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