A political gaffe is when a politician accidentally tells the truth. So when GOP Senate candidate Rand Paul discussed with MSNBC host Rachel Maddow "his belief in a limited government that should not force private businesses to abide by civil rights law," the media's gaffe alarm went off.
The fact is that liberals have got us trained. You'd think that the whole point of non-discrimination laws is to stop the government from discriminating on the basis of race or sex. If private businesses discriminate, it's ugly, but it's not unjust. But when governments do it, you get Jim Crow. Or political correctness.
Under liberal instruction, in today's America, private businesses must not discriminate against protected groups, but governments may flexibly discriminate in their favor -- as the mood takes them.
Now Ramesh Ponnuru at National Review has come out and agreed with the liberals. Segregation in the South was "a deeply rooted social system with many facets that blurred the private-public distinction," so ingrained that it needed a root-and-branch reform, and that included banning private discrimination in restaurants.
Maybe he is right. Maybe in 1964, the United States government needed to make a huge gesture, to send the U.S. cavalry charging into the South and bring its flashing sabers down on the defiant evil of racial segregation.
And, of course, Ponnuru acknowledges, modern conservatism has its original sin to atone for, that conservatives like Bill Buckley were slow to understand the moral necessity of confessing to and repenting of America's original sin.
The trouble is, of course, that liberals didn't stop with the applying the Civil Rights laws against the Jim Crow South. They banned private discrimination on everything that liberals care about -- gender, class, and gays.
Every American knows that he'd better watch his step on racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, because the government can wreck your life if you put a foot wrong.
Some Americans imagine that with Obama, we have turned the corner on race. Dream on. Liberals are never going to give us absolution on race. Or on women, gays, or any of their protected-group Americans. Liberal political power issues out of the moral and cultural power they have acquired as champions of the oppressed.
Modern liberalism started out championing the workers. That's how we got Social Security and Big Labor. Of course, liberals were a bit late to the parade; workers had been organizing themselves for a century. Then liberals championed African-Americans, and we got the Civil Rights Acts. A bit late again. African-Americans had been working to defeat Jim Crow since the beginning of the 20th century.
Somewhere along the line, liberals realized that they could generalize this approach to politics. They could champion all self-described oppressed groups and win eternal gratitude at the ballot box. If a group wasn't already organized, then liberals would astroturf it with ACORN and well-trained community organizers.
Today, fifty years later, liberals have utterly betrayed the noble principles of the Civil Rights era. Out of the monstrous injustice suffered by African-Americans they have created a monster of liberal injustice, a government run amok, discriminating in the most corrupt and cruel manner imaginable.
It is the destiny of modern conservatism to stand against this liberal monster and raise the cry for justice.
Let us return to first principles. It is government that needs to be forbidden to discriminate, not private citizens. The reason is obvious. Discrimination is to a politician what mother's milk is to a baby. When politicians aren't discriminating in favor of their supporters, they are creating dividing lines to demonize their opponents.
For now, conservatives do not have the power to reverse the injustice of liberal race laws. The only weapon we have is shame, just like lawyer Joseph Welch, when he shamed Sen. Joe McCarthy all those years ago. "Have you no sense of decency, liberals, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"
In their dealings with Sen. McCarthy, liberals understood the power of shame. So why can't they be content with shaming private businesses that discriminate against their favorite client group du jour?
The answer is power. What is the point of power unless you use it? What's the point of cultural power unless you convert it to law, so that you can smite your opponents with the power of the state?
We are seeing this power-lust in the developing train wreck of the BP oil spill. The first priority for the Obamas seems to be criminal proceedings rather than cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico and the wetlands of Louisiana.
The conservative approach to politics is different. Conservatives believe that most social problems should be solved not by government action but by social pressure. Better to shame a businessman into serving African-Americans than throwing him in jail.
Maybe in his clumsy way, Rand Paul has fired the first shot in the great battle of the next generation. It is the battle against cruel, corrupt liberal injustice.