Sunday, August 10, 2003

"What, me, compassion?"

John Cole at Balloon Juice seems to have a problem understanding moral vacuousness. So let's help him a little through this latest post on the ads attacking Bush's position on hate-crimes laws:
In other words, if you do not believe in the policy positions as they outlined by your political opponents, you are morally vacuous.

No, moral vacuousness, as we shall see in Bush's case, is comprised of many things, but above all, of this: pandering to hateful elements within your own party, while pretending, for national consumption, to be "compassionate."

Quickly, to review: Texas' 1993 hate-crime law was notorious within the legal community as an utterly unusable, unconstitutionally vague law that would never withstand court scrutiny, and thus was never used. (In this way, Republicans had in effect ensured that hate crimes in Texas would go unprosecuted, at least as bias crimes.) The chief purpose of the 1999 version was to resolve this problem, giving the state an effective law that actually enhanced sentences for hate crimes.

Along the way, of course, it also expanded the categories of bias crime to include sexual orientation, which means that gay-bashers would face enhanced sentences -- anathema, as it happens, to the moral paragons of the religious right. For George W. Bush -- who only a few months before had knelt at the feet of Council for National Policy (a "cultural conservative" power organization that pushes the religious right's agenda), and who needed that faction's full support in the coming presidential campaign -- this meant one thing: the bill could not survive. He could not afford to allow a law that "promoted the gay agenda" (as the right liked to put it) to pass in Texas on his watch.

But this required a trick, since it had become clear his campaign for the presidency would be predicated on a fuzzy concept called "compassionate conservatism." So instead of taking on the issue directly or forthrightly, Bush played both sides against the middle in public, mostly as a diversionary tactic while he and his staff, behind the scenes, ensured that the legislation died.

John characterizes Bush's behavior this way:
He was against the legislation- he has a legitimate position, and he stood for what he believed in- why should he be badgered into signing or promoting what he believes is bad legislation?

But that isn't at all what Bush did. First, when the legislation was introduced, he restated his traditional position: "All crimes are hate crimes." (More on this in a bit.)

But when it passed out of the Texas House, he was confronted with the possibility of having to either sign the law -- or veto it. Either way, it would be a national moment for him, and if he vetoed it (as the religious right would have demanded) it would have permanently stained his image as "compassionate," especially with the James Byrd killing so fresh in everyone's minds.

Officially, his stance suddenly changed. His spokesperson told reporters that Bush had not taken a position on the bill, and that he would consider it when it crossed his desk. Bush himself reiterated this a few days later -- though, somewhat cynically (as it turned out, given the extent his staff worked the Senate behind the scenes), he emphasized that first it would have to pass out of the Senate. It was widely reported in both the national and Texas press that Bush was considering signing the bill.

To this day, the Bush people stick to this story: Bush never made up his mind on the bill. He might have signed it. He might not have. Consider, for instance, this exchange with then-press spokesman John Sullivan after Bush's gaffe raised the issue in the 2000 debates, as reported by Salon's Jake Tapper:
Bush spokesman Sullivan says the governor never took a position one way or another on the bill: "Ultimately, the 1999 bill failed in the Legislature and never made it to Governor Bush's desk. It never made it out of the Legislature."

Would Bush have voted for the House version?

"The bill never made it out of the Legislature," Sullivan says.

What about reports that he would have supported the bill had sexual orientation been removed from the list of prejudices included in the law?

"The bill never made it out of the Legislature," Sullivan says.

What Sullivan's version of events elides, of course, was that the Bush team (with Karl Rove in charge) worked overtime behind the scenes in the Senate to kill the bill, including a half-hour briefing just before the decisive vote was held. It has become clear in retrospect that Bush was vehemently opposed to the legislation, but knew that public knowledge of this would severely damage his nascent national image.

After all, it didn't take much thinking to understand that Texas needed an effective hate-crime law. Laws do send signals -- and the notorious ineffectiveness of Texas' bias-crime law sent a signal, too, to men like Bill King and Shawn Berry. White supremacists, especially those with prison backgrounds, loathe hate-crimes laws, and are likewise perfectly aware when they are toothless or absent. A hate-crimes law may not have stopped James Byrd from being killed; but the state had put out a green light for his killers, and it was time it turned to red. The Byrd case brought this fact before the national consciousness.

Many people besides just gays needed a good hate-crimes law in Texas. Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Jews would have benefited from it as well. Moreover, as anywhere else, a hate-crimes law benefits everyone -- especially because they are an important sign of a community or state's willingness to stand up for basic principles of egalitarianism, equality and racial harmony, not to mention basic decency.

George W. Bush couldn't have cared less. His campaign for the presidency was at stake. It was more important to serve the interest of the national religious right than the actual needs of average citizens in Texas. So he found a way to smother the law in its crib while no one was looking.

And that is a picture of moral vacuousness.

John adds this:
Dave does note that Bush simply did not believe there was any need for Hate Crimes legislation (although he refers to Bush's position as a "mantra" -- remember, Bush is an idiot) …

You'll never find a post on this blog suggesting that Bush is an idiot. A crass, conniving and utterly narcissistic manipulator as well as a gross incompetent, yes, but not an idiot.

Bush's position, for anyone needing a refresher, is this:
"I've always said all crime is hate crime. People, when they commit a crime, have hate in their heart. And it's hard to distinguish between one degree of hate and another."

This meme -- favored by everyone on the right from Bush to Dick Armey to Jerry Falwell -- is partially a product of the confusion that arises from calling these crimes "hate crimes" (they are in reality "bias-motivated" crimes; "hate" quite literally has nothing to do with them, in the eyes of the law). But even without that misunderstanding, this notion is transparently baseless.

Only a little reflection, after all, can produce a long list of crimes that lack anything resembling a hateful element -- embezzlement or securities fraud, say, or drunken driving, or insider trading. I'm willing to wager that abandoning your Texas Air National Guard unit is a crime, and the only hateful elements I can see in that are an abiding contempt for your fellow servicemen and their willingness to live up to their commitments.

More to the point, the recognition that not all crimes are alike is a basic tenet of law. Bias-crimes statutes recognize, like a myriad criminal laws, that motive and intent can and should affect the kind of sentence needed to protect society adequately -- that is, after all, the difference between first-degree murder and manslaughter. Intent and motive can be the difference between a five-year sentence and the electric chair.

Attempting a sort of zero-sum analysis that makes the outcome (in the case of homicide, a dead person) the only significant issue in what kind of sentence a perpetrator should face (the death sentence vs. a prison term) would overthrow longstanding legal traditions of proportionality in setting punishment, effectively eliminating the role of culpability -- or mens rea, the mental state of the actor -- as a major factor. Or, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously put it: "Even a dog distinguishes between being stumbled over and being kicked."

The "all crime is a hate crime" meme is one of the most transparent falsehoods trotted out by Republicans as they feverishly try to rationalize their desire to leave the doors open for gay-bashers. And it is evidence of the degraded state of our national discourse that they are not laughed off the stage for repeating it.

That is perhaps, because they have become experts at posing these kinds of transparent falsehoods as legitimate, constructed realities. (Remember hearing during the Florida Debacle how mechanical counts were "more accurate" than hand counts? I loved that one.)

John mentions this too, though from the other side of the funhouse mirror:
It is all about perceptions- not reality. In reality, Bush was right the men were all convicted, two sentenced to death. Justice was served.

This is a model of how it works: Focus on an irrelevancy and present as the sum of reality. Bush was right, indeed (well, at least, once he had corrected himself) -- the men were convicted. But justice was only served in that case. Justice in the large sense -- in which Texas had a hate-crimes law on the books that prosecutors were actually able to use -- was badly harmed when Bush killed the bill.

The important thing to remember about the Byrd killing is that it was not really representative of a hate crime -- typically, in fact, there are on average only about eight to ten hate-crimes murders per year, compared to an average of about 9,000 hate crimes in America annually. Moreover, murders are at the extreme end of the criminal scale, and hate-crimes laws frankly have little effect, since it is impossible to enhance a sentence beyond the death penalty (though in fact the hate-crimes elements can help a prosecutor push the penalty to the death-sentence level). But they are only a tiny fragment of the hate crimes committed in this country.

A look at the FBI's most recent hate-crime statistics for 2001 [PDF file] gives a picture of a fairly average year (hate crimes in fact have proven remarkably steady since statistics have been gathered). Most hate crimes are intimidation and assaults; out of 9,730 total hate crimes in 2001, 3,563 were cases of intimidation, and 2,736 were assaults. Only 10 were murders.

When conservatives like Bush point to the Byrd case and say, "See? Justice was done," they are ignoring the many cases (in a state like Texas, they may well annually number in the hundreds, and over the years, the thousands) that went unpunished, or in which the perps got off with a slap on the wrist, because there was no effective hate-crimes law in Texas -- all thanks to George Bush and his fellow Republicans and their deep-soaked animus toward anything that might benefit gays or lesbians.

It was in pursuit of just such a law for Texas that James Byrd's family sought to support the 1999 version of the bill, which was named in his honor. No one, either in the family or otherwise, was deluded into thinking the law could affect their case in any way.

What was important to the Byrd family, as it is to many families of crime victims, was that his gruesome death did not happen in vain. Their hope was that by advocating for the new law, Texas might have a hate-crimes law with some teeth. Future Bill Kings and Shawn Berrys might not see that green light.

Obviously, Renee Mullins, Byrd's daughter, could be faulted for some naïvete -- hate-crimes laws, on their own and without support from law enforcement, may only be marginally effective in combating bias crimes. Certainly she was naïve about putting any kind of faith in George W. Bush's fair-mindedness, notions of which she was quickly disabused on the day she met him.

Her pain, her family's pain, represented the pain of hundreds of families of hate-crimes victims in Texas. And Bush couldn't have cared less. He was callous and cold. Some politicians, even conservative ones, have genuine compassion and can find ways to tell someone that, even though they understand their pain, they won't support the cause they're after, for reasons they can explain. Bush was incapable of this.

That, too, is moral vacuity.

But even Bush was topped by the spinning, frothing, falsifying font of right-wing pundits who hopped all over the ad Renee Mullins subsequently made for the NAACP. There were two versions. The first, longer one, went like this:
I’m Renee Mullins. My father was James Byrd, Jr.

I still have nightmares thinking about him, the day three men chained him behind their pickup truck and dragged him three miles over pavement.

I can see skin being torn away from his body.

I can hear him gasping for air.

I can feel the tears in his eyes, the struggle of his brain as images of his life painfully bang through his head as the links of a heavy chain clinched around his ankles dragging him bump by bump until he was decapitated. [pause]

On June 7, 1998 this happened to my father, all because he was black. I went to Governor George W. Bush and begged him to help pass a hate crimes bill.

He just told me no.

I'm doing this commercial to ask you to call Governor Bush at 512-X and tell him to introduce a hate crimes bill in Texas.

Let him know that our community won't be dragged down by hate crimes.

The second, shorter, read this way:
I’m Renee Mullins, James Byrd’s daughter.

On June 7, 1998 in Texas my father was killed. He was beaten, chained, and then dragged 3 miles to his death, all because he was black.

So when Governor George W. Bush refused to support hate-crime legislation, it was like my father was killed all over again.

Call Governor George W. Bush and tell him to support hate-crime legislation.

We won’t be dragged away from our future.

The longer ad is quite clearer, but even in the second ad (whose meaning, frankly, is muddied by its shortness; the internal juxtaposition of Bush in close proximity to the words about Byrd's murder was fertile ground for all kinds of distortions) Mullins' meaning is fairly plain: Bush's callousness about the hate-crimes law hit her emotionally in the same place as the murder itself. (It should be noted that this kind of reaction is not uncommon among families of crime victims, especially those who dedicate themselves to causes related to the death of a loved one, notably when those causes fail or hit obstacles.)

But the larger message couldn't be clearer, either: Mullins was calling Bush, in essence, a phony. The whole "compassionate conservative" front a fraud. Because she knew, from personal experience, the man hadn't a compassionate bone in his entire body.

This was like a grenade being lobbed into the belly of the ship -- and Team Rove, to their credit (they are good, as Machiavellian bastards go), quickly lobbed it right back. It wasn't sufficient to merely refute the arguments in the ads -- that would have been difficult, since they were factually accurate -- they had to destroy the persons who created the ads as "reprehensible" for running them.

In short order, we began hearing the chief talking point -- that the ads had somehow "linked Bush to the murder of James Byrd." Soon we heard that that the ads implied "that George W. Bush killed James Byrd" or, in Kathleen Parker's formulation: "Bush, because he has opposed certain types of hate-crime legislation, is implicitly responsible for killing James Byrd."

Of course, these are classic "straw man" arguments: the ads say nothing of the kind. (Is that your guilty conscience talking, Ms. Parker?) What the ads say, clearly, is that when it came to the victims of hate crimes, George Bush lacked compassion. What they implied was that Bush was a phony who, contrary to his campaign image ("a uniter, not a divider") actually undermined efforts to effect social justice. But that is not a message that Bush's supporters could register or acknowledge. So they had to concoct alternatives.

John provides us with an interesting new version:
Dave may be capable of creating multiple meanings for Miss Mullins, but I think the message of the commercial is pretty clear -- a vote for Bush is similar to letting Byrd's killers off -- …

Read that anywhere in those ads, folks? Nope. But you have to admit that it is creative.

It has been during this phase -- which, clearly, continues to this day -- that the moral vacuousness of not merely Bush but the entirety of his ideological conservative-movement supporters has been on prominent display. It is now a token of conventional wisdom on the right that the NAACP "tried to blame Bush for James Byrd's death." But one can characterize the ads themselves in this way only by the grossest distortion (if nothing else, the most tendentious reading) of their actual content. The lines of blame that conservatives find in between Renee Mullins' actual words are their creations, not hers.

John contends:
… [N]o one is twisting "the words of a suffering family into an attack on liberals." Instead, someone used the suffering of a family and twisted the outcome of an awful, vile, senseless murder into a subsequent attack on George Bush. That someone was the NAACP.

No one "twisted the outcome" of the Byrd murder. That was settled in the courts, and had nothing to do with the Byrd family's advocacy for the laws. They understood the need for a hate-crimes law from firsthand experience, and argued from that position only. Their words were not twisted by NAACP -- rather, they were active and interested participants in the ads and their content.

Renee Mullins said what she really thought. No one twisted her words, except, unsurprisingly, those who could not abide them.

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