Hanging With The Haters

Back in 1996, then-LEO Editor John Yarmuth was invited to speak to the American Renaissance Conference, a national conference of white nationalists and neo-Nazis. He was invited to tell them why their ideology was wrong.

I bring this up because of what happened at UofL last week: A student came to a LGBTQ studies class and distributed pamphlets telling them why being LGBTQ is wrong.

My dad agreed to talk at the American Renaissance conference because he thought it was a valuable opportunity to try to shake the group’s delusional — and dangerous — sense of superiority. If nothing else, he figured maybe he could gain insight into what fuels the darkest side of white supremacy.

Similarly, perhaps UofL would benefit from creating such an opportunity for students, faculty and administrators to discuss the incident and tension between free speech and school safety. 

Certainly LGBTQ students and faculty have heard his anti-gay madness before. But maybe they will discover that this particular kid’s righteousness is less threatening than the worst we can imagine.

Maybe they can shake his confidence a little bit. They could explain why they are angry for being targeted with hurtful messages; or how fearful they felt as he lingered outside their classroom; or the uneasiness of attending this class going forward, which will be under guard the rest of the semester.

Maybe he would realize his approach is wrong. 

Maybe he would question his homophobic beliefs.

That was my dad’s goal, as he, this liberal Jew, stood in front of 165 white supremacists from across the nation, Canada and Germany in a Seelbach Hotel conference room and told them why they were all wrong.

Here is how the American Renaissance Conference described his speech, from a report it issued after the conference:

“The first speaker on Monday morning was the only disappointment. In order to fill a last-minute gap in the program, Jared Taylor had asked a prominent local liberal to listen to the first day’s speakers and then report on where he thought they were mistaken. John Yarmuth, editor of the Louisville Eccentric Observer, described the conferees and speakers as frustrated people incapable of accepting change. He said that it was diversity that has made the United States a great nation, and that despite accusations of hypocrisy from some of the speakers, many liberals lead racially integrated social lives.

“He dismissed IQ testing as an arbitrary, irrelevant measure. ‘He who makes the rules, rules,’ he explained, saying that one could set up an equally arbitrary standard of superiority and inferiority by using golf handicaps. People with low handicaps usually live in nice neighborhoods, have intact families, and high incomes; why not argue that all of this is a result of their superior golf game? In a speech that was occasionally insulting, he did make one excellent point: That just as racialists object when people claim they are motivated by hate, so should they refrain from mischaracterizing the motives of liberals, who often hold their views sincerely.”

Still, my dad calls his address one of his proudest moments.

He said his biggest takeaway from the experience was their overconfidence in how right they were — that it was almost “a matter of faith that Blacks are inferior.”

Did he convince any of the racists to retire the bed sheets and find some Black friends? Almost certainly not.

Let me be clear: In the UofL incident, there are not good people on both sides… The young man who spread those pamphlets in a LGBTQ studies class was certainly misguided. But, shutting him out won’t change his mind or approach. And it won’t stop him or someone else from doing it again.

The professor, students and entire university have an opportunity to turn this horrible incident into a teachable moment. Provide a safe environment with a controlled conversation between all students and professors. 

It should be voluntary for the students.

Could they convince him that he was not called by God to spread this hateful propaganda? Probably not.

But, maybe he can be convinced that he went about spreading his message the wrong way. Maybe the students can make him understand why they feel threatened and harassed. Maybe they can shake his confidence… even if just a little bit.

Even the white supremacists acknowledged, while being insulted, the liberal Jew did make one excellent point. And that’s a start. •