Editor's note: This commentary is by Steve May, who is a licensed clinical social worker working in addiction medicine for the last 15 years, treating addicts, alcoholics and their families in a variety of settings. He was a Democratic candidate for the state Senate in the Chittenden District in 2018.
Oliver Wendall Holmes, the former United States Supreme Court justice, noted that “… living in a free society empowers the public to utter the concepts we find most unconscionable.”
On Christmas Eve, a neighbor of ours in St. Albans chose to test that concept and took to the street posting a placard proclaiming that: “IT’S OK TO BE ANTI-SEMITIC.” These last few years have seen a spike in intolerance of all kinds. Sadly we like to think that Vermont is immune to these kinds of currents. Occasions like this remind us that our state is not.
What’s happened earlier this week in St. Albans has not happened in isolation. Incidents of all kinds of hate speech and hate crimes are up and have been up over the last few years both locally and nationally, according to the United States Department of Justice. It would be easy enough to conclude that this simply is someone who is misguided and acting out. But these kinds of acts create conditions that regularize acts of intolerance. Today it’s a placard or graffiti, and tomorrow it’s something far worse.
We are confronting an epidemic of anti-Semitism. According to the Anti-Defamation League, 2019 has seen a 20% increase in anti-Semitic incidents over 2018. This is not limited to St. Albans. We saw a murderous assault on a Kosher grocery in Jersey City, New Jersey, earlier in December. This stands along with a week of attacks in Brooklyn on identifiably Orthodox and Hasidic Jews through the week of Hanukkah, followed by a violent knife attack in Monsey.
These events, including our placard posting in St. Albans, all appear to have been isolated incidents. The fact that there appears to be no coordination should provide comfort to the larger community. But the fact that these acts of hatred of Jews are occurring in isolation is scary in its own right. These lone wolf attacks have perpetuated an environment in which activity against Jewish communities is acceptable.
Let’s be clear. A man walked into a Pittsburgh synagogue and single-handedly mounted a massacre. This singular act of Jew hatred was the worst single act of anti-Semitism in American history. Let us call this what it was, a pogrom. An act of rage governed by hatred of the Jewish people, because of their very Jewishness. The very existence of an American Jewish community created an existential crisis for this murderer and until he pulled the trigger on his gun, he had committed no crime. His only offense was to have been trafficking in poor judgment and the company of bad thoughts, bias and hatred.
A little more than two years ago, a group of white nationalists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, and raised their voices proclaiming that they would not be replaced by a “fantastical Jewish boss” which is central to many far right narratives, but has little actual basis in reality. Instead of confronting the evil unleashed in this moment, the White House spoke instead of decent people on both sides.
The simple truth is that decent people don’t broker in hate speech. Once upon a time, in an America not so long ago, this concept was part of our common belief system, left, right and center. The idea that hate speech has become a regular part of our politics is simply beyond comprehension. The fact that this point has to be uttered aloud speaks volumes. As Vermonters, politics and public life are participatory. Politics and public life is integral to who we are as a community. Big ideas matter here. Maybe more than anyplace else in the country. At least, that’s what we tell ourselves. We like to believe that we are those people at town meeting making our communities better places to live through reasoned discourse with our neighbors. Reason still matters here — unlike a lot the rest of the country, Vermont is a place where people still talk to one another. That as fundamental a Vermont value as there is.
It's not OK to engage in hate speech. Not once, not ever. It's not OK to hang a placard on a telephone pole calling for discrimination against one segment of the community in advancement of another. There was a time when these things seemed plain for the whole world to see, but this week in St Albans that wasn't true.
If ideas ever mattered here in Vermont like we think they do, if they are currency for our politics, then hate speech leaves us bankrupt. A world view grounded in bias is nothing short of poison for the mind and must be attacked forcefully. There is simply no place in Vermont for this vile kind of gutter politics which appeals to our basest demons. Pitting people against one another is not in our character. It’s not who we are. Our public discourse has to be as good as we are. Failing to provide constructive engagement reflects on all of us. There is no place in public life for beliefs like those which appear on these placards in St. Albans, our common decency dictates that we combat these ideas wherever they arise. Forging community together demands nothing less.