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Eugene Weekly : Commentary : 12.17.09

 

Free Speech vs. Hate Speech

A Jew finds himself in a neo-Nazi forum

By Joseph A. Lieberman

A small announcement in EW’s Calendar last week stated: “National Socialist Movement: An insider’s view of America’s radical right.” Pacifica Forum, a free-speech group known for its anti-Zionist bias, was sponsoring the event at the UO.

My naive assumption was that we’d be hearing from a former National Socialist Movement (NSM) member who’d had a change of heart. That notion was quickly dispelled when Jimmy Marr, attired in full Scottish regalia, began reading a section of Torah detailing how Jews became “the Chosen People.” His conclusion: “What does that make the rest of us? Slaves to the Jews!”

Among two dozen attendees, it became apparent that at least six were NSM devotees. The giveaway moment was when Marr concluded his introduction by inviting all to join him in a “Sieg heil!” A half dozen arms were raised to chests and thrust high — “Sieg heil! Sieg heil! Sieg HEIL!”

A lone voice in back called out, “I strongly object!” The rest sat in stunned silence.

We were shown video footage from an NSM demonstration in Phoenix, Ariz., against illegal immigration. Police stood between brown-shirted “troops” and anti-fascist protestors. NSM speakers in the film took turns spouting their doctrine and haranguing opponents, bellowing epithets that were returned in kind.

A special litany of accusations was reserved for Jews in general, blaming them for basically every ill, including illegal immigration. One speaker pointed to a protestor and shrieked, “YOU are a Jew! A traitor Jew!” — clearly, in his book, the worst possible insult one can hurl at another human being.

NSM’s style — no surprise — is provocative and confrontational. Smugly aware that their venom-laced words, swastika-embellished American flags, and Nazi-era uniforms are designed to arouse animosity, they clearly thrive on the negative attention that also serves to “justify” their self-view as victims. “We, the white race, are the minority now,” bemoaned Marr.

After the film came slides entitled “NSM Fights Back” — photos of another rally where police did not succeed in keeping the two sides apart. NSM members were shown swinging fists into opponents’ faces, while some in our audience shared elated grins.

When Marr opened the meeting to questions, first to speak was the man who’d objected earlier — Billy Rojas, former comparative religion teacher and founder of “The Swastika Club of America,” which traces the roots of that once positive symbol of good luck back to its ancient origins. Rojas stated that his group is diametrically opposed to fascism, which transformed the swastika into an icon of malevolence.

Other questions were mild indeed — ”Why are you called ‘Socialist’ if you’re right wing?” — until one person used science and genetics to challenge the NSM position of racial superiority. Marr snapped back a quick one-liner and then applauded his own wit with such force that his hand-claps echoed like bullet shots. Beneath that mild exterior, a great deal of anger seemed poised to explode.

If that rage and indignation were built on fact, it might be more contagious. Instead, the NSM excites itself with rumors, lies, half-truths and bad science. They do not, for example, own the problem of illegal immigration — that’s an issue that concerns everyone, but bullying tactics are a poor substitute for solutions.

As for “the Chosen People,” I had brought that up myself with Eugene Chabad Rabbi Asi Spiegel several years back. “Sounds rather arrogant, don’t you think?” I asked.

Spiegel, a friend and mentor on all things Judaic, shook his head. “That’s because,” he sighed, “the term is so misunderstood. Chosen? Chosen for what? It doesn’t mean higher, better or superior! It means chosen to keep the word of Torah, the Law, the Commandments, and endure keeping faith in God no matter how persecuted or ridiculed we become. This is not chosen like winning a lottery. This is chosen as an obligation, a burden we must carry, no matter what.”

The NSM lecture was packed with one fallacious insinuation after another. Unable to continue listening, I stood up.

“Mr. Marr,” I said, civilly, “I’m glad we live in a country where you’re free to express your views. I don’t think you’re a bad person, and I even understand some of the reasons you believe what you do, but everything — everything about what was presented here today, is just so wrong on all levels. I cannot remain another minute.”

Some will disagree with my evaluation of Marr’s character, but my words were a homage to Anne Frank’s, written in her diary while in hiding from Nazi persecution: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are truly good at heart.”

The problem comes when individuals gather in a collective that diminishes the better part of their humanity in favor of a group consciousness that exploits their fears and encourages their worst instincts. The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, and when that entity is devoted to malice toward others, their shared intent becomes sinister, pernicious and inevitably self-destructive. The members of NSM seem content to overlook how consistently fascism has been on the wrong side of history.

While I neither like nor dislike Mr. Marr personally, I abhor what he and his ilk are advocating. The NSM will hate me because of who I am, no matter what I do. There lies the difference between us.

At what point, then, does “free speech,” an American right, cross over into “hate speech” designed to incite violence? Was the UO, or even Pacifica Forum, aware that this meeting would degenerate into “sieg heil” salutes? Could that have been predicted, and if so, would the UO still have legitimized the NSM by offering them this academic platform?

Outside the door, a half dozen campus security guards had gathered, but there were no protests. True, the event was small in scale, but ignoring evil — even a seemingly insignificant concentration of evil — will not make it go away.

Joseph A. Lieberman of Eugene is a freelance writer and author of School Shootings — What Every Parent and Educator Needs to Know to Protect Our Children (Citadel Press).