Monday, May 3, 2010

The Arizona Law: Why Rachel Maddow's Approach is Wrong

Discussing the new Arizona immigration law in his NYT column today, Ross Douthat writes:

Critics of Arizona’s new immigration law have not been shy about impugning the motives of its supporters. The measure, which requires police to check the immigration status of people they question or detain, has been denounced as a “Nazi” or “near-fascist” law, a “police state” intervention, an imitation of “apartheid,” a “Juan Crow” regime that only a bigot could possibly support.

Faced with this kind of hyperbole, the supposed bigots have understandably returned the favor, dismissing opponents of the Arizona measure as limousine liberals who don’t understand the grim realities of life along an often-lawless border. And so the debate has become a storm of insults rather than an argument.
I think this is absolutely correct. Instead of an honest discussion over whether this legislation could lead to unequal treatment, we've seen a barrage of ad hominem attacks against those who supported it.

The other night on MSNBC, for example, Rachel Maddow spend an awful lot of time accusing members of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) organization -- a group that lobbied in favor of the Arizona law -- of racism:

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I'm sure that Maddow is right on the specifics here. It certainly seems that Dan Stein, the president of FAIR, distorted the facts. And I have no doubt that some members of FAIR have made racist comments in the past.

But FAIR is a large organization, with members from many different backgrounds. Maddow's attempts to portray FAIR as some kind of hate group strike me quite a stretch. Though some left-wing groups have leveled similar charges against FAIR in the past, the organization has really been able to maintain its tax-exempt status because it's not all that radical, and it adheres to the strict legal guidelines that are imposed on all tax-exempt groups.

In 2005, it was FAIR that explicitly condemned a leading member of the Protect Arizona Now (PAN) committee for her unabashedly racist remarks. (That member, Virginia Abernethy, was ultimately expelled from PAN.)

FAIR has worked hard to reject the use of discriminatory language, but the sad truth is that FAIR is an anti-immigration organization, and it's not difficult to find some members in any anti-immigration organization who have racist views. There is clearly some ideological overlap between those who oppose immigration and those who support white nationalism.

But even if FAIR is a racist organization, what does this really tell us about the legitimacy of the Arizona law?

Today, you can find dozens of explicitly racist groups that support gun rights. In fact, the Southern Poverty Law Center -- which has identified FAIR as a "hate group" -- has often pointed to the strong political ties between pro-gun organizations and white supremacist groups.

Does this mean that any bill designed to protect gun rights that is strongly endorsed by white supremacist organizations should be dismissed as racist? Maybe. But lots of other people -- myself included -- strongly support gun rights for completely legitimate reasons. Proving that some supporters of a piece of legislation are racist does not prove that all supporters of the legislation are racist, or that the legislation itself is racist.

Instead of trying to show that the Arizona law is racist because some groups that supported it may have racist motives, why not just look at what the law does? These other debates quickly distract us from the point. It's not difficult to see why the Arizona law may lead to unequal treatment under the law. For those of us who oppose the legislation, that should really be our primary focus.

Calling people racists doesn't usually make them rethink their position. When you begin with these kinds of ad hominem attacks, the argument quickly becomes about the character of those who support or oppose the law, rather than the lives of those who are actually affected by it.

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