Thursday, February 26, 2009

Some Thoughts on Hate

Today the Southern Poverty Law Center numbers 926 hate groups in the United States, up by over 50% over the 602 documented in 2000.

To qualify, a group has to spread propaganda attacking minorities or stage events—from hate-filled graffiti to actual assaults—that target minorities for special abuse—though mainstream groups like the New York Post would probably not be included. The list includes neo-Nazis, black separatists, the KKK, and skinheads bashing racial minorities.

The SPLC credits the rise to a number of factors—most recently the economic downturn and the Obama presidency—contributing to the proliferation of fear, backlash, and hate.

I have to wonder whether the boom in new media, namely blogging and text messaging, is a factor, too. Certainly benign in themselves, these tools can facilitate communication and organization among aspiring bigots.

Why all the hate?

Well, poor education, limited life experience, and economic factors often influence the formation and growth of organizations engaged in scapegoating immigrants, welfare recipients, and religious minorities, safe enough to blame when things are going wrong, though seldom, oddly, the rich, the smallest yet most influential minority—not at any rate the white Christian rich.

And the elevation of any detested minority—whether to the Presidency or just to a reasonably successful TV series—is often perceived as an insult to those whose identification with the traditional power groups—Christian, male, American-born—is their sole source of self-esteem.

Coincidentally Clint Eastwood was reported today as defending racial humor, decrying political correctness. “In … earlier days,” the 78-year-old actor-director-musician reminisced, “every friendly clique had a 'Sam the Jew' or 'Jose the Mexican' - but we didn't think anything of it or have a racist thought. It was normal that we made jokes based on our nationality or ethnicity. That was never a problem."

And assuming, with good reason, Eastwood is not defending racism or hate, I would agree. Somehow we moderns, particularly we Americans, have become a thin-skinned, humorless group quick to grab media attention or file lawsuits on pretenses Mrs. Grundy would embrace. We seem no longer to be an America who can understand the wit of Mark Twain, W.C. Fields, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and Sarah Silverman, whose outrageous parodies of closed-mindedness are now too often taken to be the thing itself.

And yet for all our propriety over racially charged language, we’re still a culture who can criticize Barack Obama for not being black enough and for using his blackness to some advantage, without recognizing the implicit bigotry and illogic in such charges. People who would never say the “n word” can still be awfully uncritical of their own racism and ethnocentrism, provided they never express it in conventionally abusive terms.

But the problem is attitudes, not words.

As a frequent grader of student essays, I routinely encounter all kinds of hate speech, almost all of it artfully avoiding use of hot-button language (though usually this is the only artful thing about them). Vindictiveness towards gays can be made to sound almost Christlike—so there are days when, as a gay man, I am thankful for Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, whose bald, forthright bile and venom are anything but sugared. These days hatred of Arabs and Muslims can be made to sound like compassion for the victims of 9-11 and the good people (mostly children, apparently) of Israel. (I recently read a student essay that, in the nicest possible way, called for the genocide of the Palestinians living in Gaza.) And it seems easy enough to impugn the honesty, intelligence, and cleanliness of Spanish-speaking immigrants in general without resorting to a single epithet—and not only that, but also sound like a defender of the world’s poor and dispossessed.

I understand hate. I won’t pretend otherwise. I have a hatred of the very rich and the arrogant. I like to think I don’t generalize my hatred—its targets are usually specific or, at any rate, restrictive to those who have drawn my ire through their actions. On occasion I prejudge on the basis of income bracket or propensity to snap one’s fingers at underlings—but I try to leash and minimize my prejudices, sometimes by simply being honest and apologetic about them.

What I’m saying is that, as dismaying as the growth of violent and fire-breathing hate groups is, I’m more disturbed by the easy way hate enters our discourse politely—with a well-scrubbed face and neatly combed hair. The way plausible deniability can be perceived as a fair excuse for obvious codes of racism—and here I’m thinking about the detestable New York Post cartoon of the shooting death of the “chimp” who “wrote” Obama’s stimulus plan—and, yes, by the way, I do catch the allusions to the infinite monkey theorem and the headline-grabbing shooting of Travis the performing chimpanzee—but I see the plain-as-the-nose-on-my-face racist stereotype, too.

One more thing—racism in America has long served the interests of those who hold power. Not that the rich and influential usually have to put on sheets and hoods themselves—or put on blackface to caricature the funny mannerisms of the stereotype—but by using race as a wedge to divide the working classes—and divert righteous anger over economic injustices towards bitterness and lunatic hate—the elites have long been able to escape scrutiny and condemnation for their flagrant abuses of privilege and power.

It’s not coincidental that hate groups proliferate in times of economic distress, but the lurking variable here may be those who benefit most from poor workers turning against each other, rather than uniting in a common cause to advance their own economic interests.

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