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In contrast, when talk-show host Rush Limbaugh demeaned activist Sandra Fluke as a “slut,” outrage followed. Sponsors were pressured to drop Mr. Limbaugh. Some did. Unlike the targeted Mrs. Palin, Ms. Fluke became a national icon of popular feminist resistance.

So how do we sort out all these slurs and the contradictory consequences that follow them?

Apparently, racist, sexist or homophobic words themselves do not necessarily earn any rebuke. Nor is the race or gender of the speaker always a clue to the degree of outrage that follows.

Instead, the perceived ideology of the perpetrator is what matters most. Mr. Maher and Mr. Letterman, being good liberals, could hardly be crude sexists. But when the conservative Mr. Limbaugh uses similar terms, it must be a window into his dark heart.

It’s apparently OK for whites or blacks to slur conservative Justice Thomas in racist terms. Saying anything similar of the late liberal Justice Thurgood Marshall would have been blasphemous.

In short, we are dealing not with actual word crimes, but with supposed thought crimes.

The liberal media and popular culture have become our self-appointed thought police. Politics determines whether hate speech is a reflection of real hate or just an inadvertent slip, a risque joke or an anguished reaction to years of oppression.

Poor Paula Deen. She may protest accusations of racism by noting that she supported Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns. However, the media instead fixate on her deep Southern accent and demeanor, which supposedly prove her speech was racist in a way that left-wing and cool Jamie Foxx purportedly never could be.

We cannot forgive conservative Mel Gibson for his despicable, drunken anti-Semitic rants. It appears we can pardon liberal Alec Baldwin, though, for his vicious, homophobic outbursts. The former smears are judged by the thought police to be typical, but the latter slurs are surely aberrant.

The crime is not hate speech, but hate thought — a state of mind that apparently only self-appointed liberal referees can sort out.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.