Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Guilt by Naming

Alexander Solzhenitsen described the Soviet gulag as a "human meat grinder" that processed Stalin's enemies, real or imagined. Most of Stalin's victims found out about their categorization as enemies of the state only when there was a knock at the door very late at night accompanied by announcement of arrest.

One never knew when he or she would be hauled off to torture and enslavement. It was not necessary actually to have commited a crime in order to be arrested and sent to Siberia. All that was required was that one was named an enemy of the state. The accusing finger could be an anonymous tip-off by a disgruntled neighbor. Once the "enemy" was named a "wrecker," "vermin," "enemy of the people," his fate was sealed and he was condemned without trial or proof by a tribunal for "hooliganism" or some other such loose term.

It was a characteristic of the intellectual, moral and spiritual bankruptcy of communist philosophy and the Soviet regime that vague, catchall phrases were enough to categorize, condemn and sentence innocent people.

In our own country, how sad it has been to see once legitimate and specific terms become catchall phrases for targeting whole groups of people. How tragic to see mere naming condemn innocent people, making them automatically guilt by verbal decree.

It is particularly tragic that the term "racism" has become in our own time, a catchall phrase that has come to be void of the specific meaning it once possessed; sad--and unjust--beyond belief to see the term "racist" applied to whole groups of people who merely espouse conservative political views. The recent attempts to paint the burgeoning Tea Party movement as "racist" are attempts to condemn by naming; to throw guilt over millions of innocent people in blanket condemnation.

Those of us who lived through the Civil Rights movement of the 50's and 60's will ever forget the harsh reality of racist apartheid and the heroic struggle that led to desgregation of America's institutions. Few fail to applaud the gains for minorities, especially for American blacks.

Those gains are jeopardized when the term "racism" becomes so broad that it is in danger of becoming a generic term meaning "anyone whose ideas I oppose." Those gains are also jeopardized when "racism" is seen as inherent and therefore inerradicable, as a sort of genetic determinism applicable only to whites or Asians. Those gains are further jeopardized when real hooligans are protected by the color of their skins.

Civil rights leaders should never forget the words of one of their foremost representatives, Dr. Martin Luther King, who preached we all should be judged by the content of our character rather than by the color of our skin.

It's well for all of us to recall and to heed his wise words and to reject the despoilation and misuse of a term that, should it continue to lose its specific meaning, could jeopardize the equal rights of all US citizens.