UPTV and the Chief Controversies

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The glaring similarities between the
controversy surrounding the broadcast
of the anti-Semitic videos on Urbana
Public Television and the characterization
of a Native American during athletic
events and in the Homecoming
Parade at the U of I are that: (1) they
have been deeply hurtful to the people portrayed, (2)
those people have been the victims of genocide, and (3)
they have been enmeshed with and facilitated by public
bodies, in the first instance a city and in the second a public
I want to elaborate on these three similarities and the
issues these raise in regard to the principle of our constitutionally
guaranteed right to freedom of expression.
We know that people have been hurt by these two sets of
portrayals because the people so portrayed have told us
that. I remember talking with Charlene Teters, the Native
American graduate student who many years ago took her
kids to see a sporting event only to watch in astonishment
as the Chief appeared at half time adorned in sacred symbols
and proceeded to dance around in imitation of a
Native American dance. While presented as a chief of the
Illinois Indians, neither his dress nor his dance had anything
to do with that group. But just as importantly, the
fact that this caricature was used as entertainment was
hurtful to Charlene and to so many Native Americans,
both on and off the campus, who have expressed their
feelings about it. Similarly, Jewish people have come
before the Urbana City Council, and have written letters to
the editors of the News-Gazette, expressing the pain
caused by the portrayal of Jews as, among other horrible
and slanderous things, child molesters. Just as Native
Americans find it difficult to understand how a public university
could sponsor, facilitate, or legitimize such a bogus
portrayal of an ethnic group in our society, so too do Jews
find it difficult to understand how their city could facilitate
such a vicious and hurtful portrayal under the guise of
freedom of expression.
All societies, including our own, recognize some limits to
freedom of expression. We cannot shout “fire” in a crowded
theater, commit perjury, give false statements to a law
enforcement officer, infringe copyright, conspire to commit
a crime, or libel someone without some legal penalty.
Thus our freedoms are general rules. We cannot be free to
say or do certain things that might come into our minds
without engaging in the contradiction of infringing on the
rights of others.
This portrayal in the videos shown on UPTV is the
same sort of portrayal that the Nazis used in their propaganda
machine to legitimize the campaign of genocide
against the Jewish people of Europe. There are those who
have said that if people are so deeply hurt by such portrayals
of themselves and their ancestors, they can just leave
the game, turn their backs, or turn off the TVs or switch
channels. What such individuals fail to realize is that a
people that historically has been subjected to genocide
cannot just turn it off. Once the images are seen, or once
they have the knowledge that others are being presented
such images, the hurt is there and it stays there. Moreover,
it is not just the hurt caused by remembering the past
genocidal killings, but the thought that the killings could
happen again in the future and that such negative portrayals
could contribute to that.
This is one of the reasons that the 1951 Convention on
the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide
includes not just killing of a national, ethnic, racial, or religious
group, but also “causing seriously bodily or mental
harm to members of the group.” A people that has been
subjected to genocide continues to live with that reality,
that loss, that fear, and sees with good cause such negative
stereotypes as a continuation of the process. This Convention,
to which the U. S. government is a party, confers a
right to groups to not be subjected to genocide, including
the dimension of mental harm. In some European countries,
there is a greater recognition of this reality which
precludes governmental support for such portrayals of
racial and ethnic groups, but also translates into criminal
penalties for hate speech by individuals. Such is the potency
of the history of genocide and the Convention in the
jurisprudence of European democracies.
An additional issue regarding genocide is intent. The
Convention on genocide specifies “intent” to destroy a
group. There is no question that the anti-Semitic videos on
UPTV have the intent to cause mental harm to Jewish people.
Given their similarity to Nazi propaganda, after which
they are obviously modeled, it is also clear that the makers
would not mind seeing the same final result that we saw in
Europe in the 1940s. The situation regarding the Chief is a
bit more nuanced. I do not think that most of the Chief
supporters were initially prejudiced against Native Americans.
However, once Native American people made clear
that they were harmed by the portrayal, the excuse of the
original lack of intent fell away. One does not “honor” a
group with a history of genocide by appropriating their
imagery and forcing a stereotype that they find hurtful
upon them.
There is no doubt that Native Americans are one of the
most powerless, if not the most powerless, ethnic groups
in the United Sates. Their numbers are small, resources
few, health situation deplorable, and outlets for public
expression sparse. In sum, they continue to live in the misery
traceable to the original acts of genocide. The situation
of Jewish people in the United States is different from that
of the Native Americans and even from the their own situations
in the first half of the 20th century, when Jews were
excluded from residing in certain areas and had quotas
imposed upon them in a number of private universities.
One Urbana citizen speaking against censorship of the
anti-Semitic videos, pointed out that Jews were politically
powerful in American society and emphasized the power
of what he characterized as the Jewish lobby in determining
U.S. foreign policy regarding Israel.
The problem with this argument is that the Jewish
genocide of the 1940s began in Germany where Jews were
very well represented in the economic, political, and cultural
life of that society. One of the major arguments that
the Nazis used against them was that they “controlled”
everything, they were everywhere, an insidious foreign
presence that was driving German as well as international
politics and economics and degrading German culture.
The “too powerful” accusation itself raises the specter of
that genocide in the minds and guts of Jewish people. It is
the reminder that “it can happen anywhere,” even in what
seems at one moment to be a very favorable climate for living
a decent life. Indeed, that is one of the reasons that so
many American Jews do support Israel and its policies so
ardently and often uncritically.
We in the United States are largely ignorant of the body of
international law that accords groups rights to vulnerable
people. Indeed, we have a very strong commitment to
individualism and individual rights, but tend to reject any
notion of group or collective rights. This is strange given
the fact that our very claim to exist as a nation was based
upon such a collective claim, the right to self-determination
by an oppressed people. We need to retain our commitment
to the widest possible right of freedom of expression
for individuals and private associations, but we must
also take care that public institutions do not violate the
collective rights of vulnerable minorities, especially those
that have been subjected to genocide, by participating in
or facilitating their negative stereotyping.

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