Freedom of (Hate) Speech

When I was in journalism grad school at Chicago’s Northwestern University in 1977, thirty members of the American Nazi Party wanted to march in Skokie – a nearby town of 70,000 in which more than half were Jewish and approximately 5,000 were Holocaust survivors.

There was a big to do and some years later, through court cases and a lot of soul searching among liberals and the ACLU, they did get to hold their march. But most everyone knew what the Nazis were up to. They wanted to hold a group of people they hated as hostages of the first amendment – challenging them to turn their backs on the equality and freedoms they espoused by not allowing their tormenters to taunt and goosestep right before them in their backyards.

This kind of childish bull crap happens every so often when hate-speaking racists get frustrated or empowered enough with their own irrelevance and see a road through which they can satisfy their own rotting inner core by spewing their venom outwards into the crowd that they believe are somehow suppressing their rarefied ways of life.

An important asterisk

In a nutshell, this is what’s going on right now with best-selling right wing author, lawyer, media personality and full-time liberal hater Ann Coulter and her campaign to speak – or perhaps not to speak but to raise hell about it – at the American university in the country best known for championing these freedoms since the turbulent 1960s – UC Berkeley.

Bill Maher recently excoriated the administrators at Berkeley for inviting, then disinviting, and then re-inviting Ms. Coulter to campus amid massive protests from students on both sides of the political spectrum espousing either outcome. So did any number of right wing politicians and wags on Twitter – calling the kids on campus the kind of names you hear from bullies in grade school. I won’t repeat them here but they bring to mind every dumb, desperate insult you’ve ever heard about any group. Instead, I will repeat the phrase ex Law and Order actor and stand up comic Richard Belzer once used to describe Ms. Coulter to Mr. Maher when he also excoriated her on Mr. Maher’s own show years before for airing her rancid rants in the segment just before his – A fascist party doll.

Prepare for the avalanche #brrrrr

You see, I have the freedom to do this without retribution here because this is MY BLOG. Just as the students and administrators of Berkeley have the right to ban Ms. Coulter or anyone else they like since the school is THEIR CAMPUS.

Since it is not public property, like the streets of Skokie, Berkeley is not subject to the same rules of public assembly as a village or town is.   In essence, they can invite and/or disinvite anyone they like. Much like me – a gay, Jew – could be banned from the Eagle Scout meetings Attorney General Jeff Sessions used to attend in Alabama in 1964 when he was 18 and that sort of stuff wouldn’t have even been questioned. You can’t tell an Eagle or Boy Scout what to do. They’re part of a private organization. You can only publicly shame them and force them to accept you.

Cue “All By Myself”

This is, in essence, what is going on now. I can’t claim a portal into Ms. Coulter’s brain – thank her Lord, however you imagine HER/HIM/IT to be – but if past is prologue she has ZERO interest in any sort of give and take intellectual discourse a college campus tries to foster. She is a renowned bomb thrower who delights primarily in provoking the other side by racist generalities and fiery, and very personal, bon mot bombs aimed at any sort of liberal hero, particularly those who have publicly come out against her.

A different kind of “Regan” #couldnthelpmyself

Exactly the same thing can be said of younger and renowned Twitter-banned alt right “pundit” Milo Yiannopoulos – who tried the same thing at Berkeley some months prior, with similar controversial results.

Now if I had my way I’d just let the two of them speak their heads off and picket them. After all, this is so far still the kind of America where we honor dissent – no matter how hateful, nasty and misguided.

On the other hand, if I were just angry enough, I might support the argument that if their intent is to just put on a hate show that just incites violence they are the equivalent of shouting “fire” in a crowded movie theatre.

A more accurate representation of my feelings

There are a myriad of public speakers one can get to “perform” at an institution of higher learning for educational purposes and if we truly want to view extreme right wing viewpoints maybe going after Rupert Murdoch or one of his two sons co-running the 21st Century Fox (Note: A misnomer for a 21st century liberal like me if I’ve ever heard one) empire might be a better first, second or third choice.

Still, it’s up to right wing student groups to get who they like so I might be convinced – or trade Coulter with, let’s say, hmmmm – is there an ultra Liberal Ann or Milo? I can’t think of one off the top of my head. Maher is not quite categorical enough and even liberal provocateur Michael Moore reaches out to the other side. Heck, his last film – Michael Moore in Trumpland – was entirely about that.

We don’t exactly have a 2017 Hanoi Jane.. do we?

And that is the point.

Do not masquerade immature name-calling and hate speak and insulting generalizations about whole swaths of the population as some post modern performance art that will show the truth about hypocritical liberals, lazy thinking millenials and their one-sided institutions of higher learning.   You can’t claim you’re the pretend Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central when the mood hits you and in the same breath appear on cable news shows as a serious purveyor of facts.

A talk that exists primarily to garner yourself publicity and verbally assault various minority ethnic groups in the name of free speech is not what I wish for my students or their intellectual futures. Though certainly they’re free to indulge in it. Like they occasionally do with the Kardashians, Top Ramen and Pizza Hut.

Intolerance

One bad apple spoils the whole barrel

Does one bad apple spoil the lot?

Two college freshman who belong to a Jewish fraternity at a liberal school in upstate New York awoke one morning this past week to find a Nazi swastika and the accompanying words Heil Hitler dripping down their front door in bloody red-colored paint. This jarred me for many reasons (e.g. I’m Jewish, liberal and intensely hate hate-speech, though the latter could be considered hypocritical), the least obvious of which is that it happened on the home campus of the school I, the afore-mentioned Jewish liberal, work for.

As the parent of a recently murdered child in Connecticut just told the world in the halls of Congress, we live in an it can’t happen to me era until it does happen – directly to you.  Now granted, the Hitler/swastika incident is nothing akin to the heroic parents of the massacred first graders in Sandy Hook, CT who valiantly lobbied Capitol Hill to no avail for sensible gun control last month, mere weeks after viewing the bloodied dismembered corpses of their young elementary school-aged offspring at the hands of a gun-toting crazy person.  But like any threat of violence from an evil outside force – actual, virtual or anywhere in between – it does give one pause.

Plus, it provokes thoughts like:

Huh?…OH MY GOD! Seriously? NO!! You’re kidding, right?  In this day and age?  I’d like to get my hands on the mo-fo who… etc, etc.  

.. or every Lewis Black emotion possible

.. or every Lewis Black emotion possible

Not to mention tears, more violence, other expressions of grief, other unprintable arrays of threats and expletives, or any random combination of some, none or all of the above.  In truth, any one of these and more are proper and expected responses, depending on the level of event or – on you.

Still, one wonders, what IS the proper response – or at least the most useful one?  The rejoinder that will create the conversation that will cause this not to happen again?  And if no such answer/response exists (as we know it doesn’t), then what should one do?  Moreover, what will we all do when this kind of thing or some mutation of it, comes a-knocking at our back, front or side doors?

I find talking and full disclosure helps because you can’t fully deal with something while you’re simultaneously attempting to hide it.  I learned this as a young Jewish boy being taught in Hebrew school about the Nazi persecution of the once too silent members of my tribe; as an intimidated (and miserable) New York teenager living in Tarzana, CA whose teachers and school mates ALL made fun of my urban (nee Jewish) NY accent; and as a devastatingly angry gay man in my thirties living in West Hollywood (of all places) whose neighbor across the street once shouted at me while I walked my sheepdog past his house: “Get out of here! I’ll bet you have AIDS and your dog probably does too!”  (Note:  Needless to say, the latter incident did not end well for either of us).

How I should have reacted (probably)

How I should have reacted (probably)

As for my school’s response to the anti Semitic “hate crime” – which we’ve been told technically can’t yet be called a hate crime at all because that definition is complicated – its first instinct was to privately investigate what occurred without letting on what happened to the entire school population.  Safety alerts are the usual procedure after the average case of vandalization, though certainly this case was anything but average.  In any event, that didn’t matter because word quickly leaked out through our campus newspaper. The Ithacan, which often makes me proud I have a master’s degree in journalism.  When it quickly published a front page news story showing the doorway painted in Nazi-speak this, in turn, even more quickly provoked a massive and quite vocal school-wide outcry.

Screen shot 2013-05-05 at 8.27.25 AM

You can run…

The good news of our story is we’ve been told the perpetrator has been caught, the case is under review, and the two young Jewish men who were targeted now say they both feel safe and supported after this incident.  The bad news is that this is a moment I guarantee neither will ever forget, just as I have never forgotten events like these that have happened to myself and people I know, and just as most anyone else who is a target from any sort of outside force of aggression or hate will never soon forget their own unfortunate taunts and traumas.

The real news is that this latest incident of intolerance – small compared to 9/11 and nationwide mass murders but quite large when pitted against those individuals who are not a member of an oft -persecuted minority group or have never themselves or through friends or family been the victims of a heinous crime – are here to stay.

These events have no simple cause and effects.  They arise from a cumulative climate – a complicated set of issues that fester, bubble over and eventually explodes.  This happens in people and among groups in societies when issues are ignored or not dealt with directly and it can eventually cause the destruction of said individuals and groups as well as everything around them.

These kinds of crimes against each other also often occur when a particular group of people (or a single person) is targeted out of ignorance or fear (or both) and are usually done in the name of a dogma, a movement, a religion or a country.  Whether it’s a nation or a movement, or a particular way of thinking is immaterial.  Absolutist thinking – or as we like to call it nowadays – fundamentalism – is the culprit.  It doesn’t matter if we are Jewish, Christian, Muslim or Atheist.  When one refuses to hear the other side people wake up to find blood on their walls – or their children murdered.  Or, on a lesser scale, they are yelled at when they’re walking their dogs on the streets of Los Angeles.

MVP

MVP

Jason Collins, who just became the first gay NBA active player to come out of the closet, was spotlighted all over the news last week.  This is natural for any public firsts in our society, but particularly in the case of a person who deviates from what is considered the norm in the macho world or sports.

Yet here is what Ben Shapiro, 33, well-known author of five books, editor of the conservative website breitbart.com, Harvard law school graduate, and Orthodox Jewish man (I guess that means we’re distantly related in the old country), found the need to tweet minutes after Mr. Collins announcement:

Screen shot 2013-05-05 at 8.19.56 AM

Screen shot 2013-05-05 at 8.20.31 AM

Are his tweets threatening?  No.  Hate speak?  Well, I suppose not.  But willfully ignorant?  Most definitely.  In 2011, the FBI reported that more than 20% of all hate crimes in the US were against gays and lesbians. That’s a 10% increase from the decade prior. Studies also indicate LGBT teens are bullied almost 3 times more than their straight counterparts and that LGBT kids are four times more likely to attempt suicide than straight kids. These figures, and the fact that Mr. Collins is thus far THE ONLY openly gay man who is an active player in one of the big 4 professional sports in the US, seems to empirically prove that his willingness to stand up and be honest about this part of his life is, given the circumstances, in some small or perhaps much larger measure, heroic.

Yet Benny (after all, we are relatives of some kind if you go back far enough) adamantly disagrees AND has taken to social media to deliver a few good blows to the Collins kisser while also inciting some free-floating anger.  Not on the level of the Swastika, or with a gun – but with his intellect and his cleverness.  It’s a free country, it’s not a crime, but this kind of petty snideness for no other reason other than provocation and ill will and purposeful misunderstanding as a means to adhere to some sort of intractable dogma (or worse yet, self-promotion), is a good part of where the rest of all this stuff starts.

Listen, different as we might seem on the surface, Benny and I do have a few things in common, as do the members of every family, whether we want to admit it or not.  We’re both Jewish, we both graduated high school at 16, and at 33 we both have/had dark hair and an overly aggressive, opinionated attitude that can cut people to the quick using words.  They’re not as powerful as a gun but when there is no other weapon around that is legal and you know how to use them – trust me, they’ll do.  Quite well, in fact.

Until Ben/Benny and the rest of us grow up, really listen and give each other some breathing room, nothing will change.  It’ll all continue with us acting out a kind of violence against each other.  Some small, some in-between and some large.  This will then perpetrate a cycle of small and large cumulative injuries that, when ignored and multiplied over years, and then decades, will continue to keep us in the vicious cycle of indignations, traumas, and violence we are all a part of today.  That is, until some of us, or many more of us, decide to break it.

At the start, small steps work best.