Horror stories about punishments for insensitive behavior on college campuses are old news. But leftist hypersensitivity has permeated everyday life in the real world as well. In Manassas, Virginia, a white woman called 911 at 3:08 A.M. to report that some black men—whom she referred to as “niggers”—were trying to break into her house. According to the Detroit News, the 911 dispatcher, also a white woman, sent police but went on to lecture the besieged woman: “The next time I would appreciate it if you would not call black gentlemen ‘niggers,’ OK? That offends me, and I don’t like to hear it.” She asked the distraught caller how she would like to be called “white trash.”
As this case illustrates, the sensitivity police are everywhere. They are especially prevalent here in Michigan, where the sensitive are using intimidation and tyranny to flog the insensitive into line. For example, in May 1996, 57-year-old city councilwoman Gloria Sankuer of Warren (Michigan’s third largest city) complained that the City Council’s letterhead, referring to her as “councilman,” was offensive. “This mistake makes Warren look sexist and backward,” she said. “It needs to be fixed. It’s a matter of what’s proper.” Warren had a four-year supply of this offending stationery. The council unanimously decided to expend it by sending all Warren city volunteers and unpaid board and committee members letters of thanks, costing over $400. All to placate one touchy feminist in a suit.
As Sankuer’s case illustrates, the sensitivity mania opens up vast opportunities for busybodies. Ann Arborite Mark Hiselman, hearing of Sankuer’s complaints, “drove 60 miles to be at the council meeting so he could offer an alternative voice.” He tiled unavailingly to get the council to adopt the gender-free “councilor” over “councilman,” “councilwoman,” and “council member.”
At one time, this officious stranger, who does not even live in Warren, would have been deemed a public menace—which he is. By today’s standards, Hiselman is in the avant-garde of righteousness. But if anybody’s business is everybody’s business, nobody is safe from molestation.
And then there is the Steenbergh case. On the night of September 11, 1996, Warren’s Mayor Mark Steenbergh confronted John Harris, a 16-year-old black male, near Harris’s home. Earlier that day, Harris allegedly punched a 15-year-old girl, Wendy Smith, a friend of Steenbergh’s daughter, in the face. Mayor Steenbergh decided to stick up for her and sought Harris out. He allegedly choked Harris, shoved him, and shouted “I’ll get all you niggers” as he left the scene.
Within a week FBI agents were interviewing Harris’s family. In November, Steenbergh’s lawyer said, Michigan state police made a surprise after-hours raid, without a search warrant, on Warren City Hall looking for new evidence against Steenbergh. They found nothing. Apparently the sensitivity police wanted to get Mark Steenbergh badly enough to drag in the FBI and trample his constitutional rights with unreasonable searches and seizures.
Mayor Steenbergh was eventually charged with assault and ethnic intimidation. The maximum punishment for assault—a misdemeanor in Michigan— is a jail sentence of 90 days and a fine of $500. Ethnic intimidation, on the other hand, is a felony; those found guilty can be jailed for up to four years. Under Michigan’s 1990 ethnic intimidation law, using a racial slur during a fight is not ethnic intimidation—but a fight or threat motivated by racial animosity is. The whole thing turns, then, on the motives of the miscreant—in other words, whether or not he is a racist.
After deliberating for one and a half hours, an all-white jury acquitted Steenbergh of all charges. Said jury foreman John Boyd, “It was the general feeling that some of the stories of the witnesses who supposedly were right there didn’t make sense. Basically, it was the lack of credible evidence to support the charges.”
Apparently, however, a lack of credible evidence is not enough to deter the FBI. Even though Steenbergh has been acquitted of state charges, as we go to press the FBI has not closed its case against him, leaving open the possibility that he may be prosecuted / or violating Harris’s civil rights, a federal offense.
A more grotesque case is that of Wayne County Circuit Judge Andrea Ferrara. In February 1997, Ferrara’s ex-husband, Howard Tar j eft, released to the media tapes of telephone conversations in which a woman, supposedly Judge Ferrara, used slurs such as “nigger” and “Jew whore.” The Detroit NAACP wrote to Wayne County Circuit Judge James Rashid, asking him to order Ferrara to resign from the bench. The Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission began investigating Ferrara. Meanwhile, her friends and supporters, including African-Americans and Jews, rallied to her defense. Ferrara claimed that she never made the remarks, that the tapes are fakes, and that Tarjeft is out to embarrass her.
Tarjeft and Ferrara divorced bitterly in 1985. Tarjeft claims he made the tapes to “protect himself during their vicious custody battle with Ferrara over their 14-year-old twin sons. He says he released them because he felt guilty about helping a racist get elected to the bench. Sure he did. Tarjeft released the tapes just days before he and Ferrara were scheduled to appear for a hearing over $12,000 that Ferrara claimed he owed her for back child support for their sons.
Asked by Judge Rashid to step down temporarily while the allegations of racism are being investigated, Ferrara announced in March that she was taking a three-month medical leave, until June 2. The Michigan Supreme Court suspended her with pay on May 6. On June 11, it appointed Vesta Svenson, former 36th District Court judge, to oversee a disciplinary hearing.
Based on the alleged racist remarks, Ferrara was charged with judicial misconduct. Hearings began in September. One of her 14-year-old sons testified that Ferrara had said “nigger” on several occasions. He also claimed that she had asked him if there was a way to destroy the infamous tapes. Ferrara denied her son’s accusations, claiming Tarjeft had coached him to make her look bad, an allegation that Tarjeft denies. Understandably, Ferrara became emotional and accused the judge of “ruining my family” and “allowing my children to be used as pawns in an extortion scheme.”
In a damaging blow to Ferrara, Avela Smith, an unemployed black woman, admitted that a letter praising Ferrara that she had sent to the Michigan Chronicle (a black newspaper) had been written by Ferrara for Smith’s signature. Allan Sobel, the general counsel for Michigan’s Judicial Tenure Commission, added a new misconduct charge: fabricating evidence. Other minorities, however, testified that they do not believe that Ferrara is a racist. As we go to press. Judge Svenson is preparing her report to the Judicial Tenure Commission, which will decide whether Ferrara should be reprimanded or removed from her job.
So we have a public servant under investigation, who has left a job she may very well lose, over alleged racial slurs in a private conversation with her ex-husband who has strong reasons for wanting to ruin her. True, nobody wants a biased judge—but a few words spoken in anger or frustration do not a racist make. One would think that a charge of judicial misconduct regarding race would concern whether or not Ferrara was unfair to blacks and other minorities in court—not words supposedly spoken among family. The whole thing smells fishy.
A naïf (that is, your average American) might say that the sensitivity crusade is much ado about nothing, and that this too shall pass when Americans’ native good sense reasserts itself But as Ayn Rand’s villain Ellsworth Toohey observed, “there’s always a purpose in nonsense. Don’t bother to examine a folly—ask yourself only what it accomplishes.” What the sensitivity folly is accomplishing is the sort of leverage over people commonly seen in a reign of terror.
Notice how much damage can be inflicted over accusations of racism and insensitivity, how quickly mere hearsay is seized on as proof positive, how quickly demonstrators and other such busybodies swing into action, how little recourse the accused have other than frightened denials and groveling for mercy. But perhaps the most disturbing thing is how little resistance there is to this reign of nonsense. If enough prospective victims defied it, the whole grotesque “sensitivity” jig would be up. But, confronted with demands that they slap their own faces with written apologies, Americans usually respond with slavish compliance. Typically, the accused parties strive to appease their persecutors; to either deny saying the offending things or to assure the public that they did not mean anything racist, sexist, or homophobic; to apologize, abjectly, extravagantly, endlessly; to confess that yes, they may have been insensitive; to scramble to make amends. (Consider, here, the cases of Denny’s and Texaco.)
Rand said that “no injustice or exploitation can succeed for long without the sanction of the victim.” It looks like these crusaders have Americans pegged: we really are insensitive — to threats to our liberty and affronts to our self-respect.
In The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote perceptively of how the Moscow show trial defendants were weaklings, wanting above all to live pleasantly, and who therefore were cowed before Stalin’s first blow was struck. A modern American’s highest priority is an affluent, entertainment-rich lifestyle and social acceptance. To preserve his pleasant existence, he will trade away virtually everything else. Like the hapless Russians, “insensitive” white Americans uncannily resemble rabbits trembling with terror, not questioning the hawk’s right to prey on them but merely hoping that the predator will pass them by this time. It is a formula for servility.