Getting Burned

Free-speech signals crossed over slavery ad flap

It's the perfect angry white guy's scheme. A publicity hog concocts a plan to run a tasteless, simpleminded ad ( in college newspapers around the country, listing 10 contestable arguments against slavery reparations. He then whines about being a victim of political correctness when students on those campuses protest the contents of the racist ad.

There: I said the R-word. I took the bait, and dared call this ad, the whole sordid project, "racist." Scold me. Censure me. Launch If there's anybody being silenced here, it's those of us willing to call, er, a spade a spade. Or a racist ad a racist ad. From reason No. 10: "America's African-American citizens are the richest and most privileged black people alive -&endash; a bounty that is a direct result of the heritage that is under assault." Yeah, whatever.

With all due respect to the PC cops among us, I do believe that is a racist statement. Although legitimate questions lurk somewhere in this ad, Horowitz couches them in typical white naivete. And he assumes that he or I or some other non-black writer should paternalistically tell black people to get over it and stop protesting &endash;- after centuries of economic and social repression, after a 2000 election slap at their voting rights, after Reagan's pet drug war has filled our prisons with black so-called felons who will never vote again. Sorry, Dude, it's not up to you and other conservative whiners to decide what people find racist, and what they don't.

Horowitz is entitled to keep trying, though. It's also perfectly fine for him to throw together a racy ad to try to sell to college newspapers in order to pump up his book sales. That's called investing in your bottom line, and the US Constitution damned sure allows that. But &endash;- and here's where the anti-PC crowd starts burning this blue-eyed blonde in effigy -&endash; it's also OK for campus newspapers to refuse to publish those ads. Right now, I'm enjoying a delightful image of, say, Louis Farrakhan outraged because Bob Jones University won't run "10 Reasons Christian White Guys Suck Eggs." Of course, Bob Jones doesn't have to run such an incendiary ad. And if it did, who would we be to condemn its Christian white students for protesting the ad?

On his Web site, Horowitz is keeping what he calls a "censorship scorecard" of how many schools have taken his bait: so far, 14 have, 35 censorious, hateful schools haven't. A rudimentary lesson in the First Amendment: It prohibits censorship by the government, pure and simple. Horowitz knows that (I hope): I haven't heard him point out that the private universities on his hit list aren't even bound by the First Amendment. And even the public ones are not required by the First Amendment to run a faulty ad designed only to pick a fight so he can, in turn, act picked-on. Read my lips: Newspapers reject ads all the time, and often for much less clear-cut reasons than in this ad (which relies on the white man's revisionist history of Africa, and the erroneous view that the US welfare system has largely been repayments to blacks, for starters.)

This debate hasn't even reached free-speech first base. It's as if few in the media understand that speech in response to speech is just as protected as the first round that was fired. I remember a similar argument espoused last year by ABC reporter and pseudo-libertarian John Stossel. He complained on his "You Can't Say That!" special that Brown University students tried to shout him down when he was on campus to shoot an ABC segment about a student accused of rape. He complained that his free speech was violated because angry female students protested the segment, shouting: "This is not TV hype. Rape is not TV hype!" Bad, bad girls. Stossel's on-camera retort: "Where do students learn that censorship's the answer? Well, today, their schools often teach that by example."

No. That wasn't censorship. You, me, Horowitz, Stossel, Brown students, whomever, have the right to talk back, even to try to shout down someone with a bigger megaphone and deeper pockets (or not). Whether we're right or wrong, we can line up to protest speakers we think are spreading dangerous messages. That kind of give and take, though it can get heated, sounds like democracy to me.

Many conservatives, however, have a different tactic. Racism &endash; and the maintenance of the power structure -- always depends on trying to close minds, and dividing thus conquering. So whenever someone speaks up about injustice -- whether based on race, gender, disability, you name it &endash;- we get labeled "politically correct" and tossed into the extremist crowd that insists on spelling my gender "womyn." And for some reason, we good progressives go along with the half-cocked scheme, self-censoring ourselves and apologizing for our PC rudeness &endash; when we need to be raising hell about the return of blatant bigotry to public discourse.

Take John Ashcroft. During his confirmation mess, I was intrigued to read that the senator's campaign got away with a PC sleight-of-hand during his campaign last year against the late Gov. Mel Carnahan. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released a CNN transcript in which Council of Conservative Citizens ( head Gordon Baum said he would support Ashcroft for president if he ran. The DSCC release called Ashcroft the "white supremacist's presidential choice." Well, yea-ah.

Unacceptable! screamed Ashcroft's campaign. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch moaned that the DSCC "is playing in the gutter with its smear. ... Gov. Mel Carnahan should tell his party to cut it out." Cut what out? Exposing racist ties? Somehow, though, while the media should have been examining the meaning of the CofCC's support of Ashcroft &endash;- quick, go link to their Web site; not racist, right? -- the Democrats get slapped for daring to even imply the R-word.

We are letting white conservatives drive the debate &endash; race-related and otherwise -- in this country. The meaning of "politically correct" has done a major rightward shift, if you hadn't noticed. Conservatives and bigots across the US are purposefully launching thinly disguised racist and sexist diatribes and then getting all steamed when someone dares to talk back.

Funny thing is, I support Horowitz's right to be racist (assuming he actually is; I suspect "opportunist" is the correct word) and run incendiary ads and sell his Hating Whitey books however he can. I believe publications should debate both the pros and cons of slavery reparations in their editorial spaces &endash; it's not an open-and-shut issue &endash;- or choose to run Horowitz' silly ad if they want to. I also denounce the students who actually steal and burn newspapers; I believe they've crossed a fascist line and probably deserve Horowitz's "racial McCarthyism" charge. (Hodding Carter Jr.'s response to his effigy-burning by White Citizens Council members in the 1960s brings some perspective: Being that Mississippians used to burn real people, perhaps burning an effigy signified real progress, he editorialized. And such dissent paid off for Carter as well: He got his best-paid speaking gig -- $1,000! -- at a Northeastern university afterward: "I ought to get burned again," he said later.)

Horowitz doesn't hide his search for celebrity. On his site, he writes, "My Andy Warhol moment has come. ... Britney Spears move over. There's a new celebrity in town." I implore you, though, not to let an opportunist drive an important debate. It's time for a backlash against the PC backlash: We must stop letting the racists define racism.

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