Commentary: 'Culture War' is more than a figure of speech these days

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.
Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. KRT

I don't know who coined the term "culture war" to describe our political divisions, but I'm reasonably sure he or she intended it only as a figure of speech.

It feels like something else in light of a new report from the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremist groups. "Terror From The Right" is a listing of bombers, killers, would-be assassins and insurrectionists motivated by anger over abortion, gays, taxes, blacks, Muslims and illegal immigrants.

Which raises an obvious fair and balanced question: What about terror from the left? The SPLC's Mark Potok says left-wing terror essentially means eco-terrorists, e.g., animal rights extremists. The death toll from their work, he says, is zero.

By contrast, Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people because he was angry at the government, brothers Matthew and Tyler Williams shot two men to death for being gay, James Kopp killed Dr. Barnett Slepian for being an abortion provider, and dozens of other men have been indicted for dozens of other plots to kill thousands of other people with whom they had political disagreements.

It's one thing to read these stories in isolation and another to see them collected, and thereby connected, here, one extremist plot after another in the 14 years since Oklahoma City. It gives you a sense that — apologies to Buffalo Springfield — there's something happening here and what it is is all too clear. The report provides troubling context for the outrageous behavior that has attended the election of our first African-American president.

When you call them on that behavior, Barack Obama's detractors love to accuse you of equating dissent with racism. It is a specious argument. I disagree with the president's use of signing statements to avoid complying with laws he doesn't like, but it would never occur to me to carry a sign vowing death to him, his wife and their "two stupid kids" as a protester in Maryland did, or to pray that Obama dies of brain cancer as a "minister" in Arizona does, or to heckle him during a joint session of Congress as Rep. Joe Wilson infamously did.

That's not dissent. It is the howl of the unhinged and the entitled. The same folks who were complacent as President Bush spent surplus into deficit, wasted $600 billion and 4,000 American lives on the wrong war and watched a major American city drown are morally outraged because the new guy wants to reform health care?

For many of them, I think — not all — that's because they find it hard to accept that the new guy is liberal . . . and black.

As Potok sees it, some of us are angry over the dramatic changes underfoot in this nation. "People who want this country to remain a white-dominated country have lost. They have completely and utterly lost the battle, and they can never win it. If they were to seal the borders tomorrow, whites would still lose their majority in a matter of years, simply as a result of the difference in fertility rate."

As a result, many people "feel that this is no longer the country that their Christian white forefathers built, that they have been robbed, that this isn't the world they grew up in and that they are very, very frightened" — a feeling stoked and exploited by political and media demagogues, who will loudly disclaim responsibility when that fear becomes violence.

The president is black, the secretary of state is a woman, the new Supreme Court justice is Hispanic, the nation is changing, becoming vastly more inclusive. If some see that as a redemption of promise, the SPLC report reminds us that others regard it as an embodiment of threat. For the record, at least six of the plots it recounts were motivated by, or against, Obama.

Take it as proof. "Culture war" is not a figure of speech.


Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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