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R-G EDITORIAL: Pacifica hits the big time


Appeared in print: Sunday, Mar 15, 2009, page G2

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s decision to include the Pacifica Forum on its annual list of active hate groups is not, as forum founder Orval Etter would have it, “a lot of rubbish.” It’s a small pile of rubbish, because the Pacifica Forum really doesn’t amount to more than that. It’s not in the same league as the Klan klavens, black-helicopter militias, white supremacist compound dwellers and skinhead Hitler worshippers that the SPLC serves the nation by monitoring and combatting. Not even close.

But there it is, the Pacific Forum of Eugene, Oregon, on the SPLC’s 2008 list of 926 American hate groups. The Alabama-based center included the forum not only because of its habit, well-known locally, of providing a platform for anti-Semites, Holocaust deniers and white separatists. The listing came because the SPLC concluded that the Pacifica Forum endorses its speakers’ unsavory views.

The SPLC has a deep understanding of the nature of hate groups, having studied them, fought them in court and suffered their attacks for decades. And there is some evidence to support the Pacifica Forum’s hate-group listing. When its speakers have said hateful things, the forum has unapologetically arranged for more of the same. As a pattern of hateful speech at forum events emerges, the dividing line between the Pacifica Forum and its speakers begins to blur. The listing is a warning about the formation of an incubator of evil, and such groups deserve to be put under a magnifying glass.

Yet a magnifying glass not only permits close observation, it also makes things look bigger than they really are. If the Pacifica Forum represents any kind of threat, it’s a small-bore threat indeed. The number of people who are actively involved can be counted on two hands, and among them are a high quotient of people guilty of nothing worse than being stubborn fools. Listing the forum as a hate group will serve mainly to pump up its sense of importance, and bolster its self-image as a martyred defender of free speech.

The forum began, and functioned for years, as a platform for controversial political and historical analysis of every ideological stripe. Among its speakers were sharp critics of U.S. support for Israel, and some of these stepped over the line into outright anti-Semitism. When the forum was called out on this, its organizers mistook public criticism for intimidation. They remained blind to the difference between speakers who expressed strong views on matters of public policy and those who demonized entire groups of people. They confused their bad judgment with open-mindedness. And in time, the distinction between the hateful ideas and the group that acted as their conduit began to disappear.

That’s a sad story, but it doesn’t qualify as a menace on the scale of, say, the White Aryan Resistance. The SPLC took on the supremacist group in a Portland courtroom in 1990, winning $12.5 million in a civil lawsuit against the organization and its founder, Tom Metzger. The lawsuit arose from the murder of an Ethiopian student, Mulugeta Seraw, in Portland by three members of Metzger’s group.

The SPLC’s attention elevates the Pacifica Forum to a level where it doesn’t belong, and reinforces its claim to persecution for providing an outlet for politically incorrect ideas. Anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial should always be taken seriously — history shows the dangers of ignoring them. But that doesn’t mean the Pacifica Forum should be taken seriously. It already takes itself seriously enough.

Community TV

To Pursue the Truth

Twice a month Community TV carries a Wednesday interview (rebroadcast on Fridays) on the subject of Palestine-Israel. The 30-minute program, usually a conversation among Jack Dresser, Dawn Coslow and George Beres, is telecast on Cable Ch. 29 at 8 p.m. on Wednesdays and repeated at 6:30 p.m. on Fridays. Which Wednesdays are uncertain. But the program, "To Pursue the Truth," is on at those times every week, worth watching whatever the issue.

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