Nothing quite satisfies like a fully justified act of moral denunciation. Which must mean that America in the Trump era is filled with a lot of satisfied people.
Hardly an hour goes by without some person or group crossing into the unacceptable. Quite often the words are indeed offensively racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, or anti-Semitic. President Trump has helped to activate such ugliness with his ethnocultural boundary-pushing and angry mockery of "political correctness." All of us now live in a coarser, meaner country and culture thanks to his repugnant example.
When a swarm of critics descends on a person for indulging in bigotry, the rebuke is usually swift and severe. The perpetrator has crossed a line, venturing far beyond the moral pale. He or she must be censured, shamed, called out, with everyone who witnesses the scolding seeing very clearly that the offending words ought never have been uttered in the first place. Such statements deserve to be banished from civilized conversation and public life. "You can't say that!" — that is the implicit message of all such denunciations.
But is this sufficient? Is it enough to point to a bright line, or draw one for the first time, and implore the transgressor and his audience never to cross it again?
Sometimes it might be. If the president says that many immigrants come from "shithole countries," that's obviously racist, and it's not entirely clear how one could do more than label it as such. To do more would require treating the statement as a judgment that can be evaluated and assessed. But how would one do that? Present evidence that such places are more economically dynamic than the president seems to assume? Show scenic pictures of mountains and beaches? Share cultural artifacts, trying to demonstrate their anthropological value? To treat the statement as something falsifiable in this way seems somehow to misconstrue it by according it more worth than it is owed. A person who would make such a statement is exceedingly unlikely to be open to persuasion away from his view.
But offending statements and deeds don't always take such an egregious form. Often something is asserted to be true, a theory is ventured, a testable claim is made. That doesn't make the words or actions any less offensive. But it does mean that the response need not be limited to the expression of indignation and calling out of a transgression of moral boundaries. It means that the response can go much further than that. If, for instance, a person asserts that women are incapable of excelling in math, philosophy, and other intellectually demanding fields, that's sexist. But why stop with calling it that? Isn't it far better to refute the statement with a mountain of available evidence (grades, test scores, graduation rates, examples of scholarship) instead of merely demonizing it?
Once that has been accomplished, the character of the offensive statement changes. Now it's not only, or not merely, morally offensive. It's also stupid. Ignorant. Baseless. The only reason not to take the response in this direction is if one doubts the evidence — or one doubts the ability or willingness of other people to be persuaded by it.
In our polarized, factionalized, maximally suspicious moment, such doubts appear to be shaping the way a lot of people respond to offensive provocations — with a kind of implicit despair at the power of reason and the capacity of others to be moved by argument and evidence. Hence our fondness for casting aspersions and issuing orders of excommunication. Neither involves the exercise of reason.
Take the response to Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) over the past few days. Omar has been excoriated for a pair of tweets that suggested American politicians tend to strongly support Israel because they are influenced by money spent by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobbying organization. Did these tweets traffic in anti-Semitic stereotypes about powerful and wealthy Jews using their riches to secretly manipulate the world? Absolutely — as countless critics have pointed out, and as Omar herself acknowledged in the apology House Speaker Nancy Pelosi quickly extracted from her.
Yet that cannot and should not be the end of the story — though in far too many cases of commentary on the incident, it has been. The troubling but undeniable fact is that demonstrating that Omar's statement is anti-Semitic is insufficient to demonstrate that it is false. To do that, one would have to show that American politicians support Israel for reasons that go far beyond AIPAC-sponsored campaign donations and cushy junkets to the Holy Land.
Thankfully, there are several such reasons, most of them elegantly compiled and analyzed in Samuel Goldman's God's Country: Christian Zionism in America (which I had a hand in publishing). From the time of the Puritans, Americans have associated themselves with biblical Israel. This association has waxed and waned and taken numerous forms and expressions down through the centuries. It has been wrapped up with the country's vision of itself as a beacon for democracy, with its imperial ambitions, and, most recently, with its defense of itself against Islamist terrorism — a defense that has taken place during a time when Israel has been refounded in the region from which such violence emanates, and when modern Israel often appears to be on the front lines of the very same battle.
It's often said that Republicans have come to strongly support Israel because evangelical Protestant voters, an important part of the party's base, feel an attachment to the Jewish state for theological reasons. That's true. But it doesn't explain why many ordinary Democrats and independents who do not personally benefit from AIPAC's largesse also tend to support Israel. That can only be explained with reference to the 400-year history of American civil religion and the central role that the idea of Israel has so often played within it.
Yes, Omar's comments echoed classically anti-Semitic tropes. But the far more compelling reason they should be rejected is that they were ill-informed and intellectually lazy. If she hopes to change the way our country views Israeli policies toward the Palestinians (which I favor), she will need to address, and seek to reshape, the deeply rooted elective affinities so many Americans feel toward the Jewish state. Suggestions of malign conspiracies won't cut it.
Moral denunciation may feel good and have its place. But exposing ignorance is far better.