Last week I wrote an article in which I criticized a racial joke that Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) had repeated during a congressional hearing. Not surprisingly, given Rep. Schroeder's record as a progressive liberal, I received a fair amount of mail and phone calls criticizing the column.
Aside from being charged with possessing a "biased, racist" viewpoint, I was told that I was supersensitive ("Lighten up," said one correspondent). While I appreciate good criticism, it always helps if it is rational and thoughtful. For example, I was also (inexplicably) accused of "not facing black inadequacies." Now what does that mean?
One letter, in particular, accused me of having a double standard because I had not castigated Kwame Toure (a.k.a. Stokely Carmichael), the prominent 1960s black activist, for his alleged denunciation of Zionism during a speech at the University of Maryland in February.
"I haven't seen one person, paper or radio station, take this issue and print it," said the writer. "The Post had it in Saturday's paper on the inside." Though articles have appeared in several papers since, several callers made a similar point.
According to students who attended the speech, Toure, in answer to a question, said, "The only good Zionist is a dead Zionist." I must confess that I simply did not know about Kwame Toure's remark.
Nor did I know about the storm of controversy that had blown up between Jewish and black students over the statement. Jewish student leaders have organized protests, demanded that Toure not be paid, picketed and demanded an apology from the Black Student Union, which brought Toure to campus during Black History Month.
For their part, black student leaders say they do not intend to apologize for Toure's remark and will pay him out of their pockets if his $700 honorarium, which comes indirectly from student fees, is withheld.
In a season of outlandish statements, the one attributed to Kwame Toure ranks close to the top of the list. Of course it was wrong, even asinine, for Toure to make such an inflammatory comment.
The statement is particularly sad because as a youthful activist during the 1960s, Carmichael was such a good spokesman for black people's aspirations at a time of great and unyielding oppression.
But we've come a long way since then, with some blacks moving into areas of power and recognition unheard of two decades ago. And while there is a long way yet to go, there's no excuse for hateful statements that echo the kind of genocidal philosophy that snatched the American frontier from the Native American, especially about a group that has also faced oppression.
Instead of fanning fires of discord, it's time to build on progress, with blacks and other groups moving to coalesce where practical. That's one reason the specter of fighting factions in College Park is so disheartening. Rather than finding ways to cooperate, some students want to close the campus gates to controversial speakers.
All this is counterproductive, for universities must be citadels of diversity and free speech, not refuges of rigid thought. University of Maryland Chancellor John Slaughter was right when he said, "The best defense against violent and extremist behavior is not a new set of rules or sanctions that attempt to penalize the offending group but a campus committed to tolerance and compassion." Free speech can thrive in that kind of fertile soil, but an alien seed like the Toure statement cannot grow.
It is interesting to note that when some conservatives heard about the Schroeder incident, they alleged that nonconservative journalists overlook liberals who make questionable racial comments but villify conservatives who say the same things.
But that was exactly my point. It makes no difference whether a liberal, radical or conservative makes an offensive remark; such a remark has no place in our democracy. For injustice, not simply race, is the bottom line of my concern.