National Public Radio takes such pains, at times, to live down its reputation as a basically left-of-center forum that it chokes off reasonable debate.
I think that happened several times, on Thursday, in this program about white supremacist activity during the campaign season.
If you don't have time to listen to the whole thing, at least drag the cursor over to about 12:30, when a guy named Tom from Smithfield, R.I. phones in. Tom has a pretty reasonable question which has been asked many ways in recent weeks: is there anything about some of the recent Republican rallies that might give encouragement to hate groups? Note that host Conan treats the question almost as if it is out of bounds. He first insists that the caller can not possibly be suggesting that either McCain or Palin have ever said anything of this nature. He then insists that the only relevance of the question would be in the case of hate groups hearing something that's not really there in the rhetoric of these rallies.
The effect is one of intellectual cowardice. Tom's question is not at all exotic. A lot of us have wondered whther some of the rhetoric, especially Palin's, has implicitly invited the audiences to indulge their darkest and most sinister fantasies about who Barack Obama is and who he isn't. The talk about "real America" doesn't even seem that subtle at times. I don't mind saying that, watching some of those clips, I have found myself thinking: if some idiot shoots Obama some day, we're going to look back at these rallies and wonder whether if they gave encouragement and nourishment to the American monster of virulent racism. I think McCain has had the same thought, which is why he went through that stretch where he at least made an effort to cool down some of the hottest heads at his speeches (only to find himself getting booed by those hotheads).
Conan is clearly afraid of the whole topic. Seconds later, his guest from the Southern Poverty Law Center talks about nasty racist imagery including nooses around Obama's neck. "To be fair," Conan jumps in, there have been Sarah Palin nooses. Well, one, says the guest. But Conan's desire is pretty clear. We must at least pretend that these problems are roughly equivalent. One campaign can not possibly be more appealing to noose-sketchers than the other.
It seems to me that one of the most important questions in this whole story is the one Conan is determined to avoid. What's the overlap between the crazy, dangerous people and the people showing up and yelling back at these rallies? Do the crazy and vicious people feel emboldened when mainstream political figures say things that don't sound all that different from what the fringe groups say? Does the McCain campaign have some responsibility to worry about this? Does Palin, specifically, seem indifferent to the problem or is she now acknowledging that she might have to be a little more careful? (Even though Palin has apologized for any misunderstanding she might have created, I think we know the answer to that. Palin said last week that any criticism of her campaigning style infringes on her First Amendment rights.)
Anyway, we're apparently not going to find out on Talk of the Nation.