Divisive rhetoric creates breeding ground for hate

August 26, 1999|By Michael Olesker

SOMEWHERE OUT there -- in Frederick County? in Washington County? in hiding, and in justifiable embarrassment? -- is state Sen. Alex Mooney, who isn't returning his telephone calls these days, perhaps because he's just begun to weigh the impact of words.

Two weeks ago, Mooney sent a fund-raising letter to conservative Republicans, asking for "at least $500" each to defend his Senate seat against "militant homosexuals targeting me for defeat."

Two days ago, on Mooney's home turf, members of the Ku Klux Klan sent out letters of their own attacking gays. About 1,200 residents in Frederick awoke to find Klan leaflets in their mailboxes. The leaflets cited biblical verse critical of homosexuals -- while carefully taking no note whatsoever of references to God loving all his children.

Mooney, perhaps feeling a little unloved himself these days, and not wanting anyone to make the connection between his blast at gays and the Klan's, immediately sent out his own follow-up message.

He called the KKK leaflets "completely unacceptable," and said the Klan "should not exist in Frederick County." He said all people deserve respect.

It is lovely that he mentions this now. He is 28 years old and a freshman in the legislature, so blame some of his letter-writing on callow and small-minded and insensitive youth. But he should be ashamed of what he said and what he may have helped unleash.

His four-page letter, with the state seal on the opening page, referred six times to "militant homosexuals." It warned his supporters that his successful fight this year against Gov. Parris N. Glendening's bill to grant civil rights protections to gays and lesbians helped fight off "cross-dressing" in the workplace.

The letter was criticized by the state Senate president, and by the Senate's Republican leader, who said the language was too harsh, and by civil rights activists, who called Mooney "a one-issue politician who's an embarrassment to the state."

And that's only part of it.

When any politician uses such language, attempting to divide people by separating and stigmatizing the minority, the gesture itself becomes an unleashing, a legitimizing of such tactics for others.

The Klan's leaflets, in Mooney's home district, two weeks after his own singling out of gays, is no coincidence. The Klan, more ridiculed than feared in modern America, found itself newly emboldened by Mooney's remarks.

And that's only part of it.

On the same day the Klan sent out its letters, somebody in Baltimore made up a name -- Aryan Blood Brotherhood, which police believe is phony -- and sent out leaflets spreading hatred about blacks, Jews, gays, "half-breeds and other immigrants" and thus declaring that Martin O'Malley should be elected mayor.

To his credit, O'Malley called a news conference denouncing the leaflets and the sentiments, and reiterating the need for inclusion of all people. To his credit, Carl Stokes added, "This letter is clearly intended to incite racial hatred. It is time for our city to come together across racial barriers."

With 19 days remaining until the city's primary election, and sensitivities high, such words are the language of healers. If they sometimes sound like cliches, they also reinforce essential standards from a community's leaders: Willful attempts to divide people by race or religion, or by private sexual desires, are intolerable.

On the evening of the so-called Aryan Blood Brotherhood letter, the major candidates for mayor convened at a meeting of BLEWS, the black-Jewish forum of Baltimore. About 125 people were there, old-line liberals who still remember alliances of the past that drew the two minority groups together and want to build on that foundation.

So there was much feel-good talk from the mayoral candidates about bringing people together. Afterward, though, Lawrence Bell was asked about remarks he'd made to a large, mostly African-American crowd last weekend in Druid Hill Park, where he said votes should be cast for him because "I look like you."

"Did I say that?" Bell asked. "I need to go back and see what I said."

"There were a lot of people who heard it," he was told.

"I don't remember," Bell said. "I have to go back."

Clearly upset now, Bell added, "You know, that's not my history. My whole history is trying to bring people together."

Which makes some of the gestures of his campaign so disheartening to voters. In the Gonzales/Arscott poll released yesterday, Bell's one-time, 16-point lead has vanished. He's now third, at 20 percent, behind Stokes' 32 percent and O'Malley's 30 percent.

More telling was crossover voting: Stokes has 27 percent of the white vote, and O'Malley 18 percent of the black vote. Bell, who once had 31 percent of the white vote, now gets just 5 percent.

Those are hurtful numbers to a candidate whose language on race was always inclusive. But he's given conflicting signals in this campaign. People pay attention to political signals. Language that divides us makes us a little crazy. You can feel it in Baltimore, and in Frederick, too.

Pub Date: 08/26/99

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