Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Feelin near as faded as my jeans

Dave Niewert is a fabulous writer and an excellent journalist. At his blog Orcinus, he stays right on the cutting edge of his chosen journalistic territory -- racial bias (generally, the bias of whites against non-whites) or what he calls 'hate crimes'.

Niewert's material on America's hidden history of racial hatred is eye opening, thought provoking stuff. Prior to stumbling on his blog back in 2005 (I think) I'd never even heard the phrase 'sundown town', nor was I aware that post Civil War America, from the late 19th and well into the early 20th Century, saw a veritable homicidal frenzy of mass murder by whites directed at the black communities living amongst them.

Neiwert enlightened me on these subjects, and I'm grateful to him, and appreciative of the time, effort, skill, and undeniable talent that he put into this particular series, and, for that matter, into all his writing.

My overall admiration for Neiwert, though, is probably what makes me most exasperated with him when he says dumbass shit like this:

I'll be the first to admit that I, like a lot of other journalists, really fell down on the story of what was going on in Jena, Louisiana. Fortunately, it didn't matter one bit.

Where Nixon pioneered the non-denial denial, Neiwert is swinging his pickaxe hard in the non-apology apology vein. Yes, he allows, he completely fumbled the ball when it comes to reporting on one of the biggest, most inflammatory racial hate stories in the new millenium. But it doesn't matter! Why? Well, because stalwart, principled people like the Reverend Al Sharpton showed up to carry his water for him, that's why:

What could turn out to be one of the largest civil rights demonstrations in years is set to take place here Thursday, when Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King III, popular black radio talk show hosts and other celebrities converge in Jena to protest what they regard as unequal treatment of African-Americans in this racially fractured Deep South town...

"Ten years ago this couldn't have happened," said Sharpton, who said he first learned of the Jena case on the Internet. "You didn't have the Internet and you didn't have black blogs and you didn't have national radio shows. Now we can talk to all of black America every day. We've been able to form our own underground railroad of information, and when everybody else looks up, it's already done."

Here's the interesting thing. When an obscure talk radio host named Brian Suits called Oprah Winfrey a Nazi because the only presidential candidate she ever books on her show is Barack Obama, Neiwert went on a screeching tirade about how horribly inaccurate Suits' chosen terminology was:

Good God, where to begin?

First, it has to be pointed out that Nazism is specifically a white-supremacist ideology. Unless Oprah is actually supporting someone who spouts that belief system and openly endorses it herself -- which would mean, roughly, that hell had become an arctic tundra -- it's not even remotely accurate to call her a Nazi.

As someone who reports on and deals with the activities of very real Nazis, this kind of nonsense is extremely aggravating, because as I've been arguing for some time, this kind of rhetorical laziness -- which also is not uncommon on the left, frankly -- not only is patently absurd, it actually distorts, disguises, and downplays the very real harm and social havoc wreaked by these kinds of hate groups. As Sara says, "it also drains the political meaning out of the words we use to analyze and describe fascism, opening the way to a total reversal of their historic meanings."

Real Nazis -- and real racists of all stripes -- do not merely indulge in coy alliances with people of their own race. They also constantly belittle people of other races, constantly depict them as vicious and diseased subhumans, constantly concoct bizarre "conspiracies" in which these "vermin" are engaged to destroy the superior race (namely, theirs).

Let's look at Bryan Suits' Bizarro Universe logic: He's claiming that Winfrey's open support of Obama is de facto evidence of her racism -- even though he will not be able to find a single show, or even a single line of transcript, indicating that she's doing so because he is black. No, according to Suits, we can presume that this is the case simply because Winfrey is black too...

...Well, forget all this nonsense. Here's the truth:

Oprah is neither a racist nor a Nazi, and there's nothing innately racist in her support of Obama, no more than Republicans' support of exclusively white candidates.

And Bryan Suits is a grotesquely irresponsible smear merchant who has no business being on the air.

Neiwert then generously publishes contact information for the station that Suits works for and everyone Suits reports to, urging anyone concerned to contact them and voice their opinions -- with the strong implication that all right thinking, decent folk out there should be outraged by Suits' perfidy and peremptorily demand his instant dismissal.

It's always interesting to me, how people like Neiwert are constantly up in arms about everybody's right to free speech -- except for the people they disagree with, like, in this case, Bryan Suits. The mature response to somebody saying something you don't like or don't agree with is to either stand there and (civilly and lucidly) debate with the person, or, if you feel that's essentially futile, walk away. Yet Neiwert isn't engaging Suits (which would be as simple a matter as calling in to his radio show) nor is he ignoring him (which would be an even simpler matter of twiddling his radio's tuning knob). Instead, as he is often wont to do whenever he hears about someone saying something he doesn't like, he is trying to sanction the person for saying things that he, Neiwert, disapproves of... in this case, as in most, by trying to incite his readers to get the guy fired.

That these are much the same tactics employed by the conservative demagogues Neiwert is most adamantly opposed to would seem to encompass one of the more intriguing ironies in the modern communications media, or, for that matter, the contemporary moral sphere.

What's even more interesting to me than that, though, is that Neiwert quotes extensively from the same Chicago Tribune article as I have drawn my own material from (linked to above) and while he will enthusiastically hurtle into an 800+ word oration about some dim sap's misuse of the word 'Nazi' as applied to Oprah Winfrey, he appears not to have noticed the Reverend Al Sharpton's similarly egregious abuse of the phrase 'underground railroad', wherein Sharpton compares a network of ethnically sensitive, racially concerned Internet bloggers with a group of mostly Caucasian American Abolitionists who risked life, limb, and livelihood to help escaped slaves reach freedom in the 19th Century.

If Oprah Winfrey is not a Nazi -- and I agree, she certainly isn't -- and Bryan Suits is a "grotesquely irresponsible smear merchant" who should immediately be fired from a job where he most likely generates ratings and consequent commercial revenues for his employer, just because his staggering ignorance pisses people like Neiwert off, well, what, then, are we to make of the Revered Al Sharpton, champion of the downtrodden, when he describes a bunch of modem brandishing typists as valiant, enlightened, lynch mob dodging heroes of American history?

I myself can figure out the answer to that question, and it's a darned good thing I'm capable of doing so, because Neiwert sure isn't going to tell me. His elocutory criticisms and retributionary demands for immediate termination are not for such titans as as the Ever Enlightened Sharpton, oh goodness no. Only the goddam honkey oppressor needs tremble before Neiwert's cybernetic wrath. In brightest day, in blackest night, no ofay misstatements or slurs shall escape his sight... yet non-whites need not fear his power, and may vaingloriously butcher the English language for their own blatant self-aggrandizement however they please, apparently.

As with any racism, it's double standards all the way down. What actually happened in Jena, Louisiana? As the already linked to (and extremely sympathetic to the non-white side of the issue) article states:

The trouble in Jena, (pronounced Jee-na) started a year ago with a resonant symbol from the Jim Crow past: After black students asked administrators at the local high school for permission to sit beneath a shade tree traditionally used only by whites, white students hung three nooses from the tree. The incident outraged black students and parents but was dismissed by the superintendent as a youthful prank; he punished the white students with three-day suspensions.

A series of fights between whites and blacks ensued, on and off campus. Whites implicated in the fights were charged with misdemeanors or not at all, while the blacks were charged with felonies.

In November, someone burned down the central wing of the high school -- an arson for which no one has been arrested.

And then in early December, Bell and five other black students at the high school were charged after a white student was jumped and beaten while he lay unconscious.

Although the white student was treated and released at a local hospital, Walters initially charged the six black youths with attempted murder -- charges that he later reduced to aggravated second-degree battery after black bloggers and civil rights leaders from across the country raised complaints.

This is the problem with the modern civil rights movement -- instead of attempting to cultivate an atmosphere of mutual tolerance and respect, it always tries to fight racism with more racism.

In this case, yeah, there do seem to have been some double standards evinced by the white majority in Jena. If, indeed, black participants in racially motivated fights were charged with felonies, while white participants were let off with misdemeanors or not charged at all, that's a big problem, and it should certainly be addressed.

Yet here is something else that troubles me. Everywhere I go on the left side of the blogosphere, every action taken by white people against blacks, from the original hanging of the nooses in the 'white tree' to the alleged fights, on campus and off, with blacks, are referred to as 'hate crimes'.

Yet nobody ever seems to employ this phrase in describing any of the violence committed by blacks against whites, especially the mass assault that culminated in a white youth being beaten unconscious and then continuously assaulted while knocked out.

It's aggravating. When whites attack non-whites in any fashion -- verbally, through gestures, through the written word, or through actual, physical violence -- it's always a 'hate crime'. ALWAYS. Yet when non-whites attack whites, or even other non-whites, the term 'hate crime' never seems to be applied. Non-whites attacking whites are always 'angry'. They are 'furious'. They are 'enraged'. They are always 'retaliating', often for 'generations of oppression' or in response to some locale's 'Jim Crow past'. And history is always mentioned as a mitigating or even exculpatory factor in non-white violence targeted against whites. Yet if anyone anywhere were to write an article attempting to vindicate white violence against non-whites by bringing up past alleged (or even extensively documented) violent, criminal excesses by non-whites, well, that's racist, and off the topic, and hateful, and deliberately demeaning to an entire ethnic segment of the human race. Or something.

This is in no way accidental. Just as the more conservative media outlets never refer to a Republican Senate minority invoking arcane procedurals to hold up disliked legislation as a 'filibuster', and never refers to similar efforts by Senate Democrats as anything but either a 'filibuster' or, worse, 'deliberate obstructionism', so, too, do liberal media outlets consistently label white racism as 'hate based', while non-white racism, just as virulent, is always a product of 'anger' or 'fury'.

It's always a very deliberate tactic, used to vilify one side of this sharp, dangerous divide, while excusing or even justifying the other.

It annoys me, as nearly all blatant demagoguery annoys me, but, worse, it frightens me. This is goddam dangerous stuff. Xenophobia may well be the true root of all evil; it is almost certainly the biggest killer in all of human history. Hating other people simply for being different from what we regard as normal is as natural to any of us as breathing or eating or waking after sleep... and only mutual enlightenment, universal tolerance, and the wisdom to accept the simple truth that all men truly are the same beneath the surface, possessed of the same natural rights, deserving of the same treatment under the law, entitled to the same opportunities for advancement and personal security, is going to lay the poison of ethnic / race / gender / sexual orientation fueled hatred finally to rest.

Equal treatment means using the same words to describe the same actions. It means equal outrage for equally outrageous behavior. It means that if you're going to scream yourself blue in the face about some idiot calling Oprah Winfrey a Nazi, you should at least take mild note, and register some sort of umbrage, when the Reverend Al Sharpton describes a group of passionately motivated Internet journalists, who, nonetheless, do nothing for their cause except sit at home and type into a DSL link, as 'an underground railroad'.

And it also means that if you're going to insist that any time a white person says or does something unpleasant, uncivil, or even unacceptably anti-social about or to a non-white person, it's a 'hate crime', then the same standard must apply to non-whites exhibiting similar behavior towards whites.

Rage doesn't justify violence, nor does past oppression, nor, honestly, does anything other than, well, violence. Which brings me to what seems to me to be the heart of the matter:

As I understand it, this whole thing in Jena boils down to two actions. White kids hung nooses from a tree in an admittedly heinous and reprehensible display of racial hatred, no doubt attempting to mark what they perceived to be 'their turf' in such a way as to frighten those they regarded as interlopers off of it.

Black kids then, apparently, ganged up and assaulted a white kid to the point where the white kid fell down unconscious, after which, they continued to violently assault him.

I know there's more to it than that, and I do not in any way doubt that the local justice system in Jena, Louisiana has an institutional bias for whites and against blacks. And certainly, that's worth protesting, and, more, necessitates immediate redress. Yet here's a fundamental truth underlying all of this that seems little acknowledged by anyone involved --

Vile, despicable, and contemptible though it certainly was, the act of hanging nooses from a tree, however intended and calculated to frighten, demean, and humiliate members of other ethnicities, is not a violent assault. It is speech, and, more than that, by any and every standard we here in America are supposed to cherish, uphold, and defend, it is protected free speech. You may not like it -- I personally find it loathsome and abhorrent -- but, nonetheless, it is not an act of violence. It is speech, and it is protected. The appropriate response to such is either (a) to engage it with more free speech, or, (b) to ignore it contemptuously, which is, honestly, all such goddam asinine ignorance really merits.

Again, you may not like this specific expression of free speech, you may, in fact, find it repulsive and offensive and objectionable, and you may well utterly revile and deplore the dimwitted slack jawed slope browed atavistic xenophobic spittle chinned ignorance and Neanderthalesque territorialism that fueled it. I certainly do. But you cannot respond to it with violence. If you want to live in a free society, you have to tolerate the speech and other non-violent expression of everyone in that society, even those you loathe, just as you expect them to tolerate yours. You may not punch someone simply because they say, write, paint, draw, or otherwise enact sentiments, feelings, thoughts, or viewpoints that you find personally offensive. You can't kick them, or hit them with a two by four, or stab them with a knife, or lynch them from a local yew tree, or tar and feather and ride them out of town on a rail, or shoot them with a gun, and you certainly can't get together with half a dozen of your buddies and beat them unconscious for it, after which, you absolutely cannot continue kicking their helpless bodies.

You have to put up with it... or you're not fit to live in a free society, and not even remotely a responsible citizen of such.

Kicking the shit out of someone you don't like, for whatever reason, but especially simply because you do not like them, is not speech. It is a violent criminal assault, and an intolerably anti-social act, and it cannot be justified by any non-violent provocation that is not an immediate threat to your life or safety. A civil society cannot tolerate this crap, and a civil free society certainly can't, as to tolerate a violent response to any form of speech, however controversial or even contemptible that speech may be, is to enact, uphold, and allow an unacceptably chilling effect on any and all potential speech or expression.

Look, I know we all know this, and I know none of us like it, or want to accept it. Emotionally we are all very much in enthusiastic favor of free speech for everyone else who agrees with us, and we fervently believe that all those who don't should just shut the hell up, or take a pummeling if they won't. But I think on some level all of us are aware that this impulse is both infantile and dangerous; if we truly do believe in freedom of speech, we have to accept that it is a right and a liberty that everyone can avail themselves of... or it isn't freedom of speech.

It's really that simple. When you start making a list of things that no one is allowed to say, or write, or paint, or draw, or sculpt, or make movies about, or otherwise non-violently enact or depict, then free speech is already dead. Criminalizing speech, any speech, is not a way to protect or uphold the freedoms and dignity of certain oppressed people, it is simply a way to oppress the freedoms and dignity of everyone. This becomes far worse when you begin to apply double standards whereby similar or identical behaviors are judged harshly and excoriated when one group exhibits them, and are excused, rationalized, or even exalted when they are displayed by another group.

Worst of all, though, is when one group's speech is deemed criminal, while another group's violent response to such speech is considered justifiable, acceptable, or even appropriate.

A civilized, truly free society must tolerate all forms of speech, and cannot tolerate violent reprisals against such speech.

Otherwise, freedom's truly just another word for nothing left to lose.


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