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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Witchfinding in Dallas

I don’t know – I really do not know – how much clout little old limey Samizdata has in the big wide world out there, by which I mean the USA, but I hope it has some, and that if we flag up this article in City Journal (Autumn 2002), then it will count for a little something, or at any rate an extra little something to set beside the fact that Instapundit has already flagged it up a few hours ago. Maybe it will influence these particular PC witchfinders that they are now getting themselves detectably, internet searchably, despised all over the world (by which I mean in Britain).

The author of the article is a new name to me, Harry Stein. Stein is the author of the book How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy (and Found Inner Peace), and the article is about his trials and tribulations on the road selling his book, and specifically about a speech he gave in Dallas and its gutter-journalistic aftermath.

Perry likes quotes so that this will make sense even if the link one day goes dead, so let me see. Well, here’s quite a lot of the piece, but it’s a good piece, so …:

I concluded the speech with a story about my son. As a high school sophomore, he had an English teacher, a white liberal, who began the unit on Huckleberry Finn by announcing that, though he was obliged to teach it, he wasn’t happy about it. It was a “racist” book, he said, the word “nigger” appearing with appalling frequency. There has, of course, been a lot of this lately. Twain’s masterpiece, a work not only famously cited by Ernest Hemingway as the progenitor of “all modern American literature” but widely esteemed as the most moving attack on racism ever written, routinely appears on lists put out by groups like the ACLU and People For the American Way of works under most sustained assault by book banners—a target, as columnist Michele Malkin succinctly observes, of those “too busy counting Twain’s words to understand them.”

Indeed, Twain himself wrote that he intended Huck’s growing recognition of Jim’s humanity to reflect the nation’s ongoing struggle with slavery’s legacy of deeply embedded racism. For any even semi-sentient reader, it is all there in the pivotal scene where Huck agonizes over whether to send the letter he’s written to Jim’s owners betraying the runaway slave, knowing that, as the beliefs of the time had it, failing to do so will mean forfeiting his soul: “I was a-trembling because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell,’ and I tore it up.”

My son, already very familiar with the Twain classic, raised his hand and told the teacher that, in fact, it was an anti-racist book—indeed, one of the most powerful ever written. Thus began an increasingly heated back-and-forth that went on for a good 15 minutes, culminating with the teacher saying, “It’s clear you have to work on your racial sensitivity.” “Are you calling me a racist?” my son demanded, deeply aggrieved. When the teacher turned away, refusing to answer, he stalked out of class. He returned home from school that day remarking: “Well, I’m starting out with a C in that class, and working down from there”—a prophecy that proved, alas, all too accurate. But, as I told the Dallas crowd, I was never prouder of him in my life. That concluded my talk. I got a round of applause and waited for questions.

Immediately a black guy in the middle of the room stood up. Later identified as William Jones of the San Diego–based CityLink Investment Corporation, described in a Fed press release as “an enterprise that acquires, develops, and manages real estate ventures and helps to renew urban areas,” he announced that he didn’t have a question, but a statement. He said he was “very personally offended by your jokes about black people and your seemingly rationalizing the use of the word ‘nigger.’ I’m a businessman, my wife is a prosecutor, my children go to college, we pay our taxes. The overgeneralization doesn’t really help to further what I think you really want, which is understanding.”

I stood there for a moment at the podium, stunned, not knowing how to respond. I hadn’t the slightest idea what I’d said to provoke such a response. Told jokes about black people? Not only had I not remotely done such a thing; the suggestion that I ever would was beyond outrageous. Rationalized the use of the word “nigger”? I was describing what had happened between my son and his teacher. It was the word Twain used, what the two of them were arguing about—the very point of the story!

And of course there’s more. It gets written up in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Stein has already been in touch with this organ and fears the worst. He’s right:

Early the following week, I heard from a friend who lives in Dallas. “What the hell did you say down here?”

Mike Lee’s article, co-written with a staffer for the paper in Washington, was an exceedingly nasty piece of work, a catalog of half-truths and insinuations, profoundly unfair, but also rather deft, in that none of that was readily apparent to the untrained eye. Starting on page one and running over 1,100 words, it began with a fundamental mischaracterization of what had occurred and took off from there: “Federal Reserve Bank directors from the Dallas and San Francisco districts were stunned when a conservative author’s luncheon speech at the Dallas bank turned into a lecture about political correctness, blacks, gays, and women who put their children in day care.”

Throughout, things I had said were taken out of context, stripped of tone and otherwise misrepresented. Lee had been granted access to a video of the speech but was highly selective in what he used. On the key issue, the Huck Finn anecdote, the point I was making is nowhere to be found, but Jones’s noble-sounding declaration—with its damning accusation about my “seemingly rationalizing of the word ‘n——-‘ ”—is quoted in full. (In fact, that’s the only reason I can reproduce it verbatim here.) Of course, my response goes unrecorded. What, then, had provoked Jones’s outburst in the first place? “[Stein] also described an argument his son had with a teacher about Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and repeated a racial slur that is in the book.”

And so on. Bastards. Please read the whole thing. Which I hope stays up there for ever.

A final thought, concerning the title I’ve used for this posting. The word “witch” is used to describe the communist hunts of the fifties, but that’s wrong. Witches never did what they were accused of, by such horrible people as the man played by Vincent Price in Witchfinder General. They were not guilty as charged. But the communists? How dare they call it “witch” hunting. Communism existed then and still exists. Then as now, communists supported it and lied for it and fantasised about it.

But to describe what happened and is presumably still happening to Stein, the word witch is entirely proper. He did none of the things he’s accused of, and I hope his vile accusers get a thorough going over from the blogosphere. They deserve much worse.

15 comments to Witchfinding in Dallas

  • Bill Llewellin

    Liberals have always despised Huck Finn, superficially because of it’s (pardon the expression) liberal use of the dreaded “N-word”, not because they haven’t read the book, but because it goes powerfully against their basic dogma; That white people are inherently racist. Here’s Huck, a stereotypical red-neck (1) coming to see Jim as an equal on his own. Can’t have this. If there’s less racism than reported, than there’s less need for expensive programs, which of themselves, teach everybody that persons of color are inherently inferior and can’t succeed without assistance from the kindly “ol massa”. Indeed, without the fundamental assumption that non-whites _are_ inferior, the logic behind most such programs falls apart.
    (1) American usage. I understand that the term has a different meaning in other parts of the world.

  • Walter E. Wallis

    I believe that Harry Stein is dead. I miss him.

  • Ben

    Your thinking of Ben Stein’s dad, this is a different Harry Stein. I don’t believe there’s any relation

  • Ben

    You’re, not your

  • A_t

    I’m curious, do you think the communist ‘witch hunts’ were justifiable then? Certainly communists existed. The question is whether it was right to hound them from their jobs etc., because of the political beliefs they held. Similarly, some witches must have existed at the time of the original witch hunts. So what?

    I seriously can’t believe you’re belittling the McCarthyite persecution that went on. Many of the people who lost their livelihoods as a result of this rampant episode of paranoia were only guilty of holding left-leaning views. They weren’t full-on communists, planning to overthrow the capitalist system; they were just standing up for workers rights etc., which they had every right to do. The witch hunt element comes precisely from that exaggeration/distortion of what their intentions were, which is probably pretty similar to your burn-’em/drown-’em witch hunts. I doubt many of the genuine witches were seriously involved in trying to destroy the christian church; they were just proposing and practicing an alternative. Both the case you relate above, and other witch hunts, stem from a hysterical intolerance of others’ views, a feeling that you’re surrounded by the ‘enemy’ and a paranoid tendency towards negatively labelling people as soon as they stray from the ‘right’ way.

  • Brian Micklethwait

    A_t: My understanding of the McCarthyite “witch-hunts” is that these hunts did quite a lot of good (some real communists were chased out of places where they could have done serious harm), and quite a lot of harm (along the lines you refer to – although less than is now widely believed). I’m perfectly ready to change my mind in the face of evidence re all that.

    But my central point you missed. This is: communists really existed. The notion being conveyed with the phrase “witchhunt” is that the communist hunters were not just making false accusations about some people, but clutching entirely at air, hunting something that didn’t exist AT ALL. Not so.

    Real witches? So some of them DID fly on broomsticks to the other end of Europe? I suppose it depends how you define being a witch.

  • R Harris

    Reading Harry Stein’s story I think he’s probably guilty as charged Clearly we are hearing only his side of the story, and even then he’s very evasive on what actually happened, and let’s face it — Bob McTeer, a very senior figure in US banking world, said ‘“Certain derogatory terms for racial and religious minorities are so inflammatory and offensive that they have no place in a serious policy discussion. Our speaker’s [Stein’s] use of these words deeply offended many present.”

    As for the witchhunts, what you’re missing is that McCarthy was looking for communists who were going to betray the national interest. In that the vast majority of those he hounded were not communists planning to betray the national interest, witch-hunt seems apt to me.

  • Walter E. Wallis

    Sorry, R. Harris, but whether the parlor pinks and other communists ment to betray the national interest or not is immaterial. What they did was harmful to the national interest. The fact that some communists were starry-eyed idealogs rather than cynical power grabbers did not change the very real damage they did.

  • Paul Marks

    R. Harris clearly eats babies – after all he has not clearly said that he does not eat babies (therefore he does).

    Harry Stein offered a video of the whole speech to the media trash – do you think he would have done that if he had said anything racist?

    You know as well as I do how American libel laws have been twisted. Take your habit of rapeing young boys – what do you mean that you are not a rapist? If I “sincerely believe” that you rape young boys the fact that you do not rape young boys is not relevant (as far as the courts are concerned).

    This is how C.B.S. beat General Westmorland. I do not think much of Westmorland (he was a poor general and would not denounce political interference that cost American lives) – however C.B.S. told a pack of lies about him (almost eating babies stuff) and got away with it. “We accept what we said about General Westmorland was not accurate, but we believed it to be so at the time…….”

    As for Bob McTeer – high powered businessman turns yellow, so what else is not new?

    Most of these corporate types are cowards who will say ANYTHING to please the media and the rest of the powers that be (for fear that their business enterprises will get hit).

    There are a thousand ways to destroy a business – I.R.S. audit (paying all taxes is no defence against being destroyed by one of these), anti trust action (as the “anti trust” laws are so vague anyone can be argued to be guilty) and so on.

    However, Harry Stein is not blameless.

    If he is as committed to racial harmony as he says he is and if he is as upset as he says he is – then he should have gone to court.

    Sure the libel laws are twisted against him – but (if he really feels the way he says he does) he should have taken the risk before a Texas jury.

    Otherwise the yellow streak down Bob McTeer’s back is clearly spreading to other people.

    Business people must learn that begging and pleading before leftists just means they HIT YOU HARDER.

    Paul Marks.

  • A_t

    Walter, who defines the ‘national interest’ then?

    Surely to many people, the views expressed here (minimize the state, abolish any national health system, make firearms legal etc. etc. etc.) betray the national interest. Does this mean that all of us should lose our jobs?

    I can’t see how you can argue for persecution of people on the basis of political belief alone, and then claim to have any interest in libertarianism.

  • R Harris


    Good stuff! Almost as well argued as your classic ‘Keynsianism is crap’ (something like that!)

  • Paul Marks

    I notice that Mr Harris has not produced any arguments in favour of the doctrines of Lord Keynes – which would seem to indicate that he does not think they can be defended (I agree with Mr Harris on this point).

    As for Harry Stein. I sent an e.mail to Mr Harris asking whether he really thought that Mr Stein was a racist – or whether he just did not care about the truth.

    I am still waiting for a reply.

    If Mr Harris wished to attack what I wrote about Harry Stein he could have lauched an attack upon the whole notion of libel laws (and, I confess, I would have been open to attack here).

    However, such an attack upon what I wrote would have involved thinking – and thinking does not seem to be something Mr Harris is any good at.

    Paul Marks.

  • It’s amazing to me that people can label books like this and To Kill a Mockingbird racist, when their message is plainly anti-racist. In Huck Finn, Huck’s white father is portrayed as an abusive drunken uneducated moron, while the black Jim is portrayed as the person who has been most genuinely kind to Huck. Some racists in the book call Jim a N*****, and the book is racist because it mentions them? Ridiculous.

    Yes, witches existed in much the same sense the Christians existed. The Christians didn’t perform miracles, and the witches couldn’t fly. One can, however, practice folk religion. In any case, most of the people who are publicly called racists now, satanists of the early 1990’s or communists of the 1950’s weren’t really. In the case of the communists, many of the people who were called before the committee on un-american activities were hollywood directors or journalists. The fact that some spies in the government had been found out is immaterial to the fact that most of the charges were baseless, and even if they weren’t the government had no right to regulate these views.

  • Paul Marks

    As for Senator for Wisconsin – well for a drunk who allowed himself to be tricked into losing his temper at a few Anti American Activities Committee hearings (and I do not remember the “liberals protesting much when this committee investigated Fascist and National Socialist activity in the United States), “Tailgunner Joe” (and he really did serve as a tailgunner in W.W. II) was fairly accurate.

    I do not recall that many people that Joe McCarthy accused of being pro Soviet were not pro Soviet (I stand willing to be corrected on this).

    As for the old claim “We did not know what Stalin was doing”. Well my father was a poverty stricken Jew living in the East End of London in the 1930’s – he had no access to any special sources of information. And my father knew what the Soviets were doing – which is why he left the Young Communist League.

    Are people really claiming that the “liberal” elite in the United States did not know the things that my father knew?

    Sure they tried to hide the truth (for example the order to destroy the files of the Russian section of the State Department in 1933 – when the choice was made to recognise the Soviet regime [whilst it was murdering TENS OF MILLIONS of people], BUT THE POWERS THAT BE DID NOT MANAGE TO DESTROY THE ORIGINAL FILES).

    The Daily Express in Britain and the Chicago Tribune in the United States gave regular details of many (although not all) of the Soviet crimes. There were even popular books by high ranking N.K.V.D. defectors (such as “I Choose Freedom” and “I Choose Justice”).

    The “liberals” knew what the Soviets were doing – and if they could have they would have done the same in the United States (they still would).

    Paul Marks.

  • Kerry Tatlow

    A video of Stein’s speech exists (according to Stein and Samizdata.) When is Stein going to post the video and/or a transcript to the web? I’d like to judge the incident for myself, much more than read all the subjective impressions of it.