Columnist's howl replaces reason

Virulent attack on Tancredo unsupported

Dec. 1, 2007

by David Kopel

In the reader comments sections of the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post Web sites, you can read lots of folks for whom writing seems to be primarily a malicious emotional outlet. Some commenters spew vicious invective for which they have no support except their own mean-spirited intuitions. Newspapers columnists are supposed to write at a much higher level, to express their opinions forcefully while making persuasive arguments that advance the debate. Sometimes they do.

Consider, for example, nationally syndicated columnist David Ignatius. His Wednesday column in the Post argued that the Annapolis conference on the Mideast had a real chance of bringing peace to region. He supported his argument with many relevant facts, such as the presence of Saudi Arabia and Syria at the conference, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's role "squarely in the middle" (rather than as a backer of Israel). Although the column won't convince all readers, it gave even skeptics food for thought.

Rocky columnist Paul Campos certainly knows how to write gracefully and persuasively about challenging topics - as one can see by reading some of his legal scholarship. But his Rocky columns, which have been going downhill for too long, continue to reach new lows.

On Tuesday, he declared U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo "a racist nut." He clarified: "Actually I don't know if Tancredo himself is a racist, and the question holds no interest for me. Regarding immigration, he talks and acts exactly like a racist would and, when judging a politician, that's the only thing that matters."

Presumably, "a racist nut" - or someone who "talks and acts exactly like a racist nut" - would say something about race. Yet Campos provided the readers with nothing that Tancredo said about race. He complained about Tancredo's presidential campaign television commercial which warns that the failure to defend American borders against illegal entry could allow a terrorist attack. In the commercial, a man whose face and skin are never shown carries a bomb-laden backpack into a shopping mall.

Campos, who calls Tancredo "paranoid," claims that Tancredo was inciting fear of people "disguised as hooded Mexican gangbangers." But Campos too appears paranoid; if he would look around the University of Colorado campus, or most other places in the state of Colorado, he would find that the immense majority of young people who wear hooded sweatshirts are not Mexican gangbangers.

Applying Campos' own reasoning, it would be fair to write that "Paul Campos is a racist Mexican irredentist who wants to turn the southwest United States into a separate, race-based Hispanic state of Aztlan. At the least, Campos talks and acts exactly like a racist Atzlan nut would and, when judging a columnist, that's the only thing that matters."

The way that Campos behaves exactly like racist Aztlan nuts is that he does exactly what they do, by making spurious charges of racism against people who want to stop illegal immigration.

Campos also claimed that Tancredo's hard line against illegal immigration was based on a "nativist" philosophy descended from the Ku Klux Klan. But Campos offered not a scintilla of evidence that Tancredo is a nativist. A nativist would, by definition, claim that citizens who were born in the United States have superior rights to first-generation immigrant citizens. In contrast, Tancredo makes a point of welcoming immigrant citizens by attending naturalization ceremonies.

Perhaps Campos has some reason why he considers Tancredo a nativist, but he should have put the reason in the column, rather than just making an arbitrary or dogmatic argument.

In a Nov. 13 column, Campos pointed out, accurately, that he is "a smart person." He noted "the rage many a Fox News viewer feels at the thought of all those smarty-pants professors!" Campos continued that the average American "is a slave to anecdote and prejudice; he is largely incapable of logical argument; and he tends to wildly overestimate his knowledge regarding just about everything."

In a similar spirit of obnoxious condescension, let me point out something to my intellectual inferior (Campos graduated cum laude from the University of Michigan Law School; I graduated magna cum laude. His score on the Roger Williams Law School measure of faculty productivity, based on publications in the top law journals, is an 11; my score is 21):

Almost every newspaper columnist is far more intelligent than the average American. A good columnist helps his readers improve their reasoning skills by using persuasion rather than assertion. A great columnist shows his readers how to argue passionately but not viciously. What good is it to be exceptionally capable of logical argument if your columns are often dominated by rage rather than reason?

Confucius, far smarter and wiser than either Campos or I, wrote: "The small man thinks that slander is disputation, that a flurry of words is wisdom, and that insolence is courage."

Dave Kopel is research director of the Independence Institute, a public policy research organization of which Tom Tancredo was president from 1993 to 1998.


[Note: the printed version of this column incorrectly identified the author off the Annapolis article as "David Sirota."

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Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of the Independence Institute or as an attempt to influence any election or legislative action. Please send comments to Independence Institute, 727 East 16th Ave., Colorado 80203. Phone 303-279-6536. (email) webmngr @

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