It’s been getting fashionable to complain about the supposedly overwhelming power of political correctness. “PC tyranny”, moan the self-appointed protectors of free speech, has become ubiquitous. It has taken over college campuses, it permeates Western societies, it forces public figures and even ordinary people to censor themselves. These arguments may be followed by mock-whiny portrayals of stereotypical lily-livered liberals using terms like “hate speech” and “trigger words.”
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It turns out, however, that the PC “thought police” isn't as powerful as some think. Otherwise it’s hard to explain the positively bacchanalian global celebration of bigotry we have seen in recent weeks, so blatantly racist that it could make even noted bigot Woodrow Wilson - the latest mark of PC “bullies” - feel sick.
A brief recap for people living under rocks:
Last week, following the Paris terror attacks, U.S. presidential hopeful Donald Trump advocated increased surveillance of American Muslims, refusing to rule out the idea of a “database” tracking Muslim-Americans, and touting ideas that “were frankly unthinkable a year ago,” like the federal government possibly closing mosques. To top it all off, he claimed thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrated the collapse of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. (The fact that this never happened? Beside the point.)
It was hard to believe anyone could one-up Trump when it comes to hate-mongering, but then Ben Carson managed to up the ante, comparing Syrian refugees to “rabid dogs.” "If there's a rabid dog running around in your neighborhood, you're probably not going to assume something good about that dog,” were his exact words.
And these two are the Republican frontrunners. In their race to the bottom, they were joined by Mike Huckabee (who compared Syrian refugees to tainted peanuts), Ted Cruz (who said “Islamism” encourages Muslims to lie), and a slew of governors and prominent Republicans who recommended admitting only Christian refugees into the U.S.
It used to be, not so long ago, that such things could only be implied. It used to be that politicians would try to conceal or otherwise play down their obnoxious racism, not celebrate it, and voters had to detect racist undertones through context alone.
More importantly, perhaps: Once there was a direct political cost to undisguised bigotry. No more, though: 2015 has been a hate-monger’s wet dream.
The death of subtext
This is far from a solely American phenomenon. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front was surging in the polls even before the Paris attacks. And in Israel, where racism is never in short supply, in recent years right-wing politicians have also been pandering to a radicalizing base, courting controversy by saying things that once were only hinted at.
Take Israel’s Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, for instance. Back in July 2014, when Israel was waging Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, Shaked made international headlines when she shared an article by a right-wing journalist that called for the indiscriminate killing of Palestinians on Facebook, and referred to Palestinian children as “little snakes”.
Two weeks ago, she revealed a draft bill that would require representatives of NGOs that receive international funding to wear “identification tags” that note their foreign funding when they visit the Knesset. The intended targets are plainly left-wing. The historical irony seemed to have been lost on Shaked and her peers.
Or take Shaked’s fellow party member, Yinon Magal. During a heated television interview last month, the Habayit Hayehudi MK sent a stern warning to Palestinians: “We can also start counting Nakbas, not just intifadas.” (Nakba is the Palestinian term for the expulsion and displacement of Palestinians during Israel’s War of Independence.) This wasn’t the first time Magal threatened Palestinians with a second Nakba (video in Hebrew), an event that officially the right-wing still denies.
Then there is Likud MK Miki Zohar, who said last month that in order to maintain Israel’s Jewishness, “we sometimes have to give up democracy a little bit”.
And, of course, there is Benjamin Netanyahu’s warning during Israel’s latest general election, in March, that “Arab voters are heading to the polls in droves.”
It was only a few years ago that right-wing politicians felt they needed to camouflage their racist dogma, to only hint at their support for Jewish supremacy while declaring their unwavering support for democratic values. Now in Israel, as in the U.S., as in Europe, this is the golden age of political bigotry. The racist subtext is dead. Old-school overt racism, on the other hand, is back.
Zero risk, increasing reward
Among the many possible reasons for this rhetorical radicalization is that in the current political climate there is zero risk with being outspokenly racist, and the rewards are increasingly large.
On the back of statements like “Mexicans immigrants are rapists” and “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation”, Trump and Carson have become the GOP frontrunners, leaving their more-moderate rivals in the dust.
In Israel too, blatant racism is rewarded these days: Netanyahu was resoundingly reelected, and Shaked is one of the rising stars of Israeli politics, along with other right wing firebrands like Likud Miri Regev (who once famously called Sudanese asylum seekers “a cancer in our body”).
Statements that were once called “gaffes” are now the product of strategy. There is a bigotry gold rush. Politicians, eager to win the “angry vote”, giddily partake.
Unfortunately, campaign racism has real-world consequences. The unchecked racism that has characterized Israel’s political discourse in recent years eventually arrived at its logical conclusion: mob rule.
Candidates like Trump, Carson or Le Pen, of course, may not win in the end. Reason may triumph. But even if it ends up winning, it will do so bruised, battered and barely alive.