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Joe Wilson's Dixie Partisans

A Commentary By Joe Conason

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The stupid misconduct of entertainer Kanye West and politician Joe Wilson demonstrated, if any fresh proof is necessary, that thoughtless rudeness isn't confined by ethnicity, ideology or background. With their highly public episodes of misconduct, both earned sharp public censure.

Yet while West has expressed real remorse for his misbehavior at the MTV Music Awards, Wilson has swiftly left behind a quick apology to cash in on his historic insult to the president of the United States.

The South Carolina conservative's political consultants have raised upward of a million dollars from donors across the country who want to express solidarity with him for blurting, "You lie!" on the House floor -- and they're peddling T-shirts emblazoned with "I'm With Joe Wilson." Those same consultants are now promoting his noxious outburst as an act of patriotism.

Nothing surprising there, however, to anyone familiar with the Wilson entourage and outlook. The consultant behind the excitable right-wing congressman is Richard Quinn, long a central figure in both South Carolina Republican politics and the "neo-Confederate" movement, notably as editor and publisher of a periodical called The Southern Partisan.

As a staunch defender of the antebellum way of life, he has advocated displaying Confederate symbols on public property and opposed the Martin Luther King holiday, and sought to restore the reputation of slave owners.

Long before Quinn started selling those Joe Wilson tees, his magazine used to market T-shirts denigrating Abraham Lincoln, which displayed a portrait of him above the slogan "Sic Semper Tyrannis" -- the phrase shouted by John Wilkes Booth after shooting the Civil War president. No doubt Quinn considered that to be an expression of "patriotism," too, although not to the United States of America.

It is not accidental that Wilson is a client of the Quinn firm (which has also represented Arizona Sen. John McCain, much to his shame). The South Carolina congressman is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, once a relatively harmless organization of nostalgic Southerners that has been transformed into a virulently racist outfit in recent years.

Before his election to Congress, Wilson was among the tiny minority of state legislators in South Carolina who fought to the bitter end for the right to fly a Confederate flag over the statehouse -- a campaign in which those die-hards enjoyed the support of Quinn's fundraising and publicity apparatus.

This is the ugly underside of the farthest right-wing elements of the Republican Party. Promoting Joe Wilson as a symbol of the GOP is a dangerous game, but it is nothing new for a political leadership that has been flirting with the neo-Confederates for decades now. Ever since Strom Thurmond left the Democratic Party in 1948, what was once the party of Lincoln has veered closer and closer to the ideology of his assassins.

Even now, Republican leaders in Washington -- presumably including the black chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele -- make common cause with the neo-Confederates. They pretend not to notice the Dixie flags, the habitual expressions of racism and bigotry or the poisonous attitude toward Lincoln, King and the other saviors of the nation. And they pretend that the politicians who stoke these smoldering hatreds are loyal to the same ideals as the rest of us.

Such weird political configurations also appeared briefly during the candidacy of Sarah Palin, whose career in Alaska was promoted by the secessionist party there. That strange interlude -- which also embarrassed McCain -- is similarly an artifact of the Republican attraction to the extreme right.

Whether this extremism will help the party regain a majority next year, or hinder its prospects, isn't yet clear. The House Republicans are staking their reputation on support for Wilson against a censure resolution. Fortunately for the people of South Carolina, he will have to face Democrat Rob Miller, a Marine veteran of the Iraq war whose service to country and political maturity are not in question.

Early polls after the Wilson disgrace suggested that the outcome of that contest is anything but assured for the incumbent.

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