NOTHING BRINGS OUT RACIST slurs like an ambitious black man who doesn't know his ''place." So when Maryland's lieutenant governor, Michael Steele, announced his candidacy for the US Senate recently, the bigots reared up. On one popular website, The News Blog, Steele's picture was grotesquely doctored, making him look like a minstrel-show caricature. ''I's Simple Sambo and I's Running for the Big House," read the insulting headline accompanying the picture.
This wasn't some white supremacist slime from the right-wing fringe. The News Blog is a liberal site, and the reason for its racist attack on Steele, a former chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, is that he is a conservative. Specifically, a black conservative. As far as too many liberals are concerned, blacks who reject liberalism deserve to be smeared as Sambos and worse.
''Black Democratic leaders in Maryland say that racially tinged attacks against Lt. Gov. Michael Steele . . . are fair because he is a conservative Republican," The Washington Times reported. ''Such attacks . . . include pelting him with Oreo cookies during a campaign appearance, calling him an 'Uncle Tom,' and depicting him as a blackfaced minstrel."
Once upon a time, segregationists excoriated white liberals as ''nigger lovers." Today, racist insults in the political arena are more likely to come from the left -- and to target black conservatives. When Harry Belafonte was asked in August about the fact that black Americans hold prominent positions in the Bush administration, his response was to call them ''black tyrants" -- and then to make a sickening (and ignorant) comparison: ''Hitler had a lot of Jews high up in the hierarchy of the Third Reich."
While Belafonte's odious remarks drew virtually no media attention, there was plenty of coverage a few weeks later when televangelist Pat Robertson suggested that Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez be assassinated. And while few if any liberal or Democratic voices were heard to condemn Belafonte, Robertson was publicly slammed by leading conservatives and Republicans, such as former presidential candidate Bob Dole (''ludicrous, ridiculous, irresponsible"), National Review senior editor Richard Brookhiser (''what an offense that this man was a serious candidate for the presidency"), and US Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota (''incredibly stupid").
It's an old story. For years I have devoted an annual column to the hate speech in which mainstream liberals traffic all too readily, and to the double standard that tolerates such poison when it comes from the left, while erupting in outrage when it is heard on the right.
By ''hate speech," I don't mean the sharp put-downs that are an inevitable part of vigorous public debate. What I have in mind are the disgusting calumnies and malicious demonizations that should have no place in political discourse. Like University of Michigan historian Juan Cole, a frequent TV talking head, asserting falsely that Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes ''has fond visions of rounding up Muslim Americans and putting them in concentration camps." Or US Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont accusing the Bush family of planning to ''start another war . . . next year, probably in Iran" in order ''to get their son" -- Florida Governor Jeb Bush -- ''elected president" in the next election.
If this kind of toxic rhetoric came only from crackpots, it would be easy enough to dismiss. When it comes from pundits, celebrities, and politicians -- people whose views tend to get respectful attention -- it does real damage, and should be universally condemned.
But there was no universal condemnation this year for:
Antiwar protester Cindy Sheehan, who denounced President Bush as an ''evil maniac" and ''Führer" and said his administration -- ''the biggest terrorist outfit in the world" -- is committing ''blatant genocide" in Iraq.
Syndicated cartoonist Pat Oliphant, who depicted Bush imploring a cosmetic surgeon to make him ''look like a leader" whom the ''herd" will ''follow . . . blindly and without question." The surgeon transforms him into a Hitler lookalike.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie of the Union for Reformed Judaism, another liberal who blithely compares conservatives to Nazis. Just as the religious right today opposes same-sex marriage, Yoffie said last month, ''we cannot forget that when Hitler came to power in 1933, one of the first things that he did was ban gay organizations."
People who label those they disagree with ''Hitler" and ''Sambo" traffic in foul, foul stuff, as repugnant as anything ever uttered by Joe McCarthy or George Wallace. Of all people, it is liberals who should be most outraged by such illiberal slanders and smears. When will they put a stop to hate speech uttered in their name?
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is email@example.com.