December 18, 2005

The March of Dimes Effect

When Franklin Roosevelt was President, and until the polio vaccines became commonplace, polio, or infantile paralysis, was a widely feared disease. Roosevelt himself had been stricken, and except for rare public appearances when he walked with braces with great difficulty, he was wheelchair-bound.

During this period, the “March of Dimes” became one of the country’s largest charities. The considerable funds it raised went for polio research and to assist the many who had been stricken with the disease.

After the vaccines came in, of course, the need for both research and treatment declined, and although one would think that the March of Dimes would ride quietly into the sunset, it was not to be. Instead, the March of Dimes changed its franchise from polio to birth defects, and although reduced in size, the organization lives on past the problem it was set up to solve.

This experience comes to mind when I think of the spate of faked incidents of racial and religious violence. The latest suspected incident came about after, Paul Mirecki, a University of Kansas religion professor, was found to have used anti-Christian expressions in emails about a new course on intelligent design, and forced to resign as department chair. Mirecki claims to have been physically attacked, but his story is strange, and it appears that local law enforcement smells a rat.

It’s too soon to be certain about the Mirecki incident, but there have been numerous cases around the country where people have falsified evidence to make themselves look like the victims of bigotry and violence. The notorious Tawana Brawley case was one of the first and perhaps the most publicized.

Not only have these false alarms been followed by expressions of sympathy and various mass rituals, such as anti-racism rallies, but sometimes, at least, they have caught the attention of individuals and organizations whose charters are to combat racial or religious bigotry. Similarly, whenever there is an incident of alleged police brutality, no matter what the facts are, Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton is sure to show up, and whenever even the slightest whiff of anti-Semitism appears, there comes the Anti-Defamation League. Most recently, Jackson showed up to protest the execution of gang leader and murderer Stanley “Tookie” Williams, in spite of the racial character of his crimes and the thousands of death his gang and others have caused since their formation.

The motivations of those who fake hate crimes against themselves are obscure. Sometimes it’s an effort to hide their own failings or transgressions, and sometimes, it seems, a narcissistic desire to be in the limelight, even if as a victim as opposed to a person of accomplishment.

The reaction of the professional opponents of racism and other forms of bigotry, however, is an example of what might be called the “March of Dimes Effect.” It was easy enough for organizations to oppose legal segregation, or open exclusion of disfavored groups from housing, employment, or education. This open sort of discrimination is largely a thing of the past, except in the case of “affirmative action,” which is a horse of another color, and will not detain us here.

There are hate groups around, and no doubt individuals who hold too tightly to stereotypes of one kind or another. But for groups whose charter is to oppose bigotry, either they must find it somewhere to oppose, or change their charters as did the March of Dimes. Even for institutions like universities, whose charter presumably is to educate, the need to assume the liberal pose of moral superiority is strong enough to motivate the ritual chest-beating that seems to follow these incidents, real or fake.

In short, where racism and anti-Semitism don’t exist, for those whose bread and butter depends on being seen to fight these evils, if they don’t exist, it’s necessary to invent them.

Certainly easier than removing the log from their own eye.

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