What’s Wrong With Talking?

NYTimes.comKristol (NY Times)

A character like William Kristol is often caricatured by America’s left. Since he joined the New York Times‘s Op-Ed staff, he’s provoked even more ire for both invading what’s usually seen as “home court” as well as being, well, not spectacular (even if no columnist is). His huge factual error of last week deserved the criticism it got.

And even as I’d like to take pity on such a magnet for criticism, I’m about to tell you how this week’s column is wrong. Though he was far more measured than some of the conservative ideologues he’s often confused with, the one problem–and conclusion–Mr. Kristol had about Barack Obama’s infamous speech on race was absurd:

With respect to having a national conversation on race, my recommendation is: Let’s not, and say we did.

To be fair, Mr. Kristol makes the valuable and accurate point that endless accusations of racism traded across massive chasms are useless. There’s no denying that. He also suggests correctly that,

What we need instead are sober, results-oriented debates about economics, social mobility, education, family policy and the like — focused especially on how to help those who are struggling. Such policy debates can lead to real change — even “change we can believe in.”

But Mr. Kristol’s failing, the reason his conclusion strikes such a dissonant note, is that he’s misunderstanding “a nationwide conversation about race” to mean “a televised shouting match that does nothing but increase grievance.” I share his opinion that the latter is a bad and useless thing, but I also know that the former isn’t alway code for the latter.

One salient example of how we can really learn and teach something about race was taught to the crew on MSNBC’s Morning Joe by Mike Huckabee, who said:

As easy as it is for those of us who are white, to look back and say “That’s a terrible statement!” I grew up in a very segregated south. And I think that you have to cut some slack–and I’m gonna be probably the only Conservative in America who’s gonna say something like this, but I’m just tellin’ you–we’ve gotta cut some slack to people who grew up being called names, being told “you have to sit in the balcony when you go to the movie. You have to go to the back door to go into the restaurant. And you can’t sit out there with everyone else. There’s a separate waiting room in the doctor’s office. Here’s where you sit on the bus…” And you know what? Sometimes people do have a chip on their shoulder and resentment. And you have to just say, I probably would too. I probably would too. In fact, I may have had more of a chip on my shoulder had it been me.

Mike Huckabee–to the apparent shock of much of America’s left–shows us, in the surprise of the Morning Joe crew, what an honest conversation about race can look like, and teach us.

To his immense credit, Barack Obama has long stood by the fact that a conversation is neither support for the person with whom you are talking (as would be the case if he were to talk to Iran or Cuba), nor is a forum for people to shout grievances at each other and walk away unchanged. A conversation hold implicit within it a finding of some common ground of some, however subtle or unnoticed, new awareness of the commonality between the participants.

Perhaps Mr. Kristol simply missed the point that Jon Stewart made so cogently, while doing his best Walter Cronkite, “And so, at 11 o’clock a.m. on a Tuesday, a prominent politician spoke to Americans about race as though they were adults.”