To me, one of last year’s more interesting news stories was about urine in a library.
For those who don’t remember, in November, the Lamont Library at Harvard revealed that 36 books on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered issues (usually abbreviated as LGBT) were damaged by “what appeared to be urine,” according to The Harvard Crimson.
The predictable national uproar that followed — in newspapers, on talk shows, and all over the Internet — was over hate and hate crimes.
Obviously, some homophobic person had deliberately damaged the books. Obviously, that person or persons had to be caught, punished, held up as a bad example, and shunned. Obviously, hate has no home here.
It was knee-jerk left against knee-jerk right, and gay rights against radical religion and God only knows what else. That the incident happened during the debate over the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy might have triggered — on both sides — more than the usual fury.
After investigation by the Harvard University Police Department, it was revealed that a library employee had spilled a jar of urine, immediately cleaned it up, and later reported it. It was an accident. The library announced that all 36 books would immediately be replaced.
Leaving aside the obvious questions of why this person (name withheld by the authorities) had a bottle of urine in the Lamont, how he or she managed to spill it, and why it happened in that particular section, the hate crime wasn’t even a prank, but an accident.
And the world continued on its merry way, jumping without apology from conclusion to conclusion, and mostly getting it wrong.
* * *
Whenever I see a sign or bumper sticker saying “Hate has no home here,” I sigh in frustration. Hate has a home everywhere.
Homosexuals are only the latest target for a free-floating kind of American anxiety. The Obama presidency has brought out an ugly racism. Anti-Muslim fervor is at an all-time high. Anti-immigrant hatred simmers. Anti-Semitism is again on the rise.
We appear to be living in an era of knee-jerk hate. But hating the hater and feeling self-righteously good about yourself in the process is not the answer.
Hatred against a particular group — the “Other” — has been with us throughout all of recorded history. Only the victims change.
Whether you’re feeding Christians to lions, burning them at the stake, invading Muslim countries in the name of Christianity (a habit we Americans can’t seem to break), capturing and enslaving Africans, hanging their descendents from trees, using scimitars from horseback to attack Jews (the reason my grandparents fled to America), putting Jews in concentration camps and gas ovens, strapping bombs to the bodies of young women so they can blow up mosques, chopping people up with machetes, or beating up homosexual men and tying them to fences, the history of hate is long and terrifying.
Real hatred is always afoot, which is why we need to be careful about pointing our fingers.
Recently in Bellows Falls, for example, a barber refused to cut a black person’s hair because he was seemingly ashamed that he did not know how.
It was less a hate crime than a case of personal embarrassment. It was unfortunate and racial in nature, but not racist. Picketing the barber shop with “Hate Has No Home Here” signs was at best unhelpful, and at worst overkill.
We need to separate human error from dangerous hatred. We need a deeper understanding of human nature. We need nuance. We need to stop crying “Wolf!”
* * *
Which brings me to Brattleboro’s own Curtiss Reed Jr., a black man, an agent provocateur and the executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity.
Reed recently stirred up a national-level storm when he suggested that the slogan of Republican Brian Dubie, one of the candidates in the recent Vermont gubernatorial election, was at best tone deaf and at worst a hidden message of exclusion.
The slogan was “Pure Vermont.”
“For many Vermonters, the words denote racial, religious, and cultural oppression,” Reed said.
Dubie claimed he was only talking about maple syrup and cheese, but that just proved that he was fairly ignorant of Vermont history.
After all, he should have known that the state was a leader in eugenics back in the 1920s, advocating and carrying out sexual sterilization and internment for the poor, the Abenaki people, and the “feebleminded” who were the results of “bad heredity.”
Adolf Hitler was a follower of the movement and saw Vermont as an inspiration. The state’s nasty little social experiment continued for well over a decade.
Reed was doing his job when he called out Dubie on “Pure Vermont,” although I think that by personalizing the issue, he missed its deeper political meaning.
Dubie and many others of the state’s Republican elite have been furious for decades about another racial/religious minority that moved into Vermont in the 1960s, thrived here, and amassed a significant amount of influence, wealth, and power.
Although some of these newcomers have become international icons, like Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, one of them particularly enrages Republicans. That one — maybe you can guess? — is Bernie Sanders.
Not only is he a New Yorker and a Jew, but he’s a socialist who is beloved by most of Vermont and now represents the state in the U.S. Senate — a place that the wealthy elite believes is rightfully theirs. My guess is that even our outgoing governor, Jim Douglas, would run for the Senate if he weren’t certain that Bernie would wipe the floor with him.
Reed was right to call foul on “Pure Vermont.”
But then the Republicans — first on the local and then on the national level — called foul on Reed. It was about maple syrup and cheese all along, they shouted.
Reed, who was also chair of the Vermont State Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, got bumped from the committee. Commissioner Gail Heriot actually had the nerve to say that she could not find in Reed “someone who actually has some expertise on civil rights.”
For a while, it looked as if Vermont — by raising a civil rights issue — would lose its voice with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Then the committee’s charter was renewed, but without Reed. Now there’s a write-in campaign to get Reed back on the committee.
* * *
Whether it’s African-Americans, Jews, Muslims, Native Americans, people with Down syndrome, gays, immigrants, or any other group that appears “different,” discrimination is always with us. Even in a place of such mixed heritage as America, there’s always another group to demonize.
As if on cue, last week I heard about a man from Kentucky named Mark Cothren who shot a hairless animal because he “feared what it was, since he did not recognize it.” (On Gawker.com, some bright person left this comment: “Later, he shot a book.”)
It is part of human nature to fear the things we don’t recognize or understand, or that are different from us. Violence can be an extreme, but natural, result of that fear.
What can we do? We can thoroughly examine our own hearts and try to remove any traces of hatred and fear — people, glass houses, stones, and all that.
Then we must recognize the truth, which is that hate is as much a constant in our lives as love — perhaps more so.
Hate is easy; love is hard work.
Holding up a sign won’t help.