Question: What do George Clooney, Chaka Khan, the American Medical Association, Bon Jovi and C. Everett Koop have in common?
Answer: They are among the 500 names on the National Rifle Association’s absurd new “enemies list.”
Richard Nixon would be embarrassed to find that his once sinister form of score-keeping has been revived so promiscuously by the NRA. But there is some redeeming social value here: The list illustrates an organization that has become hermetically sealed from society at large, so caught up in conservative debates that it has forgotten how to connect with Main Street America.
The enemies list was first posted on the NRA’s website in mid-September, hiding in plain sight under the banner “National Organizations with Anti-Gun Policies.” But with the debate about reasonable gun restrictions reignited after the Sandy Hook Elementary School slaughter, the NRA’s enemies list has become just the latest example of seriously bad judgment inside this once proud organization.
Because whatever staffer was tasked with accumulating the list took the idea of “you’re either with us or against us” so literally that everyone who isn’t a card-carrying conservative seems to be counted as an enemy.
The list is divided into broad categories, including “Anti-Gun Individuals and Celebrities,” journalists, civic organizations and corporations — as well as a grab bag category that includes religious leaders. You don’t have to be a charter member of Mensa to see how this is going to alienate far more Americans than it attracts.
We’re living in a celebrity-driven culture, for better or worse, so let’s start with a look at the celebrity list.
The first thing that struck me was the preponderance of ’70s sitcom stars who are apparently among the leading threats to gun rights in America today, including Sandy Duncan, Marilu Henner, Ed Asner, Hal Linden and Pam Dawber of “Mork & Mindy” fame. It’s like the list-maker was locked in a closet full of yellowing TV Guides. It’s a near-miracle that “The Partridge Family” was left off the list.
But the NRA doesn’t seem content to limit its targets to old reruns of “The Hollywood Squares” — no, it has to go and bring Sean Connery into the fight, along with Bruce Springsteen, Albert Brooks, Tony Bennett, Jack Nicholson, Britney Spears, Jerry Seinfeld and Oprah Winfrey.
On the civic side, it sees fit to call out everyone from Dick Parsons to Maya Angelou to (the late) Ed Koch to Michael Eisner. You might as well declare yourself the sworn enemy of anyone who doesn’t subscribe to National Review.
This idea gets thrown into even sharper relief when you look at a partial list of civic, charitable and religious organizations that the NRA has determined are “anti-gun.” Warning: Take a deep breath before reading aloud:
• American Medical Association;
• American Bar Association;
• Anti-Defamation League;
• B`nai B`rith;
• Children`s Defense Fund;
• Environmental Action Foundation;
• Episcopal Church;
• Lauder Foundation;
• League of Women Voters of the United States;
• National Association of Police Organizations;
• National Coalition Against Domestic Violence;
• National Association for the Advancement of Colored People;
• National Council of La Raza;
• National Urban League;
• National Spinal Cord Injury Association;
• Southern Christian Leadership Conference;
• U.S. Catholic Conference;
• United Methodist Church;
• United Church of Christ;
• U.S. Conference of Mayors;
• and the YWCA of the USA.
I ask this in all seriousness: Who’s left?
Because the list includes just about every major American faith group and denomination, every major ethnic group and voter constituency. And adding the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and National Spinal Cord Injury Association to the list of anti-gun enemies is either clueless or callous — or both.
One of my favorite lyrics by U2 says: “Choose your enemies carefully, ’cause they will define you.” The NRA, like too much of the conservative movement, has chosen its enemies indiscriminately and seems defined in opposition to most of modern America.
This is a byproduct of polarization, the cultlike expulsion of any dissenting voices and preoccupation with ideological purity.
In the case of the NRA, this is reflected in its reversal on policies it supported in the past, such as gun-free school zones and universal background checks. But it is also reflected in tone-deaf speeches such as the ones recently delivered by Wayne LaPierre, or the truly out-of-touch television ad the NRA produced calling President Barack Obama an “elitist hypocrite” for having the Secret Service guard his two daughters at school.
The essence of evangelism is winning converts — but that goal can be easily forgotten when you’re preoccupied with playing to the base. Reasonable advocates of Second Amendment rights are being ill-served by the organization’s recalcitrant radicalism — reflected in the fact that 74% of NRA members say they support universal background checks.
Adding an indiscriminate enemies list to the NRA website only highlights its isolation, consolidating opposition among the figures mentioned and their fans.
As legendary columnist Jimmy Breslin — also a Nixon enemies list alumnus — remarked when his name was found on the new NRA document, “Put me first on the list.” This defiance is a very American response to such an awkward attempt to intimidate.
The NRA enemies list will backfire badly. And then maybe its absurd excess will provoke a needed reset inside the organization, providing a timely reminder that the politics of addition are always more effective than the politics of division.