Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Monitoring Hate Speech: Recent News in West Virginia and Utah

Two stories in the news the last several days catch my eye. I see connections between them that may not be apparent to some readers. And I think those connections deserve attention.

The first story has to do with a video just released by the group West Virginia for Marriage—WV4Marriage. The video contains footage implying that some insidious group or groups could open fire on unsuspecting “traditional” families in West Virginia.

The video is on the homepage of WV4Marriage (here). The footage showing a family in the sights of a sniper is about a minute into the video. The context leaves viewers in no doubt about who is “attacking” such families in West Virginia. The voiceover states explicitly that those mounting these “attacks” are proponents of same-sex marriage: the gays, in other words.

The first thing that catches my attention here is that this representation of hidden gays planning an attack on an iconic all-American mom-and-pop-and-apple-pie family verges on hate rhetoric. As Jim Burroway notes on Box Turtle Bulletin (here), the video was released just days after the sentencing of Jim David Adkisson, a real shooter who opened fire against liberals and gays in a Knoxville, Tennessee, church last year, and whose written statements about that act suggest that he hoped to spur others to do the same:

And to think that this irresponsible image went out right as Jim David Adkisson was sentenced for training his scope on a gay-friendly church. Images matter, especially in a well-armed state like West Virginia. This conjured image of a “homosexual threat” has clearly crossed the line.

It is malicious and irresponsible for any group to claim that gay folks pose a potential threat to their fellow citizens and to families—a violent threat—in a culture in which precisely the opposite is overwhelmingly the case. LGBT citizens remain susceptible to violence at a much higher rate than most other groups in American society, precisely and solely because they are gay.

Whoever produced this video—and, as I’ll explain below, that’s a question still not completely resolved—is spurring violence against gay citizens. This is a form of hate rhetoric, and it needs to be declared beyond the pale.

The second interesting point about this video: do some digging to try to discover who funded and produced it, and you quickly discover that the answer to that question is—well, mysterious. Heath Harrison on the West Virginia Blue blog has the full story (here).

As he notes, WV4Marriage implores concerned West Virginians to donate to WV4Marriage, but doesn’t provide any clear indication to whom one would be donating, if one did send money. A search for the producer of the video leads to an interesting discovery: it was produced out of state. In Georgia, to be precise. By the equally mysterious group CampaignSecrets.com.

A group apparently led by one Mark Montini. With a history of producing anti-gay web materials and with ties to the Swift Boat Veterans. In the WV4Marriage video, we have, then, a video targeting citizens of West Virginia produced by a citizen of another state, through a website whose sponsors, affiliations, and funding are not made clear, and with a producer tied to (to use Heath Harrison’s phrase) other national-level “conservative misinformation group(s)” that have tried to herd voters to the polls to vote for conservative candidates on the basis of disinformation.

Interestingly enough, this is not the only story to break in the last few days re: a campaign mounted by a mysterious group attacking gays and employing hate rhetoric in the process. As the Towleroad blog is reporting (here), on Sunday, a group called America Forever, with no business license or PAC registration in Utah, placed a full-page ad in the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News. Towleroad characterizes the ad as hate rhetoric:

The ad is replete with hateful rhetoric and fear tactics. In fact it's so extreme that even those who agree with the message behind it think the group, which "does not have a current Utah business license as a nonprofit nor is it registered as a political-issues or political-action committee" according to the Salt Lake Tribune (here), has crossed the line with the ad, which "compares being gay to being 'druggies and hookers,' labels homosexuality as 'anti-species behavior' and concludes that 'gays should be forced not to display' their sexual orientation."

As the preceding statement from Towleroad indicates, a 16 February article by Rosemary Winters in the Salt Lake Tribune notes that America Forever’s lack of Utah business or PAC registration. The article also notes that the group had not responded to the Tribune’s request for more information by the close of business on the 15th. Head to the America Forever website (here), and you’ll find a mission statement, but not (at least, not insofar as I can find) an address or information on who founded the group and/or currently directs it.

And there you have it: two anti-gay initiatives in a matter of days, both inciting hatred of gay human beings, both spearheaded by organizations whose source of funding and leadership is not clear. In one case, the organization producing the material targets a state in which the video producers don’t even appear to live. The same may well be true in the other case, given the lack of any registration in Utah of a group placing full-page ads in Utah newspapers.

What to make of these stories? Now that the economic stimulus plan has been passed, it seems clear that at least one strategy those on the right will be using to attack and undermine the new administration, as the administration demonstrates success in addressing serious problems, is inflammatory anti-gay rhetoric. This is rhetoric designed to trouble the political waters and keep people distracted, so that they focus on hot-button issues and not the success of the new administration. In addition to its video claiming “Christians” are being attacked in our society today if they express anti-gay views, the American Family Association announced on 11 February a new initiative called Project Push Back (here).

It hardly seems coincidental that we are seeing the emergence, all at once and precisely at this moment in the history of the new administration, of well-orchestrated attempts to play the anti-gay card as the administration begins to do its work of putting the nation back on track. These local attempts are part of a larger strategy of the political and religious right to distract by targeting vulnerable groups: to use hate to make political points. To target human beings and human lives. And, shamefully, to do so in the name of God.

Those of us concerned about the use of hate to undermine our democracy need to continue monitoring these groups. And the new administration needs (in my view) to stop playing footsie with the religious right. It’s important to note that, as these initiatives stir hatred against gay citizens, there is still no federal-level protection for gay citizens against discrimination, and no federal hate-crimes law that includes sexual orientation.

We need action on those fronts. Real human beings are the target of these hateful political initiatives. Hate rhetoric has effects on real human lives. We need to find ways to place such rhetoric beyond the pale, and to stop allowing religious groups to claim the right to attack fellow citizens, stir hatred, and discriminate in the name of God.