When I taught for ten years at Auburn University, in Alabama, I learned about the Montgomery based Southern Poverty Law Center, headed up by this famous ex-publisher, businessman-turned-warrior against prejudice and bigotry, attorney Morris Dees.
Initially I had thought this group, albeit seriously misnamed, had some worthwhile goals. These included ferreting out organizations that spread hate toward blacks and Jews and even urged adherents to commit violence against members of the target groups. In time I discovered, however, that not only was the Southern Poverty Law Center not fighting poverty but they were a major threat against the First Amendment and the presumption of innocence in our criminal justice system.
Dees believes, as do many people who support him from the political Left, including many liberal democrats, that if you preach viciousness and express virulent anger at some people, if others whom you may have influenced commit violence against those people, you are guilty of a crime, too.
As should be obvious, this tactic threatens to keep distinct two issues:
the expression of false, even vicious beliefs, and violent conduct toward others. It is true, of course, that many who act violently toward others harbor false and vicious beliefs about them. Indeed, hardly any crime is without some such motivation. Even a mugger probably has beliefs about his victims, to the effect that the SOB has an undeserved nice life and the mugger deserves to dip into the funds that make this possible. Envy and hatred are common ingredients of many crimes, but the law does not usually punish the envy or the hatred but just the assault or murder or kidnapping that is committed by the perpetrator who may or may not have such beliefs and attitudes motivating him.
I suppose we should be used by now to people who fail to appreciate that even evil must be fought in civilized ways after all, most governments see no good reason to adhere to such restraints. We do at least have the ideal of due process that is, respecting people’s rights even as we deal with their bad behavior-not only in the criminal law but also in ordinary morality. We generally consider it wrong to over react to someone’s bad conduct. Punishment must fit the "crime." Say, if someone insults you, it is wrong to pull out a pistol and shoot him; if someone is impolite, it is wrong to bash in his face; if someone lies to you, it would be wrong for you to beat up his children.
So, if someone expresses vicious falsehoods about some group of people, say blacks, Jews, Catholics or Arabs, it still isn’t appropriate to react by jailing such people. Words, even emphatic and angry words, must be fought with words, nothing more. Alas, Mr. Dees & Co. seem not to believe this.
Except perhaps in one case: When hatred is expressed toward corporate managers, stockholders, people in big business, and subsequently maybe even in part because of this corporations, business people, and so on are attacked, well here there is no reason to fret. When Ralph Nader gallivants about the country preaching that big business is evil, that corporations are ripping off everyone and so forth, the fact that this may incite some folks to burn down some corporate facilities as has been done by some radical environmentalists does not seem to bring out Morris Dees & Co. launching legal actions against Mr. Nader and all his minions.
Actually, in this connection one could well argue that the September 11 terrorist attack, at least on the World Trade Center, had a lot to do with the sort of teaching that emanates from Nader & Co. Those Hollywood movies like Wall Street, and Broadway hits like Death of a Salesman, could all be construed as vile attacks on, besmirching of innocent people in the business community. No, they are not violent attacks, but they are vicious verbal assaults upon people who not only haven’t done any harm to others but have devoted themselves, at least indirectly, to serving millions of people well who make use of the wealth produced by businesses.
Alas, we will not hear from Mr. Dees about the causal role Mr. Nader and others like him may well have played in inciting hatred toward American business, maybe even abroad, perhaps in the heart and mind of an Osama bin Laden. That is because Mr. Dees & Co. know that hatred for business is politically correct, widely approved of in intellectual, academic and journalistic circles here and abroad.
So, Dees & Co. will stick to undermining the distinction between words and deeds where it concerns easier targets, namely, people who viciously hate members of racial and religious groups. And maybe we should be thankful, at least this way they testify, albeit selectively, to the distinction that they themselves are so willing to ignore.
December 26, 2001