It probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise. After all, as a conservative of fairly recent vintage, I’ve seen how easy it is for liberals, assisted by a compliant press, to cast ideological foes as moral reprobates and thus avoid engaging their ideas. Hadn’t it happened to a slew of judicial nominees, from Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas to, most recently, Thomas Pickering and Priscilla Owen—as well as to a long line of conservative politicians and social critics? Such attacks, coming as they do from those who assert their passionate tolerance, succeed because they are so hard to respond to. They are like the classic below-the-belt question: “When did you stop beating your wife?” But today’s underhanded question—“When did you become a sexist or a homophobe or (worst of all) a racist?”—is even more lethal: the accusatory word cuts short any argument and puts the target on the defensive, as those whom you’d expect to stand firm for principle melt away.
Again, I knew all this theoretically. But I truly didn’t know how bad it could be.
Then it happened to me.
To be sure, mine was a rather small-time case, a kind of mini-smear. Perpetrated in faraway Texas, it never made national headlines. Still, trust me, it was a gruesome thing to go through.
It came about as a result of a speech I gave in early May at the behest of a Dallas-based group called the National Center for Policy Analysis. Before receiving its invitation, I’d never heard of the NCPA, but its website described it as “a non-profit public policy research institute seeking innovative private sector solutions to public policy problems,” which sounded just fine, as did the honorarium. The group’s literature features photos of people like Texas senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and Wall Street Journal editorial-page editor Paul Gigot, and the other speaker on its “Spring 2002 Event Schedule,” co-sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, due later in the month.
I’d been invited to talk about a book of mine, called How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy (and Found Inner Peace). As the title suggests, it is a good-humored approach to a serious subject: the journey that I, like so many others these last 20 years or so, have taken, often to our own surprise, from the precincts of the Left toward neoconservatism. Having by now given eight or ten talks on the subject, I’d worked up a solid 20 minutes or so, a balance between personal anecdotal stuff and ruminations on the state of the culture and republic. It had always gone over well.
Thus it was that, at noon on May 9, I found myself in the auditorium of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. On hand, in addition to NCPA members and those from the Dallas Fed, I was told, was a contingent from the Federal Reserve’s San Francisco branch, with whom the Dallas bunch had been meeting that morning. At the pre-speech lunch, I was seated beside the individual responsible for my being there, a most agreeable guy named Bob McTeer, president and CEO of the Dallas Federal Reserve. As McTeer explained in his introductory remarks, he’d run across my book by chance, found it amusing and provocative, and thought I’d have some interesting things to say.
He didn’t know what he was getting himself into any more than I did.
As always, I began by reading from my book’s back cover a list of “How to Tell if You’ve Joined the ’Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy'”—things like:
—“You’re actually relieved that your daughter plays with dolls and your son plays with guns.”
—“You sit all the way through Dead Man Walking and at the end still want the guy to be executed.”
—“At your kids’ back-to-school night, you are shocked to discover the only dead white male on your tenth-grader’s reading list is Oscar Wilde.”
—“And by the end of the night you realize the only teacher who shares your values teaches phys ed.”
These got the requisite laughs and some nods of recognition, and I moved on to the meat of the talk. I described my hard-core left-liberal suburban childhood, how I grew up hearing of the heroics of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and rooting for sports teams based on how many blacks were on the roster; how, in college during Vietnam, my fellow student journalists and I, utterly certain of our own rectitude, cavalierly turned the school paper into a vehicle for New Leftism; and how, a few years later, views intact and the opposite of repentant, I was able to move seamlessly into mainstream journalism.
As was the case with so many others, I began to rethink things seriously only after I became a parent. I described how, in my case, the pivotal event was my wife’s decision to stay home with our baby, a choice all but unheard of in our circle of driven New York professionals, full of feminist moms spouting the then-prevailing wisdom that day care was actually best for infants. So when my editor at Esquire wondered if I might want to contribute to the magazine’s upcoming issue on women, I suggested a piece that would examine those assumptions, based on interviews with prominent pediatricians and child psychologists. In retrospect, the resultant piece was pretty mild, doing little more than posing questions about the possible long-term effects of early day care; but instead of bringing about the meaningful conversation I’d expected, the article prompted a ton of mail denouncing me as a vicious woman-hater.
As I told the Dallas audience, this experience proved only the first in a series of eye-openers about the degree of intolerance of the ostentatiously tolerant when it came to dissenting ideas on key social questions touching on race or sex. The fact that these are precisely the issues that most cry out for free and open debate seems to matter not at all. In the increasingly illiberal world of orthodox liberalism, competing ideas are answered not by argument but by a pose of moral superiority and by-the-book invective. In the end, this is the ugly, destructive essence of political correctness: it undermines the robust back-and-forth so essential to the democratic process.
I concluded the speech with a story about my son. As a high school sophomore, he had an English teacher, a white liberal, who began the unit on Huckleberry Finn by announcing that, though he was obliged to teach it, he wasn’t happy about it. It was a “racist” book, he said, the word “nigger” appearing with appalling frequency. There has, of course, been a lot of this lately. Twain’s masterpiece, a work not only famously cited by Ernest Hemingway as the progenitor of “all modern American literature” but widely esteemed as the most moving attack on racism ever written, routinely appears on lists put out by groups like the ACLU and People For the American Way of works under most sustained assault by book banners—a target, as columnist Michele Malkin succinctly observes, of those “too busy counting Twain’s words to understand them.”
Indeed, Twain himself wrote that he intended Huck’s growing recognition of Jim’s humanity to reflect the nation’s ongoing struggle with slavery’s legacy of deeply embedded racism. For any even semi-sentient reader, it is all there in the pivotal scene where Huck agonizes over whether to send the letter he’s written to Jim’s owners betraying the runaway slave, knowing that, as the beliefs of the time had it, failing to do so will mean forfeiting his soul: “I was a-trembling because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell,' and I tore it up.”
My son, already very familiar with the Twain classic, raised his hand and told the teacher that, in fact, it was an anti-racist book—indeed, one of the most powerful ever written. Thus began an increasingly heated back-and-forth that went on for a good 15 minutes, culminating with the teacher saying, “It’s clear you have to work on your racial sensitivity.” “Are you calling me a racist?” my son demanded, deeply aggrieved. When the teacher turned away, refusing to answer, he stalked out of class. He returned home from school that day remarking: “Well, I’m starting out with a C in that class, and working down from there”—a prophecy that proved, alas, all too accurate. But, as I told the Dallas crowd, I was never prouder of him in my life. That concluded my talk. I got a round of applause and waited for questions.
Immediately a black guy in the middle of the room stood up. Later identified as William Jones of the San Diego–based CityLink Investment Corporation, described in a Fed press release as “an enterprise that acquires, develops, and manages real estate ventures and helps to renew urban areas,” he announced that he didn’t have a question, but a statement. He said he was “very personally offended by your jokes about black people and your seemingly rationalizing the use of the word ‘nigger.' I’m a businessman, my wife is a prosecutor, my children go to college, we pay our taxes. The overgeneralization doesn’t really help to further what I think you really want, which is understanding.”
I stood there for a moment at the podium, stunned, not knowing how to respond. I hadn’t the slightest idea what I’d said to provoke such a response. Told jokes about black people? Not only had I not remotely done such a thing; the suggestion that I ever would was beyond outrageous. Rationalized the use of the word “nigger”? I was describing what had happened between my son and his teacher. It was the word Twain used, what the two of them were arguing about—the very point of the story!
Then, again, the tenor of his comment suggested that he perhaps hadn’t even really heard what I was saying, beyond the offending word. Or that if he had, what he truly found so distasteful was a discussion of race that, since it challenged liberal verities, struck him as both unfamiliar and deeply unsettling—and was therefore far easier to tag as “racist” than to confront with argument. But, too, something else was at play here: in this room full of white business executives, he was playing the race card. As the brilliant black social critic Shelby Steele observes, there is in this country a pervasive “adherence to good racial manners,” which dictates, among other things, that on matters of racial sensitivity blacks hold the moral upper hand; and that even when whites feel themselves blameless, the appropriate response to such a challenge is to defer, retreating in sober self-reflection, if not outright apology. In fact, for an increasing number of us, this is a key part of the problem—and one that should be called by its rightful name: condescension. Far from helping us address the many morally complex and deeply divisive issues involving race, it has the opposite effect of silencing those who question the liberal orthodoxy and otherwise cutting off meaningful dialogue.
I certainly had no intention of being confrontational, but I am not a racist and wasn’t about to back off from anything I’d said. After a moment’s hesitation, I replied that race was obviously a complicated and highly charged issue, but that it was one I thought essential to deal with openly and honestly. And while liberal voices tend to dominate the conversation, there were other voices that also needed to be heard more widely, ones that might take us beyond the familiar formulation of black victimhood/white guilt. For instance, perhaps he might look into what such black neo-cons as Shelby Steele and John McWhorter had to say on the subject. That was it. Unsettled as I was, I thought my response was more or less on point. After a few more questions, the Q&A session ended. I autographed some books, including McTeer’s, posed for a few photos, and, running late for my plane, made a dash for the exit. On the way out, a young woman from the NCPA intercepted me. What that guy had said was awful, she said, bristling. He was part of the California contingent, and it was as if he hadn’t heard a word I said.
Well, I offered, people out in that part of the world do tend to be so marinated in P.C. that they often find different ideas deeply shocking. I joked that it was just lucky I’d had the presence of mind not to include another of my “How to Tell” observations: “Someone’s going on about how fantastic San Francisco is, and it suddenly hits you that’s the one place on earth you never want to live.”
I laughed too soon. The next day, back home in Westchester, I picked up the phone and found a guy from the NCPA on the other end. “Something’s come up,” he said, clearly shaken. “You’re going to be hearing from a reporter named Mike Lee from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.”
Not liking the sound of this, I didn’t wait but called the reporter first.
In retrospect, I’d have been better advised first to call a friend of mine, Stephen Michaud, a reporter at the Star-Telegram himself from 1994 to 1998. As he told me when I reached him while researching this piece, in its approach to social issues, and especially race, the Star-Telegram is a model of heavy-handed P.C. “When the current executive editor came in, he sent around a memo saying we were all to heighten our P.C. awareness and diversity sensitivity. This was to be a line item in annual job reviews, and it was to extend even to the copy editors, though no one could explain how copy editors could increase a newspaper’s coverage of diversity.”
When I called him, Mike Lee got right to the point. They had reports that I’d made racially inflammatory statements, he said. What did I have to say about that?
I replied that it was absurd and explained in some detail exactly what the speech had been about.
Well, might I have inadvertently made offensive remarks?
Look, I told him, starting to get seriously upset but trying to hide it, it’s not the first time I’ve given this speech. I know what I said. It’s based on my book: why don’t you take a look at that?
But my heart was sinking further by the second. Clearly, I thought, the story was essentially pre-written. I was about to be accused of racism. To be smeared on this of all subjects! I’ve cared passionately about racial justice as long as I can remember—every bit as much today as when I was a teenage civil rights worker, picketing and singing “We Shall Overcome.” Would it have been worth bothering to explain that to this guy? Or, indeed, that my ideological shift was brought on in part by my belated recognition that liberalism’s feel-good, shopworn approaches to the race question, so reliant on the proposition that you can solve discrimination by discriminating against someone else, could only increase racial animosity?
No, none of that mattered. “This is disgraceful,” I told him instead. “It’s Kafkaesque, and I want you to quote me on that.”
For just a moment I thought I might have actually gotten through. Well, he allowed, he was still trying to track down those who’d attended the session; he’d call to give me a chance to respond to any complaints before he wrote up the piece.
Early the following week, I heard from a friend who lives in Dallas. “What the hell did you say down here?”
Mike Lee’s article, co-written with a staffer for the paper in Washington, was an exceedingly nasty piece of work, a catalog of half-truths and insinuations, profoundly unfair, but also rather deft, in that none of that was readily apparent to the untrained eye. Starting on page one and running over 1,100 words, it began with a fundamental mischaracterization of what had occurred and took off from there: “Federal Reserve Bank directors from the Dallas and San Francisco districts were stunned when a conservative author’s luncheon speech at the Dallas bank turned into a lecture about political correctness, blacks, gays, and women who put their children in day care.”
Throughout, things I had said were taken out of context, stripped of tone and otherwise misrepresented. Lee had been granted access to a video of the speech but was highly selective in what he used. On the key issue, the Huck Finn anecdote, the point I was making is nowhere to be found, but Jones’s noble-sounding declaration—with its damning accusation about my “seemingly rationalizing of the word ‘n——-' ”—is quoted in full. (In fact, that’s the only reason I can reproduce it verbatim here.) Of course, my response goes unrecorded. What, then, had provoked Jones’s outburst in the first place? “[Stein] also described an argument his son had with a teacher about Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and repeated a racial slur that is in the book.”
Jones evidently refused further comment for the article, but the reporters played big a statement they elicited from a spokesperson for his associate, Robert Parry, the head of the San Francisco Fed, to the effect that Parry had “found the speaker’s choice of words to be offensive and inappropriate for a gathering held at a Federal Reserve bank.” Needless to say, no one who actually liked the speech was quoted; but, in the sort of flimsy pretense to fairness such reporters describe as balance, the “conservative author” who’d “stunned” the gathering with his “offensive” and “inappropriate” remarks is allowed a single quotation in self-defense: “ ‘When I was telling the Huck Finn story, he just heard the n-word,' Stein said. ‘Ninety-five percent of the people in that room got it.' ” But lacking the essential context that my point was the book’s powerful anti-racist message, even the most astute reader surely wondered: Got what?
It is truly a sickening feeling being slandered in this way, the outrage mixing with a profound sense of helplessness. Yet rereading the article, I finally grasped something else: I was not really the main target here. Bob McTeer was.
A quick visit to the Internet shows why. Well liked and well respected, with a squeaky-clean reputation, he is a favorite of conservatives, and has been described as “the leader of the free enterprise fed.” “Alone among FOMC members,” notes Lawrence Kudlow in a March 2002 column, “McTeer uses real-time financial and commodity advice to guide his policy views. . . . [I]t remains unlikely that Alan Greenspan will serve out his full term as Fed chairman through 2004. To promote non-inflationary growth and monetary reform, why not Bob McTeer?”
And, sure enough, there it all was near the top of the Star-Telegram story: “Bob McTeer, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, quickly apologized to his colleagues, but the flap has reached officials in Washington, D.C., where McTeer, popular for his folksy manner and steadfast belief in free markets, has been considered a possible successor to Fed chairman Alan Greenspan.”
In fact, McTeer—whose photo illustrates the piece—is a very classy guy, and his apology-under-duress proved to be about as tepid as they come: “ ‘I personally didn’t think [the author] was out of line,' McTeer said, but added, ‘I regret it and I’m sorry that it happened.' ”
Over subsequent days, as other papers around the state not only picked up the story but cast it in ever uglier terms, each of them similarly featured McTeer as a principal. The Dallas Morning News story, appearing the following day, began: “In a speech on political correctness last week, conservative author Harry Stein made comments about affirmative action, blacks, gays and feminism that offended some audience members, including several members of the Dallas and San Francisco Federal Reserve Banks. Of particular offense to some was Mr. Stein’s use of a derogatory racial term for blacks.” The article added that the speech “had also caught the attention of lawmakers in Washington” and quoted Representative Ken Bentsen (D-Houston), a member of the House Financial Services Committee, as observing that “the incident could ‘have the potential of hurting' Mr. McTeer in Senate confirmation hearings.” In addition, there was the report in the Austin American-Statesman, which, after dutifully reporting that I had “repeated a racial slur,” added, “In Washington, a spokesman for the Federal Reserve declined to say whether McTeer faced disciplinary action as a result of the speech, which shocked people in the audience.”
Hardly incidentally, the beleaguered McTeer now came forth with a new and stronger statement, saying, “Certain derogatory terms for racial and religious minorities are so inflammatory and offensive that they have no place in a serious policy discussion. Our speaker’s use of these words deeply offended many present.”
Given the pressure McTeer was under, I understood and even sympathized. But of course the damage was done. Should he ever be nominated for higher office, there is now a potentially fatal landmine buried in his record.
Watching it all from afar, emotionally involved yet physically detached, I was struck most by the alacrity with which so many who might have done the right thing ducked for cover. Particularly notable for its inaction was the NCPA, an independent organization—unlike the Fed—and ostensibly libertarian. Though I did get a couple of e-mails from members of the group who’d been present, remarking on the irony of a speech decrying political correctness itself being subject to the most heavy-handed P.C.—one rightly referred to McTeer as having been “Borked”—the group’s leaders were silent, failing to stand up and publicly decry the false accusations of racism against its invited speaker.
It didn’t take long for things to settle down. After a few days, there was no further mention of the episode in the papers. Though I was told that staffers for the racially opportunistic Maxine Waters, who sits on the House Committee on Financial Services, which oversees the Fed, were calling around about the episode, barring the 61-year-old McTeer’s nomination to a top post, it would likely not surface publicly again.
Why then bring it up here? I do not, believe me, have a martyr complex; for a while there, the mere mention of the city of Dallas—even of the Texas Rangers baseball team—made my heart skip a beat.
Still, the mere fact that this calumny is out there, on the record, makes my blood boil. My wife and kids are incensed. Reluctant as I was to get into it all again, the thought that this slur would be allowed to win the day is enough not to let me just walk away.
Working the phone to report this article strengthened my resolve. William Jones of San Francisco, the man whose remarks after my speech started it all, never returned my calls. I did reach Mike Lee, the reporter for the Star-Telegram, who picked up his own phone. In the 15 or so minutes we talked, there were many silences from his end, repeated suggestions that I take the matter up with his editor, and a slew of non-answers. Why hadn’t he called back as he said he would? “I thought I did. It’s been a while.” You saw a video of the speech: was there anything even remotely racist about it? “I don’t think we called you a racist.” But you very strongly implied I was, didn’t you? That was certainly the impression everyone seemed to get. A very long silence. “I think you should talk to Lois,” he said for the fourth time.
I did. Lois Norder, the Star-Telegram’s northeast editor, embodied every one of the attitudes—the smug self-assurance, the presumption to superior virtue, the pose (in the face of an avalanche of evidence to the contrary) of disinterested objectivity—that makes so many dislike today’s mainstream press. Her position was that since the paper had never explicitly called me a racist (or, at any rate, hadn’t used the actual word), my complaints about the piece’s objectivity were unfounded. When I asked Norder whether she herself thought Huck Finn was a racist book, her frigid, expressionless voice got even flatter. “The story is well sourced,” she said dismissively. “The story is fair.”
“Fair! Doesn’t the truth of what happened even matter? You guys wanted to stir up a controversy when there wasn’t anything there—and that’s what you did!” She didn’t miss a beat. “As a journalist, you should understand that someone involved in something does not have an unbiased view. You’re seeing it through your filter. Our job is not to see it through any filter.”
So there it was: not only was I (at the very least) racially insensitive; I wasn’t even a serious person. And what was most unsettling, finally, was that the woman probably wasn’t even being cynical. Given her conception of her role as a journalist, she probably didn’t experience a flicker of self-doubt or bad conscience; after all, the P.C. filter through which she sees the world not only presumes that every accusation of bigotry is valid but that anyone who doesn’t toe the liberal line is fair game. Weeks after my speech, someone who was present wrote me a supportive letter. Given the shameful dénouement of the whole episode, he observed, “It is a miracle the story didn’t end up on page one above the fold in the New York Times.”
Point well taken. Then, again, who knows? Should McTeer be nominated for high office or the need otherwise arise, it could still happen.