A famous American soap once proclaimed itself "99 and 44/100ths percent pure," but a percentage like that is mere smudge, soil and stain when measured against this year's standard for candidates for the U.S. Senate in Virginia.
George Allen, the Republican incumbent, has spent a fortnight regretting using an obscure North African word to describe a dark-skinned pest, and this manufactured controversy soon included the accusation that, as a college student, he used the noxious n-word. The n-word is the most radioactive word in the English language (except when used in the lyrics of certain popular music).
Now his Democratic opponent, Jim Webb, is trying to explain why he used the n-word in his well-received novel, "Fields of Fire," about the war in Vietnam, where the n-word was one of the most oft-repeated words in barracks and battlefield, usually by black soldiers.
Racism, in fact, has become the most grievous offense on the ledger, having replaced treason and blasphemy as the taboo most severely enforced. Not so long ago, a politician or other public person could say goodbye to career, friends and family if someone dug up an obscure affiliation, however tenuous, with a left-wing organization of his callow youth. No repentance was good enough, no redemption sufficient enough. Sometimes unproved accusations led to suicide.
Once the great civil crime was blasphemy, the verbal insult of the Almighty. Now the most unlikely people even atheists, infidels and other prideful unbelievers thoughtlessly invoke the name of G-d and His only Son as the oath that led to shunning in an earlier time. Vile and hurtful racism is left as the only "-ism" deemed worthy of universal condemnation.
"The Voting Rights Act transformed that word," Jack Bass, a professor of humanities and social science at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, tells The Washington Post. "In much of the South, there was this tremendous transformation from a time when it was a term widely used by politicians."
The very power of the accusation demands that it be used judiciously. George Allen is accused of using the n-word to his football teammates at the University of Virginia 30 years ago. One teammate says he did; a roommate says he never heard him use the word. His father and namesake, the coach of the Washington Redskins, was popular with his athletes, many if not most of whom were black, so if George did it, it was not something he learned at home. This is the same Sen. Allen who as a man pushed a resolution of apology for slavery through the U.S. Senate.
One acquaintance of Jim Webb says he remembers Mr. Webb using the n-word as a freshman at the University of Southern California before he transferred to the Naval Academy. He says young Jim and his friends liked to drive through Watts, a tough black neighborhood in central Los Angeles, taunting and pointing rifles at blacks on the street. How dumb could white boys be in one of the toughest black neighborhoods in America?
Guilt by accusation was once the cardinal sin on the left, decried during McCarthy days by liberal magazines such as the Nation, the Progressive, the New Leader. Now guilt by accusation and association is OK against targets on the right. If accusations, concocted in the feverish imaginations of the deluded and the discredited, have no merit, just repeat the accusations often enough and maybe somebody somewhere will believe some of them. Joseph Goebbels famously called this the technique of "the big lie."
Most Southern whites of my generation, including me, were insensitive, and worse, indifferent, to the mistreatment of blacks. My 14-year-old granddaughter asked me, "What did you think about segregation?" Sadly, I had to tell her that, like everyone around me, I didn't think about it, that it was "just the way it was." Most of us regret that deeply now and have spent the intervening years trying to atone.
Regret and atonement was what Martin Luther King was talking about when he described his famous dream, "that day when all of G-d's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last!"
We're not yet at "99 and 44/100ths percent pure," but trying to keep hate alive is not the way to get there.