Fake hate crimes: not just for liberals anymore

Ashley Todd's faked beating and mutilation by an Obama supporter recall the hate crime hoaxes that have so irked conservatives.

Published October 24, 2008 11:35PM (EDT)

Ashley Todd's fake story wasn't just an incident that threatened to add a potentially dangerous element of racial tension to this campaign -- it was a near-perfect mirror image of the fake hate crimes that conservatives have long loved to hate. (That's not to say this is the first time a conservative has perpetrated such a hoax; it's not.)

This history goes back to the throw-down in the 1980s and 1990s over “political correctness,” and the history of that in turn goes back to the 1960s. The notion of political correctness is an outgrowth of the civil rights and feminist struggles on college campuses. The result of this fight, one of the left’s few enduring victories from the late 1960s, was the acknowledgment of literature and art outside the Western canon, the establishment of departments of African-American studies, Feminist studies, and, accompanying them, a gradually developing consensus that people should quit acting as if women and minorities are less than full people.

Actually, consensus may be too strong a word. A favorite pastime of conservatives for decades now has been wielding some of the sillier “PC” claims as weapons against the whole project. Of particular delight for the right are claims of hate crimes that turn out to be hoaxes. The basic logic goes like this: if hate crimes have to be faked, then there isn’t really any need for the institutions erected to combat discrimination.

The most infamous example, one that still gets mentioned, is Tawana Brawley's claim that she was raped. In the furor that ensued before Brawley's lie was exposed, Al Sharpton was a central player. In a 1999 column, the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg quoted Sharpton, who dismissed criticism directed at him by saying, “We’re trying to build a movement here.” Goldberg went on to say,

Remember, we’re “building a movement” and calling “attention to serious problems in our society.” The mere fact that the evidence of the problem they are calling peoples’ attention to is very often a staged fraud is irrelevant. The Nazis knew that Communists were bad (and they were) so by this reasoning the torching of the Reichstag was justifiable because it called attention to the serious problem of Bolshevik infiltration in Germany.

There are plenty of examples in this vein. In a May 2000 issue of US News and World Report, for example, John Leo wrote,

[M]ore of the college hoaxes seem to reflect an acted-out commitment to a cause, not just personal difficulties. One factor is that colleges now stress the need for each identity group to express its "voice" or "narrative," without much scruple about whether the narratives are literally true.

This list wouldn’t be complete without links to Michelle Malkin -- who, to her credit, called Todd's story what it was early on -- and Ann Coulter doing cruder versions of much the same thing.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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