John Leo

Remember when the city of Berkeley, Calif., declared itself a "nuclear-free zone"? Cynics snickered, but the plain fact is that no nuclear weapon has gone off in the city since that day. So the policy seems to be working.

Many communities, mostly left-leaning university towns, have declared themselves nuclear-free. Churches too. The Unitarian Universalist Association is a nuclear-free zone. These moves led to a broad "zone" movement, which is dedicated to the idea that communities can get rid of hate, violence, drunkenness, bullying and nuclear fears, mostly by emphatically declaring these evils to be gone from their areas. Some towns have official panels that oversee efforts to remain nuclear-free.

Several cities, including Seattle and Missoula, Mt., have banished intense negative feelings (or at least kept them on the outskirts of town) by designating themselves as "hate-free zones." "Hate has no place in our hearts or in our neighborhoods," a Seattle document says. Nobody wants to come out in favor of hate, but in the old days, you were free to detest anyone at all (Michael Moore, say, or Ann Coulter), as long as you didn't infringe his or her rights. Authorities thought their job was to monitor illegal harm, not feelings. Now they let us know which emotions are OK to have. Children are routinely urged to announce, "I am a hate-free zone."

A major blow to the anti-hate movement came in very liberal Santa Cruz, Calif. An initiative to name the city a hate-free zone lost at the polls, possibly because, as one commentator said, residents didn't want Santa Cruz to be laughed at as another Berkeley. So the city, though an official nuclear-free zone, is not officially free of hate.

One frontier in zone thinking is the drive to establish ridicule-free zones, a spin-off from the anti-bullying and anti-hate campaigns. Relentless ridicule does indeed wreak damage among the young, but there is something creepy about treating all joshing and teasing as ominous steps toward another Columbine massacre. So we get grim cut-the-joking, no-teasing programs that overlook the fact that coping with occasional negative remarks and arguments is a normal part of childhood.

"Teaching a repertoire of alternative, more skillful behaviors is important," said one ridicule-free missionary who apparently was never young. One earnest program includes a "Don't laugh at me" project in which children sing victim songs ("I'm a little boy with glasses/The one they call a geek/Don't laugh at me/Don't call me names/Don't get your pleasure from my pain").


John Leo

John Leo is editor of MindingTheCampus.com and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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