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Thursday, April 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 56.0° F  Light Rain
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OPINION

Beilke: Steve Chapman columns fail to enhance Wisconsin State Journal

The tragedy of Chapman's latest bad column is that, but for him, this Sunday's State Journal opinion section was rather good.
The tragedy of Chapman's latest bad column is that, but for him, this Sunday's State Journal opinion section was rather good.
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Anyone who read Steve Chapman's column in Sunday's Wisconsin State Journal opinion section has a new understanding of the term "willful ignorance." Still, the Chicago Tribune syndicated columnist Chapman -- whose offerings the State Journal uses every Sunday even though its space is increasingly scarce and much better fare is readily available -- outdid himself in "Empty symbolism on hate crimes."

Here's a sample:

The logic behind the proposed measure is hard to follow. Says sponsoring Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), "No members of society -- none -- deserve to be victims of a violent crime because of their race, their religion, their ethnic background, their disability, their gender, their gender identity, or their sexual orientation." Which raises the question: Who exactly does deserve to be the victim of a violent crime?"

What Kennedy is saying, of course, is that no one should be a victim of violent crime, including people who are singled out because they are members of certain stigmatized groups. I'm pretty sure Chapman knows that is what advocates of hate crimes penalty enhancers say. I also don't believe Chapman honestly misunderstands the purpose of penalty enhancers like those for hate crimes.

Such measures add charges and maximum penalties to a defendant's arrest. Prosecutors love penalty enhancers such as those for committing crimes with handguns or for possessing illegal drugs within a certain number of feet of school buildings. They are bargaining chips district attorneys can use during plea negotiations. Defendants will more likely plead guilty to other charges in exchange for prosecutors agreeing to drop the enhancers, or they will agree to stiffer penalties because they start bargaining down from a higher starting point.

One could certainly argue that this is a bad way to mete out justice: coercing defendants into forgoing their right to a jury trial of their peers because the penalties for losing are so potentially severe. For me, as long as we are going to have such a system I am at least as comfortable extending it to neo-Nazis and gay bashers as I am to casual drug users and gun owners.

But none of this interests Chapman. He prefers to feign bafflement.

The tragedy of Chapman's latest bad column is that but for him this Sunday's State Journal opinion section was rather good. The letters from readers were consistently intelligent and illuminating. The editorial in favor of electronic medical records was sensible. There were good columns from John Nichols, Cynthia Tucker and State Journal editorial page editor Scott Milfred. And I always enjoy the bumper sticker photos on the back page, a feature the State Journal invented as far as I can tell.

Milfred's column countered the conventional wisdom about the newspaper industry crisis, noting that most papers are going strong and much of the fallout that is being attributed to online news actually began before there was an Internet.

If I were in a less charitable mood I might mention how much less news there is in a typical edition of the State Journal today compared to, say, five years ago. I might also remind Milfred of how many good reporters have lost their jobs and not found new ones. But we can save that for another day. I'm sure I'll be feeling less charitable soon enough.

Happy Mother's Day, Midge Miller

John Nichols's Sunday State Journal/Capital Times column was about the late Midge Miller and her peace efforts for Israel.

Ed Garvey also alluded to Miller and her legacy on Sunday in a FightingBob.com blog post. Not to be missed, of course, is Stu Levitan's tribute to Miller on The Daily Page, posted April 17, the day she died of cancer at age 86.

It was more than fitting that Miller's memorial service was held on Mother's Day.

I interviewed Miller several times, and I think she worked the topic of motherhood into just about every one of our conversations. She was a vanguard feminist who also had the experience of being a single mother living in a foreign country. (Her husband was a missionary in Japan who died in a typhoon.) Later, she was the mother of seven children in what would now be called a blended family.

For Miller, we all have a duty to give up some of our time here on Earth for the betterment of those who will be left when we're gone. She believed activism and public service were comparable to the love and self-sacrifice that most parents reserve for their children.

I wrote a feature article about Miller for Isthmus in 1997 that ended with this quote from her:

"When I was working hard against the Vietnam War, people used to come up to me and say, 'How can you do all of this, don't you have children to take care of?'" Miller recalls. "I would say, 'I have seven sons, most of them are draft age. What would you do for yours: go home and bake cookies?'"

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