Call to Mike Barnicle: Come Back to Where You Once Belonged

By Jerry Kammer on February 5, 2014

Yesterday's Morning Joe program on MSNBC included a discussion between former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and journalist/pundit Mike Barnicle. I was particularly interested in their exchange on the alleged "anti-immigrant" position of the Republican Party. It prompted me to turn to Googlebooks for a look at the book Crist was promoting. It's titled The Party's Over: How the Extreme Right Hijacked the GOP and I Became a Democrat.

Just to be clear, I carry no brief for the Republican Party. I'm a moderate liberal. But I'm disillusioned with the Democratic Party, in part because I think we need to regulate immigration. I think a policy that merely pretends to establish limits and doesn't enforce them is a recipe for chaos. And I know all too well that those of us who try to make that case are targeted for all sorts of nasty labels, including "racist," "xenophobe" and "anti-immigrant."

My Googlebooks search for "anti-immigrant" in Crist's book produced a puzzling result. It turned up language that was far more measured than what I had heard on the TV. The passage read, "Opposition to uncontrolled immigration is often confused with anti-immigrant xenophobia."

Exactly correct, I thought. Right on the button. So why were Crist and Barnicle tossing the phrase back and forth without bothering to make the distinction? After all, Morning Joe discussions about nutrition don't grouse that those who want to limit calories are really anti-food. Abortion advocates aren't tagged as anti-baby. And when the talk turns to proposals to regulate the financial industry, no one is put back on his heels with the innuendo that he is anti-capitalism or—perish the thought—socialist.

Well, it turned out that I had pulled the wrong book from the electronic vault. This one's title was indeed, "The Party's Over." But its subtitle read: "War and the Fate of Industrial Societies." When I finally located Crist's book on Googlebooks, my search for "anti-immigrant" produced nothing to broaden the discussion.

So I went online and watched the Crist-Barnicle exchange in its entirety. Crist kicked it off by quoting Jeb Bush as saying the Republican Party "is perceived as being anti-women, anti-immigrant, anti-minority, anti-gay couples, anti-environment, anti-education." Added Crist, "I mean, pretty soon there's nobody left in the room."

Aha! But Mike Barnicle was in the room! The same Mike Barnicle whose column in the Boston Globe was once a civic institution that engaged the region's most important issues and illuminated the dilemmas they inevitably produced.

In his Pulitzer-Prize winning book, Common Ground, about the social tumult in 1970s Boston that was triggered by a busing program ordered by a federal judge as a measure to integrate the schools, Anthony Lukas wrote about Barnicle's work on the issue. He noted that it challenged the fashion of condemning as racist those who resisted the busing.

Lukas's account includes a passage that is worth repeating here because it parallels so closely the social dynamic that today makes it easy to label any talk of regulating immigration or enforcing immigration law as "anti-immigrant."

Barnicle loved to attack the establishment, particularly such symbols of Yankee privilege as Harvard, the First National Bank, orange Volvos, Earth Shoes, and wine lists. There was a certain irony in all this, for Barnicle himself was anything but proletarian—for years he lived in the suburbs, drove foreign cars, hobnobbed with Cambridge literati. But one of his suburban friends was Robert Coles, the psychiatrist and author, who had been pondering the class dimensions of busing. In mid-October Barnicle did a lengthy interview with Coles, who boldly defied liberal orthodoxy. "The busing is a scandal," Coles said. "I do not think that busing should be imposed like this on working-class people exclusively. It should cross these lines and people in the suburbs should share it….The ultimate reality is the reality of class. And to talk about [busing] only in terms of racism is to miss the point. [Working class whites and blacks] are both competing for a limited piece of the pie, the limits of which are being set by the larger limits of class which allow them damn little, if anything."

Barnicle's work on the busing controversy was gutsy, independent journalism. It challenged the orthodoxy of the establishment. It rejected their smug condemnation of working-class people. Ultimately, it was a force for understanding and reconciliation.

We sure could use some of that right stuff in today's immigration discussion. Mike Barnicle, please grab your notebook. Come back to where you once belonged.