Democracy’s Paradox

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

Wanna hear a good Holocaust joke? Or a rib-tickler about lynching? How about starving Ethiopians? You’ll bust a gut.

I spent an eerie couple of hours recently on the wrong side of the sicko line, checking out hate sites and hate jokes. What’s the difference between a dead dog in the road and a dead . . .

I won’t go on, but we have to think about this. Hate crimes and hate speech are, you could say, democracy’s paradox. Let’s start with a definition: An “ordinary crime” (as though there could ever be anything ordinary about, say, murder) morphs into a “hate crime” when it’s primary or, perhaps, entire point is to amplify speech, perfectly legal in and of itself, that targets and dehumanizes a particular group. Indeed, a hate crime is a perverted form of altruism in that it isn’t generally committed for personal gain, but rather, for social intimidation and control.

I would add that hate crimes also reflect values that are socially marginal. James von Brunn, who had once blogged that Hitler’s worst mistake was that he didn’t gas the Jews, walks into Washington, D.C.’s Holocaust Memorial Museum with a rifle and opens fire, killing a security guard. The judgment against him is instant and visceral: He’s a violent loner nut. Look at his eyes. He’s not there. His humanity has been replaced with an ideology of hate. And this judgment begins to generate both fear and counter-hatred.

I confess to those emotions, especially as I wandered through some of the sites that would have stoked von Brunn’s fires, like, oh,, with a logo that proclaims, “It’s not illegal to be White . . . yet” and flaunts an illustration of a hand holding a noose.

Click on “n-jokes” and you’ll find the humor equivalent of snuff porn or graphic photos of dead Iraqis: a hundred or so short jokes, which I took the trouble to categorize. The biggest bunch of them, a good 30 percent, could be called “murder is funny” jokes, celebrating lynching, gas ovens, starvation and he-men, a la von Brunn, shooting off their rifles. The second largest category, about 25 percent, sucked humor out of the gross dehumanization of the target subjects (African-Americans, Africans, Jews, Latinos and Chinese). A small group of jokes extolled the joys of slave ownership, with the rest of them resurrecting various long-dead ethnic and racial stereotypes.

Ah, free speech. Stoke your paranoia here, boys! Lots of adjectives spring to mind to describe this collection (choose your own). The site’s purpose is to defy and taunt the political correctness police and clear a safe place for life’s biggest losers to blame others for their troubles.

It’s also a holding tank, keeping hate alive. One of these days it’ll be back in fashion, with politicians’ blessings. After all, the two primary targets of these jokes — blacks and Jews — were within living memory the targets, literally, not of marginalized nutjobs but the social mainstream. These jokes are not “what if” fantasies, but memories of the good old days of the Klan and the Nazis. It wasn’t hate speech then; it was the righteous truth.

All of which leads me to the concept of hate crime legislation, which von Brunn’s shooting spree and other high-profile recent crimes, such as the killing of Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider, at his church in Wichita last month, have thrust into the forefront of public debate.

For instance, Attorney General Eric Holder, according to AP, said that these recent killings “show the need for a tougher hate crimes law to stop ‘violence masquerading as political activism.’” And congressional Democrats are rallying behind passage of the Matthew Shepard Act, which would make violence against gays, lesbians and the disabled potential hate crimes.

Fine, except that laws do not stop crime. That’s the problem. Yes, there is a terrible, simmering evil here— a deep national, indeed, human psychosis — that we need to address, and to the extent that pending and existing anti-hate crime laws affirm national values and proclaim them on the marquee of government, they have, I think, immense value. In terms of the Old South, slavery and Jim Crow, for instance, we must declare as publicly as possible: Never again.

But the best a law can do is define a crime and punish it after the fact. The worst it can do is set off a “Prohibition effect” and wind up fanning its own flagrant violation. If we tried to ban hate speech of the sort I just described, that’s certainly what would happen. It’s what censorship usually accomplishes.

The looming horror of the hate that abides on society’s margins — the von Brunn psychosis — is that it will link again one day with the political center, and hunting season will be officially open. Laws alone won’t stop this. They may be necessary, but we dare not stop short of social transformation.

This means rethinking every policy we have that dehumanizes people, with or without — especially without — accompanying hatred, and turns them into collateral damage. It means stopping our current wars. It means demilitarizing.