Decades ago when I was a graduate student, I found myself in one of those extended bull sessions of a kind to which grad students in political science are prone, with half a dozen people discussing everything from texts in political philosophy to current affairs. When the topic turned to affirmative action, the ablest proponent of racial preferences for minorities happened to be the one black fellow in the room, while I was the most vocal opponent of them. We went at it with gusto for quite a while, until the other fellow, perhaps feeling his side's argument slipping into defeat, punched in the nuclear launch code. He said, “Matt, the more we talk the more I think that you don't like black people.” Luckily for me, this sudden personalization of the discussion did not stun me into insensibility, for quick as a flash I replied, “No, Alvin, that's not it at all; I just don't like you.” He hesitated for a moment, then realized what I had done and began to laugh uproariously. So did I, and then everyone else as well. A tense moment had passed.
Of course, I had answered one unfair argumentative gambit with another. He had no reason to suggest I was racist, and I got along with him just fine. But I remember the episode after all these years because it exemplified an abiding temptation to impute the worst motivations to others just because they disagree with you, and maybe particularly when your cause seems weak. I'm afraid it must be said that for today's American liberals—perhaps especially black liberals, though most understandably in their case—the greatest temptation of this kind is to call critics of President Obama racist, when there is absolutely no call for it.
Succumbing in the worst way to this temptation is Colbert King, in his Washington Post column today. King is upset by Senator Tom Cotton over his open letter to Iranian leaders, and with all the Republicans who joined him by signing it. King believes they are behaving irresponsibly at a dangerous moment in our relations with Iran, and that they have outrageously and dishonorably interfered with the president's conduct of our foreign relations. About all these propositions, King is perfectly entitled to vent his spleen—the only thing needful being the arguments to back them up, from the Constitution or history or general moral principles.
What King is not entitled to do—and I don't mean he lacks the legal right of free speech here but that he is not morally entitled to do it—is this:
The spirit of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s opinion in the 1857 Dred Scott decision—that blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”—has descended upon the administration of President Obama.
He goes on to say that “Republicans are telling the world that this president has no authority that they feel ‘bound to respect.'” And in case your eyes glazed as you skimmed past the explicit earlier reference to Taney, King concludes by saying that Cotton et al. are guilty of “an obscene Republican abuse of power. Chief Justice Taney, I suspect, would approve.”
I get that Colbert King is angry. I get that he, a seventy-five-year-old black man who has served his country in and out of uniform and written a column on politics for many years, is extremely proud that a black man is president for the first time. I get that he holds that certain norms of ethical behavior ought to govern partisan politics and that he believes they have been breached in this case. (I won't even pause for a “hypocrisy check” on whether King has always argued and behaved as though he believes in such norms himself.)
But if Colbert King wants to make his case, he simply must refrain from the kind of poisonous and utterly groundless accusation of racism that his anger leads him to make here. There is absolutely zero evidence that Senator Tom Cotton, or any of the other signatories to his letter, believes that black people have “no rights which the white man [is] bound to respect.” There is simply no credible case of any kind that Cotton et al. are anti-Obama because they are anti-black, or want to undermine the nation's first black president because he is the nation's first black president. Tossing off angry references to Taney and Dred Scott injects the worst kinds of toxins into our public discourse, making ordinary, sharply stated political disagreements into recapitulations of great historic crimes. It is the twin sibling of the argumentum ad Hitlerum. And it is exactly the opposite of a persuasive argument, for anyone but one's littlest platoon of fellow true believers (who don't need persuading anyway).
Tom Cotton and his colleagues don't have a problem with black people. They have a problem with Barack Obama's foreign policy. That is all.