Perhaps due to naive Americanism, I've long resisted ethnic groupthink. Judging by this year's Democratic presidential contest, I'm in the minority. But will quarrelsome Democrats throw away the general election? As of today, I'd say the odds favor President McCain.
A brief explanation: As a child, I was taught to be Irish before I was taught to be American, although my father saw no contradiction. "You're no better than anybody else," he'd growl, "and nobody's better than you." The snarl was a residue of "Irish need not apply" signs that greeted my ancestors off the boat from County Cork. "Coffin ships," they called them, because so many famine-starved victims of British tyranny died on the journey.
Visiting Ireland, I once asked a bookseller who'd spent time in New York why the native Irish seemed so unlike my American relatives — friendly, talkative, curious and warm. Where were the clenched jaws, knotted fists, bloody-minded determination and narrow-minded tribalism I'd grown up on?
"Well, we had our revolution, didn't we?" she said. "'Twas a hundred years ago. And we won, didn't we? So now we've forgotten."
My parents inadvertently made it easy to give up Irish-Catholic chauvinism by sending me to public school in the multicultural environment of Elizabeth, N.J., which they later regretted. At our wedding, my mother glared at my wife's Louisiana French mother. "What nationality are you people, anyway?" she demanded.
Too late. I'd already left the tribe. Years later, we wondered about exposing our sons to my fiercer kin. They'd come home asking if it was true Jews were too cowardly to resist Hitler, as an aunt besotted with Father Coughlin, the Irish-American radio bigot, taught them. We told them she was nuts. They'd already suspected that, as she'd vented similarly grotesque opinions about black people. As Little Rock, Ark., public school students, they had African-American friends.
Absent the snarl, my father was right: Revere your own tradition, respect everybody else's. True, some ethnic identities are trickier than others. One can't simply resign from being black.
To get back to politics, it should be possible to support Barack Obama without hating Hillary Clinton. Alas, too many use history's unappeasable grievances to assert their moral superiority. The result is a Democratic campaign resembling Philip Roth's novel "The Human Stain," in which a professor's life is shattered after he uses the word "spooks" (i.e. "ghosts") to describe two students who'd never appeared in class. Unknown to him, the students were black.
I couldn't help but think of that bleak comedy when Harvard professor Orlando Patterson wrote a New York Times op-ed explaining he "couldn't help but think of D. W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation," the racist movie epic that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan," when he saw that Hillary Clinton 3 a.m. crisis call commercial. Failing to notice the African-American child in the ad, the professor imagined a racist subtext of Obama lurking in the shrubbery.
Sometimes I see naked women in the clouds, but I know they're not really there.
Similarly delusional, in almost the psychiatric sense, was the charge vended by a brace of pundits led by the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza, that Hillary cunningly hinted Obama might be a secret Muslim on "60 Minutes." Eric Boehlert at MediaMatters.org, documented her denying the allegation eight separate times. Here's the highlighted transcript of her interview with CBS correspondent Steve Kroft:
"CLINTON: Of course not. I mean, that's — you know, there is no basis for that. You know, I take him on the basis of what he says. And, you know, there isn't any reason to doubt that.
KROFT: And you said you'd take Senator Obama at his word that he's not a Muslim.
CLINTON: Right. Right.
KROFT: You don't believe that he's a Muslim —
CLINTON: No. No. Why would I? There's no —
KROFT: — or implying, right?
CLINTON: No, there is nothing to base that on, as far as I know.
KROFT: It's just scurrilous —
CLINTON: Look, I have been the target of so many ridiculous rumors. I have a great deal of sympathy for anybody who gets, you know, smeared with the kind of rumors that go on all the time."
Geraldine Ferraro has always been a fool who never knows when to shut up. On the flip side, we're also told it's "racist" to object to the inflammatory rhetoric of Obama's longtime spiritual adviser, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who blames the U.S. government for inventing AIDS, chants "God Damn America" and comports himself like a left-wing Father Coughlin. Or like Pastor John Hagee, the anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic preacher who's endorsed Sen. John McCain.
Obama, a 20-year communicant in Wright's congregation, "categorically denounce(s) … any statement that disparages our great country." He adds, "Words that degrade individuals have no place in our public dialogue."
Good for him. Obama also claims he was totally unaware of Wright's political gospel until last week.
That, unfortunately, I cannot believe.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a national magazine award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.