Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Alex Cockburn, "the gays," and the Shepards

I'm not surprised Alexander Cockburn is opposed to hate crimes statutes, and he makes some compelling (if unsophisticated) arguments in this column. But having done so after an irrelevant introduction that includes Cockburn revealing his irritation at the "whining" gays (making him a columnist whining about whining), he subsequently takes cheap shots at Matthew Shepard and Judy Shepard. It's kind of a downer when you read a columnist for years and years and suddenly say "wow, he's seen better days."

Cockburn says "It's actually somewhat unclear" whether Shepard was murdered because he was gay. "Actually somewhat unclear" is an interesting turn of phrase from a 4+ decades political journalist. (I make three or four gerbs in an article, but he's got three decades on me.) It's interesting how he halfheartedly lists the revisionist thesis as if it were revelation, then enthusiastically mentions that Judy Shepard's foundation pays her to run it:
The gay lobby has gone into overdrive for just such a hate crime law ever since Matthew Shepard got beaten to death in 1998 by two roofers on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. It's actually somewhat unclear whether the roofers, one of whom was high on meth at the time, murdered Shepard because they specifically hated gays. Anyway, the murder has put them behind bars for the rest of their lives using tough existing laws. But, starting with Shepard's mother, Judy, the $100,000-plus head of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, gay and "human rights" groups have been fundraising on Shepard's "gay martyrdom" ever since.

Those comments might (should) have been rephrased to further problematize hate statutes; such a nuanced argument like "ambiguities in the Shepard case demonstrate the problem of proving intent in a hate crimes charge" would have been nice but, having tethered himself to a screed against the "victims' lobby," the introduction of such a precision approach would have been too drastic a change in tone. He could have developed an argument about how the ruling class uses popular tough-on-crime legislation to discipline the poor and stifle dissent (think of anti-capitalist violence as a hate crime), but instead decides to wade in the waters of those who claim Matthew Shepard was not murdered because of his sexual orientation. I say "wade" because he doesn't want to take the plunge, and his journalistic space thus prevents him from absorbing the consequences of throwing around half-arguments and innuendo. His actual arguments against the statutes are unoriginal: They will punish "thought crimes," be too expansive, capriciously interpreted. He mentions prosecutors using hate crimes statutes to pile up charges. Prosecutors pile up charges anyway. He may be right about all of this, but most people reading the column will have forgotten about the legal debate and just be aroused by the nastiness towards the Shepards.

Everyone in Laramie, even (whether he admits it or not) Cal Rerucha, knew why Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson murdered Matthew Shepard, the much-publicized recantation of an unreliable witness, and prosecutor Rerucha's speculation about drug rage notwithstanding. The revisionist thesis not only contradicts court testimony (neither murderer was "high" on meth, and Henderson testified McKinney had told Shepard "guess what? We're not gay, and you're gonna get jacked") and reported facts (McKinney, at least, had expressed a pathological hatred of gays), but it also commits an absurd either-or fallacy. Worse, it vindicates those who put forward that revisionist history in order to punish Matthew Shepard: ostensably for being "careless" but really for being gay. Cockburn's concerns ring hollow for his utilization of such trash to bolster his arguments. "America," Cockburn fears, "is well on its way to making it illegal to say anything nasty about gays, Jews, blacks and women." But the inclusion of intent (however problematic) in violent crime statutes is hardly new, and it's a rather slippery slope from that kind of criminal law to categorical speech restrictions, and Cockburn's "whining" about speech codes is awkwardly out of place in this unfortunately awkward column.

So why does Cockburn feel like he has to take on Matthew and Judy Shepard in order to take on what he perceives to be bad, misleading, or dangerous legislation? I will spare the "privileged son of a Stalinist and the old left has a problem with queers" psychoanalysis others haven't always spared when dealing with Cockburn. I think he's probably just irritated by identity politics, and finds liberals to be convenient scapegoats, with a slight dash of pride in being able to piss on a sacred cow. But if the point of critical journalism is to point a way forward, or at least accurately describe the status quo, Cockburn needs to pony up and play his part rather than exploit agrarian homophobia and get personal with a mother who lost a son. Teach us why hate statutes are bad for progressives, Cocky. Innuendo and half-smiles are so 20th century.

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