Hate and Ignorance…Again

Then, one day, I woke up and saw things differently. I saw the relationship between hate speech and violence. I began to see all hate speech as incitement to murder. And, since at least some of it was directed at my own ethnic group, I began to see it as incitement to murder my children. Seen in that light, intolerance ceased to be worthy of tolerance.

Book burning
Koran burning

Today is the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. It is an appropriate day to think about political violence, like the violence that followed the burning of a Koran in Florida. I started a spirited discussion by posting my opinion on FaceBook that Terry Jones, the Florida book burner, was responsible for the murders in Afghanistan and ought to be charged with a crime. Few people agreed.

I used to be a First Amendment absolutist, like Hugo Black. I was offended by the attempts at universities to enact “hate speech codes.” I reasoned, as many do, that the most obnoxious speech is exactly that in most need of First Amendment protection.

Then, one day, I woke up and saw things differently. I saw the relationship between hate speech and violence. I began to see all hate speech as incitement to murder. And, since at least some of it was directed at my own ethnic group, I began to see it as incitement to murder my children. Seen in that light, intolerance ceased to be worthy of tolerance.

The memorial for Dr. King in Madison today attracted a large crowd, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has spent much of the past month in
Wisconsin helping to get out the vote for tomorrow’s election. He brought with him two of the sanitation workers whose strike was the reason that Dr. King was in Memphis that horrible day. Madison has become the focus of the struggle for workers’ rights as human rights these past few months and the connection between our travail and that of the workers for whom Dr. King sacrificed his life is palpable.

Violence breeds violence
Violence

So, when a selfish, headstrong man disregards the strong objections of those who know the obvious consequences and publicly burns the Koran, and the loss of life that was not only predictable, but predicted, occurs, my immediate reaction is, “why hasn’t this man been arrested yet?” He may not be the murderer, but he is certainly a party to the crime.

How can this be, my predictably liberal friends ask? Doesn’t he have the same First Amendment rights as those idiots who burn the flag? The difference is the forseeability of deadly violence. The deaths that followed this act were a known consequence of the act. Our commander in Afghanistan warned Terry Jones personally that this violence would be the likely result. Since we are at war in Afghanistan, perhaps the appropriate crime is treason.

It is only words, one might suggest. Let’s think about this.. The words spoken at Wannsee were only words. The words spoken in Mafia boardrooms are only words. The words spoken by Charles Manson were only words. Ah, you say, but those people actually told someone to do something. So, already, we have carved out one category of words that are not protected: those that directly tell someone to do something bad.

Then, what about words that indirectly tell someone to do something bad? Yelling fire in a crowded theater falls into this category, as does incitement of race hatred. Which of these are legal and which forbidden?

Carried a step further, what about actions that are the equivalent of words, like burning a flag, or (apparently) contributing to a campaign? Is burning a Koran a form of political or religious speech? If so, is it protected? Always, or does it lose its protection under certain circumstances?

One of the posts on my FB comment quoted a US Supreme Court case in which the operative concept was whether the dangerous speech created a “clear and present danger” of inciting violence. This approach is no longer in favor, but it does provide a construct for consideration of how the problem might be resolved.

I don’t know that a clear set of principles can be distilled to resolve when speech is protected and when it is not. It is clear that there is some speech which everyone agrees is not protected (“kill him”) and some which everyone agrees is protected. It is the most obnoxious stuff in between that is the problem, like burning a Koran or a consecrated Torah scroll. I know one can’t just say, as with pornography, “I know it when I see it.” But, I don’t have a real alternative.

I just know that Terry Jones is guilty of helping to kill a bunch of innocent people.

Wisconsin

Public employees’ unions went on strike until the Illinois legislature changed the law. I distinctly remember my mother hiding out in hotels to avoid being served with injunctions. From this beginning, public employee unionism grew in Illinois.

My mother was a pioneer in public employee collective bargaining. When she began, it was illegal for public employees to engage in collective bargaining. Conditions were so bad that any teacher who was the primary support of a family had to have a second job, usually selling shoes or cheap suits. I had classes in grammar school of more than 50 students.

Public employees’ unions went on strike until the Illinois legislature changed the law. I distinctly remember my mother hiding out in hotels to avoid being served with injunctions. From this beginning, public employee unionism grew in Illinois.

Those are the stakes here. Both Democrats and Republicans have traditionally considered the right of employees to organize to be a fundamental human right. During the Cold War, our government financed labor movements in other countries whenever we felt that the right to organize was being suppressed.

The claim in this case is that these actions are necessary because the state is broke. Nonsense.

First of all, if that were the problem, then an immediate solution, like reductions in benefits and freezing of salaries, would be sufficient. The Doyle administration utilized such measures. Public employees have borne the brunt of deficit reduction for nearly a decade.

However, what is proposed is not short term austerity; what is proposed is a permanent elimination of nearly all collective bargaining. This is a radical attack on public employees that has nothing to do with the state’s current financial situation.

The state is hardly “broke.” In the current biennial budget, which is the subject of this so-called budget adjustment, the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau says that we will finish the year with a surplus. Just today, the fiscal bureau said that the “budget repair” actually reduces the surplus by $13.5 million.

Even if the state were to pay out things that it need not pay out this fiscal year, the shortfall would be $130 million; not a cause for panic in our more than $50 billion budget. In fact, Gov. Walker has proposed refinancing the state’s debt, which would produce $165 million, more than enough to cover any current shortfall.

In the coming biennium, it is projected that we could run a deficit of about $3.5 billion, a substantial amount, but a lot less than the $5.8 billion that we dealt with last biennium, when I was on the Joint Committee on Finance. We balanced that budget without the kind of radical measures that are proposed. One cannot help but conclude that the radical measures are the real goal, not a means to a necessary end.

There are some underlying consequences that should chill every citizen. First, there is the continued impoverishment of the middle class. Why would anyone want to do that? Reducing the buying power of the middle class is what led to the current recession and reducing that buying power further will plunge us deeper into recession, or push us over the edge into major depression. That could make American workers as powerless as the third world workers that corporations have been exploiting as they export our jobs.

Another consequence is to move away from two-party democracy to a one party state. Large corporations were given a green light to take over politics by the U. S. Supreme Court in a case called Citizens United. While the Citizens United case also freed unions from limitations on political contributions, destroying the unions will eliminate that source of revenue from one party, leaving the other with all those corporate funds. We have fought against one-party states all over the world. The cold war was all about Russia and China being one-party states. As countries like Egypt move toward greater freedom, are we moving toward the kind of tyranny that so many of our soldiers died to protect us from?

We are told that public employees get more generous compensation and benefits than private sector employees. Actually, this is not factually supportable. Compensation is between 25% and 30% less than for comparable private sector jobs, depending upon the state. Further, Wisconsin compensates its public employees substantially less than the surrounding states, position by position.

Benefits are also not the great deal that is rumored. When I was first elected to the legislature in 1998, I was surprised to discover that the health insurance plan offered was far inferior to the one I had in the private sector. I had to purchase supplemental insurance to protect myself and my family.

Even the much vaunted pension is very moderate by national standards. Wisconsin has a unique system that is supported primarily (more than 75%) by investment income. And, when that investment income exceeds benchmark expectations, the additional funds are split between benefits and reductions in employers’ premiums in a way that is far more generous to the taxpayers than the systems in other states. Our actuaries and auditors repeatedly tell us that we have the best run employee benefit plan in the nation. We tamper with it at our peril.

Unlike the private sector, we have no “legacy costs.” Legacy costs are unfunded obligations to pay retired employees benefits that are not funded, so that the money has to come from current revenue. There is no such thing in Wisconsin. Every benefit plan that our employees have is 100% fully funded on an actuarially sound basis. ETF, our board of trustees on which I served for a number of years, gets audits and actuarial reports on a frequent basis, just to make sure we don’t fall behind.

This is the most fraught political crisis in Wisconsin in my lifetime. I hope that this provides some perspective on what is going on.

Gary E. Sherman