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I Wasn't Looking Down on Middle America

Saturday, December 18, 2004; Page A25

The other day columnist George F. Will took a swipe at what he called "Kuttnerism" -- the sin of liberal condescension toward middle Americans ["Redefining Liberalism," op-ed, Dec. 12].

I have long observed that when Democrats and liberals honor the pocketbook struggles of regular people, social tolerance is more easily advanced. For instance, Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John Kennedy championed workaday Americans -- and were able to expand minority rights at a time when most whites needed some prodding.


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In that spirit, I wrote in the December American Prospect magazine: "Bill Clinton won election by declaring, as a matter of values, that people who work hard and play by the rules should not be poor. Middle America forgave him for treating gays as people."

Will's column began, "Some liberals cannot control their insuppressible reflex to look down their upturned noses at the American electorate." He added, "Kuttner could not resist a spasm of moral vanity. He had to disparage 'middle America,' which means most of America, as so bigoted it denies the humanity of gays."

Surely the erudite Will must know that throughout our history, large numbers of Americans have been prejudiced against blacks, Jews, Catholics, Indians, Hispanics and gays, as well as against liberated women.

Ever since the time of Abraham Lincoln, liberals have taken political risks to expand the liberties of groups that Justice Louis Brandeis called "despised minorities."

Was Lincoln looking down his upturned nose at slaveholders? The George Wills of the day accused him of far worse.

President Lyndon Johnson fought for civil rights legislation over the strenuous objection of white racists, understanding that his party could lose much of the white South.

It is not "disparaging" middle America, much less a "spasm of moral vanity," to point that out. It is simply stating an ugly historic fact.

Most Americans under the age of 40 tell pollsters that they see nothing wrong with interracial marriage. Tiger Woods and Barak Obama, the progeny of such marriages, are cultural heroes. In 1948, when the California Supreme Court first held that mixed-race couples could not be denied marriage licenses, only 2 percent of whites approved.

Not long ago most Americans indeed denied the humanity of gays. Until very recently, gays were the last minority that could be openly ridiculed in polite company.

If ordinary Americans no longer despise homosexuality, we can credit that to a variety of forces -- the bravery of gay men and lesbians who took enormous risks to come out to friends, parents and co-workers, thereby demonstrating that homosexuality runs in the best of families; the humanizing effect of the AIDS epidemic; and the courage of politicians such as Clinton who went out of their way to appoint gay officials and to otherwise "normalize" gays.

Although public opinion eventually catches up, liberals often pay a steep political price for being ahead of it. Hardly any conservatives of the George Will stripe deserve a shred of credit for a revolution in tolerance that has now gone so far that Will can feign umbrage that anyone would suggest that intolerance ever existed.

Will can't have it both ways. Either liberals affront traditionalist America by advancing gay rights, or liberals patronize middle America by questioning whether traditionalists fully accept gays. Obviously, both charges can't be true.

How much easier it is to smugly insist that all is well in middle America than to take political risks to combat discrimination. In the face of persistent bigotry, the real moral vanity is complacency.

-- Robert Kuttner

Boston

The writer is co-editor of the American Prospect.


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