Sunday, June 14, 2009

Pat Buchanan and the "Base Alloy of Hypocrisy"

In a recent column, the paleoconservative Pat Buchanan uses as affirmative action as a rhetorical bludgeon against Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor. But what I found interesting was Pat Buchanan's attempt to quote Abraham Lincoln to argue that old-school bigotry is better than affirmative action by private universities:

This is bigotry pure and simple. To salve their consciences for past societal sins, the Ivy League is deep into discrimination again, this time with white males as victims rather than as beneficiaries.

One prefers the old bigotry. At least it was honest, and not, as Abraham Lincoln observed, adulterated "with the base alloy of hypocrisy."

The quotation about the "base alloy of hypocrisy" sounded familiar to me, so I decided to look it up in the Yale Book of Quotations. When I did so, I realized that Pat Buchanan could not have been more tone-deaf to the original context of Abraham Lincoln's quote:

Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that "all men are created equal." We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except Negroes." When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read "all men are created equal, except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics." When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.

The reference comes from an 1855 letter in which Abraham Lincoln declares to his friend Joshua Speed his opposition to slavery, a letter that would later strain Lincoln's friendship with Speed for the rest of the 1850s. What's even more ironic is that the quote sampled by Buchanan comes from a letter extremely critical of the Know Nothing Party, a 19th century political party focused on excluding immigrants. Since Buchanan himself has run as a candidate of nativist third parties, Buchanan's tone-deafness in selecting the quote could not be more pronounced. Or perhaps that was his plan all along?

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