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The Culture of Tyranny

February 3, 2000

“How can you defend an oaf like John Rocker?” a friend asked me recently. “I don’t disagree with you, but when you take up his cause you’re just begging to be called a racist yourself.”

Well, being smeared as a “racist” is just part of the game these days. Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s evisceration of libel law in the name of the First Amendment, you can’t do much about it. But the worst thing you can do is to accept the role of defendant and let yourself be intimidated by the ethos of laissez-faire libel.

[Breaker quote: The 
menace of undefined thought-crimes] Rocker, the Atlanta Braves’ star relief pitcher, has now been fined and suspended for the early part of the coming season by Major League Baseball’s commissioner, Bud Selig. The sentence also includes “sensitivity training,” on top of the psychological examination Rocker has already submitted to. Selig said that Rocker’s unflattering remarks about New York “offended practically every element of society and brought dishonor to himself, the Atlanta Braves, and Major League Baseball.”

Personally, I disliked Rocker from the first time I saw him pitch. He’s an abrasive man, like a lot of athletes nowadays. But that doesn’t justify New York’s fans in spitting on him, pouring beer on him, and throwing batteries at him. Neither do his opinions about New York justify Selig in punishing him and, particularly, humiliating him as a thought-criminal in need of a Soviet-style “cure.”

If Rocker had broken some well-defined rule, it would be one thing. But Major League Baseball, as far as I know, has no speech code. Selig himself has brought dishonor on the sport by trying, in a totally arbitrary manner, to impose taboos on the expression of opinion — taboos that didn’t apply to Ted Turner’s crude jokes about Catholics, the Pope, and Poles. (Turner, the Braves’ owner, has apologized; but so has Rocker, unavailingly.)

Rocker has been roundly condemned as a “racist” even though he never mentioned race. But liberal invective is routinely accepted as free speech.

The episode throws a lot of light on the prevailing thought-crime code. Thought-crimes differ from ordinary crimes in several respects.

First, they aren’t defined. Nobody knows exactly what “racism” is; it can mean anything the accuser wants it to mean. And it rarely refers to overt acts; usually it refers to the alleged thoughts or attitudes of the accused.

Second, nothing has to be proved — and since the word has no clear definition, nothing can be proved. So the accuser bears no burden of proof, as he would in cases of ordinary crimes. The accused is presumed guilty as long as the accusation is sufficiently strident. And, given the vagueness of the charge, he can’t prove he isn’t racist.

Third, and most important, nobody ever has to pay a price for making a false or reckless accusation. Nobody is ruined or disgraced for making loose charges of “racism.” Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton continue to thrive after making far more wild charges than Joe McCarthy.

You don’t have to worry about being falsely accused of murder, because everyone knows what murder is, there are clear procedures for testing the charge, and anyone who makes a false accusation against you can be sued or even jailed. But everyone has to worry about being accused of “racism,” because these safeguards don’t exist when that poisonous charge is leveled.

If you really think racism is a serious matter, you want the word to mean something definite and you want to make sure that innocent people are safe from false charges of it. Otherwise, the word merely becomes a weapon that can be picked up and wielded by opportunists and tyrants to create a climate of intimidation.

Which course describes the methods of those who profess to oppose racism in America today? The answer is obvious. Charges of racism are made so promiscuously that everyone has to walk on eggs to avoid incurring them. And no accuser has to worry about any penalty for damaging an innocent man’s good name.

Such a situation can only breed such thought-police as Jackson and Sharpton, paving the way for tyranny. It may not frighten the Ku Klux Klan, but other people will learn to speak guardedly in multicultural America.

Joseph Sobran

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