What Niewert Says

May 25th, 2007at 10:10pm Posted by Eli

As always, Orcinus is frustrating but excellent (Niewert himself is not frustrating, it’s the mix of cluelessness and malevolence that he reports on):

It is only when speech is specifically criminal — that is, when it urges people to commit a specific criminal act that is then committed by those addressed — that any hate-crimes bill could come into play. There is no provision in the House’s hate-crimes bill that would penalize anyone for voicing ordinary, non-criminal, constitutionally protected speech, which Rep. Cohen’s speech clearly would constitute. Indeed, even most outright hate speech is protected speech and would not come into play under this law. The last clause of the bill specifically states:

Nothing in this Act, or the amendments made by this Act, shall be construed to prohibit any expressive conduct protected from legal prohibition by, or any activities protected by the free speech or free exercise clauses of, the First Amendment to the Constitution.

What Gohmert and his fellow conservatives want the public to think, of course, is that the hate-crimes bill in fact would criminalize speech — specifically, the right of pastors and devout religionists to spout off about homosexuality.

This is, in fact, a bald falsehood, one that should be publicly countered and repudiated. As it is, it has now been entered into the congressional record and will doubtlessly be trotted out later as evidence of hypocrisy on the part of supporters of the hate-crimes legislation, which is currently en route to approval by the Senate after its long-overdue passage in the House.

The chief goal of the opponents of the bill — chiefly the denizens of the religious right, who have enjoyed considerable success blocking passage of any federal bias-crime law for the past decade, particularly during congressional rule by Republicans — lies in selling the idea that laws against hate crimes create “thought crimes.” It’s all part of a larger project of muddying the waters so that the public is confused about what actually is at stake with these laws.


Unfortunately, the basic falsity of the “hate crimes=thought crimes” meme has not prevented its broad success. You can hear it being offered as justification for opposing bias-crime laws by sources ranging from such religious-right entities as the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family (not to mention the predictable opposition raised by various white supremacists) to such civil libertarians as Andrew Sullivan.


Steven [D at Booman Tribune] goes on to enumerate the various sound reasons for passing bias-crimes laws, including the point that, finally, they are a way for society to make clear its condemnation of such acts, recognizing them as more heinous than simple crimes because they cause greater harm. Indeed, pretending as opponents do that a cross burned on the lawn is the same as being egged and toilet-papered, or that a gay-bashing rampage by young thugs is the same thing as a bar fight, simply tries to pretend away the truly hateful and terroristic element of the former of these, as though it doesn’t exist. But it does exist, and its effects poison our society and make a joke out of our self-belief in ourselves as an “equal opportunity” society.

This, in the end, is the single clearest reason why progressives should avidly support a federal hate-crimes law: These are crimes whose primary purpose is to disenfranchise, to expel, to deny the most basic rights of association and opportunity to millions of Americans of all stripes. Civil libertarians need to come to grips with the fact that these crimes are real, their effects are real, and they represent, in the words of Yale sociologist Donald Green, a real “massive dead-weight loss of freedom” for those millions of Americans.


Yet progressives haven’t yet figured out that framing hate-crime laws as a defense of people’s civil liberties is precisely the argument that will instantly deflate the long-running “thought crime” argument. In all the debate over the legislation, I haven’t seen the point raised once.

Nor, for that matter, do they seem to have grasped that Bush’s looming veto of the legislation — which still awaits Senate passage — provides an ample strategic opportunity. One of the principal causes of the public’s fatigue with the conservative movement (beyond, of course, the Iraq debacle) is that it is being increasingly turned off by the right’s rhetorical viciousness and seeming celebration of eliminationist violence.

Bush’s veto of a bill intended to reduce violence against minorities should be seen as a prime example of this underlying ugliness — as should some of the demonizing and factually false attacks on the laws themselves.

But ultimately, the chief reason for progressives to embrace and encourage a federal bias-crimes statute is a morally and ethically simple one: It’s the right thing to do, not just for minority Americans but for all of us. That should be really be reason enough.

All I would add to this is that if progressives pursue the civil liberties angle, they might want to tie in voter suppression efforts as another example of the Republicans’ conscious desire to keep minorities in their place.

Entry Filed under: Bush,Politics,Racism,Republicans,Teh Gay

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