Hate Trent Lott's words; love the First Amendment

Kathleen Parker
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Posted: Dec 23, 2002 12:00 AM
The Trent Lott problem, sufficiently hashed and rehashed by now, has produced a number of worthy sidebars, not the least of which is this: Ain't it great to live in America where it's still legal to be stupid? Hey, watch it. I was reminded of this as I was interviewed on Canadian radio a few days ago. In Canada, you see, it's illegal to be stupid. Or rather, it's illegal to speak unnicely. Yes, for some of our less-attractive musings, one can be arrested and criminally charged under Canada's hate speech laws. In recent days, while Americans were trying to infer exactly what Sen. Trent Lott might have meant when he said we'd have had fewer problems in this country had Sen. Strom Thurmond been elected president in 1948, Canadians were investigating whether a man who made anti-Semitic remarks was sufficiently hate-filled to justify criminal prosecution. For words, not deeds. For thoughts, not actions. For being an ugly, venom-spouting idiot, David Ahenakew -a leader and chair of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations -could face criminal sanctions. Now, what Ahenakew said was odious and beyond the pale of a forgivable gaffe. It was as nasty as it gets. More or less, he called the Jewish people a disease and praised Hitler's strategy for purifying the gene pool. Stupid, mean, hateful and disgusting -yes. But illegal? Not here. Not yet. Ahenakew, also a member of the Order of Canada, an award given by the government for lifetime achievement, has tearfully apologized. He blamed his profane lapse into verbal tyranny on "frustration and imbalance perpetrated by my health." Menopausal women everywhere can relate, but somehow most manage only to punish their own families. His apology, meanwhile, was received as too little too late. Sound familiar? "I admit my own stubbornness, my pigheadedness and my own personal embarrassment prevented me from coming forward immediately to do the right thing in light of what I have caused by such irresponsible and painful comments." No word yet on whether Ahenakew will be appearing on JET (Jewish Entertainment Television) to affirm that he really didn't know that much about Hitler until recently and will be reviewing his voting record for some possibly long-overdue policy shifts. As I said, Ahenakew's remarks were repugnant and unacceptable. Nevertheless, Canada's hate-speech laws are far scarier than one man's ignorance and offer a lesson for those who think hate and speech should or can be micromanaged. First there's the problem of reading others' hearts, as we've learned through the psycho-vivisectioning of Trent Lott. The pattern of his nostalgia for segregationist days suggests that he hasn't joined the 21st century, but it doesn't necessarily confirm that he's racist. Nor do calls for him to step down as incoming Senate majority leader necessarily confirm anyone's belief in his alleged bigotry, but rather support the notion that political opponents henceforth will apply a racial barometer to Lott's performance, always calling into question his credibility and thus nullifying his effectiveness. Clearly there's a vast difference between Lott's inferred insult and Ahenakew's vivid assault. Nevertheless, the line between what someone intends with thoughts and words and what someone else infers becomes ever finer when subjective hearts are left to judge. Meanwhile, prohibitions against hate speech inevitably hurt those they are intended to protect. History is rife with examples of governments using legislation prohibiting "hate speech" to stifle dissent. Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union come to mind, as does apartheid South Africa where laws prohibiting racial hatred were used against the state's own victims. Across our northern border, outraged Canadians want to rescind Ahenakew's Order of Canada. The aboriginal leader already has resigned from various public offices as well as his chairmanship of the FSIN. By most measures, a ruined career and a future shadowed by shame seem adequate punishment for a dunderhead's public rant. Which seems a far better way to manage narrow-minded people speaking stupidly than by outlawing speech deemed unnice by the thought police. Better to have a few Ahenakews and Lotts making fools of themselves than to lose our right to strenuously oppose them and others higher up the food chain who, given the power and permission to silence us, might just do it.