Politically Correct Ethnic Bigotry

GARRY WILLS

April 13, 1993|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO. — Chicago -- Whom is it safe to despise? Even the most tolerant people often have some group they can dismiss with a stereotype.

Mark Twain was a courageous opponent of anti-black racism. He was as untouched by anti-Semitism as anyone in his time. But he settled for demeaning generalizations about Native Americans. And he was particularly vicious toward the Irish.

The liberals of the later 19th century were critical of Irish immigrants because many were the pawns of city machines like Tammany Hall. Thomas Nast, himself an immigrant, drew caricatures of the Irish for Harper's Weekly, making them simian and subhuman. The illustrations to Twain's novel, ''The Gilded Age,'' matched his text in using similar stereotypes.

Who are the people liberals find it safe to despise today? Luckily, we no longer dismiss Native Americans as inferior. But the Washington Post recently showed that its editors let pass onto their front page an article that called white evangelicals ''poor, uneducated and easy to command.''

Challenged to produce the source of such a generalization, the author said it was obvious to all right-minded people: ''I try not to attribute every point in the story if it appears to be universally accepted. You don't have to say, 'It's hot out, according to the weatherman.' ''

Even if the charge were true, the editors of the Post would hesitate to make it about some groups. Can you imagine them saying that African=Americans are ''poor, uneducated, and easy to command''?

A poll taken by the University of Akron Survey Research Center found that 19 percent of evangelical activists -- the kind whose responses were being described by the Post -- are college graduates. They are a bit poorer than the national average, but mainly because so many of them come from the South, which is poorer than the rest of the country. And those who think evangelicals easy to command should try doing it. They respond more readily to the people they agree with, as do liberals who are easy to provoke into sneering generalizations about evangelicals.

Are there any other groups it is safe to despise, even in the supposedly enlightened centers of liberal tolerance? Well, Mario Cuomo just withdrew himself from consideration for the Supreme Court. Already I have heard the comment that he is afraid of seeing his Mafia ties emerge. Since no legal charges have been brought against him, and every journalistic investigation -- of which there have been many -- has come up with a blank, the only logical basis for such an accusation is the assumption that every Italian has Mafia ties, a generalization as ugly as Twain's about the Irish.

The critics of multi-culturalism say our modern liberal society is too accepting of every minority. Not really. It depends on the minority.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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