The politics of meanness


THIS IS my new motto: Keep Al Gore Healthy.

Because when Newt Gingrich becomes speaker of the House, that puts him third in the line of presidential succession, after Al Gore. And that is a terrifying prospect for the moral compass of this country.

Not because Newt Gingrich is a Republican, or a conservative, but because just since the election he has become the most powerful public purveyor of the politics of exclusion, what might be thought of as the cult of otherness.

Otherness posits that there are large groups of people with whom you have nothing in common, not even a discernible shared humanity. Not only are these groups profoundly different from you, but also they are, covertly, somehow less: less worthy, less moral, less good.

This sense of otherness is the single most pernicious force in American discourse. Its not-like-us ethos makes so much bigotry possible: racism, sexism, homophobia. It divides the country as surely as the Mason-Dixon line once did. And it makes for mean-spirited and punitive politics and social policy.

Only the deepest sense that they are not like us, that they do not love or live or hurt like us, makes it possible to decree, as Newt Gingrich has, that one way to reform the welfare system is to deny aid to the children of mothers under 21 and build orphanages if they are rendered destitute.

It's not even possible to pretend that there are enormous savings in this plan, for anyone who has compared the cost of institutional and home care in any area knows that the latter is much, much less expensive than the former. This is public atonement for the sins of teen-age pregnancy and poverty at the expense of little kids.

If you think of these mothers as people very much like you in some essential way, if you think of these children as like your own, the proposal falls apart, repellent in its moral frigidity. But if they are other, different, above all less, the mental leap to the orphanage is far less taxing. If immigrants are not like us in some basic fashion, it is easy to accept discrimination against them. Believing that only "they" get the disease makes it simpler to slash AIDS funding.

Newt Gingrich began milking the politics of exclusion long before the election returns were in and he dismissed the President and Mrs. Clinton as "counterculture." Meeting with a group of lobbyists, natch, he said he would seek to portray Clinton Democrats as "the enemy of normal Americans." In a speech several weeks ago, he described America as a "battleground" between men of God, like him, and the "secular anti-religious view of the left."

Newt Gingrich's mind is not far-reaching enough to encompass those of us whose politics are to the left of his and yet who are deeply religious, who raise our children with discipline and yet are proud to call ourselves liberals. It is so much easier to stereotype.

It is troubling that much of this comes cloaked in a patina of conspicuous Christianity. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the New Testament knows that its message is charity, love for our fellows, inclusion. The American Catholic bishops, meeting in Washington, took appropriate note of this. "There has to be personal responsibility," said the auxiliary bishop of Baltimore, John H. Ricard. "We also believe the society has a responsibility for those who cannot care for themselves."

There are some bright spots on this gray horizon, quite aside from the fact that Al Gore is a young and vigorous man. One is that a little of Newt Gingrich goes a very long way, and that soon even his fellow Republicans may be tired of his bombast and his love affair with the open microphone.

The other is that he has inspired more moderate Republican voices, those not satisfied to stand mute as the party is driven into the fallow ground of meanness, the purview of the schoolyard bully, picking off the weaker one by one.

Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey sounded their counterclarion call: "Cut taxes, cut spending and replace programs that fail with government that works. Above all, include everyone." Include everyone. As I say at the end of my left-leaning prayers, amen.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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