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Down with Demonology: The Left Can Do Better

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As the re-ascendance of Democrats in the executive and legislative branches gains something like momentum, the American right has been circling the wagons, trying to generate an ideologically coherent response. But with two unpopular wars, a trail of tears left by the previous Republican administration, and no easy class target to blame in the wake of corporate sins against humanity, an elegant political frame turns out to be more than elusive. Such a confused atmosphere provides a perfect opening through which far right populists and other extremists can sneak onto microphoned podiums (provided by Fox News), with their Obamanazi posters, Confederate flags, and Limbaugh playbook, and perform the appearance of a social movement. "Bark, bark, bark! Death panels! Socialism!" Et cetera.

With every new grotesque display of toxic populism, the American left looks on in an even more grotesquely amused contempt. These flannel-shirted, truck stop cap-wearing, angry white people are ducks in a barrel: we revel in every opportunity to pick 'em off. As a self-identified lefty, I suggest we take a deep breath and ratchet the hubris back a notch. The first clue to understanding a monster is to look at what disavowed part of ourselves we let it carry for us.

The American right has lots of bugaboos, sure: racial and sexual minorities; secular humanists; liberals; Europeans and socialists (what's the difference, right?). But the modern left has the right as its permanent Creature from the Black Lagoon. Even more conveniently, the left has the right's history of racism, the bloodstain on its nightshirt, onto which we can cathect all our hostilities in one easy swing. "Those sickos," we like to shout. "They've got Klan robes in their closets, they blocked the way to civil rights -- they're all nasty Nazis [fascists, pedophiles, etc.] deep down!" Subtext: "We're so much better than them."

This sentiment showed up in its classic form in Michelle Goldberg's Alternet piece yesterday, and it went the one step further that the left is really fond of taking: conflating the Christian right with the racist far right and thereby dismissing as disingenuous every effort Christians have made in the last fifteen years to address racism in their history. Subtext: "See, those guys are fakers!"

I'm not a Christian myself (though I admit to being a big admirer of the man they worship), but I've been tracking evangelical racial change efforts and their relationship with American political culture for what seems like most of my adult life. (Someday my book on this will come out, if it doesn't slay me first.) So I know that it's important to point out, as Goldberg does, that some Christians (and not just conservatives) were certainly in bed with white supremacists in America's long history, and racism has always been powerful enough to infiltrate even the most agape-endorsing religions. I know that black radical evangelicals like Harlem's Tom Skinner were calling white Christians to face the racist music for years before the latter took up the cross of racial reconciliation and "healing of the past" in forums like Bill McCartney's Promise Keepers.

But I have also sat in countless churches, conferences, and living rooms and watched white Christians and their counterparts of color dig deep into their faith and deeper into their consciences to find a way to reach across the gulf that racism and resultant segregation has created in American Christian communities. It's often awkward, it's never perfect, and it sometimes involves faith-based rituals like footwashing that make outsiders squeamish. But it's real, it's emotionally genuine, and it's one of the few paths to social change in matters of race in socially conservative communities that is, in fact, ideologically coherent, if you actually believe the Bible. Compared to the "diversity forums" and "difference" encounters I've participated in through academic and political settings, which, after all these years, still often manage to degenerate into the Oppression Olympics, evangelical racial change efforts are refreshingly vulnerable. I have recently turned my attention to multiracial church-building efforts, tracking one downtown Denver church as a case study over the last year, and it's been amazing to watch so many conservative white Christians acknowledge all that they don't know about race, and try to learn. I'd love to see my secular lefty allies exert that kind of effort in facing their own ghouls.

I've also seen the presumably racially correct secular world up close, through my position in academia, and witnessed how deeply and subtly racism still penetrates it. In our arts and social sciences division at DU of over 70 professors, I can count the number of tenure-track faculty of color on one hand. In the university's service and maintenance position ranks, the demographics are reversed. Racism is not just a product of socioeconomic and systemic inequalities; it's also a product of individual and institutional choices. Or look at the racial demographics of executive directors of left wing nonprofits: 95% white. University chancellors? Law firm partners? Newspaper editors? Yup, you got it. But it's the right that's racist. I'm all for calling racism when it's happening, but as Jesus himself put it: "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?"

And here's the other thing we don't like to deal with on the left: social conservatism in this country, and the homo-hating that goes with it, is deeply multiracial. If you think African Americans' role in swinging Prop 8 was overstated, check out the depth of black religiosity and conservatism in this Pew report. Religion runs deep in American communities of color, and homophobia is usually part of that faith- and culture-based package. It is a serious political mistake to lump all the hate and intolerance in this country onto the right; it keeps us from having our own perhaps far more difficult conversations.

Freud and Jung had it right when they observed that in creating monsters we both disavow our own darknesses and project ourselves the hero. In so doing, we repress our ugliness and create a distorted other. We'd do well to remember that this process is exactly how the right produced its Ted Haggards and Mark Sanfords.

Do we really need any more hollow heroes slaying demons? Let's stop sweeping every conservative subculture into the dustbin of far-right racism in order to feel righteous.