Long before the advent of “political correctness” as we have come to know (and hate) it, there was an active and ongoing campaign to outlaw “hate crimes.” This movement had its first big success in 1944, when 36 isolationists of varied backgrounds were indicted for sedition. In charging the defendants—who had nothing in common but opposition to the war—with engaging in a conspiracy to cause insubordination in the Armed Forces, the federal prosecutors did not bother to cite any facts to support their case. The entire basis for the government’s charge was the similarity of the defendants’ writings and beliefs. When the judge died, the government did not pursue the case, and the legal issue of thoughtcrime was left unresolved.

Politically, however, the idea that governments might criminalize certain thoughts was far from dead. The left, spearheaded by the Communist Party, launched a frontal attack on civil liberties, starting with the demand to revive and expand the sedition indictments: Their immediate goal was a show trial of the isolationists. But their long-range objective was far more radical, and they were not afraid to proclaim it openly.

In a pamphlet touted by Walter Winchell, professional anti-rightist Henry Hoke invoked the popular expression “there ought to be a law” to propose that “there should be laws, several of them, to prevent our nation’s being devoured by the bigots, the hate-peddlers, those who would deny equality to neighbors because of race, religion or national origin.” Furthermore, “there is no logical reason for refusing to extend our libel laws so that they protect the mass, as well as the individual.” If individuals can be hurt by libel and gain redress in a court of law, then why not whole classes of people? Hoke writes that stereotypes have victimized minority groups: “these people actually have been hurt, personally, because so many still insist that freedom of speech also means freedom to lie.” Such laws, concedes Hoke, will not wipe out prejudice “because a good portion of those who spread it are mentally diseased and chances are, for the next few generations anyway, we’ll have the mentally diseased with us.” To meet their rather ambitious goal of wiping out all “mental disease” (i.e., political opposition) in a few generations, Hoke and his friends had a few suggestions to help things along:

There should be some kind of law which would treat the causes that produce the bigots and hate-peddlers. It’s nonsense simply to “punish” the overt act which the causes produce. A whole section of America’s Fascist movement . . . is made up of people who are mentally ill.

While we don’t punish lepers, “at the same time we aren’t stupid enough to allow the leper to roam freely about our community.” Lest they “contaminate” society at large, the political lepers of the postwar period have to be locked up and “treated” for their “mental disease,” for their own good as well as society’s. “Some machinery must be set up whereby our ‘mental lepers’ can be segregated and given proper medical care.” Of course, the Soviet Union had long ago set up such machinery, which came to be called the Gulag.

In 1950, the campaign to enact “group libel” legislation received important intellectual and political backing from a sociological study commissioned by the American Jewish Committee. It purported to show that “reactionaries” were not just wrong but were suffering from the mental disease of “status resentment”—and were dangerous to boot. As Theodor Adorno put it in The Authoritarian Personality, these “pseudo-conservatives” show “conventionality and authoritarian submissiveness” on the surface; in the “unconscious sphere,” however, lurks “violence, anarchic impulses, and chaotic destructiveness.”

Throughout the 1950’s, the Anti- Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, in alliance with black civil-rights organizations, pushed “group libel” laws in tandem with civil-rights legislation, and at least one state, Illinois, passed such a law. But the push for limitations on speech in the name of combating racism took a back seat to the more acceptable civil-rights legislation outlawing discrimination in housing, employment, and other “public” accommodations.

In an important sense, however, these two legislative proposals were twin prongs of the same weapon, both aimed at the heart of American liberty. Each sought to criminalize the thought, not the deed. Since the intent to discriminate cannot be proved without the assistance of a mind-reader, both the judge and jury must surmise and weigh the thought-processes of the defendants.

The movement to enact “group libel” laws did not evolve overnight into the effort to enact federal hate-crime legislation. It has been half a century since Hoke, Adorno, and their sponsors dreamed of silencing the right with legal strictures on “hate.” Their scheme, and the brazen confidence with which they pursued it, was born in war-time, naturally enough. Today, another kind of war is giving new impetus to the assault on civil liberties. The ongoing culture war is a civil war, and a particularly vicious one, fought in movie theaters and on television screens rather than in the streets—for the moment, at least. The stakes are nothing so uninspiring as the exact location of national boundaries: The contested terrain is the territory of the soul. In the aftermath of this war, the Henry Hokes of the “hate crime” brigade are at hand to give the legal imprimatur to the dictatorship of the victorious Allied Powers—Washington, New York, and Hollywood. Flushed with their victory over traditional American culture, the triumphant Allies have set out to make an example of anyone who would flout their will.

As a reactionary holdover from the old culture, “homophobia” is a promising area for the heirs of Henry Hoke to make the link between “hate speech” and “hate crimes.” Just as anti-porn feminists and their Christian fundamentalist allies depict pornography as the theory and sex crimes as the practice, so the left is now arguing that “anti-gay” rhetoric by the “far right” emboldens and incites violence against homosexuals. When Christian fundamentalist groups bought a series of newspaper ads averring that homosexuality is a choice and offering counseling services, gay-rights activists literally screamed bloody murder.

In retrospect, it seems almost inevitable that 21-year-old Matthew Shepard would become the poster boy martyr of the “hate crimes” movement. A 105-pound, slightly effeminate student at the University of Wyoming, Shepard was an intelligent lad who wanted to become a diplomat and dreamed of being famous. He was also a homosexual with a troubled history of depression and suicidal tendencies. According to his mother, Judy Shepard, Matthew “wasn’t a saint. He was just a young man in search of himself.”

That search ended in a Laramie, Wyoming, bar, from which Matthew voluntarily accompanied two young thugs to their truck. According to the testimony of one of the thugs’ girlfriends, Shepard made an advance to the two young men. News accounts describe Shepard as having been “lured” out of the bar. Whoever lured whom, Shepard was murdered, and the gruesome details were broadcast far and wide. Gay activists immediately adopted Shepard as their official martyr, pointing to the grisly sight as an example of why hate-crimes legislation is needed.

But far from bolstering the case for such legislation, the Shepard incident only dramatizes its inapplicability to the ambiguity and complexity of real life. Matthew’s instant elevation to martyrdom was assured by the story that went out over the newswires: The gentle would-be diplomat, product of a warm and loving middle-class home, who had gone to school in Europe and spoke four languages, had been brutally bludgeoned to death by two homophobic brutes. To ask why such a smart young man would get into a truck with two brutish-looking strangers twice his size is “blaming the victim,” a hate crime in itself.

According to the prosecutors, the two defendants, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, told Shepard they were gay. After getting Shepard into McKinney’s pickup, they told him, “We’re not gay—you’ve been jacked.” Shepard already had been beaten twice that year, although few have asked whether this was due to a proclivity for rough trade. In an interview with Katie Couric on NBC’s Dateline, Judy Shepard said that her son had been involved in a series of violent incidents, including a gang rape in Morocco when he was a high-school senior.

The defendants, on the other hand, hardly fit the role of the villains that a show trial requires. McKinney and Henderson are a couple of small-time losers who saw, in the slightly drunk and routinely reckless young Matthew, a chump waiting to get jumped. The only evidence of their alleged crime of “homophobia” is hearsay based on the testimony of one of the girlfriends—both of whom are also being charged with hiding evidence and providing false alibis—who says McKinney and Henderson wanted to “teach him a lesson” not to make passes at heterosexuals. But the bartender who served them remembers that they paid for their five-dollar pitcher of beer with change. Two high-school dropouts sitting in the middle of nowhere, going nowhere, and in walks Matthew Shepard, well dressed, well traveled, well versed in such subjects as international law and the history of American diplomacy. Far from having been incited by the religious right, McKinney and Henderson seem to have been inspired more by economics: The police maintain that their plan was to burglarize Shepard’s apartment. Who is to say whether their motive was envy, greed, hatred of homosexuals, or boredom?

That justice is the last thing on the minds of those pushing hate-crimes legislation was starkly dramatized by the statement of a coalition of 11 gay-rights groups denouncing Wyoming prosecutors as “barbaric” for seeking the death penalty for McKinney and Henderson. Apparently the groups’ preferred punishment is a lifetime of “re-education” and gay sensitivity training—although some would say that is a fate worse than death.