Improbable Cause

A writer at The Corner has published a piece arguing that Irish Americans are uniquely victimized by a supposed racial slur that the left frequently uses. When liberals complain about McCarthyism, the blog post argues, they aren’t just invoking odious behavior by a long discredited political figure — they’re actually trafficking in bigoted, “reptilian” hate speech that transgresses against an entire ethnic group.

McCarthy is an ethnically identifiable Irish Catholic name, yet it describes despicable political behavior that transcends ethnic and religious backgrounds. No other American ethnic, religious, or racial group has been so stigmatized for so long, with so little public outcry, by a word that is acceptable in polite society.
“McCarthyism” is the second favorite epithet (after “fascism”) of liberals who would sooner donate money to Palin for President than utter a word that would violate political correctness (which, in Edmund Burke’s phrase, “feels a stain like a wound”). And yet this same sensitive, compassionate group still uses an Irish Catholic name as a term of abuse to describe political practices that are not unique to the Irish, to Catholics, or even to the late senator…
The fact that Irish Catholics did not immediately complain when the word was coined in 1950 by Herb Block, the hard-left cartoonist of the Washington Post, is a mystery to me. In any event, acceptance of the term “McCarthyism” by Irish Catholics over the decades is not proof that the word is legitimate; it only serves to demonstrate the truism that if you don’t get what you like in politics, you start liking what you get.

Is this a deadpan attempt at parody? I can scarcely believe that National Review is now publishing explicit calls for political correctness by an aggrieved representative of an ethnic group whose own members aren’t even offended by the speech in question.

In my lifetime, I doubt I’ve run across a single person who hears the word “McCarthyism” and thinks that the Irish people are thereby stigmatized, so it is no surprise that there is little public outcry, or that the word is accepted in polite society — it plainly alludes to the singularly odious behavior of an infamous man. When I complain that the conservative movement is too accepting of Rush Limbaugh’s race-baiting, or that its members are too eager to attach the racist label to folks like Sonja Sotomayor, or that it’s weird when Andrew Breitbart darkly refers to the mostly Caucasian staff at Media Matters for America, I am told that I am overreacting. It is supposed to be understood that when folks on the right invoke race they are doing so ironically and strategically, turning the tables on leftists who’ve long used race as a cudgel. This misses the fact that it is always odious to use race or ethnicity as a tool to score political points, and underestimates how easily people segue from irony into cynicism when employing indefensible means for any end, even a noble one.

I’m unsure whether this nonsense about Irish American stigmatization is motivated by a misplaced, frankly absurd sense of ethnic grievance, or a desire to beat up liberals by calling them bigoted, or both. But I am sure that it is unhealthy for the conservative movement to keep channeling its inner liberal arts college activist. There is a perfectly heated debate to be had about McCarthyism, its history, and its contemporary resonance. It isn’t a debate that has anything to do with race. Given its poor performance among minority voters, is the conservative movement really well served by a flagship magazine that typically ignores identity issues, excoriates most instances of political correctness, and then chooses as a rare exception liberal bigotry against Irish Americans? It is defensible to do two of those things, but absurd and counterproductive to do all three.