The double standard on political hate speech
''Bobby Ehrlich is a nazi. . . . he should be running in Germany in 1942, not Maryland in 2002. We'll define him as the nazi he is. Once we do that, i think people will vote for Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.''
Thus spake Democratic political consultant Julius Henson about congressman Robert Ehrlich, the Republican candidate in Maryland's gubernatorial election this year. Henson had just signed on to work for Townsend, Ehrlich's Democratic opponent, and made his repugnant remarks in an interview with The Washington Post.
It was a classic example of liberal hate speech, the poisonous political rhetoric to which I devote a column at the end of each year. The theme of these columns has been the double standard by which politicians, journalists, and activists on the left get a pass when they use scandalous and vitriolic language to demonize their opponents - language that would get conservatives crucified if they spoke that way about a liberal.
Of course there is no end of ugliness on the political fringes, left- and right-wing both. And of course hateful slurs should be avoided by everyone, conservatives and liberals alike. But when a player in the mainstream flings a vicious smear - "Bobby Ehrlich is a Nazi" - it's generally safe to bet that it's a liberal doing the flinging, and that the media and his fellow liberals will let him get away with it.
But maybe things are changing. This year, for the first time I can remember, some on the left were taken to task for uttering contemptible libels about their political foes. Just hours after Henson's "Nazi" calumny against Ehrlich was reported, the Townsend campaign fired him, calling his words "inexcusable."
It wasn't the only case of liberal hate speech drawing a liberal rebuke.
While delivering the invocation at the Connecticut Democratic convention last summer, longtime party activist Ned Coll labeled Republican Governor John Rowland a "snake" and a "glorified thug" and called for "death to the Prince of Darkness." It is not hard to imagine what would happen to a Republican who openly prayed for the death of a Democrat, but Coll's remark drew little attention until Matt Drudge highlighted it on his radio show and web site. The Republican Party then asked Senator Joseph Lieberman to admonish his fellow Connecticut Democrat. To his credit, he did.
Coll's remarks were "offensive and indefensible," Lieberman said bluntly. "Such vicious personal attacks have no place in our political discourse."
But no prominent Democrat spoke with equal bluntness about Harry Belafonte, who described Secretary of State Colin Powell as a bootlicking plantation "slave" who curries favor in order "to come into the house of the master." And no prominent liberal blasted Gerardo Villacres, the head of the Hispanic American Chamber of Commerce, when he likened California businessman Ron Unz to a Nazi for financing ballot campaigns to end bilingual education.
Sliming conservatives as Nazis often seems to be the first refuge of liberal hate-talkers. Do they really not understand the terrible malignancy of that term?
Sandra Bernhard, the actress and alleged comedienne, was asked during an online Washington Post chat for her thoughts on terrorism. "The real terrorist threats," she replied, "are George W. Bush and his band of brown-shirted thugs." (The Nazi stormtroopers were known as brownshirts.) Miami minister and radio host Victor Curry castigated the Bush administration over the air for its "neo-Nazi, right wing mission against the American people." In a magazine interview, Sean Penn likened Bill O'Reilly, the popular Fox News personality, to Osama bin Laden, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and - of course - Adolf Hitler.
Describing a Republican as a Nazi is clearly hate speech. What about implying that he is gay?
That was what the Montana Democratic Party did to Mike Taylor, the GOP candidate for the US Senate this year. The Democrats unearthed an ancient TV clip of Taylor, who once owned a string of hair salons, and turned it into an ad that played up every stereotype of the homosexual male hairdresser.
As one Montana daily reported, the ad showed Taylor applying lotion to the face of a male customer. He is seen "wearing a tight-fitting, three-piece suit with a big-collared open shirt. . . . Taylor's top two or three shirt buttons are unbuttoned, exposing some bare chest and a number of gold chains." The innuendo was blatant and, in political terms, devastating.
If Republicans ever deployed such heavy-handed gay-baiting against a Democrat, the uproar would be deafening. But there was no uproar when it was done to a Republican - not even from groups that usually roar with outrage when gays or lesbians are mocked. The double standard on political sleaze may have weakened a bit in 2002. Alas, it's still going strong.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is email@example.com.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.