Send Them to the Gas Chamber -- The Limits of Political Incorrectness

In this era of sex-crazed, gutter-mouthed celebrities and outrageous behavior at all levels of public and private life, it takes a lot to shock. But the shock meter was put to the ultimate test on the June 25 episode of the late-night talk show "Politically Incorrect." Former "Baywatch" babe and (ital)Playboy(ital) cover girl Donna D'Errico offered the following prescription for homeless people: "A lot of them don't want to work. They would prefer just to get handouts. And my take on that is, there's a dog pound and there should be a human pound.There should be like a three strikes law. You're picked up and written up and if you don't get a job and you're picked up again, the government can help you get a job. If the third time you're picked up, it's the gas chamber.""It's the gas chamber?" responded host Bill Maher, to which some people laughed. "That's the most ridiculous thing ever," said another guest, Mike Kives, sparking discussion between him and another anti-homeless guest as to who is to blame for homelessness. The unrepentant D'Errico, who will soon be appearing in the HBO movie "Candyman III," continued her tirade. "They enjoy just not having to work. And they sit there in their filthy clothes and they ask for handouts and they're happy," she said.Her comments have infuriated homeless advocates who are worried about the dangers of treating people as if they are less than human and consider using such language as a kind of hate crime. "This kind of language is outrageous," said Paul Boden, executive director of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness. "If she said it about gays or black people there would be a huge outrage, but because she said it about homeless people who have become so marginalized and so despised, no one cares. It's scary. Nobody is shocked. She's talking about human beings."Silicon Donna is a foxy representation of the mood," Boden continued. "It comes from many different directions: actors, models, politicians, vigilante neighborhood groups. Eventually somebody will go out and start shooting homeless people and somebody will ask, 'How did this happen?' Last winter a guy slashed the throats of four homeless people in San Francisco. Right now someone is putting up flyers saying that homeless people should be shot at six a.m. on the Fourth of July because they are fouling up the subways."What are the limits of expression on television? While most of us believe in free speech shows like "Politically Incorrect," "Jerry Springer" and others feast on the outrageous, which can bring in ratings points. While "Politically Incorrect" started out on Comedy Central, it moved to the much higher-profile ABC and now, because of excellent ratings, has been renewed for another season. Should murderous comments like D'Errico's be tolerated -- or encouraged to improve ratings -- without consideration of the consequences? And where's the dose of reality? Society has become cleaved by enormous increases in wealth on one end, and shrinking resources on the other. In 1976, for example, one percent of Americans owned 19 percent of all private material wealth. Today, the same one percent owns 40 percent of all wealth. Perhaps more importantly, many homeless are mentally ill, alcoholics and drug addicts who are unable to find housing or help in a society that has increased its wealth by cutting back on services to the most vulnerable. Boden doesn't want D'Errico to get away with her slander on the homeless. "There will be repercussions," he said. "We're launching a public education campaign so people know what this woman has said."A last-minute call to D'Errico's publicist for comment went unanswered.Boden has a point. While we have to tolerate people's rights to say odious things, we can still hold them responsible. Perhaps the most famous utterance of contempt for the plight of impoverished people was the terminally frivolous Marie Antoinette, an Austrian married to Louis XVI prior to the French Revolution "Let them eat cake," she responded when told there was no food for the starving populace. Soon thereafter she meet the guillotine. Times have changed, of course, and there will be no Robespierre in America as the Millennium approaches. Nonetheless, I wouldn't want to have Donna D'Errico's karma at this point.

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