Celebrity Bigots

Why Hate is Hot

How ironic that Dr. Laura (Schlessinger) is a convert to Orthodox Judaism, since she attacks like an old-time anti-Semite. For example, she blithely asserts that "a huge portion of the male homosexual populace is predatory on young boys"—the homophobic equivalent of the blood libel, the ancient belief that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood in making matzoh. Just as Jews were seen as powerful beyond their numbers, Dr. Laura sees gays as "deviant tyrants." Just as Jews were accused of having no culture but money, Dr. Laura says gay culture is "just about sex." Gay rights! she scoffs. "That's what I'm worried about, with all the pedophilia and the bestiality and the sadomasochism. Why does deviant sexual behavior get rights?"

In this conflation of gay people and unnatural appetites, one hears the hot breath of Imus and his friends commenting on Jim Dale's now moot case against the Boy Scouts: "His idea of being prepared is bringing condoms to Jamborees." Yet a large swath of the media seem prepared to buy Dr. Laura's claim that she is making a serious critique of the gay movement, about which reasonable people might disagree. This tolerance of false science and outright slander should seem familiar to those who remember Father Coughlin, the Depression-era priest who presented Jews as a threat to America. At his height, millions fervently followed his radio ministry. Today, Dr. Laura calls gays a menace to "the basic foundation of civilization." Fundamentalists consider her a crusader, and libertarians have added to her mystique by casting her as a test case for free speech.

Not that Dr. Laura is a friend of the First Amendment. She sued a California shop owner for calling her a liar, and tried (ultimately unsuccessfully) to legally stop cybernauts who posted nude pictures of her. She advocates censorship of the Internet and attacks the American Library Association for "sexualizing our children." Yet we're urged to suffer her opinions. Even The New York Times' Frank Rich has joined the chorus urging the gay community to lay off Dr. Laura. After all, the same free speech that spawns bigots like her also makes it possible for the gay community to be heard.

This is a noble standard, but it doesn't apply to the world we live in. The clash of ideas in American mass media is not a cacophony but a hierarchy of voices. The ugly truth is that some forms of bigotry are more permissible than others, and some are not acceptable at all.

Where were Rich's columns urging Jewish groups to tolerate Khalid Muhammad? Why was his calumny considered more dangerous than Dr. Laura's? (After all, Khalid never had a sit-down with the Black Congressional Caucus, but Dr. Laura has met with the Republican leadership.) Why were his ideas about Jews regarded as slander while her rants about gay people are taken as a serious, if debatable, critique? The answer goes to the heart of why some groups are more susceptible than others to hate speech.

Whatever some people may feel about Jews, you rarely find anti-Semitic epithets in the mass media. That's not because Jews own the culture, whatever Khalid might think. They are largely exempt from public slander because most people have come to terms with the tradition of anti-Semitism that culminated in the Holocaust. It's a settled issue. But race is a very different cauldron, still boiling over on the American range. When it comes to sexual equality, the jury is definitely out. And gay rights are the most precarious of all. This unsettled agenda is accurately reflected in the vulnerability of various groups to hate speech. It's a marker of one's fragile social status, and it has a real effect on people who are constantly subject to this reminder.

In some, hate speech inhibits the ability to be assertive; in others it produces a chronic anxiety that becomes part of the personality, while still others are driven to outbursts of ferocity. In any case, the leaders who emerge are hardly the sort of people to soothe the savage breast. Just as postwar liberalism fostered the rise of Martin Luther King, the backlash against civil rights has created Louis Farrakhan. This is the dialectic of bigotry many libertarians seem unwilling to face. Instead, they point out that the victims can speak out too—as if the media were willing to grant them equal time.

Yes, there are gays in sitcoms, blacks in action movies, and women in sports. But you won't find these role models trafficking in slander, if only because the punishment for such conduct would be marginalization. Farrakhan may draw a million black men to Washington, but he doesn't get a slot on Black Entertainment Television. Nor was Sistah Souljah played on MTV. We don't live in a world where words like "whiteboy" and "breeder" are the coin of the realm. Indeed, the nature of being dominant is that there aren't many epithets to describe you. When a gay shrink can become a national figure by calling heterosexuals an abomination, when a black shock jock makes a fortune mocking whites, when a female rapper can go platinum by boasting of slashing up men, then we can talk about a level playing field.

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