As everyone jumped on board the “Fire Imus” bandwagon last week, I experienced a very familiar feeling: a violent futility that mirrors the catch-22 in which conservatives often find themselves. I wanted to yell out, but realized that doing might help fulfill the stereotype that conservatives are angry loudmouths. I wanted to defend him as others have by comparing his comments to what we regularly hear in hip-hop. But others might see me as fulfilling the “conservatives are racist” stereotype. Whatever my reaction was, I realized I was in a catch-22, where any action that seemed natural would “fulfill” the false stereotypes that leftists have successfully generated about conservatives.
I experience the same thing at my liberal academic institution, and even from time to time in the church, where things are more political than ever. If I say that racism as it is defined by the academy isn’t as bad in America as it is in other places, I’m part of the problem, because I am denying and suppressing the truth of racism. If I argue that we, as a society, have an obligation to help those in need, especially minorities, then I am paternalistic, and my help isn’t wanted. It seems that the only real way to have traction is to take the “low road”, which is what we used to call the “high road”. In our easily-offended culture, the only way to show that you are truly above-the-fray, that you are morally above reproach, is to champion every cause that “helps” the underdog, and pounce without mercy on the perceived racists and bigots of the world.
So conservatives may have a harder time, maybe a much harder time, in the future to defend their ideas. Think welfare reform was hard in the mid-90s? Who would want to touch it these days? Think immigration reform is likely now? If Imus can get fired for what he said, the labels “racist,” “white supremacist,” etc. would surely be in play for those advocating reform, and few politicians have the will to follow through. I would argue that unless there is enormous push-back among voters and consumers, the sensitive nature of political correctness in America Imus exposed will make it much harder for a conservative to now be elected president. After all, who among the politically indecisive would want to ally themselves with Imus by NOT voting for Obama or Clinton? In other words, ideas may be losing their power; now, it’s all about posturing.
Or, there may be an enormous vacuum that a strong conservative can fill. If the frustration over what happened to Imus and the subsequent debate about hip-hop and hypocrisy in the media builds, an outspoken conservative may be able to awaken the sleeping Republicans. Not that I am very confident any significant legislation would emerge, but it may be better than the alternative. Perhaps the backlash over the Imus debacle could actually lead to immigration reform, but only if conservative politicians show political will they have so far been unwilling to exhibit.
In the end, ideas must continue to be of primary importance, not the opinions of others. The strong, silent type so perfectly seen in the likes of Howard Roark is becoming a more and more hated commodity, and far too many are taking the low road of championing causes in speech only. If all it takes to be above reproach is to say the right words, which may or may not be true, our standard for critique has become dangerously low. I propose we ignore most of what people say, and focus on what they do, because talk is cheap, for better or worse. As lofty as the Sermon on the Mount was, it would have meant very little if Jesus had never healed the sick or raised the dead.