Hate Speech, Harassment, Humor and Just Plain Lies

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday September 24, 2009 - 09:28:00 AM

When I was growing up in St. Louis I heard an epithet for people who behaved like Congressman Wilson of South Carolina, one too derogatory to repeat in the pages of a family newspaper in the 21st century, but its initials are PWT. It was used, sub rosa, by people of all races who put a premium on polite behavior and did not respect those who were not able to comport themselves in a civil manner.  

St. Louis in those days was a very southern city, more like New Orleans down the river than like Kansas City in the same state. Racism was alive and well, of course: segregated restaurants, movies, even schools until the early ’50s. But “the better class of people,” black and white, generally treated one another with as much courtesy as possible under the circumstances. The other derogatory term of that era, the one that applied to people of African descent, was never even uttered in my presence by anyone of any race. 

It’s hard, therefore, for me to untangle the motivations that might have led Wilson to yell at the president of the United States during a joint session of Congress. Is he racist, or just tacky, as we used to say in my youth, or both? Does it matter? 

A Daily Planet reader and occasional correspondent who lives in India was kind enough to send me an excellent book by Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence: the Illusion of Destiny. The author, a Nobel Prize winning economist raised in India and now at Harvard, explores the many threads from which humans construct their personal identity, and the way overemphasis on one of them can lead to conflict. He argues that “a fostered sense of identity with one group of people can be made into a powerful weapon to brutalize another.” 

Sen says in his preface that “many of the conflicts and barbarities in the world are sustained through the illusion of a unique and choiceless identity. The art of constructing hatred takes the form of invoking the magical power of some allegedly predominant identity that drowns other affiliations, and in a conveniently bellicose form can also overpower any human sympathy or natural kindness that we may normally have. The result can be homespun elemental violence, or globally artful violence and terrorism.” He goes on to note that “a major source of potential conflict in the contemporary world is the presumption that people can be uniquely categorized based on religion.” 

He draws on his own childhood experiences in an India split between Muslim and Hindu, and compares them to current tensions in Israel/Palestine, ex-Yugoslavia and Rwanda, among others, all of which are sparked by people choosing unique identities to the exclusion of their common humanity.  

Those who have been disrupting meetings of all kinds all over the country have all sorts of reasons for hating President Obama besides his race. He’s well-educated, well-spoken and a professional and political success. White presidents before him have been hated for similar reasons. Many disliked John Kennedy because he was an Irish Catholic. Others hated Franklin Roosevelt either because of his class background or as a traitor to his class. Such characterizations resulted from selecting single facets from the background of complex men and focusing on them.  

Karl Rove perfected the art of constructing hatred, and amplified its power by never hesitating to lie as needed in order to reinforce his invented myths. The Swiftboaters attacked Sen. John Kerry and their allies lied about Max Clelland, both veterans who actually had heroic war records. These brave men were advised to ignore the untrue accusations against them and didn’t fight back, which turned out to have bad consequences. 

And when hate and lies make common cause with lunacy, it’s even harder to know how to respond. Today’s “birthers” are spreading the myth that President Obama was not born in the U.S.A. What’s he supposed to say to that, once he’s produced his birth certificate? 

It’s puzzling for us here at the Planet to know how to respond to the wackadoodle accusations against the paper and against us personally. Friends and family say to ignore them, but that’s the advice Kerry got, and it backfired on him. 

Yes, yes, we do believe that the best remedy for speech you don’t like is more speech, but how do you deal with nutcases like the Birthers or with John Gertz’s crazy anti-Planet website?  

Here’s just a small but deeply screwy sample from a recent addition to the site: 

“Here is what we think happened. We are speculating, but believe we are on to something real. Because Elisabeth Warren Peters was a second rate intellect she was not able to attend any of the best Ivy League schools. Unfortunately for her, the system had changed in the era between her father’s admission to Princeton in 1930 and her admission to college in 1957. Slots in the best Ivy League schools that had been assumed would go to good girls from good families were now being granted on the basis of merit to upstart and swarthy Jews from unwashed immigrant families. She did manage to get into Smith, one of the lesser of the high society Seven Sisters schools, with a dark past, including many connections with Nazis in the pre war era, and with a very strict limit on Jewish admission. However, this also may have been too difficult for the ungifted Elisabeth Warren Peters, because she ended up at a public university in Berkeley, which at the time was rather easy to get into. Making matters worse, when she graduated from UCB, showing no intellectual promise, she was not able to get into a top law school (she graduated from Golden State law school but never practiced law, as far as we know). Once again, places assumed to be the birthright of Peters’ gentle class were now usurped by uppity Jews. 

“In the meantime, Peters radicalized in her new home of Berkeley, and assumed the name, Becky O’Malley, a good faux working class name. But the toxin of anti-Semitism was irreversibly flowing through her veins.” 

We’d have to devote way much too much space on these pages to respond to all the foolishness in just these two paragraphs alone. A couple of obvious points: when I started college in 1957, “the best Ivy League schools” like Princeton admitted many Jews, true, but no women, which is why I didn’t apply to them. I didn’t change my name to O’Malley in order to hide out in the working class—when I got married in 1960, most women assumed their husbands’ names, and I did use my birth name during our many years in our mom-and-pop software business. I’ll leave it to my fellow alums of Smith, Cal Berkeley and Golden Gate School of Law to answer the slanders against our schools. But the false accusations of anti-Semitism are serious and hurtful, to me and to the paper. 

One solution, of course, is just to laugh. Poor Gertz devotes thousands of words on his wingnut website to similar ludicrous fabrications, and it makes for comic reading. On the other hand, some readers, including some advertisers, seem to believe him. 

Last week Gertz took a full-page signature ad in the East Bay Express (using the name of a front committee) to publicize the URL of his site. It’s reassuring, at least, to see that a very few of his purported 500 listed endorsers were local—perhaps 10 at most. It’s gratifying that of the many local officials who were asked to sign on, all but one seem to have refused, even those on record elsewhere as regretting the existence of “too much democracy“ or the fact that “we have a free press in this country”.  

It’s discouraging, however, to note that among the signers who implicitly endorsed the website’s content was my own Berkeley District Eight Councilmember, Gordon Wozniak. I really didn’t think he was that dumb. Perhaps some of my fellow alums, many of whom live in his district, could discuss this decision with him.  

President Obama probably called it right when he minimized the role of racism in Congressman Wilson’s bad behavior, especially because, as he told David Letterman, he’s been black all his life and knows racism intimately. Perhaps it’s a sign of progress that impolite harassment is no longer directly exclusively at African-Americans.  

Even in Berkeley, we’ve seen our share of harassment lately, orchestrated by officials who didn’t want the public to be able to vote on their plans for downtown. It’s rumored that a few petition circulators bristled back at aggressive hecklers who were trying to prevent the referendum on the downtown plan from qualifying for the ballot, but in the main signature gatherers behaved with admirable restraint. But at Tuesday’s City Council meeting four of them complained bitterly about the way they had been treated, especially about physical confrontations by opponents, including the mayor. 

We don’t need that kind of behavior, in Berkeley, at regional town hall meetings on health care, or in Congress. Nor do we want the kind of bold-faced lies that seem to have become part and parcel of every controversy, national or local. But what we can do about it remains to be seen.