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Defending Richard Cohen

Richard Cohen is hurt that you think he’s a racist.

Well, I say “you,” but I guess I really mean “me and a couple of other guys.”  Because it appears that Cohen does, indeed, have a bevy of defenders in the mediaand on this very site. I was going to let this dog lie after yesterday’s post, but the incessant defense of Cohen is bugging the crap out of me.  As I’ve written before, if we’re ever going to get to better place with race in this country, we should recognize that race issues are usually far more subtle and nettlesome than we like to pretend.  Usually, but not always. And in those cases where racism is neither subtle nor nettlesome, it is important to expose it to light.  Such is the case with Richard Cohen and his post from earlier in the week.  And since it seems more light is needed, here I go again.

The defense of Cohen is either an indictment of his critics or a indictment of Cohen’s skill as a writer, depending upon the defender.  In a nutshell, however, the defense is essentially two-pronged:

  • The Reading Comprehension Defense: Essentially, this defense is the claim that neither Cohen nor his column are in any way racist because he is attributing his line about reactions to mixed race couples and their children to other people.  “Look at what he said in context,” these defenders insist.
  • The Poor Choice of Words Defense: This defense relies on a combination of assuming that Cohen did not mean what he wrote and a little Monday-morning armchair editing, specifically with the single word “conventional.”  “Give the guy a more charitable rewording, and you’ll see it’s just another case of liberals crying ‘racist,’” say these defenders.

I will be the first to admit, Internet outrages-of-the-day too often lean heavily on taking single lines out of context, giving them the worst possible interpretation, and ascribing said interpretation on the so-called offender.  Indeed, whole strategies in Presidential elections are based on no less.  What Cohen wrote, however, doesn’t fall into this camp.

Still, for the sake of argument let’s take a look at what happens when we assume Cohen’s defenders are correct and provide that retroactive editing, context, and thoughtful reading they say he deserves.

The entire column can be seen here, but once again the paragraph that turned heads (and the specific line so many found horrifying) is here:

Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all. [Emphasis mine.]

The offending line is one that Cohen does indeed attribute to others, but merely noting that is not quite enough.  Cohen and his defenders also must argue that he didn’t really foresee the way readers would interpret the word “conventional.”  (That is, by its actual definition).  So let’s give Cohen the benefit of the doubt and make a quick edit to that sentence the way he says it was meant to be read:

People — not me of course, but other people — with highly extreme views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children.

Fixed!  And you know what, Cohen and his defenders are right — it does look better when you make those changes.  But hold on; we still have some more context and wordsmithing to do.

There’s another cringe-worthy aspect to Cohen’s column.  While he is clearly saying that it is people not named Richard Cohen who want to barf when they see mixed-race kids, he also states unequivocally that them wanting to barf at the sight of mixed-race kids is in no way racist.  This is a wee bit troubling, because in my experience the people most likely to think that there’s nothing racist about thinking mixed-race  babies are an abomination are… well, you know.  And when you think about it, saying that those fictional people’s reaction is totally non-racist kind of underscores his original use of the word “conventional,” which we’ve decided he must not have really meant to use.  Which means we’re going to have to edit that whole bit as well:

Many Tea Party extremists in today’s GOP do indeed appear to be racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged 

We’re getting closer!

But we’re still not there, because although Cohen and his defenders claim that he was just talking about extremists that gagged at the site of mixed-race couples, he’s actually written inartfully that it’s what “cultural conservatives” think.

This is a bit of a sticky wicket on two fronts. One problem is that this isn’t what actual cultural conservatives actually think.  (Or at least not the vast majority of them.)  But there’s also the matter that Cohen is something of a cultural conservative himself.  Not completely so, mind you; he’s pro-choice, for example.  On the other hand, though, he did blame the Steubenville football team’s rape of an unconscious minor on Miley Cyrus and that noise kids call music these days.  He’s pretty hawkish.  And he has a tendency to describe men caught sexually harassing employees or raping minors as merely being guilty of “being a man.”  (Though in fairness, the harassment  bit might have something to do with the fact that he’s been there and done that.)  So I guess he might or might not be culturally conservative, but let’s be safe and change cultural conservative to “Tea Party extremists” as we did above, just in case:

To some Tea Party extremists, this doesn’t look like their country at all.

That looks much, much better, now that we’ve made his words more artful and put things in more of a retrospective context.

Except, I guess, that if we’re really going to put Cohen’s writing on race this week in context we need to take a look at Cohen’s  writings on race in the past.  Which means we’re going to have to do a little more retroactive editing.

For example, even though he claims America no longer has race issues when arguing for white rights on the affirmative action front, he’s a pretty concerned about the inherent danger black men pose to a civilized society.  Indeed, as I noted yesterday, he wrote that George Zimmerman was “heroic”[1] for chasing down Treyvon Martin because Martin was black.  Worse, Martin was wearing a hoodie, which is worn by all youth everywhere regardless of race — but to Cohen is a sign of criminal activity if you wear it and you’re black.  Which, when you think about it, sounds pretty racist.  It would have been way better (and more artful!) if Cohen hadn’t mentioned the ubiquitous hoodies at all, and instead named something Martin was wearing or carrying that is actually related to a serious crime.  That would certainly make his praise of Zimmerman being “brave”[1] sound better.  Plus, there’s the small matter of Cohen having written that shopkeepers should be allowed keep blacks out of their stores because, really, who knows what those people are up to, amiright?  Pretty much all of this context is bound to make for some uncharitable reading of Cohen’s views on race, so we better do some retrospective editing for his past writings as well.  Which, come to think of it, means we should probably pretend his whole “who knew slavery was bad” thing never existed.

So!  Let’s see where we are now, shall we?

“According to Richard Cohen, many extremists in today’s GOP do indeed appear to be racist, and by “GOP” we really mean only some Tea Party extremists. Some people — but certainly not Richard Cohen — with highly extreme views may or may not repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. 

Also, shopkeepers should be allowed to keep known criminals out of their store, but Richard Cohen argues strongly that one should not just assume that a person is criminal just because they’re black.  Cohen  notes that it was certainly was a different with the whole Treyvon Martin case, where George Zimmerman bravely followed a youth of unknown race who was wearing an illegal sub-machine gun strapped to his back while carrying a bloody knife in one hand and a severed head in the other.”

Hey, you know what?  Cohen and his defenders are right after all.  When you assume Cohen isn’t racist and choose different words than he chose in order to reflect that, he really does look better.  My apologies.

I wonder if he has to go pick up his Good Citizenship Award at the NAACP’s national office, or if they’ll just mail it to him?

[1] UPDATE: Yet another defender of Cohen just contacted me to point out that Cohen didn’t use the word “heroic,” he used the word “heroism.” Which, as it has been explained to me, proves my “bad faith” and I guess makes all my points in this post void.

I did indeed put the wrong words in quote marks, and so I’m leaving it as is with this footnote so readers can judge for themselves the heinous nature of my crime.

 

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119 thoughts on “Defending Richard Cohen

  1. I found the “used to be a lesbian” aside particularly amusing. Because, you know, you not only had that wacky interracial marriage thing, but you can bring in TEH GAY too.

    Which is doubly fun — because you’d think being “not gay anymore” would be something to applaud from our valiant defenders of marriage.

    *shrug*. Old white guy being racist. It happens. I’m shocked by the stuff that falls out of my father’s mouth sometimes, and my grandfather’s. Of course, hearing the stories of their youths is far worse.

    The fact that Cohen’s got some racist or homophobic (by modern standards) baggage in the closet isn’t surprising — nobody’s perfect, and given the culture of his formative years it’s bound to exist.

    What’s surprising is that he’s apparently disconnected enough to put it into print, and nobody involved was willing to say “Dude, you really, really, REALLY come off like a racist there. Maybe you should rethink this one?”

    I’ll happily wave away the baggage — what gets me is how do you become a published pundit and stay MORE out of touch with the way society’s changed than a couple of similarly aged Texas Republicans who AREN’T paid to write about politics, history, and society?

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  2. What seems odd, at least from what i have seen, is that it is liberal types complaining about Cohen’s egregious statements. If you read what he wrote is is ascribing clearly racist views to TP types and those with “conventional” views. Why are conservatives in the media screaming more about this? Are they and i just haven’t seen it?

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  3. That’s basically what I tried to say in several comments I tried to leave that didn’t go through to your previous article. Maybe that will get fixed soon. In the meantime well said and this site needs a “like button” or something of the sort for commentary.

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  4. ” So let’s give Cohen the benefit of the doubt and make a quick edit to that sentence the way he says it was meant to be read”

    In other words, the whole controversy is a result of a reading comprehension failure

    ‘ if we’re really going to put Cohen’s writing on race this week in context we need to take a look at Cohen’s writings on race in the past.”

    Oh, I get it–we can include the context when it’s necessary to prove that he’s a Stealth Racist, but when we want to call him a blatant racist we can just ignore everything we know about reading written words and focus on a single sentence.

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    • This part pretty much nails it:

      “The problem here isn’t that we think Richard Cohen gags at the sight of an interracial couple and their children. The problem is that Richard Cohen thinks being repulsed isn’t actually racist, but “conventional” or “culturally conservative.” Obstructing the right of black humans and white humans to form families is a central feature of American racism. If retching at the thought of that right being exercised isn’t racism, then there is no racism.”

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      • Right, the real problem with the article is that, while he clearly doesn’t endorse the Tea Party view, he thinks it’s not racism.

        Now the phenomenon he highlights — cultural conservatives feeling left behind by a changing culture — is not new, and it’s not like Cohen has any insights into the widely recognized phenomenon, but I think he’s undeniably right that this is what’s going on. Though I would note that, while there might be some gagging among the those left-behind, because it becomes a moral issue, and disgust always accompanies morality, fear is the more prominent emotion among them. They’re scared shitless, in fact.

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      • Concurred. Conventional might have described attitudes on this mater 50-60 years ago (and this was still wrong even when “conventional”) but now most people are accepting of interracial couples. Conventional can often connote acceptable and there is nothing acceptable about the reactionary right’s worldview.

        I think feeling lost in the culture and trying to resist it is the very definition of cultural conservatism and often results in dramatic action. The Prohibitionists held on to the dying gasp because prohibition meant that the small-town protestant dweller was still the center of American life instead of the more ethnic and diverse urban sphere. I think the Tea Party represents the same dynamic but potentially more welcoming of “ethnic whites” than the Prohibition movement.

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    • Pareene’s work is his hack list which is a systematic taking down of various pundits who make way too much money for what they say. Cohen is one of them. Other targets included Maureen Dowd and Kathryn Lopez (though this one seemed more cruel than necessary and I disagree with K-Lo on a 100 percent level, she just elicits pity in me.)

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  5. By the way, while I still think it’s just a poorly written column by a guy who doesn’t appear to be terribly bright, or at least not paying attention to what he says from one sentence to the next, when I agreed with Art in the previous thread, I didn’t mean to agree with his questioning of your reading comprehension. I think it’s a matter of interpretation, and perhaps I’m being too charitable. I don’t know Cohen from Adam, so I have no history with which to determine how charitable I should be.

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    • Here’s some history to read up on. The short version is that this isn’t the first, nor is it a recent thing. Cohen’s made a habit of letting little racial stinkbombs drop for the past 2 decades and this one is just the latest.

      So the context matters. We can’t take seriously his claims of being misinterpreted when he constantly does this.

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      • What’s interesting to me about Cohen is how to it shows the difference a few years can make.

        Cohen was born in 1941 or 1942. My parents are prime boomers being born in 1946 and 1947. Like Cohen*, my parents are Jewish New Yorkers. My mom spent her first five years in the Bronx before moving to Long Island. My dad was raised in Manhattan (odd for this time).

        My parents would be appalled by all of Cohen’s comments on race, gender, and sexuality. They are very liberal like most American Jews and many New Yorkers. My mom has often commented that she feels culturally different than people born in the early 1940s even though the separation is only by a few years.

        I wonder if the political differences can be explained by Cohen being pre-Boomer.

        *I honestly wondered if Cohen was from the South based on his views/columns but no he just seems to be a minority example of being a right-wing American Jewish person.**

        **Though plenty of Jews from the South are still liberal like most American Jews. One of my lecturers for the Bar was Jewish and had the world’s thickest Southern accent. He even mentioned at one point that he “sounded like a gubber”. Most of his jokes were at the expense of Karl Rove or on the uniqueness of being Jewish and from the South, lots of jokes about Kosher grits being needed for Hannukah.

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  6. Cohen wasn’t the first writer to think one thing and write something horrible and to have that horrible thing get by editors and then have to choose between saying he never really intended to write what he wrote or that what he wrote was a bad way of expressing that one thing that really wasn’t so bad, either of which are tantamount to admitting that this was bad writing. Nor will he be the last.

    Thing of it is, when tackling race it’s ridiculously easy to step in it that way which makes editing and careful thought that much more important. Let this be a cautionary tale for us all.

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  7. My initial reading was that he was putting words in the mouths of conservatives and congratulating himself for a) being better than that, and b) being magnanimous enough not to call them racists. So I’m not sure that my reading is any more charitable.

    But I have only vague recollections of ever having heard of him before, and this is ambiguous enough that history matters.

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  8. You’re way off on the “heroism” quote. It’s not just that you used the wrong word—it’s that Cohen was attributing the evaluation of Zimmerman’s actions as heroic to Zimmerman himself, and not at all endorsing that evaluation. If you say that Ponce de Leon set off in quest of the fountain of youth, that doesn’t mean you think that the fountain of youth actually exists. It means you think Ponce de Leon thought it did.

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    • Here’s the quote in question:

      There’s no doubt in my mind that Zimmerman profiled Martin and, braced by a gun, set off in quest of heroism. The result was a quintessentially American tragedy — the death of a young man understandably suspected because he was black and tragically dead for the same reason.

      I think either reading is plausible. If that “understandably suspected because he was black” line wasn’t there, I would fully agree with you. But that one gives me pause, so whike I incline toward your view I’m not fully convinced Cohen’s not subtly saying there’s heroism in keeping an eye on those blacks.

      For my part, whatever Cohen actually meant, I still think he’s racist. I’ve been the victim of a racial assault that began with an argument, escalated–as I tried to get away–with the words “get the white guy”-and concluded with me on the ground getting the shit kicked out of me by a group of young black males. I got away with only a severe concussion, fortunately, but for weeks afterward I got scared every time I heard footsteps behind me at night. I’d turn around and if it was anyone but a young black guy I’d relax. But I knew that was stupid, that the mere fact if a person being young, black and male did not mean he implied a threat to me. It took a lot of effort, but I got over it. Because profiling in that way–looking only at group characteristics rather than the individual–is racist.

      (That’s another reason I object to a certain commenter’s emphasis on the group over the individual; he’s not being racist, but once we start treating groups as having their own reality, their own essence, racism is one of the tendencies that get reinforced.)

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    • But that is sorta the same problem as the ‘conventional’ thing, when you get down to it, except he manages not to use the word.

      He is standing there describing completely racist things…and appears to not understand they are racist. He thinks it’s ‘conventional’ for some people to want to vomit at the sight of interracial couples, and he mentions Zimmerman’s attempted ‘quest’ without bothering to mention that it was, you know, sorta wrongheaded.

      Now, the ‘heroism’-Zimmerman wording, unlike the ‘conventional’ thing, is vague enough that it would be possible to read that part with the understanding he disagrees with that point of view. It would be entirely possible to say that sentence even if you were not racist.

      Except that the ‘understandably’ word in the next sentence and the entire rest of his post make that a rather hard interpetation. I think everyone who is reading that as saying Zimmerman had _actually_ heroism, from a certain point of view(1), are reading it as it was intended.

      1) I doubt he means that Zimmerman was _actually_ heroic, just that his actions can seem that way. But, look, it’s acceptable to romanticize Ponce de Leon as a Don Quixota, as someone on a pointless quest. It is not, however, acceptable to romanticize someone whose quest was to defend everyone from teh blacks and thus shot and killed an innocent one!

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      • “He is standing there describing completely racist things…and appears to not understand they are racist.”

        He knows that they’re racist things.

        He is describing how other people believe those things, and describing how those other people believe those things are not racist.

        Jesus, you guys write so many words that it’s kind of surprising that you have trouble reading them!

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      • He knows that they’re racist things.

        Yes, he clearly knows those things are racist, which we can tell by his previous sentence, ‘Today’s GOP is not racist’.

        Yeah, it’s us who have problems reading.

        Look, if he had stopped his _previous_ paragraphs, about the racism of the Tea Party, with that line, it would make sense. He would be saying the Tea Party is racist, and that the GOP of old was racist, but the current GOP isn’t racist, per se. This would, in fact, be a reasonable argument, and is in fact what I think he was saying.

        But, right after calling the GOP not racist, he, in _literally in the next sentence_ ascribes racist views to them. (1) Either he’s a very strange sort of liar, or he simply doesn’t understand those views are racist.

        1) Or, in an alternate reading, ascribes racist views to all ‘conventional’ people, not just the GOP….again without noticing that those views are racist. This hardly makes the situation better.

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      • So you’re saying that he’s not a person with conventional views? Why would the reader assume that his views are unconventional?

        Wait, if the conventional views are racist and he’s not racist, and the GOP isn’t racist, does this mean that the GOP is made up of a supermajority of people who don’t hold conventional views?

        Or is it that it’s perfectly conventional to have a problem with biracial couples but that’s not racist?

        Look, man, I’m sorta with Chris on this one. This isn’t a reading comprehension fail. The whole piece is just shitty writing.

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        • There comes a point when someone has been writing for a while, and has received “more than some” feedback that he seems at best insensitive about certain topics and at worst prejudiced… and the author does not attempt to clarify or explicate his standing upon those topics… where it is reasonable to conclude that either (a) they are in fact insensitive about those topics or (b) they are in fact prejudiced.

          So either he’s a writer who doesn’t care enough about the fact that he can come across as racist to clarify his own writing (seriously, “conventional” has meaning), or he’s a racist.

          Frankly, I don’t care. I’ve read enough of this guy’s stuff in the last five days to come to the conclusion that he ought not to be getting paid to write and he’s certainly not worth my trouble to read.

          But that says more about the Post’s editorial tolerances than anything else.

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  9. “Because profiling in that way–looking only at group characteristics rather than the individual–is racist.”

    Racist? It’s a natural defense mechanism. Profiling is a smart way to keep your ass out of danger. You combine group characteristics, environment, and the situation to fill in the gaps absence full knowledge of the people around you. Does my radar red flag when I realize I’m being followed by a petite female? No. Damn right it does when it’s a guy, it’s a shady looking guy, when it’s a 16-25 year old looking guy, when it’s a group of guys that age, etc. It’s the same with race. Am I concerned about the 70 year old Jewish woman in TSA line with me? Nope. That Muslim looking dude? I’m more concerned that with that old Jewish woman.
    In the absence of knowledge of the individual, that’s the only thing you have. You’re worried about another beat down so of course you alert when a guy who’s similar to the guys that beat you up is behind you. That’s a natural defense mechanism.

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    • Damon,
      yeah, and it’s a stupid one. Which is why god gave us brains,
      to override our emotions when they’re really just DUMB.

      No one should feel any need to apologize for “da feelz”.
      But acting on them is a different matter.

      The true problem about racist stereotyping is that it
      is often really, really wrong. Black 50 year old professors
      get profiled in a liquor store, while the white college kid
      (MUCH more statistically likely to steal) isn’t even being
      watched because the employees are too busy staring
      at the black guy.

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    • Words have meanings. Judging individuals by their membership in a particular racial group is racist. Full stop. If the thought that you might be racist makes you feel bad, oh well. That’s the reality. You don’t get to change the meaning of the word to assuage your feelings. Better that you just own up to being racist and deal with the consequences of that.

      And if you are convinced that racial profiling is the only way to stay safe in a potentially dangerous situation, stop and ask yourself how black people who live in predominantly black neighborhoods are able to make judgments about who is and who is not a threat on a daily basis.

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    • Damon,

      You take daily risks that are greater than the risks you face from black people. Unless you actually live in a housing project, perhaps, you are almost certainly far more likely to die in a car accident, or get hit by a car crossing the street, or drowning, than you are to be non-lethally assaulted by a black person.* If you don’t share the same hesitancy about driving, crossing the street, or swimming/boating as you do about young black men, there’s something other than pure risk assessment going on.
      _________________________
      *For the record, I was not entirely blameless for the initial argument that led to my assault. Even though I was riding my bike through a housing project after dark the day after Halloween on a night with a full moon (all true, and perhaps relevant), if I had just said “pardon me” when the guy walked out from between two cars into my path instead of swearing at him, I would not have become a victim of a racial assault. In fact I’d ridden through the projects frequently, and often exchanged pleasantries with black people I saw there. so while the assault was unjustified, it was neither random nor entirely unprovoked. That is, it can’t simply be filed under a “blacks are dangerous” heading. At a minimum, you have to cross-list it under a “young white guys are obnoxious assholes” heading as well.

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      • Kazzy,

        Yes, I think it would have played out differently. I think were I black I would have ridden on with nothing more than the first guy yelling some swear words after me. The guys who joined in came running from across the street and apparently had no hesitation about whose side to take, which would surely not have been the case otherwise. I’m certainly not trying to say race wasn’t a factor, just that race itself was nowhere near a big enough factor to have caused the assault absent the other conditions, as evidenced by the fact that I’d ridden that way after dark (on my home from work) innumerable times previously without incident.

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      • Perhaps I should add that in that same year, also riding home from work after dark, I had a drugged out white guy throw a knife at me, and that was entirely without provocation. So I guess I should avoid white guys, because they seem to be knife throwing drug addicts who will attack without reason.

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      • Thanks, .

        I go back and forth on hate crime legislation. One of the things that bothers me about it is how the injection of a minor racial element into an otherwise non-racial situation can turn something into a hate crime that really isn’t. It is possible that your whiteness was less a factor than your otherness; your assaulters might have reacted similarly to anyone who was clearly not on their side: a wealthy black man, an Asian or Hispanic man, a black man from another neighborhood.

        This is not to say that race isn’t a motivator in such situations, but often not to the degree that a superficial reading of the situation would suggest. And, yes, I apply this logic regardless of the race of the perpetrator.

        I applaud your willingness to put your attack in perspective and to resist a natural urge to react inappropriately.

        Something I had to talk about during a conversation with parents are the strange leaps of logic we make when looking at crime stats. Yes, it is true that a disproportionate amount of prosecuted crimes are committed by black men. Even if we leave aside WHY this happens, it is still wrong to make the jump from “Most crimes are committed by black men” to “Most black men are criminals”. Looking only at violent crime — the sort that would peg someone as a danger — the vast majority of black men are no threat. It often seems this is completely forgotten.

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      • For the record, I was not entirely blameless for the initial argument that led to my assault.

        I believe the technical term for this is “victim-blaming.” But it’s not your fault. You’re a product of our culture of assault.

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      • I finally came down as ‘okay’ on hate crimes because of this logic:

        1) We differentiate because of motivation on lots of crimes (like killing someone).
        2) We punish certain things (like cold blooded killing) more harshly than others (like rage-induced homicide or involuntary murder, that sort of thing) because we find the former more dangerous to society than the latter. A guy willing to cold-bloodedly off someone is pretty darn dangerous, whereas Ricky there was a heat-of-the-moment thing that’s unlikely to occur again.
        3) Hate crimes are committed by people motivated at least partially by animus to a given grouping (whether race, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, gender). As such, they’re a threat to ANYONE in that particular grouping — a grouping they will encounter again.

        Ricky who killed the guy screwing his wife is less dangerous to society as a whole than Bobby the Guy Who Hates Gays so Much He Beats Them Up for Their Gayness, because Ricky’s only got the one wife (who probably left) and Bobby’s on a hair-trigger with whatever percentage of the population seems gay to him.

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      • Hate crimes are committed by people motivated at least partially by animus to a given grouping (whether race, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, gender). As such, they’re a threat to ANYONE in that particular grouping — a grouping they will encounter again.

        White on black homicides of any description are uncommon (I think about 250 a year on average; a metropolitan region of ordinary dimensions might see one a year). Somehow I tend to doubt that there’s much of a threat to the black population from murderous white supremacists. As a general rule, people who commit pre-meditated or felony murder do not have the most agreeable of motivations. What hate crimes do is codify a politically sectarian rank ordering of ill-motivations. We also have no confidence that they will not be enforced in a sectarian manner (see Dharun Ravi and Nidal Hassan to name two cases where authorities interpreted events in a … convenient way).

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      • White on black homicides of any description are uncommon

        What on earth does commonality of the crime have to do with it? You can hate and be a bigot all you want. Nobody’s outlawing the KKK.

        If they kill a man for his skin color, they face greater punishment than if they’d killed him because he was sleeping with the KKK leader’s wife.

        Which is, you know, identical to the fact that killing a man because you were paid to gets you more punishment than killing a man because you were drunk behind the wheel.

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      • Morat,

        That comparison doesn’t work. Intentional actions are traditionally punished more than unintentional, even careless, ones. But the specific motivation, that’s usually a factor just in proving existence of guilt, not degree of guilt.

        I don’t see that it’s worse to kill a person for their skin color than to kill them because they looked cross-eyed at your wife. The amount of harm you’ve done to them is the same, and t’weren’t no accident. The harsher sentence isn’t a deterrence, so about all we accomplish is punishing someone for ideology.

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      • It’s important to remember the original purpose of hate crime legislation. It wasn’t, in fact, to make motivations illegal (though you can certainly argue that it does, and shouldn’t).

        Hate crime legislation was first created to give larger bodies (specifically, the federal government and some states) the jurisdiction to prosecute violent crimes in smaller communities that are unlikely to find defendants guilty *because* of the respective race, creed or sexual orientation of the victim — and to be able to do so without risking double jeopardy. And historically speaking, this has indeed been a problem in certain communities throughout the US.

        I’m neither advocating for or against the concept of hate crimes here; I just think it’s important to remember exactly why they were devised. It wasn’t to make “bad thoughts” illegal.

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      • I don’t see that it’s worse to kill a person for their skin color than to kill them because they looked cross-eyed at your wife. The amount of harm you’ve done to them is the same, and t’weren’t no accident. The harsher sentence isn’t a deterrence, so about all we accomplish is punishing someone for ideology.

        Assume two murders, each of which happened in the heat of anger — one, the anger was directed at someone cheating with your spouse. The other, at the homosexuality or skin color of someone.

        Both enraged the criminal to the point where he was willing or able to kill. In one, the number of people fitting in the category “My spouse or someone screwing them that I know about” is a handful of people. The other might encompass 20% of the nation.

        Means, motive, opportunity — those convicted of hate crimes are basically people walking around with ‘motive’ already ticked off the list, or at least partially filled. More dangerous to society = longer sentences.

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      • In addition to what Morat says, hate crimes – or at least some of them, the ones I would include as hate crimes if I supported a law, which I am conflicted about in practice – represent something broader than the crime itself. They are, by mechanism of the crime, a warning to all other members of that group.

        It may be trespassing and destruction of private property if you light flaming poop and stick it on somebody’s porch, but it’s more than just trespassing and destruction of private property if you light a cross on fire on their front lawn. Attacking someone for being black, or homosexual, is a “message” crime beyond the specific attack.

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      • So….we’re going to tack on what, exactly, to a death sentence to show we really really mean it about not making other members of the group angry?

        Really, guys, if the extra punishment does serve a punitive (we’ll punish you harder), a rehabilitative (we’ll correct what ails you), nor a deterrent (we’ll dissaude others from doing what you did) purpose, then it’s purely symbolic. I don’t respect pure symbolism; it’s just a form of public masturbation.

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      • Tod,

        I think that’s incorrect. “Hate” doesn’t invoke federal jurisdiction, and states already had jurisdiction over any assault-type crimes. I think you may be conflating this with laws against violating someone’s civil rights, a terminology which does invoke federal jurisdiction. Designating crimes as “hate crimes” was, I think, intended to specifically highlight that it was the hate aspect that was being targeted, aside from the physical character of the act.

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      • Are you sure?

        I have always been led to believe that the Civil Rights Act was the first (and remains the cornerstone) hate crime legislation passed in he US. A quick detour to Wikipedia backs this up, but I’m always a bit wary if using Wikipedia to fact check political charged subjects. So I’m relying more in my memory of college than anything else, and may well be wrong.

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      • Tod,

        It’s not my area of expertise, but I’d say the civil rights act became foundation for what later came to be called hate crimes, but was itself based on protecting against violations of 14th Amendment civil rights. But either way, it was about making certain crimes a federal issue rather than about punishing the acts more harshly because of their motivation, and there’s a categorical difference between the two purposes.

        I am, however, certain that states have never lacked of jurisdiction over any violent crimes within their borders. They have always had, from the moment of independence, the general police power to regulate fir the health, safety and welfare of the people (a general power the U.S. gov’t, as a gov’t of delegated powers, actually does not have), so there can be no possibility that state-level hate crimes laws are based in jurisdictional needs.

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      • Damn… I certainly didn’t mean to cause a whole new hate crimes debate. Where I have currently landed on the matter is that the hate crimes worthy of additional punishment are those which are perpetrated with some intention to intimidate or terrorize members of the broader targeted group. This can probably be theoretically covered under existing intimidation laws, but might be aided by a specific hate crime statute.

        That said, I think Morat brings up an interesting argument. Let’s assume someone who didn’t kill anyone but instead beat the crap out of them. If one guy is likely to want to beat up any member of a group that comprises 20% of the population, we’ll want to handle his reintroduction into society differently than the guy who is likely to want to beat up any member of a group that comprises .0001% of the population.

        Again, this may be possible under existing law. However, all that presumes that the criminal justice system is interested in either rehabilitation or protecting society. I tend to think it isn’t interested in either.

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      • As I’ve pointed out before, it’s a wash, mathematically. A lesser threat to each member of a larger group of people vs. a greater threat to each member of a smaller group of people. The real issue is how many additional crimes he can be expected to commit, not how they’ll be distributed.

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      • As I’ve pointed out before, it’s a wash, mathematically. A lesser threat to each member of a larger group of people vs. a greater threat to each member of a smaller group of people. The real issue is how many additional crimes he can be expected to commit, not how they’ll be distributed.

        It’s not always a wash. If someone assaults people who sleep with his wife, than he’s only, statistically speaking, a threat at all if he a) has a wife, and b) someone besides him is having sex with her, and c) he knows this. (Or (b2), if he thinks someone is who is not.)

        It’s entirely possibly there is literally _no_ threatened amount of people there. (If, say, his wife divorced him for assaulting her lover.) It doesn’t matter how likely the risk of assault is if it’s multiplied by zero possible targets.

        Now, granted, this is not literally how it works. People who assault specific people generally(1) have anger management issues, and the next assault could be their boss who fired them or whatever.

        But, see, that generally applies to hate crimes, also.

        I would argue what is actually happening with most hate crimes is either a) terrorism, pure and simple, aimed at a community of people, b) the criminal is actually a trained psychopath who does not see ‘that type’ of person as an actual person, or c) ‘that type’ of person somehow created anger within the person.

        (a), of course, is a worse crime than simple assault. Now, it can be argued this actually should be a _separate_ crime, and that’s a fine position to take. But is clearly is something with worse consequences than simple assault, and needs to be treated as such.

        (b), of course, is a rather dangerous person to have around, and I think we can all agree they’re rather more dangerous than a person who got very angry and attacked someone. So hate crime laws work here also.

        (c) just means added anger, which only results in assault _on top_ of some sort of issue. The person’s race might push them over the edge, but they would have been just as likely to attack if the person had, I dunno, flipped them off or something.

        This seems to be where the system breaks down, a little. Those people seem more dangerous than other people with anger management problems, given they’re unlikely to be able to avoid those types of people. But are they more dangerous than people with angry management problems that get angered by people wearing suits, or people drinking Mtn Dew?

        No, those people would be just as dangerous. So, in a sense, hate crimes laws are a bit ‘biased’.

        Except that _there are no such people_. When people have some sort of inherent ‘trigger button’, it’s almost always on the stuff hate crime laws protect. People have very consistent angers, because they have actually been _taught_ to be angry.

        If we had people who randomly got extremely strong dislikes of random attributes of people in their head, strong enough to actually cause, or even significantly increase the chances of, those people attacking people with those attributes, it would be well and good to say hate crime legislation is a bit silly. If we had significant people who wandered around attacking people who drove certain cars, or wore white after labor day, hate crime laws would be insane.

        But that’s not really the world we live in. We instead live in a world where there are some very predictable things that a small subset of people get violently angry about. _Repeatedly_ violently angry, eventually leading to assault.

        1) Let’s ignore here people who assault for profit. That’s not really relevant to hate crime discussion, and those people probably should be treated different than assaults out of anger anyway.

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    • So some clarifications: Racist? No. Applying group characteristics to individuals is not racism, it’s stereotyping. That’s a bigger umbrella than racism-which incorporates negative opinions and superiority of one race vs another. And again, the point I’m trying to make here is that everyone stereotypes and it’s perfectly valid to do so in the absence of more / better info. It’s all about risk management. Didn’t we have an entire post talking about Prudence’s suggestions on how to minimize the risk of sexual assault? My recollection was that there were a lot of folks commenting that Prudence had some valid points.

      So, as it applies to my personal safety-yes I stereotype. I incorporate that action with the environment I’m in and the behavior of others in my area. I don’t walk around in public starting at my phone and texting. I’m situationally aware of where I am and others around me.
      Am I worried about the 50 year old black professor? Unlikely, especially if he’s wearing a suit. Am I concerned about a gang of young kids, regardless of race, who appear drunk and out to have “fun”? Yes. Am I concerned about someone who looks to be observing me or following me? Yes.

      @J@m3z Aitch
      Well, natch. I worry about idiot drivers and such when I’m in my car. I don’t worry about whether the driver is Asian or Black. I worry about the driver who is behaving erratically or aggressively.

      What part of “You combine group characteristics, environment, and the situation to fill in the gaps absence full knowledge of the people around you” was unclear? And JR-if that’s racism, guilty as charged.

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  10. Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children.

    These two sentences together are especially odd. The logical way to read that paragraph is that he means:
    GOP=(a subset of) people with conventional views
    deeply troubled=must repress a gag reflex (is one of the many way being ‘deeply troubled’ can express itself)

    Right? He’s giving general examples, and then a more specific one. It’s exactly the same construction if I was to say ‘I had a lot of problems today – with my car, with my work, with my house. I woke up this morning and my power was out…’ Everyone sees how that is supposed to work, right? It’s a pretty common paragraph construction.

    The problem is, the general examples are ‘the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde’. So it’s rather hard to figure out, exactly, which one of those he thinks interracial marriage is.

    Does he think interracial marriage was an expansion of government? That…really doesn’t logically make sense. Allowing interracial marriage removed anti-miscegenation laws, it didn’t add any. And I can presume that Cohen is smart enough to understand that most black people are not ‘immigrants’.

    So we’re left with two options: Does Cohen have some sort of _religious_ objection to interracial marriage? Or does he think that interracial marriage is ‘avant-grande’, that they are entering that marriage, and having kids, as some sort of _performance piece_. (Does he even know what avant-grande means? It is pushing societal norms _via art_, not just, uh, doing things.)

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  11. Just in general:

    1) It is within the realm of possibility (given the way the English language can be tortured, mutilated, spindled, folded, and otherwise twisted in the process of writing) to write so poorly that you come across as saying racist things without meaning them.

    2) It is less likely to be poor communication the more often it happens.

    3) And if your job is “writer” and you keep totally accidentally writing things large numbers of people misread, you should find another job because you suck at writing.

    Writing — op-eds or books or research papers — is about communication. If Cohen is such a bad writer that people read his stuff and misunderstand it, en masse, he needs to find another field. It’s more likely, however, that people DO understand him just fine given his past writings than that Cohen just blindly wanders into strange paragraphs that merely SEEM incredible racist unless you have the Secret Decoder Grammar Ring.

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    • This. Cohen is a professional writer, and has been for decades. In addition, he’s a columnist. He’s not a guy at 4 AM talking with some cops who are still trying to figure things out, a traumatized victim and some confused witness, trying to make a 4:30 AM deadline. He’s got days to reread his writing, and to have some sensible people read it.

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  12. J@m3z Aitch
    “Maybe that’s his problem; he can’t find any sensible people still willing to read what he writes.”

    I *was* going to say that – who would have have to give good feedback?
    His friends?
    The WaPo editors?

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    • I dunno, Cohen’s probably an entrenched enough figure to have full Editor Immunity*. I’m pretty sure op-ed writers only have minimal editorial oversight to begin with.

      *Editor Immunity — ever known a fiction writer who put out some good books, hit big, and all of a sudden his books doubled in size and halve in quality? And often included just flat out weird lectures, screeds, and basically WAY too much insight into the author’s sexuality, idealogy, politics, or pet peeves? Yeah, that happened because he got so famous he told his editor to take a hike and they printed whatever he wrote, rather than editing it first.

      Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind are well known offenders.

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  13. You know, there’s a great deal of grunge in the realm of topical commentary. If the man’s problematic utterance are such that you have to carefully parse his statements and do a historical data dredge to find offending phrases, it just might be a sign he’s not one of the worst offenders. Give it up.

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      • Richard Cohen qualifies as ‘non-liberal’? Cohen has been for thirty years perhaps the most careful and judicious mainline Democrat in the op-ed trade. Evidently too much of an independent voice for your resident DNC press agent.

        I am not aware of any op-ed columnists from my neck of the spectrum to which to be ‘sparing’. I think they have all died, retired, taken up other occupations, moved to electronic sites, or were never anywhere but on electronic sites. George Will, age 72, is still writing, but his current disposition is libertarian rather than traditionalist. Charles Krauthammer, age 63, is still writing, but he has always devoted only circumscribed attention to my issues and is mixed on those subjects. Well, there’s Mark Steyn, I guess.

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      • Liberal != Democrats, etc, because ideology != partisanship, even though there’s overlap.

        Anybody who never before realized southern slavery was really inhumane isn’t really walking the liberal side of the aisle. Nor is anyone who thinks minority profiling is natural and good.

        Anyway, you’ve got it backwards. It doesn’t take careful parsing of his words to read him as racist–it takes careful parsing if his words to come to agreement with his claim that he’s not racist.

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      • Reveal? I’m happy to brag about it! (I mean, not just him, but all of those national-level op-ed folks.)

        The only time I ever hear about him it’s because he’s written some racist, and I’ve heard about him more than I have wanted to.

        True liberals are racist is much more subtle ways, paternalism, low expectations, etc.

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    • Yeah. Like when a prosecutor points out that the accused murderer actually murdered a whole bunch of people before this murder, he’s just showing what an obsessed jerk-wad he is.

      You know who else is horrible about that? Scientists. Always parsing over old data and showing how it’s consistent with new data. And lawyers, oh god — always dragging up dusty old precedents to prove their point.

      Get a life, guys! Don’t you realize that supporting your argument with examples just shows you’re the problem?

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      • morat20, recall the subject. Not crimes, but op-ed columns. In this case op-ed columns by a secular liberal lapsed newspaper reporter who has been publishing topical commentary for 30 years. You are all rummaging through his work looking for your potted definition of thoughtcrime. It is an idle exercise, most particularly in a world where gross breaches of civility are perfectly banal in topical commentary and elsewhere. If you’re not a sectary or a cultural commisar, it’s stupid.

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      • “secular liberal lapsed newspaper reporter”.

        So he’s no longer a newspaper or no longer a reporter? What’s the lapse there? And secular liberal? Is that different than religious liberal, and exactly how does it apply here?

        What is it with conservatives and long strings of gibberish labels? I heard “atheist dawkins” yesterday.

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      • If by “lapsed” Art means “He used to be a reporter but now he’s a fact-free blatherer”, that’s a fair point. And Cohen is hardly the only one that applies to; becoming a columnist is often the Peter Principle for reporters.

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      • Just to clarify he can be described as

        1. Secular (he has made this explicit in the past).
        2. Liberal
        3. Lapsed newspaper reporter. He abandoned reporting for topical commentary around about 1982. IIRC, he was a reporter for about 10 years. Prior to that, he was a claims adjuster for an insurance company.

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      • No, I did not. His meaning with the sentence beginning with ‘people with conventional views’ was quite obvious. It was obvious if you were not out to roast him (which is dishonest) and do not suffer from reading comprehension failures (which is not Cohen’s problem or mine, it’s yours).

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      • Absolutely: there is nothing contradictory about calling a group “not racist” two sentences before a graphic description of their alleged racism. Anyone who finds is so is illiterate or a liberal (but I repeat myself.)

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      • One sentence before, Mike. One sentence.

        “The GOP is not racist, but does have a lot of views on a lot of topics. And now I shall talk about ‘conventional people’ that have specific racist views, without in any way saying those views are racist. And despite those two sentences logically leading into each other, and the second being a more specific example of the first, I in no way implied that those racist views were not racist. Despite those ‘conventional people’ clearly being a reference to the GOP, and my having literally just said in the sentence before that the GOP is not racist.”

        I actually find it kinda funny he’s coming under fire from the left. Granted, I don’t read rightish blogs, but they do grasp he just _called them racist_, right? Or at least, he ascribed racist behavior to them, despite explicitly calling it ‘not racist’. Are they upset?

        …holy crap. He just invented the third-person version of ‘I’m not a racist, but…’! ‘He’s not a racist, but he does hold this incredibly racist view…’

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  14. I’m afraid I’ve had to swear off all interactions with Cohen-related blogging, save for this last comment. What I’ve experienced maybe half a dozen times has been the periodic rage of liberal blogs at this op-ed writer I would never otherwise have read, so I go and read the whole column and my reaction is, sweet Jesus, who reads this leaden swill long enough to find the offensive nugget or two? But as I said at the top, I’m swearing off ever reading Cohen ever again regardless of how many lefty blogs link to him.

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