Words evolve over time in fairly well-defined ways, linguists have learned. Back in the waning years of the Roman Empire, the Germanic Visigoths came into Europe from the east, sacked Rome and settled in Spain. After they converted to Christianity, they treated people of other religions badly. Later, others who treated people similarly were sometimes called Visigoths. Thus their name survived in language and, changing in the manner of other words, comes down to us as the word bigot.1
We all feel we know what a bigot is. The definition in Wikipedia is as good as any: A bigot is a prejudiced person who is intolerant of opinions, lifestyles, or identities differing from his or her own. Today, most people on the left half of the political spectrum would use as examples of bigots the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), the Nazis, skinheads, anti-Semites in general, etc., and view those groups as being on the right half of the spectrum. Nowadays, some people would add to the list people who’s views they regard as sexist or homophobic. Really, though, all of that is a rather myopic outlook on the subject.
The 1960s were more an experience than a decade. It was a time when people really shook up the country, basically a good thing. Civil Rights, Ban the Bomb, End the War in Vietnam, Women’s Liberation — all good things, not revolutionary things, but movements insisting on the basic rights and liberties that are supposed to be fundamental in the United States. Lasting changes resulted from them, both in terms of law and social attitudes. Not all wrongs were righted, by any means, but anyone who sneers at the changes isn’t living in the real world. Those of us who lived through it and participated in making those changes learned a lot, and many of us went off in new directions because of it.
Unfortunately, many participants came through the experience with a cocky attitude, feeling that their new knowledge and ideas were the cat’s meow, and that they had nothing else to learn. They wanted to keep the momentum going, steam-rolling over all opposition. Shall we say, humility was lacking. In addition to trouncing some old bigotries — Jim Crow laws; a woman’s place being in the home, barefoot and pregnant; love-it-or-leave-it jingoism; Jewish quotas — a whole crop of new bigotries sprang up, some sooner, some later. Regrettably, the left and its fellow travelers, who might now call themselves progressives, radicals or maybe liberals (for the sake of simplicity, I’ll just call them the left, unless the distinctions matter), must shoulder a major part of the blame. The proponents were determined to do what they wanted and everyone else should just “get used to it.” After Roe v. Wade and the free availability of abortion, various religious elements showed their true bigoted nature when they tried to force their views about abortion on everyone else; the left et al. were the good guys here. They don’t fare so well on many other issues.
Some elements from the counterculture/anti-war movement/women’s liberation/left moved off into things like environmentalism, vegetarianism, feminism and animal rights. All well and good, you do what you want; I’ll do what I want. However, that wasn’t good enough for many them. Like the anti-abortionists, it has to be their way or no way, and other streams of bigotry started flowing.
The women’s liberation was a powerful and necessary civil rights struggle to bring to women the rights and equality promised to all in this country. However, after the main foundation was laid for progress on this front, the movement was captured by middle-class, radical and lesbian women, and transformed into the female-centric feminist movement. It lost its focus on how society would benefit from women’s equality and focused on issues that participants said would benefit women.
Feminists made broad-brush criticisms of men as the villains, regardless of whether individuals were actually guilty of such heinous crimes. The feminists, especially the radicals, were so narrowly and self-righteously focused that they were willing to undermine and sacrifice fundamental liberties, never mind the long-term consequences, such as trying to silence any speech that they determined was bad, like pornography. Radical feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon allied themselves with the political right and advocated anti-pornography laws (struck down in the U.S. because of First Amendment violations) and spent a lot of effort getting such a law passed in Canada. It was rewarding to hear that one of the first applications of that law was to challenge one of Dworkin’s own books, giving her a dose of her own medicine. Unfortunately, the law caused a lot of headaches and expense for other authors.
One goal of women’s liberation was to open traditionally male jobs to women, especially since the pay was better than traditionally female jobs. Industrial jobs started accepting women and, while there was a little resistance from some people, most male workers accepted it. After all, those women were their wives, sisters, cousins and even their mothers, and they wanted the women to succeed. Enter feminism: they wanted to change the workplace to suit themselves. They pushed ideas that went beyond equality to try to restrict the language of the shop and to define other practices that they felt amounted to harassment or creating a hostile work environment. This was very divisive and created hostility and resentment towards women in the shop that hadn’t existed previously or had started breaking down.
The situation feminists (among other self-righteous groupings) caused in the universities was even worse. Providing an equal opportunity for all qualified people of any race or gender is what universities should have been providing all along, but did not. This needed changing and has been changed, however imperfectly, in some cases. Unfortunately, the reality went far beyond that. The overall philosophy of education was attacked, speech codes were put in place, individuals were pilloried for saying things that feminists found offensive and faculty members were condemned for not following the guidelines of the radicals. Given the gender-based nature of the feminist mode of operation, it is thoroughly legitimate to classify it as a sexist2 ideology. The closed-mindedness of many feminists to other ideas and the vehemence with which they insist that others follow feminist philosophy exclusively moves well into the domain of bigotry.3
I wish the feminists were the only modern Visigoths. Animal rights and environmental preservation are issues many of us can support. It’s great that there is vigorous public discussion on these subjects, and even better that laws and regulations have been put in place to protect animals and the ecosystems in which this country exists. However some people are insistent that their extreme positions on these issues are the only ones. They think it is justified to spray-paint the fur clothing that people own, and worse, some have become underground terrorists using arson and bombings as their methods of persuasion. They are bigots, pure and simple, and are no different from the KKK burning Black churches or anti-abortionists burning clinics or killing doctors.
How do liberals react if someone questions global warming? The person is accused of idiocy, being blind to science, of not recognizing that it’s a settled issue. The person should go see Al Gore’s movie! (The same Al Gore, by the way, whose wife Tipper conducted a campaign to censor the lyrics of rock-and-roll music.) Unfortunately for political correctness on this issue, climate is very complex, and new scientific information is emerging all of the time. Even if we accept that temperatures are rising because of human activities, we are then facing the prospect of tinkering with the weather, something science knows nothing about. For example, in a 2005 article in Scientific American,4 the author makes an excellent case about how humans have warmed up the climate over the last 9,000 years. However, he makes an equally good analysis of the natural climate cycles of the planet and shows that if it weren’t for global warming, the planet would be getting ready to enter the next ice age. So if that scientist is correct, we must ask ourselves the questions:
Knee-jerk opinioneering has become very common, with quick formation of the politically correct ideology, without giving careful thought as to whether or not the opinion is soundly based. To choose the most blatant example of such things, we have all of these peace-loving people who just know that anyone who owns a gun must be evil and violent. Whenever a criminal shoots someone, all gun owners are implicated in the crime, so their firearms ought to be banned and seized. They pay no attention to legitimate research that shows, overwhelmingly, that privately, legally owned firearms are used defensively, to save lives from criminals, or that laws allowing people to carry guns reduce crime, not increase it. No mater that restrictive laws only restrict those who obey them, the law-abiding, not criminals, who would flout them. Only the police should have guns, no matter that a policeman is many times more likely to shoot the wrong person than an armed private citizen.
Gun control laws throughout American history have been passed primarily to keep Blacks helpless in the face of exploitation and the terror of the KKK and kindred groups. In recent years, the bigotry of those who pass them is the same, even though the explicit target may be different. The fact that the founders of the US, the creators of the Bill of Rights, put much thought into crafting a prohibition of the government interfering with private gun ownership, many leftists are as willing to throw it away as many feminists are willing to discard freedom of speech. Actually studying the history involved has been deemed unnecessary; guns must be bad because we like peace, not violence, and gun owners must be evil, also. Those liberals and fellow travelers are so quick to classify and denigrate; we’ve all seen the political cartoons indicating that everyone in a pick-up truck with a rifle rack must be some ignorant, reactionary, racist, beer-bellied country bumpkin.
The unwillingness to admit that others might have a valid opinion, that anyone who disagrees must be somehow inferior or malevolent, has become its own form of bigotry: the assumption of prejudice in others. Those who would like to see the immigration laws of the United States enforced are called racists by some. Has it been shown that, other than a few possible screwballs, the folks who favor this enforcement have a racial animus? No not at all. Being intellectually tolerant of other ideas, even disagreeable ones and the people who hold them, is a lot more important than feeling smugly righteous in one’s own ideas. It sounds like a platitude, but the practical effect of so many people, on the right and on the left, not acting with more tolerance has been devastating to the political culture of the country. Unfortunately, too many people coming out of the ’60s with the most correct ideas and solutions are some of the worst villains in the destruction of civil political discourse.
While the social upheaval of the 1960s brought many positive things to the country, the negatives cannot be ignored, not without being dishonest. With the Old (socialist/communist) Left in disarray, the New Left (that many of us in the Old Left disliked all along) has succeeded in being the parent of much of what I criticize here, although many from the Old Left must share some of the blame for caving in to these trends and not fighting them hard enough.
People on the left were not the only ones who learned from the ’60s, however. The political right learned, too, and has borrowed many of the same tactics, including the worst ones, the self-righteousness and the bigotry, although with a different flavor. The left/feminist desire to ban things dovetails well with conservative desires to do the same. The liberals of today are very different from the liberals of yore. They are much less liberal. After all, John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey were members of the NRA. They also had strong support for unions and were pretty broad-minded, despite being Cold Warriors.
Consider the Clinton administration, the only one passing for liberal in recent decades. It was that administration that passed NAFTA, the Internet Decency Act and required all TV sets to have the V-Chip, regardless of whether the buyers wanted it or not. Many on the left did not show the spine to distance themselves from the Clintons, despite those laws, despite the catastrophe of their health care initiative, Bill’s peccadilloes and dishonesty, and fell hook, line and sinker for the gun control laws of 1993 and 1994. The self-righteousness of the left played its part in allowing the similar attitudes flowing from the right to justify themselves and not seem as outrageous as they really were.
If bigotry is OK for one part of the political spectrum, then it’s hard to criticize another part for acting similarly. How are speech codes any better than introducing religion into the public schools? How is it any better to deny people’s right to be armed than it is to deny people’s right to have an abortion? (It’s interesting that the same people who criticize conservatives for not supporting education programs on sex education recoil from programs for children about firearms safety.) What policy one favors is much less important than whether one tries to force that policy on others. The way right-wing talk radio has so successfully blossomed and acted sanctimoniously was paved by the left acting the same way earlier in the areas where they were so certain that they were so absolutely correct.
A few years ago I bought a CD of songs by Stephen Foster. With one exception, it’s a very beautiful album. The exception is that all of Foster’s songs written in the Black dialect of his time were reduced to instrumentals. Political correctness strikes again! For fear of having a ruckus raised by self-righteous loudmouths, the album’s publisher simply eliminated the lyrics. It might sound like a trivial thing to complain about some missing lyrics, but the bigotry of the complainers and the cowardice of the publisher combine to do real harm.
A little history is in order. Foster grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When he was a boy, he was already musical. In the area, there was a community of free Blacks, and when Foster walked through the city, he would stop and listen outside the Black church and loved the music. He was invited in and got to know the people and their music personally.
When Foster grew up and tried to make a living as a song writer, he naturally wrote for minstrel shows, for it was a large market for music in those times. However, he had an increasing dislike to the black-face songs that depicted Blacks as simple, happy caricatures. Foster contributed songs that were different. His songs, written in dialect, showed Blacks as having the same feelings and emotions as everyone else. However small a step that might have been in showing the humanity of African-Americans to the rest of the country, it is a part of our history. Censoring that history because some people don’t happen to like some lyrics is truly shameful.
People on the left like to think of themselves as progressive and trying to create a better world. While the goals might be lofty, there is definitely an ugly side. There is a distinct lack of rationality in the thinking of many people to the left of center. (Similar things happen on the right, as well, but the left has often posed as being a little more scientific.) Gun control is an example of this. Liberals and others have adopted this for many years, but there is nothing in the real world that supports to their arguments, no evidence that any of the supposed goals of the laws are met. The supporters of gun control never look back on the results of past laws to see if they accomplished something good. Worst of all is the lack of consideration for the effort that the founders of this country put into protecting the liberties we enjoy. All of the efforts to ban this or restrict that amount to squandering our heritage.
No part of the political spectrum is immune from being bigoted. Regardless of how worthy one’s goals, it doesn’t excuse forcing one’s ideas on others; there is no such thing as a “good” bigot. Rage and victimhood do not justify prejudice, and those who are practicing prejudice are in no position to criticize prejudice in others. This will effect the future of the left. Many within this group dislike such characteristics when they emanate from elsewhere on the political spectrum, but can’t or won’t see it themselves, and are unable to see how unattractive they appear from the outside. They can’t see how unlikely it is for people who might otherwise agree with some of the lofty goals of the the left to become a part of it. Millions of people who would otherwise vote for the Democrats have been forced into the arms of the Republicans because of those self-righteous attitudes. When the good guys are doing the right thing, it’s easy to tell them from the bad guys. When they aren’t, then there are no good guys.
The one and only good thing about the self-righteous practices emanating from all quarters is that bigotry is a curable disease. People can change their behavior. There’s nothing wrong with fighting for your principles; it’s a high calling. Convince as many people as you can! It’s necessary to remember, however, that other people have principles, too, and they might differ from yours. Since none of us is a superior being, we need to be able to say “I’ll live by my principles, you live by yours, and we’ll get along.” We supposedly live in a democracy, where the majority rules. At the same time, we need to avoid the “tyranny of the majority,” in which one group forces its principles or religious views or ideology on the other 49%. “To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical” said Thomas Jefferson. Our government is structured the way it is, in part, to prevent such tyranny.
The country is in a bad place today. The political landscape is very polarized; everyone is talking but few are listening. Progress won’t be made in this atmosphere. It’s in this kind of environment that those with wealth and money prevail because there is no unity among people to oppose them. People to the left of the center will need to wake up and recognize their responsibility in bringing us into the current circumstances, and recognize the need to do things differently. As Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
|2||The word “sexist” is a shorthand for “sexual prejudice,” meaning using a person’s sex or gender as the basis for some action or judgment about the person, as opposed to using more relevant facts about the person. In the same manner, “racist” would be short for “racial prejudice.” The root of our word prejudice is the Latin “praejudicare,” judging in advance of the facts. Unfortunately, both words have been severely abused. Many people have been accused of being sexist for making remarks that were sexual in nature. Such remarks are perhaps rude and out of place, but not strictly sexist. Most commonly, both of the words sexist and racist are hurled as epithets at people who simply disagree with the people making the accusations and are not doing or saying anything involving prejudice. It has also become common in recent decades to accuse people who disagree with the Zionist policies of Israel as being anti-Semitic. Often it is easier to use an insult than to come up with a cogent argument against what another person is saying.|
|3||Conservatives have put out much literature, including books magazines and web sites, that criticize feminism and other movements that sprang from the ’60s. Some of it is accurate and worth reading, but the greatest volume of it falls into the realm of propaganda, short on facts and understanding, long on insult and vitriol, blaming liberals for everything since the Black Plague, words “twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools.” There is other work available, however, and aimed at bringing understanding of the issues, not setting the blood to boiling. I suggest Who Stole Feminism by Christina Hoff Summers and The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom. There is also an interesting interview with Allan Bloom, addressing criticisms of his book, in Time Magazine, October 17, 1988.|
|4||See “How Did Humans First Alter Global Climate?” in Scientific American, March 2005.|