The Year in Double Takes

Did they really say that?


This column is being written at year's end, a good time to round up the unused highlights from the past 12 months' file of double takes–news stories I had to recheck because it seemed so unlikely that they were real, along with quotes that left me wondering, "Could anybody have meant to say that?"

We may as well start our tour in Ontario, where last fall The Boston Globe and other newspapers reported a new milestone in sensitivity: The Central Experimental Farm, a government-run farm museum, had decided to stop giving cows human names like Elsie and Bessie because such names "might give offense to women." Said museum director Genevieve Ste.-Marie: "Some people are…sensitive to finding their name on an animal. I am, for example. Let's say you came in and found your name on a cow, and you thought the cow was old and ugly." Names like Clover, Rhubarb, and Buttercup were still deemed OK, with borderline cases such as Daisy being decided on a "cow-by-cow basis." (Also cited as acceptable was "Bossy.") After a flood of comment came in from an astounded public, virtually none of it supportive of the policy, the museum reversed itself.

From Britain, meanwhile, comes a fresh advance in the ever-popular art of grousing about how modern technology has wrecked an idealized past. You've already heard ad infinitum about how the structure of modern life artificially isolates us all and destroys family and community togetherness, what with all those one- and two-child families, sprawling suburbs, and auto-based work patterns, to say nothing of the nature-defying evils of biotechology and the accursed Internet. But now British writer Peter Hitchens, in his new book The Abolition of Britain, identifies an even more sinister culprit to be added to the list. "The spread of central heating and double glazing," he writes, "has allowed even close-knit families to avoid each other's company in well-warmed houses, rather than huddling round a single hearth forced into unwanted companionship, and so compelled to adapt to each other's foibles and become more social, less selfish beings." Hitchens, whose brother is the better-known leftist writer Christopher Hitchens, is a Tory and traditionalist conservative from whom much is clearly going to be heard in the future (about the past).

What is it, anyway, with these British conservatives? Noted history writer Paul Johnson (Modern Times, A History of the American People) boasts a considerable following among liberty-minded Americans, few of whom apparently have taken the time to check out the decidedly unlibertarian ideas he sometimes vents in his weekly London Spectator column (titled "And Another Thing"). With his long background in journalism, Johnson not surprisingly holds strong views on freedom of the press–but they're the opposite of the views you might expect him to hold. His January 16, 1999, column proposed an Abuses of the Media Act that would, among other things, prohibit journalists from publishing material that invades the vaguely defined privacy of the people they're writing about (unless they can demonstrate a "public interest" in the reporting).

A dangerous idea? It's just the start of what Johnson has in mind: "A broader statute is required, one which would deal with at least two other areas: the use of technology and codes of conduct. The law should oblige media outlets to keep inventories of all reporting tools, such as tape recorders and cameras"–mercifully, Johnson leaves pencils and note pads unenumerated–"and make the use of instruments not so inventoried unlawful. Each use of them, and the purpose, would have to be logged with authorizing signatures by a senior executive of the organization. Second, media outlets would be obliged by law to adopt a comprehensive code of conduct along the lines of that now covering ministers and MPs [members of Parliament]. Breaches of the code would thus become professional offenses, and in certain cases criminal ones."

After reading that one I wanted nothing so much as to grab a copy of our First Amendment and hug it to my breast like a puppy. I gave the amendment an even more heartfelt clutch when another story came out of the U.K. later in the year, about the official British panel of inquiry that issued the so-called Macpherson report. (See "Trial by Fury," October 1999.) The panel was convened after an incident in which a young black man was set upon and murdered on the street by white hoodlums, touching off a national discussion very much along the lines of this country's "hate crimes" debate. Its proposals, however, wound up going much further than even the most ambitious American hate crime laws.

To begin with, the Macpherson report proposed that the definition of a "racist incident" be "any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person" (emphasis added); that the police be expected to investigate and document such incidents "with equal commitment" whether the conduct in question was criminal or not; that the rule against double jeopardy be suspended for many defendants charged with such incidents but initially acquitted; and that consideration be given to amending the law to criminalize the use of "racist language" in private as well as public locales. "Taken together," notes David Frum in Canada's National Post, the recommendations "would make it possible for anyone in Britain to launch an investigation of anyone else for words uttered in the privacy of his own home. There's a word for that kind of regime: it's totalitarian." The proposals haven't passed yet, but on the other hand they didn't arouse a huge outcry.

Still, it would be unwise for Americans to get too smug about the superior tenacity with which we hew to the concepts of civil liberty. Consider, for example, the continuing expansion of American harassment law, which, in the view of some legal authorities, has made it legally hazardous while in an irritable mood to snap "Idiot!" at one of your co-workers or classmates, since such epithets might contribute to a hostile environment for mentally disabled colleagues. Along with restricting a wide range of speech, harassment law has also begun to nudge many regulated entities toward affirmative professions of fealty to the prescribed orthodoxy. Thus employment law expert Jon Zimring of Duane, Morris & Heckscher told The Christian Science Monitor a few months ago that under recent expansions of the law managers will now have to "communicate to their employees that they agree with, personally believe in, and will enforce the harassment policy" (emphasis added).

Don't "personally believe in" the harassment policy, but plan to enforce it just because the government requires you to? You may be headed out the door. Under an agreement negotiated with federal bias cops, the Monitor reports, "salaried workers at all 23 U.S. Ford plants–with a total of about 40,000 workers–won't even be considered for a promotion for two years if they've been disciplined for not supporting the policy against sexual and racial harassment" (emphasis added). A second employment lawyer told the Monitor he expects such policies soon to be "standard operating practice" at U.S. companies.

In truth, 1999 was not the best of years for the free speech cause. We learned, for example, that presidential candidate Bill Bradley harbors all sorts of surprising ideas on the subject. "Special interest groups that run political advertisements should pay their opponents to respond," said Bradley on a September 21 radio call-in program in New Hampshire. He defended his plan as "simply a way to allow the market to work" (!) and said that under the law he would like to enact, "when issue ads are on, a 100 percent tax is given to the other side." A caller objected that "you are compelling people to support the opposing view, and you assume there is an opposing view, rather than many opposing views." Bradley acknowledged that the caller had a point but stuck by his position. Writing in National Journal, Stuart Taylor said Bradley had displayed in the exchange a "stunning disregard for First Amendment rights."

Then there's the Clinton administration, with its federal lawsuit against tobacco companies, which defines it as "racketeering" for the tobacco companies to have promoted "false and misleading positions on issues" (emphasis added). Particular counts of "racketeering" listed in the complaint include sending out press releases, buying full-page "issue ads" in newspapers, criticizing reports from the U.S. surgeon general, and circulating copies of a magazine article congenial to the companies' point of view. If a court upholds such a complaint, a wide range of unpopular interest groups might in the future be charged with "racketeering" over their advocacy activities.

Of course, it sometimes seems that tobacco companies are a special case: Absolutely anything may be done to them, and no extreme of hypocrisy displayed by their politician and trial-lawyer opponents will actually cause their tongues to cleave to the roofs of their mouths or provoke an angry lightning bolt to descend on them from the sky. Thus one of the notable add-ons to the tobacco litigation came recently when more than a dozen Indian tribes sued cigarette makers, complaining that they'd been cut out of their rightful share of the settlement loot. Just one problem: For many years the exemption of tribal sales from state tobacco taxes has made reservation "smoke shops" a huge moneymaker for many tribes, allowing them to cater to the smoking demand of non-Indian purchasers from a wide radius.

Indeed, as recently as 1997, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development furnished the Reno Sparks Indian Colony with $450,000 "to build a smoke shop along Interstate 80 near the California border," according to the Bend, Oregon, Bulletin. The lawyer suing on behalf of many of the tribes conceded to Denver's Rocky Mountain News that some of his clients were themselves in the tobacco retailing business but said "it's terrible they got put in that position," which makes it sound as if running one of these money mints is something that could happen to any of us on a bad day. Coming soon: They forced us to run casinos.

Our final rub-your-eyes quote was actually uttered several years ago but finally made it into the mass-circulation record last year thanks to REASON Contributing Editor Cathy Young, who has written a series of articles in Salon, The Detroit News, and elsewhere on the abuse of domestic restraining orders. Young found that such orders, typically meant to restrict the movement of men who show a dangerous proclivity to harm their wives or children, are handed down by judges in many cases where the evidence is weak that a husband is or has been abusive; carry harsh consequences for many of their hapless targets; and sometimes are used as a bargaining chip by the wife's side in divorce negotiations.

The quote: "Your job is not to become concerned about the constitutional rights of the man that you're violating as you grant a restraining order," said Richard Russell, an Ocean City, New Jersey, judge caught on tape addressing his peers at a 1995 conference. "Throw him out on the street, give him the clothes on his back and tell him, see ya around….The woman needs this protection because the statute granted her that protection….They have declared domestic violence to be an evil in our society. So we don't have to worry about the rights."

These days, too many people in positions of authority figure they don't have to worry about the rights. Which strikes me as all the more reason why we should.