doing, or even to what they’ve heard about what he’s doing, than to who he is.

You might call this Krugman’s Hatchet: no matter how many other reasonable explanations may account for conservative behavior, the real cause is always racial panic.

The point is not that Krugman would not have made an argument like this had the opposition to Sotomayor not been centered around her non-existent racism, but that Krugman and the like always make these arguments and the attacks on Sotomayor have made it virtually impossible for the public to take conservatives seriously after they so cavalierly threw the same charges against Sotomayor. Conservatives will reject Krugman’s attack as the nonsense that it is, but every conservative who hallucinated Sotomayor’s racism/racialism doesn’t have much of a credible defense. Indeed, these conservatives will be reduced to saying that their outrage over Sotomayor’s non-existent racism was just as manufactured as Krugman’s claims are unfounded. If Sotomayor’s really unremarkable “wise Latina” statement is proof of abiding anti-white racism, as so many pundits on the right have claimed and as at least one of the Senators voting nay insisted during the floor debate, “code”-breaking liberals are going to have a field day with every anti-Obama statement any conservative makes. Having watered down what constitutes racism so much to try unsuccessfully to trip up Sotomayor, these conservative critics cannot credibly refute Krugman et al. when they impute motives to their opponents just as the critics foolishly imputed them to Sotomayor.

The clever thing in accusing someone of “racial anxiety,” as Krugman does to the protesters against health care legislation, is that it is as hard to disprove as a conspiracy theory. No matter what explanation one provides for the intensity of opposition to Democratic health care proposals, the “real” reason for such intense opposition must be found somewhere else. One simple explanation might be this: the protesters are die-hard partisans who want to thwart Democratic initiatives as much as they can. Another might be that they see the proposed legislation as another advance towards a socialistic system that they find unacceptable and un-American on an ideological level (which may also explain the cries of “This is America!”). (The importance of Americanism as the driving force of much of the right cannot be overestimated in all of this.) There may be a more mundane, practical reason for opposing the plan, such as having a strong desire not to pay for it. It is possible that Middle Americans who have seen wealthy and powerful interests saved in one bailout after another have reached their limit with the concentration of power in Washington and the collusion between government and corporate interests, and they are reacting reflexively against any new large government spending commitments. It could also be the case that protesters are acting on exaggerated or misleading information that was designed to inspire outrage, which could help account for the vehemence of some of the protests. Of course, none of this is sufficient for Krugman, who must always see everything on the right in terms of racial resentment. As usual when he writes about politics, he is making it all up and pretending to know something about what drives the other side of the debate, when it is merely what he prefers to believe are the motives of his opponents.

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