Hate Campaign’s Anti-Climax

By Mark Krikorian on April 21, 2011

National Review Online, April 21, 2011

On Sunday, the New York Times published a 3,000-word, front-page, above-the-fold piece on the various thoughtcrimes of John Tanton, a retired eye doctor in rural Michigan who was important in creating the modern immigration-reduction movement.

This was the culmination of a three-and-a-half-year Alinskyite project by the pro-amnesty groups to “pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it” — to turn Tanton into a hate figure as a way of demonizing all critics of open immigration. Finally reaching the top of the media food chain should have been the crowning glory of the smear campaign, the formal anathema finally excommunicating the immigration heretics and banishing them from polite society.

But it was a dud.

It had the makings of a real tour de force for the pro-amnesty crowd, especially because it followed their preferred narrative, focusing on the diabolical ophthalmologist rather than on, say, the details of the coordinated hate campaign they’d launched against him. But you can only imagine their disappointment as they read through the piece hungry for red meat, and finding only tofu. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the hilariously misnamed forerunner to Media Matters, ran an angry blog post the next day criticizing reporter Jason DeParle and the “corporate media” for giving “a pass” to the devilish restrictionist devils.

And they’re right to be disappointed because, once you get past the “when did you stop being a racist?” framing, the article isn’t too bad. The central (and absurd) claim of the hate campaign has always been that Tanton was the “puppeteer” of a racist, anti-immigrant movement that ostensibly had many faces but was really run as a single enterprise, animated by the will (and views) of a single man. Tanton was supposed to be, like Conan Doyle’s Moriarty, the Napoleon of Restrictionism, sitting motionless at the center of a vast web.

No thinking person can read DeParle’s piece and believe any of that. The article describes a restless and energetic man who served as a kind of Johnny Appleseed of immigration reduction. (To be parochial for a moment, seed money was the extent of Tanton’s role at my group, the Center for Immigration Studies; as he’s written at his website, “I also helped raise a grant in 1985 for the [CIS], but I have played no role in the Center’s growth or development.)

DeParle also describes Tanton’s evolution “from apostle of centrist restraint to ally of angry populists and a man who increasingly saw immigration through a racial lens.” That’s an unfortunate development; I think my colleague Jerry Kammer summed up Tanton’s main failing last year in his piece on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s smear campaign: “The small-town doctor from Northern Michigan combines relentless organizational energies with a provincial temperament and a tin ear for the sensitivities of immigration. In an arena that requires the ability to frame issues in a way that broadens consensus, he sometimes speaks with a free-wheeling bluntness that can upset even those who admire him.”

All very interesting, but it’s a far cry from the xenophobic puppeteer.

The New York Times article makes clear the falsity of the hate campaign’s charge of “Tanton’s empire of fear and prejudice” (the words are those of the Center for New Community). The immigration-reduction movement, like any other broad movement, is a diverse group of people with a wide variety of sometimes-conflicting political views and concerns, from the “folksy” Roy Beck and others making “serious liberal arguments for lower immigration,” to “angry populists” at the Federation for American Immigration Reform’s annual talk-radio event, where the worst thing DeParle seems to have heard was “calls to use Tomahawk missiles on Tijuana drug lords.” (Is anyone surprised to hear that on talk radio?)

Probably the biggest hole in the Times piece was its failure to parallel Tanton’s story with an account of the origins of the hate campaign against him. In the wake of the spectacular defeat of the Bush-Kennedy-McCain amnesty in the summer of 2007, there was a series of meetings of all the pro-amnesty groups — including the Center for American Progress, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Council of La Raza, the National Immigration Forum, and others — where a strategy was formally adopted, and duties parceled out, to leave substantive policy debates aside and focus instead on the supposed racism that drove the many-headed “anti-immigrant” hydra. Tens of millions of dollars were devoted to this project by otherwise respectable foundations, websites were set up (the flagship site was finally discontinued by La Raza last year as a failure, but you can see its last iteration here), and the SPLC was instructed to cook up a phony “hate group” designation for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

Fleshing out that completely unreported story would have been a good use of the resources of the New York Times and made the article genuinely newsworthy.

Be that as it may, the Times piece clearly marks the end of the smear campaign. I mean, what else is there for them to do — get a story in Newsweek? Having failed to drive immigration skeptics out of polite society, maybe now the grownups on the other side of the debate will put this sordid and disreputable episode behind them and actually engage in a thoughtful debate on substance.

Even after enduring years of their contempt and defamation, I’m willing to talk. Are they?