Where was the editor?

To review why Richard Cohen lost all credibility as a liberal spokesperson, after the infamous Colin Powell speech in early 2003 about Iraq being such an incredibly deadly threat to the entire world that an immediate invasion was an urgently necessity, WaPo columnist Richard Cohen was moved to declare that the evidence presented was so utterly conclusive that "Only a fool -- or possibly a Frenchman -- could conclude otherwise" that Iraq was indeed a deadly menace that had to be crushed with the greatest of haste. Howard Dean had a far more sensible take on the same speech "I was impressed not by the vastness of evidence presented by the Secretary, but rather by its sketchiness. He said there would be no smoking gun, and there was none." Cohen has never regained his liberal credentials.

Wikipedia defines "hate crimes" in America as being:

Defined in the 1999 National Crime Victim Survey, "A hate crime is a criminal offense. In the United States federal prosecution is possible for hate crimes committed on the basis of a person's race, religion, or nation origin when engaging in a federally protected activity." In 2009, the Matthew Shepard Act added perceived gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability to the federal definition, and dropped the prerequisite that the victim be engaging in a federally-protected activity.

It also presents a host of specific examples:

During the past two centuries, some of the more typical examples of hate crimes in the U.S. include lynchings of African Americans, cross burnings to drive black families from predominantly white neighborhoods, assaults on white people traveling in predominantly black neighborhoods, assaults on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, the painting of swastikas on Jewish synagogue and xenophobic responses to a variety of minority ethnic groups.

So how does Cohen, in an editorial this week, present the concept of a hate crime? At the end of his second paragraph, Cohen summarizes correctly:

It is not the criminal act alone that matters anymore but the belief that might have triggered the act. For this, you can get an extra five years or so in the clink.

In other words, one must first be convicted of committing a crime and only after that can one be convicted of committing the crime due to hatred for the victims' ethnicity, sexual preference, etc.

Media Matters really hammers his previous statement, though:
Almost as bad as hate crimes themselves is the designation. It is a little piece of totalitarian nonsense, a way for prosecutors to punish miscreants for their thoughts or speech, both of which used to be protected by the Constitution (I am an originalist in this regard).
Really? Calling the torture of three gay men a "hate crime" is almost as bad as torturing three gay men? That the Washington Post would publish such warped anti-gay moral equivalence doesn't really surprise me; that it would come from the paper's purportedly liberal columnist is, however, quite disappointing. [emphasis in original]

Cohen's following statement is truly puzzling:

...the liberal belief that when it comes to particular groups, basic rights may be suspended. Thus we get affirmative action in which certain people are advantaged at the expense of other people based entirely on race or ethnicity. This tender feeling toward minorities must account for why civil liberties groups have remained so appallingly silent about hate-crimes legislation.

Erm, where are rights being suspended? Convicted criminals are being given extra punishment. How on Earth does that mean that any group is being "advantaged"? Remember, people are not being convicted simply because of their bigotry, the hate crime conviction comes after they've been convicted of committing a crime in the first place. Why have civil liberties groups not been condemning hate crimes laws? Well, I'm not sure why this even has to be explained, but if society does not express any sort of official opinion about a crime that targets specific minorities, then it's far too easy for bigots to conclude that there's no real problem in targeting such minorities. To pile on extra punishment for a hate crime expresses society's abhorrence of such crimes and makes a symbolic statement. I think such symbolism is a highly appropriate thing.

I'm not quite sure that Cohen's primary example, that of "the sad case of Tyler Clementi," the young man who was spied upon using a webcam making love to another young man, is accurately described. Cohen claims that "Immediately, the cry of 'hate crime' was heard throughout the land." A Google search on "tyler clementi video" turned up only one reference containing the phrase "hate crime" in the first seven pages of results. The gay talk show host Ellen Degeneres did not use the phrase at all. She spoke instead of "cyber bullying," a still-bad, but far less serious charge. Cohen of course, does not provide any specific examples of anyone using the "hate crime" phrasing. The phrase was clearly used by a few individuals, but Cohen's description of it as it being "heard throughout the land" seems seriously overblown.

So, does Cohen deserve to regain his liberal credentials? Obviously not. But what really gets to me on this piece is ...where was the editor? Who the heck was in charge of reviewing this piece? Who ignored how shaky this piece was, how tone-deaf it was, how insensitive it was to those who favor hate crimes legislation and approved it for release anyway? What are the standards in use nowadays at the WaPo? Why didn't anyone at the WaPo direct Cohen to speak with someone who approved of hate crimes legislation and get their input on the issue? Is the attitude one of "Aw, he's a good ol' boy. We'll take his word for it."?


Anonymous said...

On Nov 20, 2000, Richard Cohen wrote:

I voted for Al Gore. I did so because I have known him since he was a congressman from Tennessee. I admire his intellect, his seriousness of purpose, his capacity for hard work and study, his political values, his experience and his knowledge. That being said, I now think that under current circumstances he would not be the right man for the presidency. If I could, I would withdraw my vote. In the terminology of the moment, put me down as a hanging chad.

I still think precisely as I have about Gore. But those "current circumstances" I just mentioned change everything. Given the present bitterness, given the angry irresponsible charges being hurled by both camps, the nation will be in dire need of a conciliator, a likable guy who will make things better and not worse. That man is not Al Gore. That man is George W. Bush.

So, where was the editor is a great question and has been since the WP's liberal thinker sent those words across the desk. I've been sour about the editorial page of the WP since.

So. Regain his liberal credentials? If he does, I want my virginity back.

Rich Gardner said...

Looking at this piece, one really has to wonder what the WaPo's definition of "liberal" is. Where do these guys get the idea that Cohen is one?