Just ask Frosty, the fellow with the broomstick in his hand. Or maybe Olaf from some of his drippier scenes in the movie “Frozen.” A snowman is an ephemeral thing. One day you’re all smiles, buttons, bits of coal and stick arms, the next you’re a puddle. One just doesn’t expect the same short life cycle from snowmen made of wooden spools and white paint. But then perhaps you’ve never been to Catonsville.
In case anyone missed it, the western suburb — once home to the Piscataway Indians and later famous for its grand Victorians, the presence of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and, perhaps more tellingly, the nation’s second oldest continuously operated psychiatric hospital — had a little snowman trouble this season. Oh, it started out innocently enough. Don’t snowmen always? But then it got a little rough. Someone had the gall to post the following message on one of 11 wooden snowmen lined up as part of a fundraising display: “No Hate in 21228.”
What happened next? To quote Olaf: “Oh, look at that. I’ve been impaled.”
Naturally, not only did the offending — if that’s the correct word under these surreal circumstances — snowman have to come down, they all came down. But as if that weren’t enough, Catonsville’s Fourth of July Committee, which had sanctioned the snowmen as a fundraiser for their popular summer parade, returned all the $250 donations from local businesses. It was as if the snowmen never existed in the first place.
The reasoning — again, if that’s the correct word for such unthinking behavior — behind the removal was that the slogan on the “no hate” snowman (nicknamed “Snooki”) was deemed too political by some angry Catonsvillians. Not that “hate” was political exactly, or Catonsville’s ZIP code of 21228 was political, but it was the context in which the two had been put together before. Last summer, it was the slogan that emerged as local residents protested the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. You may recall that march as the one that President Donald Trump later claimed had attracted “some very fine people on both sides.”
Get it? Someone thought this was a subtle dig at President Trump or perhaps his white nationalistic sympathies. In any event, it was perceived as a white-hot scandal. The snowmen had to come down from the Knights of Columbus Patapsco Council property on Frederick Road.
The irony here is that the organizers did make an inadvertent political statement; it just isn’t the one they were so worried about. By removing the snowmen because one advertised against hate (and perhaps because he held aloft a rainbow of gingerbread men might even have been seen as inclusive — horrors), organizers signaled to their neighbors their own toleration of hate and white supremacy.
Listen, we get that political speech has gotten ugly in some quarters, but this wasn’t an example of that. If we can’t tolerate the most loving and warm-hearted of messages in the holiday season because it might be construed as political — maybe, barely — then when exactly is it OK to be against hate? Catonsville’s snowmen are the counterpoint to Roland Park’s signs that claim “all are welcome here,” only even less overtly political. The Roland Park signs were protected by the First Amendment, and so would Snooki have been had the sponsors had the gumption to stand by their snowman.
If political discourse in this country has gotten over-heated and coarsened, one reason may be that we’ve pushed it into the margins. What hope is there for civil politics if the only time there’s any public conversation about issues is at extremist rallies or amen-corner websites, talk-radio shows or cable TV venues where point of view is as frozen as Snooki’s heart and where those with whom we disagree are considered the devil. We shouldn’t fear free speech so much as we should fear silence and authoritarian control. The antidote to speech with which you disagree is more speech, not less.
Still, it’s nice to see that many in Catonsville are still anti-hate. The message can still be found in places like Karen Stysley’s yard where her own version of Snooki endorses “Love, not hate in 21228.” Who knew in 2017 that would be an even remotely controversial point of view?
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