Charles M. Blow begins his June 13, 2009 New York Times op-ed “Hate in a Cocoon of Silence” ominously. “We were warned,” he writes. He highlights a recent example of a violent hate crime: the shooting of a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

“Slowly, but steadily, these bigots are slithering from beneath their rocks, armed and deadly,” Mr. Blow writes. “Just as disturbing as the incidents themselves are the lineups of family, friends and neighbors who emerge to talk about the vitriol they heard and the warning signs they saw. I always want the interviewer to stop and ask them this simple question: “And when he said or did that, how did you respond?…My suspicion is that far too many do far too little.” Hence the cocoon of silence of the title.

Fair enough. We always need to be vigilant as a society for the emergence of violent criminals among us who would tear at the fabric of our community, whether they are motivated by hate, per se, perceived instructions from God or the Devil, or some other dark and violent emotion or dementia. Mr. Blow continues:

“The authorities won’t be able to stop every ‘lone wolf’ with a gun and a gripe. But we, as a society can do a much better job of creating an environment where hateful beliefs are never ignored and suspicious behavior never goes unreported.” (Italics are mine.)

This last caution drew quite a response from readers, including myself, who generally conceded the author’s main point about dangerous members of society, but warned of usurpation of our Bill of Rights.

I don’t know how old Mr. Blow is, but he seems to fit right in with the language of political correctness, multiculturalism, diversity. That is to say, with the predominant cultural language of the age. Even if you do not espouse pc, as a writer, you are wary of it, its effects and defenders, its true believers. In Mr. Blow’s world, the epithet “extremist” almost always is attached to “right wing,” which is anything and anyone to the right of his own views. And once a person, idea, writing or utterance is identified as “right wing extremist,” it is a quick mental step to “hate speech” being appended to that writing or utterance.

My purpose in writing this is not to defend a particular political point of view, right or left, but to shine a light on abuses and misuses of language, as I see it. In my world, there are moments of clarity when direct action is required: stop the gunman, the madman, the terrorist, even at risk to your own well being. However, there are many more moments clouded by ambiguity, uncertainty, irony, that make for the complexity of the real world we see and experience; and that influence the fictional world of great writing.

How would you apply “hate speech” to Shakespeare, to Richard III or Othello or King Lear? Therein lies the rub. You really can’t apply such a standard to literary and dramatic works and the world in which they are created, published and produced without doing extreme violence to them, their authors and audience.

Mr. Blow’s vision is directly informed by the civil rights movement and the obvious villains who gunned down the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. My vision is rather more informed by the 1950s and 60s, and the use of authoritarian language coming from the 1930s and World War II, in which the end justifies the means and jack boot pressure is applied to squelch so-called anti-revolutionary sentiments in the name of the people for the sake of good intentions. (See my essay “Relearning Orwell.”)

The civil rights movement triumphed and produced men like Charles M. Blow and Barack Obama, gave them a chance and handsomely rewarded them. It also produced—at the doing of white intellectuals and anti-intellectuals—political correctness, in which the lessons of Orwell’s Animal Farm and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, were put away for a fresh round of authoritarian muscle-flexing, new assignments for Orwell’s thought police without reference to Orwell and that generation.

Many on the Left decried measures of the Patriot Act and domestic wiretapping under the Bush administration as an unnecessary invasion of privacy. I was, and remain, more accepting of these practices because I trusted the motives of that administration to protect my safety in New York. However, I do not trust the motives of those who systematically, in war and in peace, want to limit my artistic and personal freedoms for their self-assigned good purposes. So that when I read a phrase like Mr. Blow’s “where hateful beliefs are never ignored and suspicious behavior never goes unreported.” I cringe, for it brings to mind images of zealots and government informers, stooges and snitches such as operated recently in Czechoslovakia and East Germany, political re-education camps in China and Southeast Asia; especially in this time when government is extending its powers with breath taking speed into all walks of life in this country.

An interfaith coalition called So We Might See, in conjunction with The National Hispanic Media Coalition, has started a campaign to squelch anti-illegal immigrant opinions in the media called “We Can Stop The Hate.” Their goal is to drive anti-illegal immigrant sentiments, which a great many Americans share, off the airwaves even if that violates First Amendment free speech rights.

Is it hate speech if I disagree with you, or if you disagree with me, and who gets to decide?

My complete response to Mr. Blow’s article appears below.

“Fear not, Mr. Blow. I hereby promise to monitor and report any suspicious behavior I notice, whether it is friend or family. Anyone who expresses some personal view a bit too strongly, who looks at me funny in the subway, gives someone the “evil eye,” talks in a suspicious manner on his or her cell phone–especially in a foreign language–makes threatening gestures, carries a large unmarked package, etc., will get my immediate attention and response. I will nip hate in the bud. You can count on it.”

By Hudson Owen. Some Rights Reserved.

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