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Jewish World Review June 26, 2000 /23 Sivan, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Confessions of a thoughtcriminal -- I KNOW I shouldn't be writing this down. It will be used against me. But I've got to tell somebody, even if it's only me. I used to think writing it down would help make things clearer in my mind, but I'm as confused as ever, and confusion about some things is guilt. Some things you should never doubt or, better yet, not think about at all. Like hate crime. Just accept it and go on.

A confession: I've never understood the difference between hate crimes and the ordinary kind, and why one should be punished more severely than the other. Don't the victims hurt as much?

Maybe I could plead insanity. It's not as though Thoughtcrime is something you could will yourself to stop. The mind just keeps whirring, throwing out questions, rhetorical questions:

Is it hate that's wrong or just some kinds of it? Why is it worse to hate some people on the basis of their race or religion or sexual orientation (black folks, Jews, homosexuals) than to hate others on the basis of their class or politics or ethnicity? (The middle class, conservatives, Cubans)? And why is it all right to despise the rich, but not the poor? You can see how confused I am.

One sultry afternoon, I went to MacArthur Park here in Little Rock to see the hate-crime exhibit. Maybe it would straighten me out, though I didn't have much hope. I've seen such exhibits before, and they didn't work. I couldn't find the exhibit, though I drove all around the park in the enervating, late-afternoon haze. I parked and started walking around, past the old monuments, the crumbling Civil War arsenal, the ruins of clarity. But no exhibit. Maybe they took it down early, or maybe the wind blew over the banners.

Another confession: I wasn't disappointed. The heat was oppressive enough without thinking about hate. I played hooky and went into the cool, cool arts center instead. Nobody there seemed to know about a hate-crimes exhibit, or even about hate. It was like walking into an Egyptian pyramid, full of evidence of past passions frozen into unchanging art. My mind seemed to clear -- surely a delusion.

I paid my respects to the impressionists before leaving, in no hurry to get back to the gathering furnace of an Arkansas summer. I checked to make sure the paintings hadn't changed, and to gauge how much I had since my last visit to them. The street is still snowy in Utrillo's Montmartre. It's called "Dead-End Street in the Snow,'' the little placard informs, and it grows more inviting as summer lengthens.

I'm supposed to be working, and thinking about hate crime, not paintings. But surely truth and beauty are the best way to drive out hate, to make it beside the point, rather than engage in tendentious arguments over what hate is, and try to understand equally tendentious statutes and ordinances that leave some kinds of hate more acceptable than other kinds.

In cool rooms with high ceilings and well-lighted spaces, it is possible to let the mind off its leash. But duty calls. Or at least another chore. It is time to get back to black-and-white photographs of hate crimes, and black-and-white mental categories -- as blatant and unsatisfying as propaganda always is in place of art.

Shape up, Greenberg. The well-trained mind only repeats, it does not question. It does not ask why, in a system dedicated to the equal protection of the laws, some are more equal than others. It doesn't ask why an attack on a poor black man in Texas is a hate crime, but not an assault on a young white investment banker jogging through New York's Central Park.

How far does hate crime extend -- to hate speech? To hate votes? The Rev. Jesse Jackson denounced the U.S. Senate's refusal to confirm Bill Lann Lee's appointment as assistant attorney general as a "hate crime.'' Is that kind of rhetoric, with its own power to incite, hateful? Even a hate crime? Should it be censored? Does the answer depend on what or who is being hated at the time?

As one legal scholar noted, we seem to be going back to a pre-biblical standard of justice. The crucial consideration becomes not an eye for an eye and a hand for a hand, but whose eye and hand are involved. As in Hammurabi's code, crimes against the nobility carry more severe penalties than those against ordinary subjects. Harm the wrong people, or rather the right people, and the usual limits on punishment are lifted.

We are creating a new hierarchy of victims, some with more privileges, and therefore some with less. Equality, once the yearned-for goal, becomes an obstacle to be overcome. For a report on the latest and ludicrous in hate law, see Robert J. Corry Jr.'s article in the current "Texas Review of Law and Politics'' ("Burn This Article: It is Evidence in Your Thought Crime Prosecution'').

If we're going to outlaw hate -- a "Hate-Free Arkansas'' is said to be the goal of this exhibit -- how will we conduct politics? Henry Adams, who's beyond all this now, and so can be cited as a disinterested source, said that in practice "politics has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.'

If you doubt that, attend a national nominating convention of one of our great political parties. It doesn't matter which one. It is always the other party that embodies evil, and ours that is the apotheosis of the good. Talk about hate speech ... but it's not as if anybody really listens.

I did manage to find some literature from the Arkansas Women's Project. Its latest project is to have crimes against women, or at least some crimes against some women, added to the roster of hate crimes. It cites one example after another, including some crimes for which no one has been arrested, and others for which no motive has been established. Some of the crimes cited may not even have been crimes. But the tone of the pamphlet leaves no room for doubt. As Winston Smith noted in 1984, orthodoxy is unconsciousness.

The literature from the Women's Project disapproves of certain phrases -- welfare mothers and inner-city crime -- as encouraging intolerance. It does not object to other names, like religious right or redneck. What constitutes hate speech may depend on who is being hated at the time.

To raise such questions is to raise questions about one's orthodoxy, now known as political correctness. It is to be labeled (and soon enough prosecuted?) as reactionary, anti-social, a hater and, worst of all, intolerant.

We are to be tolerant of everything but intolerance, and hate nothing but hate crimes. So if you've read this far, Gentle Reader, I thank you, and would you please destroy this column when you're finished? Before it's used as evidence.

Paul Greenberg Archives


©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate