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Jewish World Review July 7, 2000 /4 Tamuz, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

Hate mail about hate crimes? -- IT FIGURES. The first and most predictable response to a column of mine expressing doubt about the concept of hate-crimes now has arrived: a flood of hate e-mail.

Well, that's an exaggeration. A gross exaggeration. A lie, actually. Most of the messages weren't hateful at all. On the contrary, they were civil, reasoned, and welcome. They came from the kind of nice, perfectly decent people who wouldn't recognize a dangerous piece of political ideology till the moment it guillotined 'em.

My valued correspondents seemed unaware that, in an ideologically saturated society, it's not the crime that comes to matter, but against whom it's committed, and why.

All of which brings to mind an old family story about a cousin who was caught up in the chaotic times after the First World War somewhere in Poland or Russia. (The border changed from day to day, even hour to hour.) Cousin Lazar was a feather merchant -- literally. He dealt in quilts and comforters, and there he was with a wagonload of featherbeds on the road to Lublin. Soon he was lost in the swirl of Poles and Russians, Reds and Whites, Cossacks and commissars, revolutionaries and reactionaries, Duly Constituted Provisional Authorities and bandits in general. Think southwest Missouri during the Civil War with its James Boys, Quantrills, and other patriots.

The bunch who caught up with Cousin Lazar were bolsheviks, and they accused him of being a merchant, which was a capital crime that day. But before the firing squad could be assembled -- which didn't take long in these matters -- my cousin explained that he wasn't buying and selling these featherbeds. Not at all.

Oh, no, he told the Comrade Commander, he was not a merchant, but a thief. And he'd stolen all this stuff from the rich, damn their hides. He was promptly relieved of his burden and sent on his way with a smile. Whether he was spared out of class solidarity or just amusement at his audacity was never made clear.

Here, obviously, was someone who had been mistaken for a class enemy, when actually he was really a class ally --- a comrade who was only expropriating the expropriators. He wasn't a wicked capitalist at all. It had been a case of mistaken identity. For it wasn't his actions that mattered but his motivation, and whether he hated the right people, damn their rich and powerful hides.

I'm sorry I never got to meet Cousin Lazar. He could have explained the logical basis of hate-crime legislation to me. But being a Polish Jew, he would have had difficulty understanding esoteric American concepts --- like the equal protection of the laws.

I'm assured that I'd still be equal before the law under a hate-crime statute, but George Orwell had it figured out long ago in Animal Farm: Some are more equal than others.

And to assure that kind of justice, the law will put an occasional thumb on the scales when the victim has the right wrongs to exhibit.

It is not the racisms we recognize, those that fairly shout their names, that corrupt a society most deeply. It is those we slip into without noticing, the prejudices that are so automatically accepted that few think to object. The way racial segregation was once accepted in these latitudes. Thoughtlessly. It had become conventional. Racism -- though only of a certain kind -- still is.

For example: Judy Smith is a lady from Camden,. Ark. She's run unsuccessfully for Congress a couple of times, and the other day she said that black voters "are the key now, and we will be the key in November and in every election. . . . It is important that we understand that we can elect anybody we want.'' Which is a perfectly conventional, acceptable piece of political analysis in these times.

But suppose a politician of more pallid hue had noted proudly that white voters "are the key now,'' and "It is important that we understand that we can elect anybody that we want.'' Suddenly the racethink comes into clear, ugly view. And we can hear the same old familiar racespeak. Only the colors have been reversed.

The message is familiar, even if it's being delivered in more sophisticated words: The law should be a respecter of persons. We seem out to replace the idea of equal citizenship with various grades of victimhood.

Racial discrimination is now defended by our more advanced thinkers -- if it's called "affirmative action.'' And colleges may still have quotas, just for different folks. Now the law is going to punish the same crime differently, depending on whom it's committed against.

We are going to draw a distinction between ordinary crime and hate crime, that is, between more acceptable and less acceptable crime. (But why accept any of it?)

Nor is it just any old ethnic stereotype that seems to offend us, but whether it's one we don't happen to share. We can still write in redneck dialect, but the language in Uncle Remus and Huckleberry Finn is now politically incorrect.

A crime committed for no better reason than envy or bloodlust or greed is still bad, but a crime motivated by hate -- or rather a selected, limited list of hates -- is considered worse. Why? Are some people more equal than others? Are their rights, their property, their lives less precious to us?

It's not hate that we criminalize by hate-crime laws, but the mistake of directing it against the wrong groups. Many of us would like to see tougher law enforcement against all kinds of crime -- regardless of the victim's race, religion, sex, national origin or anything else. But that isn't what this debate is about -- not at all.

To quote James Q. Wilson, who's spent a lifetime as a criminologist analyzing our attitudes, "the authors of the hate-crime laws . . . are not interested in making the laws against violent crimes tougher. They are interested in giving special protection to a few groups. They are interested, in short, in making the criminal law an affirmative-action schedule.''

Paul Greenberg Archives


©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate