It apparently matters to a lot of people for the wrong reasons—unethical reasons, in fact. As a result, legitimate efforts to determine what really happened to the gay rights icon, then a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, who was beaten, tortured and murdered in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998, have been exploited for ideological goals by adversaries of gay rights, and attacked by the media, gay rights advocates and good progressives everywhere. Just as it is important to the civil rights establishment, the black grievance community and anti-gun advocates that Trayvon Martin be seen as the innocent victim of a racist vigilante with murder in his heart—a characterization of Martin’s murder at war with all known facts and rejected by a jury after a fair trial—thus is it crucial to gay advocacy groups and others that Shepard be remembered as the victim of a hate crime, brutally killed because he was gay.
And facts be damned.
There is a a whole Matthew Shepard industry, and industries like making money. Here in the Washington D.C. area, some friends of mine are performing in a much publicized production of “The Laramie Project,” thrown out of Ford’s Theater because of the shutdown. The play is about the Laramie community’s reaction to Shepard’s murder. The murder was used liberally and effectively to stir up support for hate crime legislation making victims of anti–gay prejudice beneficiaries of enhanced penalties for their attackers—that is, in the eyes of the law, killing someone “just to see him die” is morally and ethically preferable to killing him because you hate something about him. I think this is neither logical, ethical, coherent or responsible—it is thought-crime—but the Supreme Court has upheld such laws as constitutional, wise or not….a topic for another day.
The topic for today is this: the quest to determine what really happened is not and should not be framed as ideological, but inherently ethical. I have written about this phenomenon before here, more than once. In the post about the false legend of Barbara Frichie (who is celebrated in history, legend and poetry for an act of heroism, waving a Union flag in defiance of a Confederate general, actually done by someone else), I wrote,
“If there was ever a story that evoked the old newspaper editor’s famous quote “Print the legend,” in the famous climax of John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,” this is it.* Print the legend because we need heroes. Print the legend because people don’t like having to adjust their illusions. Print the legend because so much has been built on the foundation of a lie. Why unsettle history? …What does it matter, now, who really waved the flag? Isn’t the story more important than the details? I’ll accept that. Legends have value, and myths can teach and inspire. That still doesn’t justify perpetuating a lie long after the truth is known.”
Indeed, the Matthew Shepard story is a better example than the Fritchie legend, because so much of substance and cultural importance, not just a nice legend, has been built on it. For at least a decade, it has looked as if the story of Shepard being killed because he was gay was at very least over-simplified for political expediency, and new book (by Stephen Jimenez, a gay author) argues convincingly that his sexual orientation was not the reason for his demise. (Shepard is just as dead, the crime against him just as horrible, and his killers just as guilty whatever the reason.) Sure enough, three unethical results are flowing from this: 1) The news media is scrupulously giving the book as little publicity as possible, being run by card-carrying progressives who are easy prey to the intellectually bankrupt argument that to give any publicity to the book is tantamount to supporting anti-gay bias; 2) some progressives and gay rights advocates are attacking the book as motivated by anti-gay animus and a political agenda, and 3) anti-gay conservatives are trumpeting the conclusions of the book as a validation of their theory that the pursuit of gay rights in America is some kind of vast left-wing conspiracy.
A brief synopsis: 1) is unprofessional and unethical; 2) is dishonest and unethical, and 3) is idiotic and bigoted.
Searching for the truth is never unethical, and accepting the truth should never be discouraged as inappropriate. If you do not agree, rush to tune in MSNBC on your cable TV, because you are now Al Sharpton. Rev. Al, you will recall, dismissed the fact that Tawana Brawley had lied about her abuse and rape at the hands of white bigots, saying that it could have happened, so in his warped, cynical post-modern view, it was still “truth.” This is the territory Slate writer John Kruzel is frolicking in when he argues that even if the popular version of the Shepard murder wasn’t correct, the misinformation was worth it because a good law resulted. This is the rationalization of an ethics dunce, indeed an ethical dunderhead. Lies and misinformation are to be encouraged and excused if laws John Kruzel likes the result? I know this is the operating philosophy of the Obama Adminsitration (and many others past) but it is dangerous and offensive. Let’s list what’s wrong with that reasoning, shall we?
1. It is consequentialism at its worst, judging an act by subsequent results rather than its inherent ethical nature.
2. It embodies “the ends justify the means.”
3. It falls into line with the tactics of totalitarianism.
4. It is a per se rejection of the ethics of journalism, which is to print inconvenient facts, not comforting distortions.
5. It is a flagrant rationalization, “It’s for a good cause.”
6. The Matthew Shepard Act is not a good law. No hate crime law is a good law, because killing one human being should not be officially designated as more heinous than killing any other simply because of the victim’s race, religion or sexual orientation.
If a law and movement is based on a falsely characterized incident, it undermines the arguments and justification for them both. If the movement and the law are rational and necessary, then actual incidents should exist that can be cited as support. Resting a movement on a misrepresentation only gives ammunition to opponents. Doe we have to pretend Trayvon Martin was murdered out of racial hate to make the case against profiling and bigotry? Is it essential that Matthew Shepard be the victim of hate crime to ensure the civil rights of gay Americans?
No, and no.
Legends are powerful.
Truth is better.
* In “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” an aging U.S. Senator played by Jimmy Stewart, whose entire career has been built on his shooting of a sadistic murderer and bully named Liberty Valence (Lee Marvin), reveals that the real shooter had been a romantic rival (John Wayne), who saved his life with the shot but who forbade Stewart from telling anyone, including Wayne’s former girlfriend, who was now infatuated with Stewart. The newspaper editor who hears the Senator’s confession of a career based on a lie tears up his notes, saying, ” This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”