Tuesday, December 24, 2002

Even in this age of murderous fanatics and craven appeasers, some examples of moral confusion are so incomprehensibly extreme that they stretch one's conception of the range of human folly. Such is journalism professor Ted Gup's rambling paean, in the Washington Post, to the free speech rights of a rabid anti-Semite.

Confronted with a Cleveland restaurateur who has adorned the wall of his deli with a mural depicting a whole panoply of hate-filled lies about Jews ("Jews as monkeys wearing yarmulkes", "a Jewish conspiracy in control of American network television"), Gup nevertheless expresses thanks for the absolute right of free speech. Understandable enough, one thinks as one reads; such laws allow Gup to recognize and avoid despicable bigots like proprietor Brahim Ayad, to organize protests against them, and to be forewarned of their potential for violence. But no, Gup sees more direct social benefits, as well: "Hate speech need not be a precursor to violence. On the contrary, it can defuse tensions that could turn explosive." Ayad's murals "invite the possibility, however slim, that we might find some sliver of common ground, that confrontation could lead to conciliation".

Gup visits Ayad's shop, and finds him "courtly, soft-spoken and oddly vulnerable", despite the hate literature he hands out and the conspiracy theories he spouts. (Bigots are people too, after all.) He may be an anti-Semite, but he appears quite friendly with the local black population--"if he is a bigot he is most selective", writes Gup, approvingly. The lessons of pride and self-confidence Ayad teaches to his eight children are "[n]ot so different from what I tell my own sons." (The scary thing is, he might be right.) Gup draws a contrast between this disturbingly cordial chat and his childhood experiences as a Jew growing up in the stuffy, quietly discriminatory Midwest of the 1950's, "when prejudice was vented only in whispers between like minds." Dealing with "prejudice [that] was hidden behind disingenuous smiles" convinced him that "a silenced bigot can do far more mischief than one who airs his hatred publicly."

It's hard to know what to make of Gup's ludicrous misinterpretation of these past and present brushes with racism. Perhaps his free-speech dogma has tied him in rhetorical knots; perhaps he was taken in by Ayad's friendly manner; or perhaps he's just dense. But one thing is clear: the secretive bigots of Gup's youth were not more dangerous than the overt, flagrant anti-Semites of today for their having been suppressed. In fact, they were not legally suppressed at all; to the extent that free speech rights were interpreted less expansively in the 1950's than today, they hardly afforded less protection to open expressions of racism. On the contrary, most forms of bigoted expression were far freer from formal restraints back then than they are today--and were accompanied by much more overt harm, including violence, towards their targets. While Gup was enduring muted slights in Canton, Ohio, for example, blacks in the American South were being openly subjected to vicious slurs on a routine basis--and certainly had no reason to feel more safe as a result.

No, what confined anti-Semitism behind disingenuous smiles in the 1950s was, in a word, shame--the widespread recognition that racial and ethnic prejudices, even fairly common ones, were nonetheless considered in many quarters to be immoral. Likewise, what protects Ted Gup today from monsters like Brahim Ayad is not Ayad's unfettered freedom, but rather his inability to win popular acceptance for his depraved blood libels. And if, God forbid, his despicable views should gain widespread credence (as they have, for instance, in the terrorist-breeding towns of the West Bank and Gaza Strip), then the First Amendment will hardly protect Gup from the inevitable ensuing brutality. Moreover, the path from here to there, should it end up being traveled, will have been paved by the warm indulgence shown the likes of Brahim Ayad by the likes of Ted Gup.

There are, it is true, serious, plausible arguments for eschewing legal restrictions on hate speech: the difficulty of distinguishing it from more defensible opinions; the value of being able to gauge its popularity openly, and counter it vigorously as necessary; the patina of glamor that inevitably attaches to anything banned. But none of these contradict the simple fact that hate speech is unambiguously evil. It encourages and cultivates violence and other forms of direct harm, and should be shunned and condemned without reservation or mitigation--even when promulgated by a jovial deli owner in Cleveland. Shame on Ted Gup for losing sight of this glaringly obvious truth.

No comments: