Voula Papachristou, the comely Greek triple jumper you've never heard of, has found out just what it's like to be convicted on a ill-defined charge. After the long-limbed lady tweeted a "racist" joke about African immigrants to her native land, the Helenic Olympic Committee booted her off the team.
What was the joke? "With so many Africans in Greece, the West Nile mosquitoes will be getting home food!!!" she tweeted. Athletic officialdom was not amused.
What was racist about the comment, given that Papachristou, apparently a strong Greek patriot, did not express any negative opinions about Africans, is a mystery ... at least to normal people. She did not traffic in what the left believes are standard racist tropes. She did not say that Africans are more violent or disposed to crime than Greeks. Nor did she claim they are less intelligent than the descedents of Homer, Plato and Aristotle. She told an off-color joke, as it were.
She is also guilty of supporting the Golden Dawn party, which, while admittedly sounding a little extreme, opposes immigration; in other words, they would keep Greece for the Greeks. Perhaps that, as Patrick Cleburne wrote, is the real crime.
That said, the pronouncement of guilt and Papachristou's sentence for "racism" call to mind the late Joe Sobran's assessment of "anti-Semitism."
In 1995, Sobran expostulated thusly:
It’s pointless to ask what “anti-Semitic” means. It means trouble. It’s an attack signal. The practical function of the word is not to define or distinguish things, but to conflate them indiscriminately — to equate the soberest criticism of Israel or Jewish power with the murderous hatred of Jews. And it works. Oh, how it works.
When Joe McCarthy accused people of being Communists, the charge was relatively precise. You knew what he meant. The accusation could be falsified. In fact the burden of proof was on the accuser: when McCarthy couldn’t make his loose charges stick, he was ruined. (Of course, McCarthy was hated less for his “loose” charges than for his accurate ones. His real offense was stigmatizing the Left.)
The opposite applies to charges of “anti-Semitism.” The word has no precise definition. An “anti-Semite” may or may not hate Jews. But he is certainly hated by Jews. There is no penalty for making the charge loosely; the accused has no way of falsifying the charge, since it isn’t defined.
A famous example. When Abe Rosenthal accused Pat Buchanan of “anti-Semitism,” everyone on both sides understood the ground rules. There was a chance that Buchanan would be ruined, even if the charge was baseless. And there was no chance that Rosenthal would be ruined — even if the charge was baseless.
Such are the rules. I violate them, in a way, even by spelling them out.
Sobran elaborated in 2002:
The very word anti-Semite is reminiscent of the term anti-Soviet. It serves a similar function of facilitating imputations of ill-defined guilt.
The strength of Western law has always been its insistence on definition. When we want to minimize an offense, say murder or burglary, we define it as clearly as possible. We want judge and jury to know exactly what the charge means, not only to convict the guilty but, also, just as important, to protect the innocent.
Clear definitions put a burden of proof on the accuser, and properly so. If you falsely accuse a man of murder or burglary, not only is he apt to be acquitted — you may pay a heavy penalty yourself. As a result, few of us are afraid of being charged with murders and burglaries we didn’t commit.
By contrast, the Soviet legal system left prosecutors with a wide discretion in identifying “anti-Soviet” activities. Almost anything irritating to the Soviet state could qualify. An impossible burden of proof lay on the accused; guilt was presumed; acquittals were virtually nonexistent. To be indicted was already to be convicted. Since the charge was undefined, it was unfalsifiable; there was no such thing as a false accusation. As a result, the Russian population lived in fear.
The word anti-Semitic functions like the word anti-Soviet. Being undefined, it’s unfalsifiable. Loose charges of “anti-Semitism” are common, but nobody suffers any penalty for making them, since what is unfalsifiable can never be shown to be false. I once read an article in a Jewish magazine that called the first Star Wars movie “anti- Semitic.” I was amazed, but I couldn’t prove the contrary. Who could? And of course people in public life — and often in private life — fear incurring the label, however guiltless they may be.
If you want to distinguish between the innocent and the guilty, you define crimes precisely. If, however, you merely want to maximize the number of convictions, increase the power of the accusers, and create an atmosphere of dread, you define crimes as loosely as possible. We now have an incentive system that might have been designed to promote loose charges of “anti-Semitism.”
Replace the word anti-Semitism with racism and you know what happened to Papachristou. One cannot know what is racist and what isn't. The word has no precise definition. One day, it means burning crosses and terrorizing blacks. The next, it means calling President Obama a socialist. Or skinny. Or opposing his health-care plan. Yet because those who level charge control what it means, or doesn't mean, and can use it any way they wish, one is defenseless against it. It cannot be falsified. The very charge imposes the conviction of guilt.
Despite her apologies, the gods of Greek sport booted Papachristou, declaring that Greek athletes are banned from "expressing personal opinions" on Twitter until the games were over.
And if Papachristou had tweeted her "racist" joke when the "games were over"? What would have happened then? Athletes of her caliber are forever competing in international games.
The larger question is, by the left's own standard, this: What if she is a racist? The left, and some conservatives, have told us for years that a person's personal beliefs or activities have no effect on their job performance. So what if a top salesman is a homosexual. What's that have to do with selling widgets? So what if Bill Clinton shagged an intern in the White House. That has no effect on his ability to do the job as president.
So how do Papachristou's remarks or beliefs, whatever the latter are, affect her triple jumping?