Using The Church Burnings To Scapegoat Conservatives

IT is bad enough that people are going around setting fires to black churches in the South, without having a law-enforcement official of the Clinton administration adding the incendiary statement that radio talk-show hosts are among those responsible. Assistant Attorney General Deval Patrick is following in the president's footsteps in turning a tragic story into a political opportunity.

Bill Clinton set the pattern when he used the Oklahoma City bombing to blame conservative talk shows for having criticized the government. It worked, according to the polls, so it was perhaps inevitable that this tactic would be used again, especially in an election year.

If everyone who has criticized the dangerous expansion of government power is to be blamed for every act of violence by anarchists or wackos, then the indictment would have to include those who wrote the Constitution of the United States. Anyone who reads the Constitution can see how much its authors distrusted politicians. In "The Federalist Papers," that distrust is spelled out in plain English.

We can argue back and forth about how much power government should have and where it should be located. The scary thing today is that there are very few such arguments and that smears and guilt-by-association are taking the place of arguments, evidence or logic.

Ugly as guilt-by-association is, what is far more ominous for the future of this country is the fact that it worked. One of the

reasons it has worked is that even our supposedly educated people are increasingly lacking in any sense of analysis.

Many studies have shown how ignorant our high school and even college graduates are of basic knowledge that was once taken for granted. What is even more alarming is how lacking they are in the ability to think systematically. Such elementary things as defining terms and going step-by-step from evidence to conclusions have given way to emotional rhetoric and automatic responses to buzzwords and visions.

As someone who has taught at several colleges, I am all too painfully aware of the erosion of thinking over the years. But, even after leaving the classroom, I have continued to encounter the same mindlessness elsewhere. For example, an environmentalist to whom I presented certain facts responded by saying, "But they are raping the planet!"

"What specifically does that mean?" I asked.

He was as speechless as someone who had just played the ace of trumps and was then told that that was not enough to win.

Nor is this erosion of rationality limited to the young. A couple of years ago, "New York Times" columnist Anthony Lewis wrote a diatribe against talk-show host Rush Limbaugh - and then admitted, days later, that he had never listened to him. Lewis was only one of many to make such sweeping denunciations, without the slightest sense of embarrassment at not knowing what he was talking about.

Demonization is only one of the substitutes for facts and logic. Repetition of the prevailing liberal vision is another common substitute.

For example, media deep-thinkers have repeatedly said that the burning of black churches has not received anywhere near the attention that would have been paid if these were white churches. But a news story buried on an inside page of my local newspaper mentions a government report showing that in fact there have been 23 suspicious fires at predominantly white churches during the same period when the black churches were being burned.

I don't know who set any of these fires. Neither do those who are making sweeping statements. But the big problem is not that we don't have the facts. The real problem is that the facts don't seem to matter.

One symptom of this are the outraged complaints that investigators have questioned some of the people connected with the churches that were burned. Do people want the fires investigated or do they want their own beliefs to be rubber-stamped by law-enforcement officials?

Arson can be caused by all sorts of things, ranging from hatred to insurance. Like most people, I certainly hope the facts come out. What I hope for even more is that we start paying more attention to facts - not only in this episode, but in trying to understand all the serious issues facing this society.

(Copyright, 1996, Creators Syndicate, Inc.)

Thomas Sowell's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times.