The Ethical Spectacle

Hate is in the Air

Three interesting things happened in one week recently. First, Mr. Gingrich casually remarked that Congress would undo the President's policy on homosexuals in the military--returning us to days of open discrimination and persecution. Then, Senator D'Amato from New York did an imitation of Judge Lance Ito (of Simpson case fame) on the radio, speaking in a movie-villain Japanese accent. Then, Republican majority leader Joseph Bruno in the New York State Senate referred to "blacks and Hispanics" as "the people that got their hands out. They are the ones fighting for welfare."

A month later, California Republican Randy Cunningham made comments about "homos" in the military, and Republican campaign advisor Ed Rollins embarrassed the Dole campaign with a reference to Jews as "Hymies". (Rollins has become a notorious motormouth-- he is the same one who confounded Christine Whitman's New Jersey gubernatorial campaign last year by claiming to have bought off the black vote.)

Earlier this year, I wrote about House majority leader Dick Armey's reference to his colleague Barney Frank as "Barney Fag". What is going on here? It's simple--these Republicans are intoxicated with the wine of victory; their inner beings are revealed in the general giddiness, and hate is in the air.

John Stuart Mill, in his essay On Liberty, spoke ambivalently about public opinion. On the one hand, he said, we all live as slaves to it, and the majority of us live lives of mediocrity out of obedience to it. On the other hand, he saw the glare of public opinion as the only antidote to self-regarding actions, in which the law should absolutely not intervene.

In this country, the First Amendment goes some distance towards enforcing Mill's view of the world. Speech, unless it is "other-regarding" in the strict sense of causing physical harm, such as incitement to riot, or is prosecutable obscenity, is protected. Yet, because of the social evolution and strong influence of public opinion, we have not really needed other types of speech-related laws. No law is necessary. today, to prevent Hollywood from making a movie calling for violence against black people; it wouldn't be socially acceptable.

We were all raised to believe in the idea of progress, that whatever good we have today we will have more of, not less, tomorrow. If we are humane and sensitive today, we will be more so tomorrow. It is a shock when the standards of political discourse get rolled back, when first the impolite and disrespectful, then the racist, and finally the murderous become the order of the day. This is what is happening to us now--and the people who are revealing their real nature to us with this kind of speech are missing two important things. Substantively, they are missing compassion or even common sense. Procedurally, they are unaware that they must take responsibility for their words, that they--and their children-- will have to live in the world they are helping to create with their hateful words.

I wrote the first draft of this piece before the Oklahoma bombing and the resulting furor about right-wing hate speech. I will deal with that topic--radio commentators, the NRA and Congressional proponents of "jack booted" rhetoric--separately when I get my thoughts sorted out.