Why Does the Des Moines Register Publish Joel Kurtinitis’ Dishonest Musings on Racism?

The conservative columnist's incoherent and dismissive liberal-bashing takes on racism have long contradicted his own arguments about the importance of context and seeking commonality


Last week, the Des Moines Register joined the Sioux City Journal, Ames Tribune, Fort Dodge Messenger, and prominent GOP lawmakers including Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney in calling on Steve King to resign from Congress over his widely condemned defense in the New York Times earlier this month of the term “white supremacist.” While the Register is at it, Iowa’s Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper of record would also be wise to reconsider its decision to give a prominent platform to its token conservative-libertarian columnist Joel Kurtinitis, whose repeated apologism for the bigotry openly espoused by the likes of King has been nothing short of mind-bending — less, almost, for its offensiveness than its self-contradictory incoherence.

In his latest column, also published last week and titled “Republican Party needs to draw a hard line on Steve King,” Kurtinitis jumped on the GOP’s bandwagon of post-election King-scolding convenience, coming closer than ever before to admitting that the congressman’s views might indeed be racist.

“King’s defenders, myself included, have long tried to give him the benefit of the doubt,” he wrote of the congressman’s comment in the Times. “Consequently, we are now left with only two options. Either King is an honest-to-God racist, or he simply lacks the judgment to avoid the land mines on what is arguably the single most persistent point of attack for the left.”

Kurtinitis argued that the GOP is “badly in need of a Sister Souljah moment,” a reference to then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton’s repudiation of a hip-hop artist over her suggestion in the wake of the Los Angeles riots that black gang members ought to kill white people instead of members of their own race. And he acknowledged that a “small but growing segment of ‘race realists’ within the GOP … have been emboldened by King’s rhetoric.”

Yet in the predictable end, Kurtinitis leaned toward his latter option. “I can’t judge King’s heart,” he wrote, echoing a point he made in another column last July in order to dismiss accusations of racism leveled against a Georgia state lawmaker with a history of bigoted behavior after he was effortlessly tricked into repeatedly bellowing “nigger!” on Showtime. “I can’t say whether his remarks were taken out of context, as he claims.”

Such hedging is classic Kurtinitis. It’s also utter nonsense. King’s specific claim was that his comment — “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” — was published with a misplaced hyphen. King was only referring to Western civilization, he said, as part of a broader point about liberals’ overuse of “the worn out label ‘racist’ and … other slanderous labels.” But even if you ignore the fact that “Western civilization” is a term routinely used by white nationalists as coded language, King’s own words in a WHO-TV interview more than two weeks before the 2018 election made his intent clear. “I wouldn’t have thought so maybe a year or two or three ago, but today they use it as a derogatory term and it implies that you are a racist,” he said then in response to a question about his interpretation of white nationalism.

That’s just the start. “Most important, keep everything in context,” Kurtinitis wrote in the conclusion of a Jan. 1 New Year’s resolution column. “No issue stands in isolation, and national identity is never more important than individual identity. The chasm in this country cannot be bridged by parties, only by people.” In the column, he also decried the right’s “troubling slide from rule-of-law arguments to hateful nativism” that “damage[s] any prospect of reasonable discourse on immigration,” comparing it to his favorite whipping boy: liberal identity politics.

Apparently, the importance of context in Kurtinitis’ mind doesn’t extend to the logical consistency of his own arguments. Last July, in his column about the N-word, he echoed King’s complaint about the left’s supposed overuse of the word “racist.” The congressman was a mere “immigration hardliner,” Kurtinitis wrote, and the suggestion that he was a racist lent legitimacy to the alt-right “based on the idea that the Left simply brands all its opponents racist.” Never mind that the congressman is a nativist who has compared immigrants to dogs and livestock. (On Twitter, Kurtinitis confirmed that he wasn’t referring to King in his New Year’s column.)

According to Kurtinitis’ twisted worldview, racists are a rare breed in the United States, although, according to a March 2017 column about King, they do include “the actually racist alt-right.” Never mind that King is an ally of Steve Bannon, the co-founder of the race-baiting news website Breitbart, which Bannon himself boastfully deemed “the platform for the alt-right.”

“The Akin-ing of Rep. Steve King is now underway,” Kurtinitis claimed in the column, defensively comparing an infamous remark from a former Missouri congressman about “legitimate rape” to King’s notorious tweet that we “can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” The tweet was praised by David Duke, a white supremacist and former leader of the Ku Klux Klan. But to Kurtinitis, the uproar was just another example of how the left was “hypersensitive to anything perceived as being racially inflammatory.”

“Fans of identity politics like to play fast and loose with words that have very specific meanings — like ‘racist’ — to demonize their enemies, and King’s tweet is a prime example,” Kurtinitis argued (never mind that racial identity politics lie at the heart of the congressman’s beliefs). “Racism isn’t synonymous with stereotyping, it doesn’t extend to culture or ideals, and finding a real, live racist is a pretty rare curiosity, despite what the PC police would have you believe.”

To hammer home his case, Kurtinitis relied on a lazy logical fallacy: citing the dictionary. “Webster defines racism as ‘a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race,’” he explained.

If there’s anything ostensibly more important to meaningful discourse in Kurtinitis’ mind than context, it’s “clear, agreed-upon definitions at the onset of an argument,” as he wrote in his New Year’s column this year. “If you can agree on premises, you’re likely to find more convergent solutions,” he went on. “We don’t need to argue less, just better. The value of classical logic in discussion isn’t pedantic — it’s a recipe for the discovery of truth and piercing through the fog of emotion that often obscures our view of the obvious.”

Funny, then, that in his 2017 column, Kurtinitis neglected to mention that the Merriam-Webster dictionary has not one but three definitions for racism. The second defines the word as “a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles” or “a political or social system founded on racism.” And the third, most obvious definition that he obscured from the view of his readers, describes racism simply as “racial prejudice or discrimination.”

But that context would have undermined the column’s many disingenuous arguments, including the notion that no one had ever simply asked King if he believed whites were the superior race, “because that would deny liberals in both parties the ability to finger-wag every time he sends out a poorly worded tweet on immigration.”

Time after time, Kurtinitis has returned to versions of this argument in his columns. In August 2017, he bemoaned the lack of “tolerance and decency” of “social justice zealots” who had the nerve to question whether a downtown Des Moines bar’s dress code discriminated based on stereotypes of black gang members, or if a new breakfast restaurant with the proposed name Me So Hungry might be insensitive to Asians (a story, coincidentally, that the Informer broke).

In his reflections last July on the N-word, Kurtinitis acted perplexed by the criticism he received on Twitter after asking, “Why is the n-word the only remaining curse word” for anyone “except rappers” to say? He dismissed the pushback as “just another intellectually lazy attempt to give me the Steve King treatment,” as if his disjointed musings on race relations were enlightened.

All the while, Kurtinitis casts himself as a man trying to appeal to the better angels of our nature. In another New Year’s resolution column published just before the beginning of January (apparently his goals for 2019 were too lofty for a single article), he decried the “bullying and brinksmanship [sic], tribalism and hysteria” of current-day politics and encouraged his readers to challenge their “own views with conflicting evidence and well-formed opposing opinions.” In his follow-up, he wrote, “2019 can be the year America finds commonality again.”

It’s hard to determine the extent to which Kurtinitis actually believes in his own moral preening. Before he blocked me on Twitter for challenging his views with conflicting evidence (albeit rudely) — or, in his words, “trying to piggyback for blog hits by calling people racists” — he invited me to grab a beer and have a face-to-face conversation off of social media, where he said it was too easy for people to come across as “monsters” (I replied, but he never followed up).

Yet, in promoting his appeals to civil discourse and “commonality,” Kurtinitis has consistently shown an inability to consider opposing views as anything other than what he portrays as an underhanded attempt by “social justice warriors” to wrongly label conservatives as racists. Never mind that racism remains prevalent in society and many of the issues raised by these supposed SJWs that he dismisses out of hand come from personal experience and a genuine desire to fight for positive social change.

Kurtinitis has also contended that criticism of his columns is an “intolerant” effort by liberals to censor conservatives. Far from it, what’s baffling is that the Register has chosen him as their conservative “counterbalance,” as Kurtinitis calls himself, instead of another writer with similar views who is capable of laying out a coherent argument without contradicting themselves, dismissing flagrant racism as impossible to interpret, or gaslighting those with whom they claim to seek common ground. There are surely better voices of a similar persuasion for the op-ed page, as other newspapers in the state have already demonstrated.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.