Goodbye to our Freedom to Hate
The Hate Crime Act will criminalise free speech, warns Alexander Cockburn
America is on the verge of making it illegal to say anything nasty about homosexuals, Jews, blacks and women. Hate speech, even when it falls far short of any direct incitement to violence, is about to be criminalised. Freedom of speech, enshrined in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, will be gone the way of the dodo.
The House of Representatives approved at the end of April, and has since passed to the Senate, a bill backed by Barack Obama's White House to classify as 'hate crimes' those attacks based on a victim's sexual orientation, gender identity or mental or physical disability.
Now, there already was a federal statute going back to the 1960s proscribing hate crimes based on race, colour, religious or ethic origin, but prosecutors could only invoke this law if the victim was engaged in a federally protected activity, like going to school or praying in church. No more, if the Senate agrees with the House, which it surely will.
Suppose two fellows in a bar see another fellow come in, are overheard stigmatising the man as a homosexual and are then later convicted of beating him up. They not only get sentenced for inflicting grievous bodily harm, they get an 'enhancement' - several more years behind bars - for committing a hate crime.
The gay lobby has been pushing for just such a hate crime law ever since Matthew Shepard got beaten to death in 1998 by two roofers outside Laramie, Wyoming. It's actually somewhat unclear whether the roofers, high on methamphetine at the time, specifically murdered Shepard because he was gay.
The problem with the Hate Crimes Act is that it creates a thought crime
But gay and 'human rights' groups have been fundraising on the Shepard martyrdom ever since, as have most of the major women's organisations. An amped-up hate crime law has been on the pledge list of liberal politicians ever since.
The problem with the Hate Crimes Prevention Act is that it creates a thought crime. After all, violent acts like assault or murder or rape carry specific and very serious penalties for the perpetrators, if convicted. (The Laramie roofers were convicted of murder anyway, and will spend the rest of their lives behind bars.) Motive does not enter the matter. And how will a prosecutor prove that a lesbian was murdered because of her sexual preference or because the mugger who stabbed her in the darkened entry to her building did so because she refused to give him her handbag?
As Representative Lamar Smith, ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, protested: "All violent crimes must be vigorously prosecuted. Unfortunately, this bill undermines one of the most basic principles of our criminal justice system - equal justice for all. Justice will now depend on the race, gender, sexual orientation, disability or other protected status of the victim. It will allow different penalties to be imposed for the same crime."
Advocates insist that the Hate Crimes Act will deal only with crimes of violence and have nothing whatsoever to do with limiting free speech or thought. But given the way case law evolves, and the manner in which ambitious prosecutors advance their political careers, there will be an irresistible incentive to bring indictments against anyone speaking hatefully about members of protected categories of people. Speech itself will become a 'violent act' and therefore unlawful.
As Paul Craig Roberts, a former assistant secretary of the Treasury, writes in his fine book on civil liberties, The Tyranny of Good Intentions: "All laws are expansively interpreted. For example: the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organisations Act (RICO), passed in 1970, was directed at drug lords. Nothing in the law says anything about divorce; yet it soon was applied in divorce cases."
Under the Clean Water Act (1977), says Roberts, the Exxon Valdez accident was criminalised. "An unintentional oil spill became the intentional discharge of pollutants without a license, and the bird kill became killing migratory birds without a license. An accident was prosecuted as a crime of intent."
Roberts also points out that since the passage of the Global Anti-Semitism Review Act in 2004, the US Department of State is required to monitor anti-semitism worldwide. In order to monitor anti-semitism, the term must be defined. Anti-semitic speech can be interpreted as inciting hatred. Inciting hatred can be interpreted to be a violent act.
'Excessive' criticism of Israel is a subjective, undefinable concept that can be used to determine anti-semitic speech. It is easy to conflate 'excessive' with 'strong'. Thus, demands that Israel be held accountable for war crimes committed in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, or elsewhere become acts of the hate crime of anti-semitism.
It was one of Israel's ambassadors to the US who said on his return to Israel in the 1980s that one of his greatest achievements had been to conflate any criticism of Israel's conduct with anti-semitism tout court.
Civil libertarians here point gloomily to the trend in Europe where people are given lengthy prison terms for questioning the Holocaust and a shock jock like Michael Savage ends up on UK Home Secretary Jacqui Smith's list of people banned from Britain's shores because he entertains - with what she deems to be cruel and hurtful opinions.
Particularly since the growth of identity politics and political correctness in the 1980s, liberals have been itching to make it unlawful to say beastly things, and campaigning against hate can be very good business in America.
Consider the fortunes of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), based in Montgomery, Alabama and headed by Morris Dees. Ever since 1971, US Postal Service mailbags have bulged with Dees's fundraising letters, scaring dollars out of the pockets of trembling liberals aghast at his lurid depictions of hate-sodden America, in dire need of legal confrontation by the SPLC.
As of October 2008, the net assets of the SPLC were $170,240,129, making it the wealthiest civil rights group in America even though it lost $50m of its endowment in the market crash last year. The merchant of hate himself, Mr Dees, is currently paid an annual $273,132 as chief trial counsel. Total revenue in 2007 was $44,727,257 and programme expenses $20,804,536.
But where the haters? The KKK is now riddled with government informers
In other words, the Southern Poverty Law Centre was raising twice as much as it was spending on its proclaimed mission. Fund-raising and administrative expenses accounted for $9m, leaving $14m to be put in the centre's vast asset portfolio.
But where are the haters? That hardy old standby, the Ku Klux Klan, despite the SPLC's predictable howls about an uptick in its chapters, is a moth-eaten and depleted troupe, at least 10 per cent of them on the government payroll as informants for the FBI.
As Noel Ignatiev once remarked in his book Race Traitor, there isn't a public school in any county in the USA that doesn't represent a menace to blacks a thousand times more potent than that offered by the KKK, just as there aren't many such schools that probably haven't been propositioned by Dees to buy one of the SPLC's 'tolerance' programs. What school is going to go on record rejecting Dees-sponsored tolerance?
Dees and his hate-seekers scour the landscape for hate like the arms manufacturers inventing new threats - and for the same reason: it's their staple.
The SPLC's latest Year in Hate report claims that "in 2008 the number of hate groups rose to 926, up four per cent from 2007, and 54 per cent since 2000." The SPLC doesn't measure the number of members in the groups, meaning they probably missed me.
Change that total to 927. I'm a hate group, meaning in Dees-speak, "one with beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people," starting with Dick Cheney. I love to dream of him being waterboarded, subjected to loops of Schonberg played at top volume, locked up naked in a meat locker.
Freedom to hate got only oblique acknowledgement from the great iconographer of American liberties, Norman Rockwell. He gave Americans his depictions of the four freedoms - in the Saturday Evening Post in 1943 - two years after FDR listed them in a famous address.
Rockwell had no problem illustrating Freedom from Want (a big turkey for a nice white family); Freedom from Fear (nice white kids being tucked up in bed). Freedom of Speech offered a nice Steve-Square-Jaw white working man giving a Vermont town meeting a piece of his mind to the evident annoyance of the nice businessman sitting next to him.
Theoretically, this homage to freedom of speech included the all-important right to say you hate someone or something but the Vermont town meeting was such an obviously friendly affair, hate didn't get its scaly claw over the window sill.
It was when Rockwell tried to paint Freedom to Worship that he tripped over hate. His first idea was for a scene in a barber shop featuring a white Protestant barber along with customers including a Jew, a black and a Catholic priest - admittedly a very unlikely scene anywhere in America in 1943.
People thought Rockwell's painting a hateful piece of racial stereotyping: the black was too black, or not black enough, the Jew too Jewish, the Catholic priest altogether too rough. Rockwell, the nicest of all-American nice guys, had wandered into the long grass of American prejudices, antechamber to hate. He promptly dumped the painting and produces a dreadful painting with no Jews, no blacks and no priests. Of course it was an appalling piece of kitsch, being very nice and not at all like the way America really is. ·
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