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The bigger they are, the more people there are to catch them

March 31, 2008

advocate coverI posted today over at Bilerico about an AP story on the Lawrence King murder (he was an 8th-grader killed by another, probably because he was feminine, gay, and out-spoken about it and a classmate didn’t like it). The article, like another one in The Advocate last week, implied that the reason he was murdered was because he was gay and that if he had just kept it all a little more quiet then he’d still be alive.

The two articles have caused a ruckus on the gay blogs, and rightly so. The whole point of the movement is being able to live openly and honestly, and when someone doesn’t like that and kills someone else for it, it’s not the victim’s fault any more than women who wear “provocative” clothing are at fault if they get raped.

But this argument (known as “gay panic” – finding out that someone was gay or getting hit on by someone of the same gender is so traumatic to the perpetrator that s/he cannot be held accountable for his/her actions as others would) has been used for decades and has gotten a few people off (it was tried with Matthew Shepard’s case a few years back). They say it threatens their sense of self and they attack. The message is that if you get killed, it’s your fault for getting in the way of that bullet.

Now, I was one of the first people to say that the blame doesn’t lie solely with the kid who shot King either. He was also 13, and there’s a reason he did what he did. And that’s the more mainstream conservative position on hate crimes: the person who pulled the trigger did it did it in isolation; blame one person and don’t try to solve the systemic issues that will lead to future hate crimes.

It’s one of the fundamental differences between liberals and conservatives – liberals tend to focus on solutions to problems while conservatives look for someone to blame (the policy differences between the two on criminal justice issues are enough to prove this, but it pops up in other areas).

And, of course, this collapses on itself the moment a person in a position of power is the one who should be blamed. We’re seeing it right now in the way conservatives are responding to the financial crisis (from Robert Reich):

Months ago, when the president announced a paltry plan to help out a few of the millions of homeowners who got caught in the sub-prime loan mess, he reiterated the credo: “It’s not government’s job to bail out … those who made the decision to buy a home they knew they could not afford.” Days ago, when he endorsed the giant Fed bailout of Wall Street, the president signaled it was government’s job to bail out big bankers who had made decisions to buy and sell risky securities they knew (or should have known) they could not afford.

It’s true that people tend to be less cautious when they know they’ll be bailed out. Economists call this “moral hazard.” But even when they’re being reasonably careful, people cannot always assess risks accurately. Many of the mostly poor home buyers who got into trouble did NOT in fact know they couldn’t afford the mortgage payments they were signing on to. The banks and mortgage lenders that pulled out all the stops to persuade them to the contrary were in a far better position to know; after all, they had lots of experience at this game. So did the credit-rating agencies that gave these loans solid credit ratings, as did the financiers who bundled them with less-risky loans and sold them to other financial institutions, and the hedge fund managers who quietly tucked them into their portfolios.

Blame the individual borrowers, not the large lenders, because when someone is in a position of power, they simply can’t be blamed.

Fault and blame and responsibility get used as means to divert attention from solutions to problems, because those solutions are most likely going to be against the interests of those in a position of power along an axis of identity or economically. Blame Lawrence King for getting murdered. If that doesn’t work, blame the kid who pulled the trigger. But never blame the homophobic rhetoric conservatives use to get votes and donors or the gender policing rampant in schools as people try to make men and women of children.

Or blame the borrowers for taking our variable interest loads, not the lenders who should have known that it was risky business in the first place.

And, all the while, measures to fight anti-gay bullying in schools get voted down with arguments that center around how bullying is already against the rules and specifically protecting gay students is special treatment. The Treasury bails out Wall Street finance firms without increasing regulation.

It’s a fixed game unless we refuse to seek blame and instead ask for solutions.

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