A Roundup of the Events and Comments of the Week
20 September 1996
by Dan Murphy
Good evening. This evening, WMBR news is beginning an effort to bring more local news and locally originated content to our airwaves. Each Friday at 6:30, following the Pacifica news program, we'll bring you locally produced reports, features, and commentary.
As part of this segment, I'll be bringing you a roundup of events and comments, mostly from the greater Boston area and mostly from the past week, but not necessarily both or either of those. This will be a rather arbitrary selection of news and comments, but there are several themes and topics of particular interest that are likely to become evident in the weeks to follow.
We also welcome your feedback, comments, and suggestions, including stories and comments that you've heard that you think we should mention here on the roundup. And as usual, views and opinions expressed herein are not necessarily those of the staff and management of WMBR, the Technology Broadcasting Corporation, or MIT.
Around the beginning of this week, a couple of Globe columnists traded views on one of the larger issues of this area and the country at large -- the question of race-based preferences and quotas. The opening salvo was from columnist Mike Barnicle, a gentleman who seems always to be on the side of the little guy in the same way that James Michael Curley was -- in other words, in favor of right thinking little guys who are careful to stay little.
Barnicle's column consisted almost entirely of a letter from someone about their supposed victimization at the alter of racial preferences in the Boston school system. The letter was carefully constructed so that, reading from the beginning, you didn't know the race, ethnicity, or even gender of the writer until you learned that this person had been laid off from a teaching job and then not rehired, supposedly because the job had to be given to a person of a particular -- and different -- racial background.
Only toward the end of the letter do we learn that the individual, while nominally a white male, is also part Native American and therefore as qualified as anyone to claim a racial history of oppression and inequality. The letter goes on to ask, however, that a job not be given -- or taken away -- on that basis, but only on the basis of merit and success in job, that is, in the classroom.
Taken at face value, the piece presents a compelling story -- a new victim created by the prevailing system, coupled with the irony that this victim wasn't just another dumb white male -- the favorite villain of the politically correct these days -- but rather someone with a full ethnic heritage of oppression and injustice. Barnicle's column was titled "who can answer this letter"?
The following day, Patricia Smith weighed in with a piece titled, "one victim to another". She makes a point which we would do well to remember whenever listening to someone's story of abuse from the system or whatever, and that is, "we're all heroes of our own autobiographies". In other words, how do we know that the writer of the previous day's letter was really the fabulous teacher he claimed to be and that his principle supposedly told him he was? Perhaps the layoff was a actually welcome opportunity to make a change that couldn't have been managed for official cause. These, of course, are parts of the story that we can never get quite clear from most newspaper accounts.
Smith's column goes on to recount the continuing legacy of offenses to people of color that still go on today, especially in any big city and especially in connection with the predilections of law enforcement entities.
After reading both columns, one is tempted to say, "you know, you're both right". I'm also tempted to lament the rush to claim victimization reflected in these stories and in much of what passes for political discourse these days. As I said, Smith's column was titled "one victim to another", and it's a short step from blaming each other to using victimization as a bond and blaming "the oppressive system" for one's difficulties.
One thing is clear, and that is that the support for racial preferences, affirmative action, and the like is waning among the American people, and this leaves those who never supported it in the first place poised to get their way. In related stories of the past week, claims were made and then denied that the Boston Latin school has decided to dump its racial targets for entering classes. Whether it's been decided yet or not, the momentum is clearly moving that way.
On the other hand, as Patricia Smith and others note, racial discrimination has not exactly been eliminated from our society. As the new OJ Simpson trial gets underway, several observers have pointed out that his acquittal in the last one surely had a lot to do with his treatment by the LAPD -- prejudicial treatment that was all too familiar to blacks of Los Angeles and other big cities.
The problem is that the racial preferences and affirmative actions provided by present programs don't really address the injustices that remain in society. Adding ever more layers of pro-black discrimination is no real solution to existing layers of anti-black discrimination, it just creates more victims and more people of any color who feel stabbed in the back by the system.
Those who know that we're still a long way from a color-blind society need to wake up and stop clinging to the status quo, however. Things are going to change, and some of the old remedies are going to fall by the wayside. The challenge is to get out in front and push for new remedies that go to the core of prejudice and discrimination that still exists, and work for measures that really will level the playing field, not just give a few bonus points to one of the teams.
Another story close to home this week serves as a good reminder why many of us still know that one of the three biggest lies is, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you". We heard a lot of that particular lie last year in connection with the debate about computer encryption and the Clinton administration's plan to legally mandate an encryption technology where the government would hold all the keys. Of course, we were given mountains of assurance that the keys would only be used for legitimate purposes, after court order, etc, ad nauseum.
In other words, nothing can go wrong. go wrong. go wrong. go wrong.
Well, something did go wrong this week when a couple of swell guys in the Massachusetts welfare fraud investigative unit decided to used their computer access to check on the financial secrets of Larry Bird, Drew Bledsoe, and Ray Bourque. Say what? These are welfare cases? These guys are cheating the welfare department? No, not exactly. They're each worth multiple millions of dollars. Apparently, the welfare department spies, being real sports fans, or at least looking for some cool stories to tell at their local tavern, decided that Bird, Bledsoe, and Bourque would pique the interest of their drinking buddies. They also looked into the tax records of a couple of politicians, but nobody gets to upset about that.
This is a good story to keep in mind next time somebody tries to tell you that having the government keep your secrets, or the keys to your secrets, is a swell idea.
And on a related note, we continue to watch the progress of the so-called Communications Decency Act, the CDA, as it progresses through the court system. We celebrated the decision of the appeals court a few months back that the whole thing is patently unconstitutional, but the route it is taking is still very troubling. Bill Clinton, in classic waffle style, signed the bill, while at the same time expressing doubts about the validity of the internet censorship provisions and stating this his Attorney General would not enforce it. I suppose this is better than we might have had under another president who would have sent storm troopers out to raid the hard disks of net users, but it still leaves us all open to after-the-fact prosecution should the supreme court, in some political cop-out, fail to uphold the appeals court decision.
It's also troubling that a president can decide to just not enforce a law that he signed. Our systems of laws isn't suppose to depend on the whim of one person, even the president, and besides, we'll have a different president some day, and then what?
As a further example of this, consider a lesser known law that goes by the name of 18 USC 2257. This is a law that was passed, not by the Gingrich gang of the 95-96 congress, but by the democratic-controlled congress of 1990. Just as with the CDA, this law was railroaded through with the cries of protecting children from the evils of pornography, never mind that the bill probably has no significant effect in that regard, but does significantly affect the rights of consenting adults.
This whole issue was recounted in detail by Brenda Loew Tatelbaum in a speech to the Libertarian Party of Massachusetts state convention earlier this year and reprinted in an issue of her publication, EIDOS. Now, EIDOS is an erotic and sexually explicit publication, but there can be no doubt whatever that it exactly and perfectly fits the definition of "press", as in "congress shall make no law abridging freedom of the ____". 18 USC 2257 is indeed a law made by congress and it clearly abridges freedom of the press. One wonders what wording could have been used in the bill of rights that could be more clear than that, but somehow many politicians, and even, all too often, a majority of the justices of the supreme court, seem unable to grasp that no law means no law, and that "speech and press" means all the form of public communications in existence at the time of the founding of the republic and ought to mean all forms of public communication in existence today.
Briefly, 18 USC 2257 requires that any publication that prints sexually explicit photographs must keep detailed information on all person appearing in such photograph, including real name and stage name, age, and address. Not only that, but that information must be kept in a file whose location is disclosed and published in the publication in question, and to which law enforcement officials have access at any time, without a warrant or probable cause.
Can you say "chilling effect"? Can you say "harassment police"? Would this set of requirements be tolerated for a moment if it were about anything but sexually explicit material, so called pornography? Somehow, the courts and our so-called strict constructionist legislators continue to see the words "except for sexual stuff" there in the first amendment right after the part about no law abridging freedom of speech. I keep looking, but I still can't find those words anywhere around there.
Then again, the depressing thing is not only that the courts seem so amenable to finding loopholes in the first amendment, but that so many politicians seem to consider the whole thing just nuisance at least and something akin to a communist plot or worse when it interferes with their latest plan to clean up society and make it conform to some particular definition of decency. Wy aren't there more conservatives, and I mean true conservatives -- who understanding that freedom of speech is not only law of the land but damn good idea? I wouldn't mind flag wavers so much if a few of them would wave the bill of rights too, and remind their constituents that its the document, not the piece of cloth, that is really worth defending.
That's my roundup for this week. Join me again next Friday at 6:30, right after Pacifica news, for a look at the week's events and comments. For WMBR, this is Dan Murphy.