By Michael Miner

What’s Wrong With Being an Anti-Semite

This is a story about sympathies and where they lie. Mine lie with civility, freedom from fear, and the rule of reasonable laws. And they can’t help but lie with a columnist who wrote a column that didn’t work. I’ve written some of those myself.

Mike Royko’s sympathies lay with a “mope”–Royko’s word–who got drunk and did something “really stupid.” The mope picked up the phone and delivered an anti-Semitic diatribe that could have landed him in prison. Royko happens to believe the law that would have put him there should be rewritten or abolished. But instead of a cogent argument for that viewpoint, some readers found Royko making excuses for behavior that far exceeded the bounds of permissible mopery. As a long, thoughtful letter published in last Friday’s Tribune put it, “Royko fanned the flames of bigotry by minimizing the hate crime and sympathizing with the criminal.”

A Royko column last month told the tale of Melvin and Frank. Melvin is a bankruptcy attorney, and Frank is the mope. Royko did Frank the kindness of withholding his last name and the further kindness of not repeating the message Frank left on Melvin’s office voice mail one night last autumn. “I very often omit names if I think there’ll be pain to the family,” Royko told me last week. As for Frank’s message, “It sounded like what it was–the rantings of an asshole who happened to be drunk.”

To even the playing field I won’t tell you Melvin’s last name either. Royko did. He explained in his column that Frank–a moonlighting cabdriver–came home from his second job late one night and, after downing a few drinks, happened to see Melvin’s ad on TV. The ad infuriated Frank, Royko wrote, because it made bankruptcy sound attractive. Frank had gone through bankruptcy himself, and it had been a nightmare.

So Frank picked up the phone and called Melvin’s office number.

At this point in his narration, Royko wrote lines that came back to haunt him: “I’m not going to repeat precisely what Frank said because if I did, it would cause even the slightest sympathy for him to evaporate. Take my word that it was disgusting, obscene, abusive, anti-Semitic and stupid.”

But it’s one thing to tell and another to show. If what Frank said was that awful, some readers wondered, what stake did Royko have in preserving some sympathy for him? The balance of the column made Royko’s sympathy clear. It’s the same sympathy he’s offered through the years to mopes chewed to bits by the system. He described the cops knocking on Frank’s door (Frank had helpfully left his name and phone number on Melvin’s voice mail), Frank spending a night in jail, Frank being persuaded by a court-appointed attorney to plead guilty to a felony under the Illinois Hate Crime Act, and Frank being ordered to perform 200 hours of community service. And that wasn’t the end of it, Royko went on. Under the same Hate Crime Act, Melvin recently sued Frank for damages for the emotional distress he’d suffered.

“The hate-crime law was written to please every conceivable minority,” Royko wrote. “It can even be applied to a boozy phone call from someone who didn’t like a TV commercial…. What’s next in our hypersensitive society? Hate crimes for yelling at a Bears quarterback or a Cubs pitcher?”

Royko talked at length with Frank before writing his column. He didn’t talk to Melvin at all. “I tried to reach [Melvin] to ask how his emotional distress was going,” Royko noted flippantly, “but his office said he is out of town and wouldn’t return calls.”

The headline to Royko’s column, catching its spirit, announced, “TV hucksters got you raving mad? Keep it to yourself.”

When Melvin the “huckster” got back to town he read Royko’s column. He’d considered himself the victim of the affair, but apparently in Royko’s eyes he was the perpetrator. “He said, I’m not going to tell you what’s in the message because you’re liable to lose sympathy for Frank,” Melvin told me. “He admitted his objective was to create sympathy for Frank and paint me as some kind of money-grubbing Jewish lawyer.”

Of course Royko’s concern for our sympathies wasn’t the only–or even the foremost–reason he didn’t repeat Frank’s message to Melvin. He couldn’t. Not in the Tribune. There wasn’t even a way for him to paraphrase it. I’m not so fettered, however, so here is the message Frank left on Melvin’s voice mail as I heard it myself:

“I saw you on TV. I guess being Jewish is all part of it, right? Why don’t you get your bags packed and get your fuckin’ ass back to Israel where you fuckin’ belong–because you are one fuckin’ parasite, one fuckin’ Jewish parasite. OK? And if you have any question as to what a Jewish parasite is–a Jewish scumbag–someone who should end up in the fuckin’ ovens in Germany, OK? You should have been fuckin’ sent into the fuckin’ ovens. So if you have any question about that, my number is ——, and I’ll be glad to explain to you what a Jewish fuckhead is, OK? I suppose you probably learned that from your mother–I bet she got fucked up the ass all the time. And your dad probably did suck a lot of Jewish dick. Right? Anyway, take care and have a wonderful Jewish Friday.”

When Melvin heard Frank’s message he called the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL told him to call the police. Eventually the police invited Frank down to the station. He recalls, “I told the officer, ‘I believe I made a call–the name sounds familiar. I don’t remember what I said–how could I? It was a month ago, and I believe I had several drinks.’ Frank says a prosecutor showed him a transcript of his call, and he signed it “because I wanted to get the hell out of there. I was badgered. ‘You sign this the door’s open.'” But the door didn’t open. Instead he was kept in a cell overnight and charged with a hate crime. He says he’d never heard of such a thing as a hate crime.

“I didn’t search him out,” says Frank of Melvin. “I don’t know him. I don’t hate him. I didn’t intend to hurt him. I didn’t intend to threaten him. I made a onetime phone call because I got fed up with a particular TV ad….I was a mope. That doesn’t make me a felon. I’m no skinhead–you know what that means? I’m more of a Jerry Garcia type. I’m a pretty peaceful person.” Frank tells me he’s had Jewish friends all his life. And now that he’s looking at a lawsuit he’s hired a Jewish lawyer.

Richard Grossman, the lawyer, told me he took the case because a freedom of speech issue is involved. “Believe me, it offends me what he said, but I believe he has the right to say that. Having an opinion and expressing it does not become a crime when using a telephone to express it. I understand there are telephone harassment laws. But to call up one time and say you’re a son of a bitch I think is perfectly constitutionally protected.”

Grossman went on, “I have a letter from Frank where he says, ‘Mr. Grossman, I’m so sorry that any of this ever happened.’ Obviously the guy was getting a little tanked and he was getting pretty irritated. He certainly is sorry now. He said he really doesn’t have these sentiments. He just wanted to say something that would get [Melvin’s] goat at the time. It seems a little lame, but that’s what he was telling me.”

But Melvin wants more than anecdotal evidence of Frank’s remorse. “Now, when everybody knows who he is and he’s got a felony conviction and he’s being sued, he wants to be nice nice,” Melvin says. “But it’s the old story–everybody has to be responsible for his actions.”

At first Royko didn’t want to discuss his column with me, other than to pass along the message that he had no second thoughts about it. But last Friday the Tribune published a damning letter from Betsy Shuman-Moore, a staff attorney for the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. In the name of her organization, Shuman-Moore laid into him. She took “strenuous exception” to his “cavalier dismissal of a recent anti-Semitic hate crime and encouragement of his readers to commit more hate crimes.” She said Royko was wrong in describing “the crime as one against a TV commercial. It was a disturbing, vile attack against a Jewish man.” And by “minimizing the hate crime and sympathizing with the criminal,” Royko “fanned the flames of bigotry”–his column “spawned a flurry of hate mail and hate calls from around the country addressed to the original target, whom Royko had named.” Both the column “and its aftermath are crude examples of what happens when opinion leaders fail to respond to bigotry with the revulsion that it deserves, and instead offer comfort to the perpetrators.”

For good measure she pointed out that the Illinois Hate Crime Act doesn’t protect sports teams.

Royko’s wife showed him the letter in the Tribune. Then he called me.

“I would like to see where in that column I encouraged readers to commit hate crimes,” he said. “I don’t see that I encouraged readers to do anything. I don’t think it was a cavalier dismissal of a hate crime.” The Hate Crime Act is “bad law,” he said, but “nobody’s been willing to take it on. This was a very bad interpretation of the law. I’ve had calls that were every bit as venomous. It would never occur to me to have anybody arrested. Christ, I don’t even report death threats. The things he said were terrible–he should have been popped in the mouth. But whether something left on a commercial business’s voice mail can be interpreted as a hate crime–he didn’t call this man’s home. When you call his law office you get an incredible array of options. It’s like calling a big corporation. To me, it was directed at a major business.”

What if there were no Melvin? Royko wondered. What if “Melvin” were an actor? (Further suppose that “Melvin” were an Episcopalian actor.) Would Frank have committed a hate crime if he’d been talking to “Melvin” instead of Melvin?

Phone harassment is a Class B misdemeanor punishable by no more than six months in prison. But when phone harassment is prosecuted as a hate crime it becomes a Class Four felony and the maximum sentence becomes three years. “The existing laws covering crimes are OK,” Royko told me. “I just don’t believe you can determine what is or isn’t a hate crime. To some extent it requires mind reading. Maybe if I was a minority frequently on the receiving end of it I’d feel differently. Or if I hadn’t grown used to abuse myself. Maybe I’ve become too thick hided. You’ve got to do everything you can to stop this, but there’s a limit on ‘everything you can.’ A felony conviction’s pretty damn extreme for stupid talk.”

Shuman-Moore (in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll acknowledge that she’s a friend of mine) argued the other side in her letter. Hate crimes, she wrote, “cause more harm than others. Those targeted are victims of crime and discrimination, and they frequently suffer severely. By definition, hate crimes are aimed at and injure the entire group or community–blacks or Jews for example–against whom they are directed. And there is the potential that failing to respond to one such crime will lead to more.”

Frank was in fact speaking to Melvin, not “Melvin.” And Melvin had no way of knowing that Frank was just a mope, not a neo-Nazi with a gun, or that Frank had no wish to hurt him, or that once Frank slept it off he would only dimly remember that he’d even made the call.

Royko told me I should know that, aside from Shuman-Moore’s letter, there wasn’t much reaction to his column pro or con. “The phone hasn’t been jingling from Jewish readers. A few E-mails–that’s been it.” He was disappointed; he’d wanted to stir up a debate on the Hate Crime Act. And the “flurry of hate mail and hate calls” claimed by Shuman-Moore in her letter came to one letter and half a dozen phone calls to Melvin, she said.

So wasn’t it a stretch to assert that Royko “fanned the flames of bigotry”? Perhaps. That one letter, which was mailed in Akron, Ohio, arrived in an envelope marked “Personal and Confidential,” with the return address of a “Miss Judith B Gold Attorney at Law” in the upper left-hand corner.

When Melvin opened the envelope a copy of Royko’s column from a local paper fell out. With it was a one-page letter. The letter was illustrated with a drawing of a hand, the middle finger extended. The text began, “Fuck you, you dirty, slimy, Jew cocksucker.” It ended, “Sue me you dirty son of a bitch.”

The duty of a headline writer is to cut to the essence of a news story or a column. A good headline often delivers the punch the reporter pulled.

I read Royko the headline that appeared over his column in the Ohio paper: “Who doesn’t hate those lawyer ads?”

“Aw geez,” said Royko.

Send in the Clones

Death is hard enough on the dying. Why should the living have to suffer too? If you miss someone enough to mourn him, how can it be wrong to plan ahead for a replacement?

Hello. I’m not actually an ethicist, but I play one on television. And I’ve been asked by my friends at Clones “R” Us to comment on a major scientific breakthrough. We’ve all been hearing a lot of talk lately about the pros and cons of duplicating folks who already exist. If you’re like most people, this talk has left you troubled and confused. On the one hand, you know what an imaginative gift a few cells scraped from your duodenum and captured in a crystal vial would make for your sons or daughters on their wedding day. On the other hand, you don’t want to anger God. What to do?

May we reason together? Though I’d never presume to speak for the Almighty, there are people who do whom I respect, and it seems to me they make a lot of sense. What they tell me is that cloning’s a perfectly natural part of life. Let me try to explain with this simple diagram. Here we see an outline of the human body. Now I’m going to draw some arrows that strike the body here on the left side, and then some others that leave the body over here on the right. What these arrows represent are the atoms our bodies are made of–atoms that are coming and going seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

That’s right. According to what distinguished scientists say, our own bodies are constantly being duplicated by the turnover of creation’s basic building blocks. It is truly amazing. Now let’s suppose that over here on the right we put some sort of catch basin where we could collect these departing atoms. And let’s suppose we reassembled these atoms into last year’s us. Who’d be the original us? Who’d be the copy? Wouldn’t you love to know our Creator’s thoughts on that one?

For my money, that’s a theological puzzler that’s going to keep heaven and earth busy for centuries to come. Simple cloning, in the meantime, makes good old common sense. Haven’t Americans lived long enough with the heartache of unassuageable grief? When it’s 2:30 in the morning and your teenage daughter hasn’t come home and you fear the worst, won’t you feel a little better knowing that the man from Clones “R” Us was by just yesterday?

And what about that other burden so many of us have borne so long in silence? I’m speaking of old-fashioned debilitating neurosis. The next time you pay a psychiatrist $100 an hour to hear you complain about the mistakes your parents made when you were growing up, what a comfort it’ll be knowing that you won’t make them. That’s because the person you intend to raise will be yourself–someone you understand inside and out.

Narcissism? I don’t think so. To my mind it’s just smart child rearing. Once you know which way the tree’s inclined it’s a whole lot easier to bend the twig.

News Bites

The Sun-Times just scooped the Tribune on two big political stories. On Sunday the Sun-Times broke the news that Thomas Hynes was resigning as Cook County assessor. On Tuesday it was alone in reporting Governor Edgar’s recent meetings in Washington held with an eye to running next year for the Senate.

Chicago Ink, the free radical monthly anticipated in Hot Type a couple of weeks ago, made an interesting debut. The backbone of the 16-page issue is its 6 feisty pages of analysis by David Peterson (see page five of this issue of the Reader) of redevelopment at Cabrini-Green. And there’s a curious essay by Lowell Thompson on Oprah Winfrey that changes its mind about her halfway through.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mike Royko photo by Jon Randolph; Betsy Shuman-Moore photo by Randy Tunnel.