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Time To Go, Chris

The Corrosive Consequences of Casual Hate Speech

In the best of times, Buffalo is a hard sell. We’re a little city in the cold part of fly-over country, an inconvenient eight-hour drive from Manhattan, Boston, Washington, or Chicago—the big cities where America’s political, cultural, financial, scientific, educational, and entrepreneurial leaders live. Despite the sunny reality of our summers, the pleasant livability of our short commutes, our world-class natural and cultural amenities, America and the world alike imagine us to be a snowy place that houses terrorists, sits atop Love Canal, jails innocent non-rapists, and loses Super Bowls.

It just got harder. Buffalo now has an elected official who makes anti-Semitic remarks to an audience that chuckles nervously rather than getting up, leaving the room and demanding his resignation.

Even worse, reports are coming in that this Western New York elected official has for some weeks now, perhaps longer, been using the lines that were first reported in the New York Daily News. Collins recently made the same comparison to a group of Buffalo State students, in the presence of two members of the faculty.

How does a community look when its leaders—religious, secular, institutional, and elected alike—merely shrug at hate speech?

Other than condemnations by Democratic Party Chairman Len Lenihan and Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, the silence about Chris Collins’s characterization of an Orthodox Jew as “anti-Christ” and as “Hitler” is deafening.

There is no movement afoot to unseat Collins. The bishop of the Catholic Diocese hasn’t said a word. Unlike in the early 1980s, when a blatantly racist, anti-Semitic neo-Nazi came to town, no university or college presidents are leading hundreds of community residents on a march to confront the evil-sayer. The head of the local Jewish Federation has uttered a cautious critique that is far, far short of condemnation—though some have told me that this is completely understandable, actually, as members of wronged religious minorities have learned, through long and bitter historical experience, that sometimes it is better to endure stoically. But there’s political silence in the air as well: Fifteen county legislators, all of whom are up for re-election, 10 of whom are the political foes of the Jew-basher, are silent. Republicans have pointed to Collins’s anemic apology and have announced that it is time to “move on.”

The evidence so far is that in this part of New York State, there is no immediate political consequence to anti-Semitism. In the rest of the state, however, the many hundreds of thousands of readers of New York City newspapers know, again, that Upstate New York, like South Carolina, hosts politicians who make anti-Semitic remarks and stay in office.

Five reasons why this matters

Here’s a list of reasons why that’s a problem for this community.

• Western New York is dependent on downstate, and that makes the region politically vulnerable. As reported here before, the Buffalo metro area annually receives more than $1 billion more in New York State expenditures than the Buffalo metro area contributes in taxes to the New York State exchequer. Most of that money comes in the form of transfer payments—pension checks to retirees and subsidies to public assistance. Albany also sends funds for the state university, checks to state employees, payments to local governments, and enormous chunks of cash that keep construction workers working on things like the Buffalo schools reconstruction project. The money that constitutes entitlements will keep coming. But the discretionary money is, well, discretionary. In a tight budget year, nobody would be surprised if downstate elected officials—whose constituents, after all, are paying our bills—would be responsive to downstate voters who are angry about anti-Semitic hate speech uttered by an upstate politician whose community is largely silent about his anti-Semitic hate speech. Why should downstate Assembly members send us an extra dime beyond the handouts they already send?

• Expressly anti-Semitic language may be part of the political culture in South Carolina, but until now, even code words were taboo up here in the civilized North. As a leader of a national coalition of progressive Christian Democrats told me Tuesday when I described the statements of County Executive Collins, hateful speech about religious and other minorities “coarsens us all.” Permit me to suggest that it’s much worse than that. Religious leaders, activists, and American grownups everywhere spent decades of effort to kill off the “N” word in public discourse. Inter-group enmity, tribal resentments, and ancient stereotypes live on more persistently than zombies, but furtively, like foot fungus in locker rooms. But in 2008, there was a pretty decisive national rejection of the time-tarnished American ethos of hate speech. Now, however, it is popping up all over the place again. That should worry everybody—because the last time this behavior became part of American political discourse, a Western New Yorker named Timothy McVeigh murdered 168 government workers in Oklahoma City.

• This anti-Semitic hate speech fits a local pattern. We want to think of ourselves as a progressive community with shared values. Conservative and liberal alike, our business and civic leadership invests mightily in the not-for-profit entities—especially our artistic, architectural, and community-service organizations, from the BPO to the Wright icons—that define us and our hometown as part of civilized society. But when a politician utters gutter words, and concurrently dis-invests in community assets, the community ought to do something to defend its reputation as the Jew-basher manifests his ideology and rhetoric in his budgets. There is no outrage over the Jew-bashing. So far, neither is there any protest from his alleged opposition of the sharp reductions in local public support for libraries, cultural organizations, aid to indigent women, and to human services that address the needs of the last and the least. No protest, no pushback, no nothing? No community, apparently, either.

• Without sane Republicans, the Red State divide will worsen. This is, after all, the state of Nelson Rockefeller, the Republican governor under whose stewardship was created the 46-campus State University of New York system and countless artistic, environmental, historic-preservation, and enduring infrastructure projects. Progressive Erie County Republicans Ned Regan and Joel Giambra funded culturals and fought for knitting city and suburbs together. How the heck does this state have anything like a policy discussion worth the words when the only thing Republicans have to say about Jew-bashing Chris Collins is nothing? Does this mean that all Republicans are Jew-haters? My quiet survey of a few Republicans so far tots up lots of sighs and eye-rolling, and statements like “Collins is political toast.” Democrats put on a brave face about how useful Collins’s statements are going to be as they set out to raise funds from disgusted GOPers. But to the non-insider, the message so far is that Collins erred only by degree, not in essence—and to the general public, the basic assertion that Sheldon Silver is some kind of anti-Upstate monster of demonic proportion is going unchallenged.

• Worse behavior will come if there are no consequences now. It is unlikely that anybody insensitive enough to repeatedly compare an Orthodox Jew to the historic murderer of Jews will have the wit to resign public office. What is more likely is that the narcissism that spawned such heedless hatefulness will result in the reaction that all narcissists exhibit when criticised—namely, a great big sense of victimhood. Soon enough, especially if MSNBC talk-show host Rachel Maddow does another spot on Collins (she was ruthlessly critical of Collins on the issue of the Erie County Holding Center), Collins and his apologists will do what heedless haters do: They’ll scream that they’ve been wronged. That’s when the barstool bubbas will start doing what resentful loud-mouths do: They’ll talk about the black helicopters, the International Jewish Conspiracy, the “truth” of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the rest. And there will be more bad words, and, inevitably, more bad behavior.

This community has suffered from decades of capital flight and the resulting income stagnation, persistent poverty, social discord and erosion and outright closure of beloved community institutions. The politics of racial divisiveness, exacerbated by suburban self-isolation, worsened the negative economic fundamentals. Every historical parallel, especially to the distressing analogies of the 1930s, indicates that we are vulnerable to demagoguery and to hate speech. And now we have it.

The real Sheldon Silver

As for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver from faraway Manhattan, it is hard for Western New Yorkers to perceive him as anything but a distant stranger because of his infrequent presence in a media market where all politics feels local, angry, and anti-government. The facts don’t much matter, but his voting record is simple and clear. He is a strong supporter of unions. He is a supporter of progressive income taxation. He is a supporter of an expanded definition of civil rights that includes gays. He is an unapologetic defender of the role of government services. His demeanor isn’t sunny, to be sure. Politics ain’t beanbag, and you don’t stay leader by being a pushover, so his alleged intolerance of dissent should come as no surprise. An impartial observer notes that the fear or angst about Silver reflects frustration about the imbalance of power between rich and populous downstate versus empty and poor upstate. But since when is demographic reality or relative political powerlessness an excuse to call Sheldon Silver vile names, bash his religion, and compare him to a psychopathic murderer of innocents?

There is no excuse. Nor is there any excuse for silence. What needs to happen is for black veterans of the Civil Rights movement to stand up and ask Chris Collins to resign. What needs to happen is for the women and men who work so hard to help the international reputation of this community to step forward and tell the world that we will not be led by a hate-speaker. It’s time for religious leaders to demand a better standard of behavior, and acts of contrition, the first act being a resignation. It’s time for community leaders to figure out a way to speak just a little bit of truth to a little bit of power. After all, folks, the Erie County executive commands neither army nor militia. (That may be why the leading Jewish organization in town isn’t mixing it up, for after all, what does a little county leader threaten, really?) All he has is his mouth and his minions.

One recalls what Pope John Paul II said when he served mass to Lech Walensa and a few hundred thousand Poles back when the Solidarity movement was up against communist tanks and guns, “Do not fear.” They didn’t fear. They stood up. They won.

Back down on political earth, though, maybe it’s easier simply to ask politicians to say something before next Tuesday. So here’s a question for Ed Cox, the true gentleman who is a great leader of the movement to offer educational opportunity to poor kids, the man who is now the leader of the Republican Party in New York State: Ed, when Chris Collins called Sheldon Silver the “anti-Christ,” and when Chris Collins compared Sheldon Silver to Adolph Hitler, what did you say or do? Did you get up and leave? Did you demand an apology? Did you weigh in on that person’s fitness to hold public office? Or were you silent?

Lenny Lenihan said his piece. Sam Hoyt said his. Are there any other Democrats who have anything to say about this? Are Democrats really so cynical that they will chuckle about Collins’s hateful speech as nothing more than a political gaffe, or is something more sinister lurking in this community—like, perhaps, quiet agreement that Shelly Silver is everything Chris Collins says he is?

New York wants to know.

Bruce Fisher is former deputy county executive for Erie County and visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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