- The Washington Times - Friday, January 12, 2001

One down, two to go. The efforts to wallop George Bush's conservative nominees for his Cabinet continues. Linda Chavez has withdrawn. Attorney General nominee John Ashcroft has been in a swarming dog fight almost since the day he was named. But things are only now getting heavy for Gale Norton, whom George W. Bush has tapped to run the interior department. Again, it looks like the old rule of thumb for the Democratic left still applies, "When in doubt play the race card."

The case in point is the brewing hoopla over Norton's 1996 speech to the libertarian Independent Institute. Addressing the issues of federalism and states' rights, Norton invoked the Civil War, which was, of course, the touchstone event in the history of states' rights; the federal government forced individual states, at gunpoint, to change their ways.

"We certainly had bad facts in that case where we were defending state sovereignty by defending slavery," she said. "But we lost too much. We lost the idea that the states were to stand against the federal government gaining too much power over our lives."

According to The Washington Post, environmental groups charge that her comments "indicated a lack of sensitivity to the horror of slavery and represented a troubling view of the role of the federal government in protecting the environment."

In commenting on Norton's remarks, Kenneth A. Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, seemed to relish the opportunity to use the racial cudgel against the interior secretary-designate. "Her deeply divisive remarks suggest she lacks a vital instinct to protect what needs protecting, whether it's wilderness or the rights of people of color." I guess this means that you can't be an environmentalist and a racist at the same time.

The Washington Post story effortlessly segues from Norton's comments to controversial observations that Ashcroft made to a neoconfederate magazine about how various Southern Civil War heroes were "patriots." The effect is to make it sound as if Norton is nostalgic for the days of chattel slavery.

Thus is just another example of how liberal groups cannot make an effective appeal without calling their opponents racist. It's a dead certainty that some Democratic senator will ask Norton, in gravely concerned tones, "Ms. Norton, do you consider the historic evil of slavery to be just so many inconvenient 'bad facts'? What do you mean 'lost too much'?"

Her answer should be the obvious one. Of course it was imperative to defeat slavery - that is, after all, what the Republican Party was founded on. But that doesn't mean every by-product of the Civil War was positive.

Which brings us to Norton's phrase "bad facts," which is being taken to be a trivialization of the moral horror of slavery. The reality is quite different. "Bad facts" is a common legalism among conservative economists and lawyers. It simply means that reality can provide an example that undermines the efficacy of a principle. For instance, Britney Spears is a "bad fact" to the idea that talent is important to success. Life causes problems for theories all the time.

As a conservative, I'm disappointed that the notion of states' rights was permanently entangled with race in a way that makes no logical sense if you can overlook the history, i.e. "bad facts," of slavery. Leftists should also bemoan the discrediting of Southern anti-capitalism and anti-industrialism. Those traditions were steamrolled onto the ash heap of history by the Civil War even more than states' rights were.

On paper, states' rights and racism are apples and oranges. In principle, the federal government could easily have been pro-slavery, and the abolitionist states could have been the ones seeking to break away from tyrannical system that respected human bondage. Consider the histories of Germany, France, Russia, Cambodia, China and much of Africa. Centralized governments tend to be the enemies of freedom, while countries that respect local autonomy and self-government are more likely to respect civil liberties.

Of course, we all know it didn't work out that way in America. Here, a good system, our federal republic, was used to defend the evil practice of slavery. The question is, how long will we denounce the idea that states can run their own affairs because of a vile exception to the general rule of American decency? And for how much longer will we insist on demonizing and vilifying anyone who mentions the words "states' rights" without first swearing they're not a racist.


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