NYT examines recent Barbour criticism over N.B. Forrest comments

In a recent column in The Miami Herald, Leonard Pitts criticized Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour for failing to denounce the proposal to honor Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest by issuing a vanity license plate bearing his name. When pressed by the NAACP, Barbour said, “I don’t go around denouncing people.”

“Presumably,” Pitts retorted with obvious sarcasm, Barbour “would be equally non-judgmental if his state were to consider similar honors to Osama bin Laden, convicted spy Robert Hanssen or Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.”

Leonard Pitts thinks that the Klan and its views are beyond the pale – “a man who betrayed this country, founded a terrorist group and committed mass murder is a man unworthy of honor” — but he also thinks – this is his mistake — that it is an argument against the honoring of the Klan’s founder that Haley Barbour would probably not give Osama bin laden the same benefit of the doubt he seems willing to give to Forrest. (Of course, Barbour is just playing the familiar game of political equivocation.) To which I say, what does Osama bin Laden have to do with it? Bringing him and the other symbols of wrongdoing in just takes the pressure off the core moral question — was and is the Klan evil — and turns it into a question of formal equivalences. (Are you also willing to be fair to . . . ; the list is endless.)

At bottom, Pitts’s case against honoring Forrest is that he was a bad man dedicated to realizing a bad cause. Just say that, and don’t mess it up (and dilute it) by playing the “gotcha” card, by challenging Barbour to display his liberal bona fides and accord equal treatment to everybody. That’s not what the moral life is about.

New York Times
3/14/11