Harry Anderson, a magician and comic (made famous by his stint as the judge on the old sitcom "Night Court"), used to have a routine where he'd promise to juggle George Washington's ax. I'm quoting from memory here, but he'd say something like: "I have here George Washington's original ax — the one he used to chop down the cherry tree." He'd wait a beat, and then add: "Of course, a few years ago the blade broke and had to be replaced. And about a decade before that it got a new handle. But in spirit this is George's ax."
Maybe that's a weird way to get into it, but that bit keeps coming to mind as I listen to pundits, reporters, politicians and activists try to compare every cause under the sun to Jim Crow, slavery and the black experience in America generally.
For instance, in the debate over gay marriage, one commentator after another likens arguments against same-sex marriage to arguments against interracial marriage. They said blacks and whites couldn't marry, and now they say men and men can't marry!
Gay marriage is not my chief worry by any means, but this is nonsense on stilts. Indeed, one can be entirely in favor of same-sex marriage and still reject the comparison. For starters, if denying the right to marry is all it takes to be akin to anti-miscegenation laws, then that door is open to virtually any prohibition on marriage. "They said blacks and whites couldn't marry and now they say brother and sister can't marry!" Or, "They said blacks and whites couldn't marry and now they say the defensive line of the Dallas Cowboys can't marry!"
Of course there are important differences between an incestuous or a polygamous marriage and a loving committed relationship between two homosexuals. Indeed, it's instructive that many gay rights activists take offense whenever opponents say that legalizing gay marriage will lead to polygamy, incest or bestiality. They insist such comparisons are ridiculous. And they're right! But it's also ridiculous to equate Jim Crow prohibitions on interracial marriage to prohibitions on gay marriage.
If you can't see the problem, it's this: The whole point of the civil rights movement is that skin color is superficial. Sex — i.e. male, female — is actually a real and deep biological difference. You could look it up.
But such distinctions are meaningless in an era when both the handle and the ax of Jim Crow were replaced decades ago. All that's left is parody. Just last week Princeton's Cornel West — a proud man of the left — despaired that under Obama "we black folk are just being pushed to the back of the bus."
What bus are you talking about, professor?
When Republicans tried to filibuster the Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid lamented, "When this body was on the verge of guaranteeing equal civil rights to everyone regardless of the color of their skin, some senators resorted to the same filibuster threats that we hear today."
That's true! But ... so what? How, exactly is opposition to an evermore disastrous health care reform bill akin to denying the humanity of African-American citizens? Is any filibuster threat now tainted by Dixiecrat opposition to civil rights?
The Washington Post reported last week that civil rights activists in Florida are dismayed that the George Zimmerman murder trial in Florida isn't racially divisive enough. "It makes you feel kind of angry and kind of bad that race is not a part of this," Rev. Harrold C. Daniels, told the Post. "It's a missed opportunity."
The "problem," as even the Martin family's attorney concedes, is that there's just not much evidence that Zimmerman was motivated by racial animus. You'd think that would be good news. But it's not because so many people invested in the idea that "Trayvon Martin is Emmett Till!" in the words of one demagogic radio host, and countless other commentators.
When the Supreme Court recently ruled that the Voting Rights Act needed to take into account that blacks now vote more than whites in jurisdictions that are presumed to be racist, many responded as if the Supreme Court reinstated Jim Crow. MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry cried out on Twitter "Damn, that citizenship thing was so great for awhile."
Slavery and Jim Crow were horrible injustices and the civil rights movement was a shining moral triumph. But the light of that movement shouldn't be used to blind us to important distinctions, chief among them: We don't live in that world anymore.
Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is also the author of "The Tyranny of Clichés," now on sale in paperback. You can write to him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via Twitter @JonahNRO.