Boston is in the thrall of two important media stories. The first concerns efforts by the financially challenged New York Times Company to keep the financially battered Boston Globe afloat.
The second story, by contrast, appears to be smaller potatoes: right-wing loud mouth Jay Severin, in a broadcast more obnoxious than usual, said things on air that forced his traditionally indulgent corporate enablers at WTKK to suspend him — though, as the Phoenix went to press, the question of for how long remained unanswered.
The fate of the Globe is of historic importance. But the questions raised by the Severin incident have a philosophical and moral resonance that has been touched upon only in passing.
Severin got himself in hot water for speaking derisively about Mexicans, who he said were "the world's lowest of primitives." Even by Severin's odious standards, this was especially ripe.
In the course of his jeremiad against Mexicans, Severin raged widely. As far as the Phoenix is concerned, the most reprehensible of Severin's many loathsome remarks was this: "So now, in addition to venereal disease and the other leading exports of Mexico — women with mustaches and VD — now we have swine flu."
He also said this: "We [the US] are the magnet for primitives around the world — and it's not the primitives' fault, by the way, I'm not blaming them for being primitives. I'm merely observing they're primitive."
And this: "Millions of leeches from a primitive country come here to leech off you and, with it, they are ruining the schools, the hospitals, and a lot of life in America."
And this: "We should be, if anything, surprised that Mexico has not visited upon us poxes of more various and serious types already, considering the number of 'criminaliens' already here."
This is strong, and offensive, stuff. Even in the midst of a serious debate about the future of United State's immigration policy — an important topic in which emotions sometime run hot — it is, or should be, unacceptable.
Severin was being more than an advocate for his anti-immigrant point of view, more than provocative, more than even incendiary. In our opinion, he was being hateful, trying to deny the basic humanity of Mexicans so as to render them unworthy of being afforded rights.
Hate speech may give offense to some; it might be impolite, even impolitic, but it is not illegal. The Phoenix is close to being absolute in its defense of anyone's right to say, write, or broadcast almost anything. This paper affirms Severin's constitutional right to say what he said. Likewise, we recognize WTKK's right to broadcast Severin if the station so wishes.
Still, WTKK should think twice about putting Severin back on the air. Does Severin's right to hold noxious opinions, and his parallel right to express them using intemperate language, override the station's right to hold itself to a higher standard?
If WTKK thinks about the situation with any depth of conscience, it might realize that, though it profits handsomely from Severin, his on-air presence does nothing to enrich or elevate public debate.
Should WTKK management have any doubts on this matter, we suggest it compare Severin's remarks about Mexicans with what Adolf Hitler wrote about Jews in Mein Kampf.
History surely has taught that Hitler's intentions were hideous, monstrous. But it's uncomfortable to realize that Hitler, at least in his early days, used language to attack Jews that was more temperate, or at least more carefully measured, than what Severin said about Mexicans.
Comparing anyone's words to Hitler's is a tricky exercise. Hitler, after all, did more than talk. He presided over the murder of approximately six million Jews, as many as 500,000 gypsies, at least 250,000 physically or mentally disabled people, and a smaller, undetermined number of homosexuals.
We are not suggesting that, as foul as Severin was, he was advocating violence or murder — on any scale.
Still, denying the essential equality of any individual, or group of people, is often a step in establishing or maintaining the supposedly second-class status of the group into which that individual was born. Hitler and anti-Semites did and still do this to Jews, segregationists to African-Americans, homophobes to gays and lesbians, and nativists to immigrants — legal and illegal.
Like all good civil libertarians, we support the right of neo-Nazis — or any other haters for that matter — to demonstrate, or publish, or communicate in any form they might choose. But just as we would defend WTKK's right to have a neo-Nazi or a racist as a guest on one of its talk shows, so, too, would we question the wisdom of giving someone of such questionable sentiments a permanent soapbox as a talk-show host.
Rather than give Severin back his radio platform, WTKK should exercise its countervailing right to broadcast something else. In other words, Severin's right to say what he wants is trumped by WTKK's right to broadcast as it sees fit.
The Phoenix will be fast to congratulate the station if it does the right thing and tells Severin to peddle his views elsewhere. We're under no delusion that he'll not find a taker.