So, Harry Styles put on a dress or three in a piece for Vogue Magazine.
Apparently, it’s the end of the world!
Or at least the manly parts of it.
So says Candace Owens.
It’s cool though, because the internets needed a good laugh.
Enter the cavalry…
It’s all kinda ludicrous.
The reaction, I mean.
And by ‘kinda’ I kinda mean ‘definitely.’
No, definitely. I definitely mean ‘definitely.’
Anyway, I’m gonna ignore the larger battle here, because better social justice warriors than I are on this thing already. I’m just going to comment on one thing that seems to escape a few folks here. It might even escape a few of Harry’s defenders. It definitely escapes Candace and Ben, as most things seem to do. They totally forgot about the jocks from my high school.
Once every year, the jocks from my old high school would dress up in cheer-leader outfits and perform a kind of burlesque for the rest of us. It was one of the few assemblies I genuinely enjoyed. Hell, it was one of the few things that actually got me out to one of those assemblies to begin with. Dog knows, I hated assemblies!
Still do, actually.
I don’t remember much detail. I can’t remember if it was a cheer or a dance that they did, or if it was a little of each. One thing I am sure of is that these guys were not exploring their feminine side.
Far from it!
The point of these bro-leader performances was clearly to underscore the masculinity of the young male athletes doing them by juxtaposing their ostensibly feminine performance with all the manliness they could muster. The cheer-leader outfits didn’t belong on them. The dance moves were not meant for them. Everything about their approach was meant to enhance this impression. Far from breaking down gender-roles, these performances were meant to re-affirm them, to show us once and for all that men were men, even if you put them in a cheerleader outfit. What made the show so funny was precisely the incongruity of the whole thing. These young men were not cheer-leaders. They were not girls, and they would not become women. They would soon become men.
That was point was driven home with every botched move they made.
Don’t get me wrong. I laughed. Not at them; with them. At 15 I was down for this message. For all my contrarian thoughts at the time, this perfectly conventional message resonated for me; men were men and women were women, and Hell, this time, we could even laugh at the whole thing. I didn’t get the politics of the performance at the time. I doubt they did either. It was just funny.
Anyway, I think about this whenever somebody seems to assume the only reason a man would put on a dress is to muddy the waters between manliness and femininity. Sometimes, men put on a dress to become a woman, yes, and sometimes they do it (as these young men Bro-leaders did) to affirm the difference between men and women. Frankly, I don’t think Harry Styles fits into either of these profiles.
The Vogue article in question speaks a lot of fashion and of Harry’s eagerness to play around with the possibilities of dressing up. No great agenda there, and you certainly don’t see Harry minxing it up in the photos. He’s in a dress, yes, but neither his pose nor his overall demeanor suggests any serious effort to feminize himself. The dresses do seem a little incongruous on his body. He isn’t exaggerating that effect, but it is certainly there. Seems to me that Harry has his own reasons for donning a dress, and those reasons may not have much to do with the culture wars some people are trying to fight over this.
It is at least possible that Styles was counting on some folks to bite at the bait of seeing a man in a dress and generate controversy. Of course it is also possible that some of those folks who bit at the story of Harry in a dress may have been counting on the rest of us to get mad at them and add fuel to that same controversy.
Ah well! The whole thing makes for quite a sordid story.
When I listen to people complaining about indoctrination in the schools or dismissing perfectly sound journalism by chanting the mantra “fake news,” I’m always struck by the hopeless of trying to reason with them. These phrases do not usually convey skepticism; they do not challenge us to provide evidence or compelling reason. Instead, they signal an absolute barrier to any hope of meaningful communication. These phrases did not become popular in the American political vocabulary because they help to explain the problem with erroneous or dishonest journalism, nor have these phrases been generallyused to correct flawed textbooks or abusive teachers. As they are commonly used in America today, these phrases consistently provide thoughtless people with a shield against unwelcome information.
As I listen to such folks talk, or read anything they write, I can’t help thinking those who find nothing but bias in academia or mainstream news are often the same folks who speak of objectivity in terms of the most naive realism. Phrases like “just the facts” spill from their mouths, their keyboards, and their keypads quite often, and not a few of them are happy to remind us that facts do not care about our feelings. Facticity is part of their cultural capital, they own it (so they seem to think), and so they invoke it freely in encounters with others. Ask these people what it means to do a good job as a teacher or a journalist, a documentary film-maker, etc. and they will describe an absolute devotion to facts coupled with a complete absence of subjectivity. They have few thoughts as to how that works, but the goal seems pretty obvious to them.
If pressed, some might concede that such an account of any given subject never really happens, but they are likely to insist that it should be an ideal of sorts, a goal to which one ought to aspire. They don’t understand that the idela itself isn’t even coherent. You cannot describe a fact without injecting yourself into the description. Even the facts you choose to relate reflect a choice and a value statement about what is and what is not important in a story. So, does the language you use to describe those facts, and of course the conclusions you draw from whatever you take to be the settled facts of a story also reflect all sorts of choices about what lessons might be worth learning from the world around us. We never actually get a purely factual account of anything; we can’t even conceive of it in the abstract, because the most rigorous visions of evidence-based reasoning are themselves saturated with value judgements and personal biases.
If objectivity is meaningful at all, it is as a element in relation to subjectivity, (or perhaps inter-subjectivity), not as a pair of alternatives from which we choose. We can speak of an object only in relation to a subject. To imagine the one without the other is to indulge in fiction.
To those who suppose this fictional objectivity is reality, I suppose it is the rhetorical equivalent to reality television, a pretense to veracity offered with a smirk and wink even as any claims to meet that standard unravels unravels around us.
This naive realism goes hand in hand with a pan-partisanship in the consumption of information. As nobody ever actually meets these impossible standards of objectivity, it provides a ready excuse to dismiss any information one doesn’t wish to hear. You can always pick apart the choices other people make when they try to state facts. You can quibble over the language they use to express themselves or ask why they think this fact here is important and not that one there? Nobody meets the standard in actual practice, so each and every source of information comes ready-made with all manner of excuses for rejecting it. One has only to make exceptions for those one wishes to keep after all. If those exceptions seem selective, well then, by what standard would anyone presume to make such a judgement?
All of this leaves us with is a sense of bias which provides license for more of the same, and a way of talking about bias that reduces everyone and every approach to information to the level of open partisanship and nothing but partisanship. All biases are equal in this mindset, because those adopting it do not really think about how one sorts a reasonable account of any given subject from a foolish one. They needn’t accept the authority (or the credibility) of a judge, or a scholar, or a journalist, because they can find evidence of a personal point of view in each.
…if they want to.
This flattening of critical merit makes every controversy into a sort of intellectual playground, a range of possibilities all of which possess equal intellectual merit. It puts every couch-potato responding to a 3-minute news segment on Covid19 right on par with a scientist who has studied infectious diseases throughout her career. It empowers the Dunning-Krueger effect, in effect, by denying that there is any meaningful difference in knowledge to begin with.
I keep coming back to this, not because the problem is conceptually interesting, but because I find myself talking to so many people who seem to live in this mindset. They know what sources they like, and they know which sources they cannot be bothered with, but their own explanations boil down to a kind of unacknowledged voluntarism. Intellectual rigor of any kind simply does not enter into this mindset, because every actual stance is, for them rooted in pure personal bias. A professional historian writing about World War II might as well be their friend Frank who told them about a thing he saw once in a movie. A journalist summarizing countless hours of research enjoys no more credibility than the first thought that jumps into their own head upon hearing the story. A medical doctor talking about a global pandemic is easily trumped by a blog post detailing an elaborate conspiracy theory. These same people are happy to sing the praises of objectivity, and in particular to use high standards as a foil against their enemies, but in practice, their mental life is a playground of choices made on thin pretexts. That is all they hear from others; it is all they produce themselves.
I find myself struggling to produce a simple account of objectivity and bias, one which affirms neither this naive realism nor this practical pan-partisanship.
If I am thinking about bias in the presentation of information, and I am, I usually want to make a distinction between 3 broadly different approaches, objective, polemic, and deceptive. This distinction isn’t metaphysical. It’s a question of intent.
When I refer to an account as objective, I do not mean to suggest that its author has achieved some miraculous account devoid of any personal bias. What I mean in such cases, is that the author has made an effort to express the relevant facts of the story, and perhaps to provide an account of the different positions others have taken on the subject. I will still have questions about the author’s specific choices, the accuracy of their descriptions, and if I know something about the subject, I am likely to sense bias creeping into their narratives. When I call it ‘objective’, it is because I can still see some objective information creeping through the haze of personal bias, and because I perceive the author’s goal as being rooted in the objective features of the story. Whatever their personal views, there is something about the facts of the matter that has their interest. If they are doing their job right, it will have mine as well.
If I am ever tempted to dismiss the prospect of an objective account as a result of the many subjectivities that always seem to accompany them, I have only to consider some of the alternatives. There is a world of difference between someone who is trying to tell a story based on the facts as they understand them, and someone for whom a story is solely an instrument of their own personal agenda. While bias might count as failure in the former case, in the latter, that bias is precisely the point.
If ever we forget the merits of an objective account, their absence is certainly noticed whenever we encounter polemic work. An author or speaker whose primary goal is the advancement of a partisan view tells a very different story than one who is trying to give us an objective account. The facts they elect to provide are not merely shaded by personal bias, they are explicitly chosen on that basis. One literally doesn’t get any information that doesn’t help the polemicist build his case. His language too is chosen for the purpose of expressing a clear stance on the subject in question. We don’t expect of such writers that they will spend a lot of time on things that don’t facilitate their own argument. To so so would be setting ourselves up for disappointment.
What do I mean? Let’s take for example the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan at the end of WWII. I have plenty of textbooks that provide a basic (if horribly brief) account of this event. One of the major controversies of this story is the question of whether or not doing so was necessary and/or justified in any sense by the circumstances facing the allies near the end of that war. Any author trying to tell me that story will normally provide some account of the reasons for dropping the bomb, and in doing so, they are likely to show some sense of their own take on that controversial subject They will cover the facts most relevant to their position on the subject, and they will likely describe them in language that suggests some degree of their own sense as to whether or not the decision was sound. Some authors try to address the controversy by providing an account of the controversy itself, telling us what different people have said about the question over the years. In such cases, it would not be unreasonable to expect they will do a better job of accounting for those positions they agree with than the ones they do not agree with.
…all of which is very different from reading a text in which an author takes a stand on that very question. You can find such readings. You can find people who will tell you the decision was absolutely appropriate, and they will make the case as to why. Others will describe it as an atrocity, and they too will provide an argument as to why that is the case. In neither of these instances would one expect the polemicist to spend a great deal of time covering facts which don’t help their case. If they do, it will only be to show how their position deals with these facts after all, and so their account of these seemingly neutral features of the story will of course be largely an exercise in stretching a specific viewpoint to cover the facts in question. None of this is a terrible thing. There is a place for polemics in human communication. My point is simply that a polemic is very different from an attempt at an objective account. If bias is a bug in the former; it is a feature of the latter, a genuine benefit. If polemic writing is well done, it leaves us with a clear vision of the viewpoint expressed within it. It is a good thing, but it is a different kind of thing than we get from those trying to write a more through and objective account.
Whatever the goals of a writer or a speaker, whether it be polemic or objective, we can also distinguish between those who show a certain respect for truth and reason and those who are consciously deceptive about such matters. Even the most strident of polemicists is perfectly capable of telling the truth as she understands it and using reasoning that is at least plausible rather than fallacious. On the other hand, some people are just bad actors. Not only do they make a conscious choice to advance a single point of view; they are willing to deceive to us in the service of that point of view. Their account of the facts will contain not mere errors but conscious lies, and their reasoning will include deliberate cases of misdirection. Such people are not merely influenced by personal values and personal agendas; they operate free of any moral or intellectual restraint. Lest we forget that objectivity matters, or give up on it altogether, an encounter with such a deceitful soul ought to remind us that facts matter after all, and so does sound reasoning.
As I finish this, I am struck by my own feelings of discomfort over the way I am talking about ‘objectivity.’ I really do not mean to advocate some naive objective metaphysics, but I am sure some folks will say the way I have tried to qualify my use of the term here is inadequate, but this post isn’t really meant to outline an epistemological theory. It is mean to describe some differences in communicative practice. The need to do so is motivated less by abstract philosophical questions than a general sense that it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain any standards of honesty or intellectual rigor in public discourse. The problem isn’t just that some people cannot tell the difference between sound journalism and internet gossip; it is that such people increasingly dominate our public discourse and they are increasingly able to obscure such distinctions for purposes of public policy. Much of their ability to do so lies in their ability to find personal or political bias in even the most professional of publications (whether scholarly or journalistic). My own point here is not to suggest that some people are above personal bias; it is call attention to the different ways in which bias enters into the work of public media.
For some people bias is a problem they can never really seem to escape.
We all learned that two wrongs don’t make a right when we were kids, didn’t we?
And we learned that ‘you too’ arguments are a fallacy back in Freshman logic class, right?
Okay, maybe not everybody, but this is a lesson a lot of us probably have in common. Most educated people ought to know that there is something wrong with answering a criticism by saying “you do it too!” or some variation thereof. Hell, most decent people ought to know better than that regardless of their education.
So, why do we do it?
Hell, almost everybody does it on at least some occasions. To be fair, some people do it more than others. They will do it every chance they get. Others try not to, most of the time anyway. So, the penchant for answering a serious concern with a quick ‘you-too’ gambit varies from one person to another, but I don’t know that anyone avoids it entirely.
This tactic also comes and goes with the times. It’s been particularly common for the last 4 years, so much so that folks even coined a new term for it; ‘whataboutism.’ The “Your side does it too” gambit has made a regular appearance in public debate for a long time, but it’s been particularly common for the space of about one presidential administration (or an administration plus the campaign before it). So, the internet collectively coined a new term to describe it.
Okay, but why is this kind of argument so common?
One reason? It’s not always a fallacy.
Another? For some people, it really is a way of life.
Variable Relevance: The (ir-)relevance of ‘you too’ games varies in a couple of interesting ways.
If someone corrects my behavior and I respond with “you do it too?” am I really engaging in a fallacy?
Variable Conclusions: If I mean by that you-too response that I am not really wrong, because you do it too, then yes. Hell yes! If that’s what I mean, then I am absolutely engaging in the tu quoque fallacy. If, on the other hand, I mean; “Okay, I need to correct my behavior, but so should you, because you do in fact do this too,” then my response is not entirely unreasonable. I’m not denying my wrong-doing in this instance. I am just asking you to correct your own behavior right along with me.
Alternatively, I could employ a ‘you-too’ argument by of refusing to accept a rule that I have good reason to believe others are not going to follow themselves. Let’s imagine we are playing a game of soccer and you tell me I should stop touching the ball with my hands. I could then say you do it too as a means of insisting either that you stop yourself or that we are just going to continue playing an odd game of soccer in which both of us are allowed to touch the ball with our hands. In this case, I am refusing to play by unfair rules, or unfair application of those rules.
It seems that there are at least some conclusions which could be reasonably drawn from a premise beginning with an assertion that is essentially saying “you do it too.”
Plus Alternatives: There is another context in which “you too” starts to become more relevant than it would otherwise be. In this case, the tu-quoque fallacy has some company, because the False Alternatives fallacy comes in here right along with it. This is the context of constrained choices. If I tell you that apples bother my teeth, so I don’t like eating them, it would normally be quite foolish to respond by telling me that cookies have too much sugar. Whether or not cookies have too much sugar, apples still bother my teeth (always feels like I am biting into styrofoam). That does not change if cookies are bad for me. So, the cookie-themed response seems quite irrelevant.
…unless I want a snack, and I have exactly 2 options!
If my universe of possible choices includes an apple and a cookie, then problems with one might very well be a reasonable answer to my expressed concerns about the other. It’s not so much a logical inference as it is a conversational implicature. A possible respondent hears me complaining about the apple, realizes I have offered it as a reason for choosing the cookie instead, and responds by reminding me of a good reason to avoid the cookie
Of course apples and cookies don’t make these arguments themselves, so if this is a concern about false alternatives, how does it relate to the tu-quoque fallacy? Well, it comes into play when the apples and cookies do make these arguments themselves, or at least when we divide ourselves up into an obviously apple camp and a clearly cookie camp.
Or maybe when we try to pick a President.
If I say that Donald Trump has been self-dealing throughout his Presidency as a means of saying he is a terrible President, it wouldn’t normally help matters to say that Hillary does it too (using the Uranium One story about her charity foundation for example). Neither would it help to raise the prospect of similar corruption on the part of the Biden family. These become relevant during elections precisely because the obvious alternative choice is understood, and so the range of viable possibilities is narrowed sufficiently to make these normally irrelevant arguments matter after all.
And here, 3rd party-proponents will have an obvious complaint of their own. What if there are better choices? What if you can point to a candidate that doesn’t have a history of self-dealing (or, more to the point, a history of having the charge of self-dealing leveled at them by political opponents)? That’s a reasonable concern and one that speaks directly to the very kind of problem that logicians are trying to call our attention to when speaking about ‘false alternatives’ and ‘tu-quoque’ fallacies. Of course, part of the concern here lies in just how viable the third parties really are and what you are trying to accomplish with your vote, both of which speak to the question of just how constrained the alternatives here really are. If a 3rd party might really win, then it would be quite illogical to respond to a criticism of one major party candidate as though it were an obvious endorsement of another. Conversely, you may know that the 3rd party is going to lose but choose to vote for them anyway as a means of signaling to the major parties that they should take you own political values more seriously. If enough others vote the same way, this could become leverage in the next election. If a 3rd party candidate is, however, not a serious contender for winning an election, and the election is just too important to risk on a symbolic statement, then we may be back in the realm of 2 real choices and dirt on one viable candidate really will have to be weighed against dirt on the other. In such cases, “your guy does it too” and “the alternative is worse” start to become relevant again.
Where your choices are constrained, criticisms of one choice can provide a meaningful response to criticisms of another, but this is still problematic. Such arguments don’t erase problems, and they don’t disprove initial claims. If you tell me, for example, that Hunter Biden was using his father’s position as Vice President under the Obama administration to make money, reminding you that the Trump family profits from his role as President (e.g. through fees paid by the Secret Service to Trump properties during his visits, use of political leverage to get Ivanka’s patents in China, or simply the profits made when foreign diplomats choose to stay at Trump properties while negotiating with him) will not prove the claims about Hunter Biden are untrue. If I want to do that, then I have to provide an argument directly debunking the claims about Hunter Biden activities. What do I get out of calling attention to similar shenanigans about Trump? I get an argument about the significance one relative to the other. I get an argument about how each balances against the other when we assume both criticisms are of roughly equal merit. That may not be the best argument I could produce on the topic, but it would not be fallacious. It’s in this context that ‘you too’ (or at least ‘your guy too’) arguments start to make a little more sense.
One fascinating thing about this is the way that the relevance of such arguments comes and goes. I understood claims about Uranium One, debunked as they are, as a concern in the 2016 election. It was fascinating to me, however, seeing Trump fans continue bringing this up in response to criticism of his actions well into the Trump administration. I found myself saying; “well let’s impeach her too” then, by which I hoped to suggest that this was no longer a relevant means of answering concerns about Trump’s own actions. As the 2020 election heated up, concerns about Biden became a more viable means of offsetting those about Trump (at least to those who care nothing about proportion or credibility of the sources). In terms of addressing the choice at hand, it was useful for the Trump camp to have a claim about political corruption in play precisely because they knew many such claims could be held against Donald. What the merits of each claim really are is of course a debatable question, but having comparable accusations on the table makes possible a kind of argument about how one wishes to weigh one relative to the other.
When we were all expected to weigh Donald Trump’s character against that of another person, complaints about that other person could pass a certain test of minimal relevance to complaints about him. So, the relevance comparison to other people to criticisms of Donald Trump came and went over the course of his Presidential administration. When he was operating on his own, and the only viable question was about his own competence and integrity, they should have gone away.
Of course they didn’t.
Constraining Personalities: This brings us to one last point; some people thrive on the sort of constrained choices I am describing here. When they face an open range of possibilities, they work very hard to create the illusion of constrained choices anyway.
Yes, I have Donald Trump in mind here.
I am also writing about his many fans.
There is a reason the Trump camp was such a source of whataboutism claims throughout his Presidency. This is both a feature of the base to which he consciously pitched his politics and to personality of Donald Trump himself.
Audience: There are people who live in a world of artificially constrained choices, and you can see it their responses to a broad range if issues. Did you say Fox news got something wrong? Well then you must be watching too much MSNBC. If there is a problem with capitalism, well then why don’t you just go try China? Don’t like Christianity? You must be an atheist! Is the American healthcare system broken? Well then, let me tell you the horror stories coming out of Canada! Concerned about police brutality? You must support riots in the streets! Don’t like coke? Shut up and drink your Beer!
And so on…
(Okay, I might not be that be that serious about the coke and beer example.)
Perhaps all of us fall into this way of thinking from time to time, but some people really do seem to think in such terms on a regular basis. They live in a world of social Manichaeism, a world in which 2 rival forces contend with one another for control of the world and of our loyalties. Anything said against one can clearly be understood as support for the other, because all questions of value must be measured according to the standard of which force one wishes to align oneself with. Other options are always illusory. You are with the lord of light or you are with the lord of darkness, and if you don’t declare your loyalties openly, then that is a good reason to suspect you are on the wrong side of this conflict. In effect, such people keep making use of the false-alternatives fallacy because they actually do live in a world in which their choices are always constrained. Their assumptions about the world around them and the choices available to all of us consistently reduce all choices to a binary opposition.
Brief Technicality: I should add that the not all binary opposition are equal. What typically happens here is that people looking at contrary relationships often construe them as contradictory relationships? What is the difference? In a Contradictory relationship between two claims, they two have opposite truth values. If one is true, the other is false. If one is false, the other is true. In a contrary relationship between two claims, on the other hand, one of them must be false, but it is at least possible that both will be false.
In the case of either a contrary relationship or a contradictory relationship, you could infer the falsehood of one claim from the truth of the other, but you could only infer the truth of one claim from the falsehood of the other in the case of a contradictory relationship, not in the case of a contrary relationship.
Case in point: If I know that John is voting for Biden, I can conclude he is clearly not voting for Trump (unless he wants his ballot to be thrown out). If, on the other hand, I know he is not voting for Biden, I could not normally conclude that he is voting for Trump. He might be voting for a third party after all (and whether or not that is a good idea brings up all the points made above). So, political loyalties are not usually well modeled on the basis of a contradictory relationship. Such loyalties are contrary at best even if specific choices made on the basis of those loyalties (e.g. voting) might be framed in terms of contradictory relationships.
Another example? If you like capitalism, it’s probably safe to assume you are not in favor of communism, but could we really infer from a criticism of capitalism that you were a communist? No. You could be in favor of some alternative political economy. Old fashioned trade guilds, perhaps coupled with mercantilism, subsistence economics (as practiced in many indigenous communities), or good old Georgism (which may or may not be a form of socialism, depending on who you ask), all come to mind. (So, does rejecting the terms ‘capitalism’ or ‘communism’ outright as being to vague and sweeping.). Inferring support for one of these highly loaded terms from opposition to the other is hardly reasonable, and yet, people do it all the time.
People who should know better.
But people often treat contrary relationships as though they were contradictory, thus enabling a faulty implicature, the inference of a specific loyalty from criticism of an alternative commonly understood to be its opposite. This empowers both false alternatives and tu-quoque arguments. For some people this approach to decision making is just too gratifying to resist.
We sometimes encounter simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions, and hence make choices between contradictory values, but much of our thinking takes place in a world with a broader range of possibilities. Those locked into the mindset of Social manichaeism are constantly pushing us to think in narrower terms to begin with. If all of us are prone to miss the possibilities from time to time, then some people seem to take this as a point of principle.
Personality: Enter a living train-wreck such as Donald Trump! He thrives on constrained choices precisely because his own actions and his own statements cannot stand up to scrutiny on their own merits. Whatever the man may have been like when he was younger, he has long since accumulated a range of of bad deals, unpaid debts, and obvious lies in a personal history of chronically abusive behavior. His own credibility would never stand up to scrutiny, not from anyone making an honest effort.
So, how does he manage?
He always brings with him a broad range of bluffs and diversions, and one of the most important is a constant penchant for attacking someone in virtually any context, and for doing it in the most humiliating way possible. Every claim he might make, every question one might ask, is then subsumed under the effect of this personal attack. For those under attack, this means trying to balance the need to defend yourself against the effort to address any objective issues that may be on the table. For bystanders, it is a question of balancing concerns over Trump’s behavior against those he raises about others. In the ensuing hostilities, trump can raise and drop any issues he wishes, make false claims, and set them aside at his liesure. If he is caught flat footed, the solution is as simple as insulting the person who pointed it out or any source they may rely upon. The end-result is a choice between him or someone else, and any doubts about that other person whatsoever will be enough for Donald. He has spent his lifetime exploiting the benefit of the doubt. It is a benefit does not share with others.
The logic of the whataboutism gambit suits Trump’s style perfectly.
Is Trump University credible? What about Hillary!?!
Did Donald tell a lie? Ask Obama if you can keep your insurance!?!
Is he mistreating immigrants? What are the Dems doing to protect us!?! (…and after 2016, ask Obama, because he did it first?)
Is the Trump family self-dealing through their position in government? Where is Hunter!?!
You get the idea.
This is a man in deep need of enemies. The closest he will ever get to redemption lies in the hope that those around him will think him better than the alternative. Small wonder that he preferred to keep Hillary on the table as a kind of shadow President, a mythic character he could use as a whipping woman even in the 2020 election. At the peak of his Presidency, when she should have been off the table entirely, she was still the answer to concerns about Trump, replaced only when Biden stepped in to become Trump’s new foil, and only partially so at that. Trump has always needed a constrained choice to make a case for himself, because he is of no value on his own.
To know the worth of Donald Trump, one has always to ask what about someone else.
A man like that is made for the sort of strife we have seen this week, and throughout his Presidency. He is at his peak when the whole world has to think in terms of the constrained choices he seeks to bring about in all times and all places. For most of us these moments come and go. For the likes of Donald Trump, such moments are the only ones that count.
Is Donald Trump the only person like this? Not by a long shot, but he is my exhibit ‘A’, and as he is still in a position to do us all harm, he seems to be a relevant example. It was the dramatic nature of our recent elections that got me thinking about the way that certain arguments seem more compelling at some times than other.
I could just as easily have written an epitaph for nuance.
Perhaps that would have been more to the point.
Let us hope that subtlety finds room to breathe in all our minds sometime soon! It is one thing to say ‘no’ with conviction when that is what is called for, and it is quite another to live in a world that is polemics all the way down.
In the end, the point here is that there seem to be some folks who really thrive on the ability to reduce the world to a pair of choices under the assumption that to affirm one is to deny the other. Elections may be a special time to such folks, a moment in which certain patterns of thought seem a little less flawed and a moment in which the rest of the world may just be happy to join in that same pattern of thinking.
We probably all engage in similar patterns of thought in many other contexts, sports rivalries and all manner of brand loyalties come to mind. For my own part, I hope soon to set some of this aside and think about other things. I can’t quite say that i am ready yet.
I can’t quite say that the rest of America is either.
As I watch the election coverage tonight, and I wonder how a President who has compromised our national security, broken countless laws, enriched himself at the public expense, and willfully allowed an infectious disease to kill thousands of Americans is still in the running, or even on the ticket at this point, I am thinking more and more about the way Americans think about the electoral college.
What first got me thinking about this?
It was the election maps deplorables began circulating after 2016, maps showing how much of America voted in favor of Donald Trump. Comparing the vast swaths of red turf against the lonely spots of blue on these maps, it was easy to think of Trump’s victory as fitting. How could the rest of us doubt his legitimacy if so much of America voted for him? This wasn’t even close.
Clearly, the vast majority of America wanted Trump as President!
Of course these maps show us territories, not people, a fact easily demonstrated by accounting for population using a 3D projection.
Once you do that, the story quickly changes!
If you are counting territory on a map, Trump’s win back in 2016 looks impressive as Hell. It’s a decisive victory. In fact, it’s a grand slam! How could any Democrat even show their face in public after such a one-sided slaughter?
Once you account for actual people, however, it’s easier to remember that Donald Trump didn’t even win the popular vote. He won the electoral college, but the majority of Americans who weighed in on the 2016 election actually chose the other candidate.
If the will of the American people had determined the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton would have been president these last 4 years.
The discrepancy between the popular vote and the actual outcome of the 2016 election kicked off a new round of discussion about the electoral college. Democrats had a new reason to oppose it. Republicans had a new reason to defend it. This of course means some of us were treated to a whole new round of sophomoric semantics over the difference between a republic and a democracy.
Which brings me to a fascinating argument in favor of the electoral college. You see this a lot from the right wing, the notion that without the electoral college, a few states would dominate our national politic. According to some of these folks, L.A. County alone would have more impact than many states. New York City would have more impact than quite a few states. The Electoral College is, according to this narrative, the only thing preventing ‘coastal elites’ from dictating every major political decision at the expense of the more rural states.
It’s a fascinating narrative, one with clear villains and clear victims. The story elicits a genuine fear for the states that would be oppressed under such conditions.
What’s particularly fascinating about this narrative is that its characters are geographical units. They are stretches of land. Without the electoral college, it is the Dakotas that will suffer, Montana, Wyoming, or even my own state of Alaska. Actual people appear in this story, only as the loosely implied victims of oppression by virtue of being within the rural states of our nation. The implication that anything is wrong only emerges so long as you remain focused on geography, forgetting how the electoral college actually skews the significance of individual voters to begin with.
As a citizen of Alaska, my vote counts more than that of the Californians in my family. Hell, it even counts more than those of the Texans! It is the electoral college which makes this possible, because it boosts the impact of smaller states, giving us more representation per person than than states with larger populations. This means each individual voter gets more impact out of a vote cast in a rural state than she does in a vote cast somewhere like New York. Without the electoral college, our votes could be given equal value, and if certain states have less impact in such a system, it would only be because our individual votes are actually given equal value. The present system gives some people more of a say over who becomes President than others. Equalizing our the votes of individual citizens effectively skews the significance of regions, even as it puts us on a level playing field with each other. So, the narrative which has us crying about mistreatment of rural sates has the ironic effect of making equality look like its opposite, and that only works if we mistake states for people.
So, what does this mean? It means the prospect of keeping or rejecting the electoral college poses a decision over which matters more?
When exactly do you suppose America was great according to Donald Trump?
When do you suppose it was great in the minds of his supporters?
America is not great now, at least not in the minds of Donald Trump, and it certainly wasn’t great when he ran for office. That much is clear from the very nature of his old campaign slogan. “Make America great AGAIN,” certainly means it’s not great in the present age, at least not when he decided to run.
Perhaps Trump and his supporters might think to claim the economic stats he used to parade as success stories in the first 3 years of his administration made the difference and pulled us all the way from something else to greatness. How those economic trends differed from those under Obama is a different question, and whether or not Trump did anything but coast his way to a good look on paper is another. Either way, I could imagine he and his supporters might see in that enough cause to claim putting his label on the nation had made us all great again, but that would be a thin pretext indeed. Regardless, the moment in which this pretext could be claimed is long since gone at this point, and we are back to the same other-than-great world Trump seemed to see in America back in 2016.
So, when was America great in the minds of Trump and his supporters?
Could it be when Thomas Jefferson said that “all men are created equal?
Or when Martin Luther King challenged us all to live up to that very principle?
Some folks might say ‘both,’ and maybe so, but that is the answer to a different question. I didn’t ask which message you approve or admire? I asked when do you think America was great in the minds of Donald Trump and his supporters?
Maybe the former, but only if we discount the latter. They might well love the promise of equality and freedom, but only so long as that promise remained unfulfilled for a great many Americans. To the deplorables, the gap between American ideals and our political realities is an essential feature of our greatness. The greatness they seek is always gained at the expense of others.
I really don’t see how there could be any doubt in the matter. This man is a bully, and he has a bully’s sense of the world around him. His heroes are bullies. His villains are those that stand in their way. The vast majority of mankind are but cannon fodder by which his heroes distinguish themselves. They are the human sacrifices by which true greatness distinguishes itself from the mere men and women of ordinary humanity. Greatness in the world of Trump is a boot ground into the neck of someone unable to do anything about it.
(Or a knee.)
When was American great according yo Donald Trump and those who support him?
When slaves were sold on the market in Charleston, South Carolina, and when the profits from slavery flowed into all of the United States, North and South alike. This was greatness in Donald Trump’s world.
When Confederate Statues went up all across the south, reminding African-American that those who held slaves in bondage were the real heroes of their time, that was greatness in the world of Donald Trump. The suffering of African-Americans in slavery, and in segregation was (and is) a small price to pay for the greatness made possible by the profits of slavery.
…and the second class citizenship which was to follow.
There are those who would return African-Americans to that very second class status in the most explicit terms possible. Trump is a hero to these people. He would deny it of course, but countless White Supremacists have organized in the wake of his rise to power, encouraged by a dog-whistle here, a slow condemnation there, and of course the occasional glaring statement of racist sentiments by Trump or those in his inner circles.
There were those who thought the existence of a plebeian class in America was critical to republic, the price of greatness for those free enough to enjoy it. Clearly, a number of Americans see in Trump’s rise to power the chance to reconstitute that servile class of Americans who don’t quite enjoy their full rights.
For those who share this vision, every confederate statue is a memorial, not just to history, but to a natural aristocracy. Most, I expect imagine themselves the righteous heirs to that aristocracy, denied their proper station by the corruption of liberals and various minorities who are but pawns duped by the white liberal agenda.
It’s a message driven home every time right wingers tell us about the evils of the “Democratic plantation,” or tell us, as Phil Robertson once did, that African-Americans were happier in the days of Jim Crow than they are now living in the shadow of this very ‘plantation.’
For a good portion of Trump’s base, greatness lies in hierarchy, but only when it’s the right kind of hierarchy. In their world, we are all a little happier with slavery or something as close as they can get to it. Equality just means people end up in the wrong places within that hierarchy. For America to be great, each must be in his or her proper place.
Lest anyone forget this greatness, the greatness of slavery, it is celebrated in the Star Spangled Banner before every ritual in America’s one true religion, professional sports! This celebration takes the form of the star Spangled Banner, a song which triggers in every good American the obligation to display their loyalty and love of the nation by standing with their hands over their hearts for all to see. Any athletes who take exception to this on behalf of African-Americans mistreated by the police become enemies of America itself, and of its greatness, at least in the eyes of Trump and the deplorables.
That the full song includes a stanza celebrating the return of escaped slaves to their former bondage is perhaps a little more significant than this little-known passage would seem to suggest. That great celebration of freedom is also a celebration of slavery.
A point well made every time Trump and his fans demand obesiance of players and seek punishment for those who hesitate.
When Jewish women jumped from the upper floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in hopes of escaping the flames consuming the building and those within it, that was greatness to Donald Trump. It was greatness, because it was the price paid for great profits and a nation of industry unfettered by regulation or those Goddamned unions and all that bullshit red tape that comes with them. Those were days when Captains of industry were free, dammit, free from the death of a thousand paper cuts that require working fire escapes, reasonable work hours, and countless other protections for the safety and dignity of workers. That world without such regulations, that was greatness to the likes of Donald trump. The women who died in that fire? They were the price paid for the captains of industry to thrive, and the success of those men was worth every life snuffed out in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.
…and every indignity suffered by any worker ever sacrificed in the name of that greatness.
When Custer died for our sins on the greasy grass, THAT was greatness.
A great sacrifice.
And before that when Custer sacrificed the lives of Cheyenne Women and children at the Washita River, that was greatness, a greatness beautified by the music of Garyowen. Garyowen was the song played by Custer as he attacked Black Kettle’s encampment in the early morning of November 27th, 1868. Still reeling from the massacre at Sand Creek, Black Kettle had come to the Washita River in the hopes that he and his people could camp in peace and stay out of the fighting (just as they had tried to do at Sand Creek 4 years earlier). Custer showed them American greatness!
Lest the lesson be lost on any of us, the Trump administration made a point to play Garyowen at their July 4th celebration at the Black Hills this last summer. Most of America would have missed the message sent to Native American activists that day, perhaps noticing only a slight trace of nostalgia for the old west upon hearing the tune without quite knowing how they had come to form that association. For those that knew the tune, however, the message was unmistakable. What made American great was its willingness to slaughter Native Americans, not to respect them or their lands or anything else about them, but to slaughter them.
Accompanied by a catchy tune!
This message should have been clear enough earlier in Trump’s administration when he honored the Navajo Code Talkers.
With the name ‘Pocahontas’ falling from his sneering lips.
And the image of Andrew Jackson presiding over the whole scene.
Was greatness Abigail Adams telling her husband; “Remember the Ladies?” Or was it John Adams’ response, dismissing her concerns with platitudes about who is really in charge? Does greatness lie in Susan B. Anthony’s efforts to cast a vote in direct violation of the laws of her day. Or does it reside in the fine levied against her for doing so? Perhaps it can be found in Trump’s decision to pardon her? Or in the decision of the Susan B. Anthony Museum and House to reject that very pardon?
Could her greatness reside in the courage to break an unjust law, a greatness only erased by Trump’s worthless pardon?
Or did greatness actually reside in Trump’s pardon itself, a gesture which effectively put Anthony in a league with then likes of Sheriff Arpaio, Roger Stone, or Dinesh D’Souza, all men who have spent their entire lives punching down at those less fortunate than themselves? Some might think these men unworthy of respect. Clearly, they meet Trump’s standards of greatness. I somehow doubt, he’d have thought to put Anthony on par with these feckless whores if she were alive today and ready to give him a piece of her mind. A few a Republicans have indulged in fantasies about taking the vote away from women since Trump’s rise to office. If Anthony really does count as great to Trump, it is for a cause that neither he nor his supporters seem eager to support themselves. I don’t think Trump has suggested taking the vote away from women himself, at least not in public, but it’s easy enough to see how others might see it in Trump’s willingness to trash any woman who stands up to him in public.
…a point driven home withe every humiliation Trump unleashes on any woman who dares to stand up to him in public.
…or when facile deplorables make a point to remind us of the women who Trump always finds to speak on his behalf.
…as he punches down at others.
I could go on of course, but you get the point. If America was ever great in Trump’s eyes, it was precisely when America’s greatness was clearly obtained at the expense of others, and that expense was itself celebrated openly in full view of bystanders and surviving victims alike.
For both Trump and his supporters, it must be said, the cruelty is always the point. If there is anything about America that they well and truly love, that is it.
That is what passes for greatness in the land of Trump.
What’s a “Motte and Bailey doctrine?” The term was coined by Nicholas Shackel. It describes a position in which somebody defines a term in narrow and well-defined terms in contexts of likely dispute and/or rigorous scrutiny, only to adopt a much broader and less rigorous approach to the same topic in practice (e.g. when speaking to a very friendly audience). The language comes from a medieval system of defense in which a tower (usually built on a mound) is surrounded by a stretch of desirable land. The tower on its mound (i.e. the Motte) is where the people of the community go for defense when attacked. The bailey is where people actually live and make their living. So, the concept here is really one of equivocation wherein people employ a strict definition of their stance when pressed only to get sloppy with it whenever opportunity tempts them to less than precise applications.
Is “white privilege” a Motte and Bailey doctrine?
Well it certainly can be.
What’s the Motte version of “white privilege?”
As I understand it, the rigorous approach to “white privilege” is defined something like this; It is a range of unearned benefits conferred upon those perceived as white. [Alternatively, it is the lack of unearned debits conferred on countless underprivileged peoples as a result of their own (non-white) identity.] To say that this pattern has parallels to gender, sexual orientation, and range of other indices of social stratification is obvious.
What makes this the motte, as far as I see it anyway, is the lack of any direct assertions about the significance of this privilege relative to other issues. A white guy may have less to fear from the police during a traffic stop, for example, but he might still have grown up poor. He might still face discrimination if he speaks with a distinct regional accent. He could possess a disability, grow up with abusive parents, etc. Conversely, someone from an underprivileged minority group might still be wealthy, might still be connected, might still enjoy a range of benefits not available to all whites. In other words, the Motte version of this concept recognizes that white privilege does not automatically amount to getting the upper hand all across the board of social stratification. It is a ascribed status benefit enjoyed by white people. How that benefit stacks up against other such status benefits and detriments is another question.
What’s the bailey?
Well just ask critics of the concept!
How many times has a white guy told you he grew up in a trailer park or a crowded shack in response to comments about white privilege, or otherwise commented on countless travails of her or his early life in an effort to demonstrate that he or she did not have it easy? These arguments wouldn’t work against the motte version of this concept. They only work if ‘white privilege’ clearly entails an easier life for all white people, or at least the vast majority of them. As the possibility that other indices of social stratification would come into play is already built into the motte-version of ‘white privilege,’ all of these arguments fall well short of disproving that concept.
They really do.
So, why aren’t these points just straw man arguments?
They aren’t straw man arguments, because proponents of white privilege don’t always stay in the motte. Sometimes, those employing the notion really do seem to think (or at least say) that whites are uniformly better off. I have personally been told in no uncertain terms that I have had an easier life than they have because I am white, and I have certainly heard the sweeping comparisons from others invoking the notion of white privilege. Additionally, the practice of dismissing anything a white person says on the subject of race, racial privilege, or other social justice themes by reminding us that we speak from a position of privilege tends at least to erase the narrow definitions of the motte and nudge us all closer to a broad generalization about the overall status of white people relative to on-whites. Sometimes, people using this concept really do seem to be painting a simple picture of privilege that squashes a number of other measures of privilege and oppression under the weight of race. All-too-often the notion of white privilege, defined narrowly when scrutiny is likely, becomes in practice a categorical assumption that all white people have it better than all any-other-kinda people.
So, if it is tempting to dismiss the critics of white privilege for attacking a straw man, that temptation must be tempered by the awareness that at least some proponents of the notion actually embody that straw man, at least when they are on a roll.
And here is where the whole metaphor begins to fail us. Do people shift back and forth between strict and loose definitions of ‘white privilege.’ Yes, they do. They also do this with debates about the existence (and nature) of God, support for law and order, use of terms like ‘socialism’ or ‘capitalism,” or the love of rock and roll.
Wiggle room happens!
While we might want to encourage people to stick to a single definition of the key terms they use (or even to hold opponents in a debate responsible for doing so whether they want to or not), it is somewhat of a distortion to suggest that this is unusual. It is also a distortion to suggest that it takes the form of two clearly defined variations. Often the slippage is more subtle than that.
And of course it doesn’t help that nobody seems to trust anybody enough to anybody enough to grant them the benefit of the doubt on this topic. To hear some people talk, the very notion of white privilege will bring about the downfall of America, taking Europe with us, and fairly clipping the wings of half the angels in heaven. They can’t even address the motte version of the concept, and they certainly won’t concede it. Others will assume the only reason for expressing skepticism on this concept is a clear dedication (Whether conscious or not) to the support of white privilege. The principle of charity, long advocated by introductory logic teachers all across the land, just isn’t welcome in social justice debates of the modern world. When we acknowledge doubt at all, we tend not to give the other guy the benefit of it, and since nobody is getting any of this benefit themselves, we are that much more stingy about giving it to others.
Dammit all anyhow!
…and of course one of the benefits some of us do enjoy here is the privilege of experiencing this as a largely theoretical subject. For some folks the problem is a lot more urgent than others.
In this case, in particular, the middle ground is critical, not because all things moderate are great and wonderful, but because there is a critical question here, one that falls squarely on the boundaries between the motte and the bailey of this particular notion.
Relative to other indices of ascribed social status, just how important is ‘white privilege?” In the life of any given person, or the prospect for a positive outcome in any critical situation, just how likely is white privilege to make the difference? I can well understand that a black man might enjoy the secondary benefits of wealth or that a white man might face discrimination for being poor, but how does wealth (or the display of it) really stack up in comparison to race?
In attempting to answer this question, we do so haunted by the specter of confirmation bias.
White folks like myself typically underestimate the pervasiveness of our privilege. This was once brought home to me quite vividly when driving with my gal, Moni, in the passenger seat. Seeing a police officer race up beside us on the highway only to motion at me to slow down, she was shocked to see how easily I got away with driving over the speed limit. (In my defense, I wasn’t going that fast. Honest!) This is an event she now commemorates by taking pictures of me ‘criming while white’ whenever she gets the chance. Of course, I haven’t always gotten a break from cops in such situations, but after talking to her, I have come to realize that my own ideas about how a traffic stop is likely to go vary considerably with her own, and yes, I do put the difference down to race.
Of course, some in the social justice camp may be a little too quick too assume that racial identity has made the difference in this or that situation, but of course, not all biases are equal. If I was to bet on this, I would put my money on the likelihood that those of us enjoying white privilege miss its effect in our lives far more than those who lack this privilege see it when it isn’t there. In any event, the answer to how much weight white privilege gets in comparison to other indices of social status is going to be heavily skewed by the impact of this very phenonomenon (along with other all the other variables that skew the way that humans experience and treat each other).
The notion of ‘white privilege’ isn’t sufficiently robust without accounting for its relative weight. If we just say, “yes, that’s a benefit, one of many,” then all we are doing is acknowledging that race is one of many things that could trigger prejudice, and that when this happens white people are likely to benefit from the effect of that prejudice.
That takes ‘meh’ all the way to 5!
Simply saying that whiteness is just one index of unearned privilege among many others invites us all to shrug our shoulders and go back to whatever else we were doing. Perhaps we will notice when it matters; perhaps we will not. That position is not just a motte; it’s a meh. We can do better than that.
If on the other hand, we say that white privilege trumps all other considerations in all imaginable contexts, then, well, that just isn’t true. There are at least some contexts in which class, regional dialect, age, health, sexual orientation, personal connections, or any range of considerations could trump race. That white privilege skews the likelihood of positive privilege in some of these areas (e.g. class) more likely is certainly true, but at least some of the time, being white may not matter as being something else.
Some of the time.
In the end, the concept of ‘white privilege’ isn’t significant until we assign it some weight relative to other things that can skew the way that people treat one another.
As I write this, I am envisioning a much-needed trip through the relevant statistical research, but for now I mean to wrap this up by simply framing the position that most sense to me. It is the notion that white privilege, at least in the modern United States, is the most critical index of social status, at least when you account for both the likelihood that it will come up and the impact it will have. There may be less-severe sources of social bias which are more prevalent, and there may be less common sources of bias with more substantial impact when they do occur, but in the long run, white privilege is more likely to make a difference in a critical situation than class, region, age, etc. Do I believe this? Yes, though I am quite open to reconsideration and/or modification of the position.
So where does this leave us, or me at any rate?
I reckon us (me), somewhere in the transition from motte to bailey. I am grumble when I see the easy assumption that white people just have it better than others. I grumble more when I talk to white people who can’t even grasp the possibility that their whiteness might have given them an edge in life, at least some of the time. I reckon, the most appropriate thing to do here is to think of this in terms of priorities. As far as social ills go, this is at (or damned near) the top of the hierarchy. It isn’t the be-all and end-all of social justice, but I’d be hard pressed to think of anything more critical to address than racial disparities. That’s not a blank check written for anyone who wants to cash in on the claim to fighting for social justice. A certain amount of mere noise attaches itself to every signal, and shameless opportunists find their way into every cause. Still, I do think this problem is real, and I want more folks who enjoy white privilege would take the notion seriously.
It occurs to me that I may have just taken ‘meh’ all the way to 6, but it really does seem to me that the issue only gets interesting when you start asking how important white privilege is relative to other sources of social status. In suggesting that white privilege is more important than other variables, I am certainly picking a fight with anyone who seeks to deny that white privilege exists altogether, and also with those who see it as just one variable drowning in a see of other claims on our social conscience. To say that any other variables of social status could even be weighed against race and white privilege in any manner puts me at odds with quite a few of the proponents of the notion. I may have staked out a position on the middle ground, but in this instance, I doubt this will prove convenient.
The only wall Donald Trump ever meant to build was finished a long time ago. He built it with phrases like “lock her up” and “fake news” along with countless outright lies and bullshit stories. He didn’t put the wall on the border. It was never meant to go there. No, Trump built that wall right down the center of the nation, and each of us ended up on one side or another. Trump’s wall divides us completely from one another, and that is all it was ever intended to do.
It’s the one meaningful promise that bastard actually kept.
Violent men only have eyes for each other. On a street full of bystanders, they see only their enemies. In a room full of reasonable people, the violent ones seek each other out and do their damnedest to drag others into the fray. It’s an odd dance, one which enemies do together, and when they do it right, they lure the rest of us into the performance. None of this is new. Violent men and women, only have eyes for each other.
There is a lot of violence to celebrate today, or to decry. And how often does the one turn into the other? A condemnation of violence can easily be a clarion call to strike back, and it can be answered in the same tone.
And thus cacophony becomes a chorus!
None of this really started with the killing of George Floyd, of course; but his death certainly has escalated things a great deal. Some are fighting in the streets, and some are fighting on social media. Some are doing both of course. Either way, that chorus of violent men shouting at each other is getting pretty loud these days.
One of the questions people keep haggling out in the media is just how the violence got started? A protest doesn’t have to turn violent, but many of these certainly did. What was it, or who was it, that pushed all these protests over the top?
The right wing is happy to tell us that it is protesters. They are happily sharing videos of looters, vandals, and beatings occurring in these riots. The more rioters participating in the crime, the better it suits this narrative. It is enough to know that these crimes occur during the riots. This tells us all we need to know, so the right wing suggests; it is sufficient to discredit this entire wave of protests, just as it was enough to discredit the entire Black Lives Matter movement, and any number of other protests in the past. This isn’t a policing problem, so their narrative goes, it’s a crime problem, or even a black problem. The national figures in right wing media won’t quite say the last part of that sentence; they are content to have their followers say it for them.
Others assure us it was the cops, which is certainly fitting, because this was all about cops to begin with. Many who support the protesters will point to numerous instances in which the cops themselves seem to take aggressive action against people who are not really doing anything wrong. This wasn’t the reaction, they will remind us, when armed protesters stormed government buildings not so long ago. …it really wasn’t! So, perhaps the police are the party most responsible for escalating violence in this case? Just as the killing of Floyd points to a need for police reform so does the violence of these riots!
Or perhaps it was white people? By now we have seen enough videos of this; whites breaking windows or spray-painting buildings while black protesters beg them to stop. “They will blame us,” one woman says to a pair of light skinned young ladies with spray cans, and she is right. Her pleas fall on deaf ears, and it’s hard not to think ill of the young ladies as they wander off looking fabulous in their riot-chic.
Donald Trump seems to think it’s ANTIFA. He tells us that the United States declares them to be a terrorist organization. What this means, as far as policy goes, I don’t know. I doubt Donald Trump knows either, but I haven’t yet found the judiciary authority of Twitter statements from the Executive Couch Potato in the U.S. Constitution. Perhaps, Donald Trump has. Who knows what that man hears when others explain things to him! Last I checked, ANTIFA wasn’t even an organization, terrorist or otherwise, but perhaps they become an organization when Donald Trump tweets their governing principles into existence. He may yet have that power. Who knows?
Boogaloo Bois and their kindred are another candidate for the cause of violence. For those fortunate enough to have made it this far without learning of the Boogaloo Bois, let me ruin the world a little more for you! They are a part of a movement intent on starting a race war. ‘Boogaloo’, it seems, has become slang for that war, and so the thinking goes, these folks can bring it about by escalating violence in whatever way possible. In this instance, the suggestion is that Boogaloo Bois, other committed white racists, or even bigoted cops may be engaging in false flag operations, breaking things or carrying out attacks in the guise of protesters. Suffice to say, this prospect folds neatly into the same theme as the white-people-are-doing-it narrative mentioned earlier.
And then of course, there is the general outsiders-are-doing-this theme? In this instance, the idea is to emphasize that the violent perps have come from out of state. What that means is another question. To some, it means they are obviously ANTIFA extremists coming to riot over the usual list of grievances, because that’s what ANTIFA-types do. Damned Anarchists! Others are quite certain this must be boogaloos coming to commit their dirty work in the hopes it will be blamed on African-Americans. Both of these narratives assume clear intent at the outset, though it seems to me some of these out-of-staters may be as prone as the rest of us to get caught in the moment. Either way, I’m pretty sure that those emphasizing the interstate travel theme include a few folks looking at sentencing enhancements and/or federal involvement in what might otherwise be a state crime. It’s one thing to break a window in your home state, but if it can be shown that you crossed a state line for the purpose of doing it, you may be in more trouble than you think.
Conspiracy theories are bunk of course, …except when they aren’t. Violence at protests have often been cause for stories about infiltrators deliberately pushing protests over the line and into genuine violence. Cue the folks saying; “I support protests but not riots” and you now have cause to justify harsh police measures in the short run and to dismiss the cause of the protests in the long run. Whether the culprit is a rogue cop, a random white racist, or any other bad actor, suspicions about such agents are always part of the stories told about protests and the violence associated with them.
What does seem new is the number of videos which seem to show something like this actually happening.
I think we’ve all seen this before, streets filled with conventional protesters and then some guy shows up covered head-to-toe and well-masked, carrying something easily used as a weapon. He makes a bee-line for his target, breaks it, and then makes another bee-line straight out of the scene, leaving other protesters a bit surprised and even confused. We’ve seen that here too, and (this time at least) we’ve seen protesters actively try to stop them. Watching such videos, it isn’t hard to see that such individuals are up to something very different than the average protester. What that is, isn’t so clear, at least not so long as the individuals get away. Of course others will say such incidents are proof positive that a Boogaloo-ANTIFA-Rogue-Cop-Boi is at work, and his actions confirm whichever conspiratorial narrative they happen to favor.
In the coming weeks, we may learn the details of a few of these stories. We may find a conspiracy of sorts explains a burned building here or that beaten man there. We may find cops provoked violence in this city, or the protesters really were just terrible in that one. We may find reason to believe lots of shameless people saw in these protests an opportunity to score some loot from a local store, that some folks will do things they never imagined when they are surrounded by enough angry people doing the same thing. The racists will have plenty of black perpetrators to point at even as others get reason to believe white privilege sometimes carries a spray can or a stick for bashing windows. Those who hate protesters will find plenty in this to vindicate their contempt, and protesters will find plenty of cause in these evenets to take to the streets again some other day.
What we probably won’t have when these riots end (at least I would be damned surprised to find that we do) is evidence that a single one of these narratives explains the whole of the violence occurring in American cities right now. We may well see each and every one of these explanations play out in different stories of the rioting. We won’t get one explanation for all of it. Instead, will will get a range of different stories, each pointing at a different source for the violence. Most likely, people will then cherry pick the evidence to support the narrative best suited to their politics.
Another thing we won’t get in the wake of this, (and please let me be wrong about this!) is a clear course of action for resolving the conflicts that led to these riots.
One other thing we will have, I suspect, is a lot more Covid19 cases.
In the end, the same divisions that pushed so many of these protests into violence will still be with us. The facts won’t tell us once and for all who is to blame, and even if they did, there are too many people who benefit from clouding the issue. So, the same violent people who found each other in the last few days will be looking for each other in the future. The stories they will tell about this round of violence may yet fuel the next round of it, and we will hear the same violent chorus again sometime on down the road.
Unless somebody figures out a few things BEFORE the next George Floyd. There is a real problem here. That problem didn’t begin with the protests much less the riots, and that problem wouldn’t go away even if we did all get a single villain to blame for all this violence. Someone with the will to make things better and the power to do something about it needs to act.
I remember him leading the chant of “lock her up” during the 2016 election. I remember him pleading guilty to making false statements to the FBI.
Well, charges were just dropped against Michael Flynn.
They were dropped because Michael Flynn is innocent until properly proven guilty.
Do you remember George Zimmerman?
He was the man supposedly acting as neighborhood watch when he took a gun and went in search of Trayvon Martin, because Trayvon looked like was up to no good. I remember George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the subsequent trial. I remember countless right wingers lecturing the rest of us about how George Zimmerman was innocent until proven guilty. Many of those same people now tell us stories about how that thug Trayvon attacked Zimmerman without provocation, forcing Zimmerman to shoot him in self-defense.
That’s the story they tell. A story in which Trayvon stands charged, convicted, and executed without a trial.
Because George Zimmernan is innocent until proven guilty!
Do you remember Brett Kavanaugh?
Of course you do.
We are all reminded of Kavanaugh every time the well-stacked right wing Supreme Court delivers a decision. Kavanaugh sits on that court, because he was innocent until proven guilty.
Kavanaugh’s accuser Christine Blasey Ford is of course a lying scumbag who made up accusations against Kavanaugh as part of a liberal plot to keep him off the Supreme Court, so I’m told at any rate. She didn’t prove her case in Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, and the reason is obvious to those now happy to have him on the court.
Christine Blasey Ford is guilty because Brett Kavanaugh is innocent until proven guilty.
Do you remember Sandra Bland? She died in the custody of the Sheriff’s Department in Waller County Texas. Nobody was charged, because folks at the Waller County Sheriff’s Department are innocent until proven guilty. How about Timothy Loehmann? He’s the police officer who shot Tamir Rice? He was never prosecuted either, because Timothy Loehmann is innocent until proven guilty. Do you remember Daniel Pantaleo? He’s the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death over loose cigar sales. He wasn’t prosecuted either. Because Daniel Pantaleo is innocent until proven guilty. Do you remember Michael Slager? Okay, that fucker is just guilty! But do you remember Freddie Gray? He died over a pocket knife. All the officers involved in his case were innocent until proven guilty. Yes, they were!
How about Philip Brailsford? He shot and killed Daniel Shaver in a Hotel in Arizona. Brailsford was innocent until proven guilty.
Now we have the case of Ahmaud Arbery. Oh, don’t worry. he’s not accused of anything. He was just jogging. A black man, out jogging! That’s definitely not a cime. But apparently, a couple white men (Greg McMichael and Travis McMichael) decided that Ahmaud might have been a burglar, so they tracked him down and confronted him with a gun. Now there is some reason to believe Arbery might have been the aggressor at the point he was shot. …twice? What he was doing at that moment we will never know, but I reckon he might have meant to defend himself from two crazy white men with a gun. Such considerations won’t matter in the long run, because the McMichaels are entitled to a fair trial, and such speculation will not be relevant in a fair trial.
The McMichaels are both innocent until proven guilty*.
I always thought Morton Downey Jr.’s cigarette would make a fitting symbol of the modern Republican Party. I remember seeing him blow the smoke into the faces of liberals he would bring on his show to shout at. I remember him using that cigarette as a symbol of defiance, a misguided token of individual freedom standing strong against a world of oppressive liberalism. The dangers of secondary smoke had finally sunk into the public’s mind, and people (not just liberals) were beginning to protect themselves from it. With Americans putting up ‘no smoking’ signs in institutions all across the nation, Mort smoked like a chimney just to spite them. He shared his smoke with others whenever he could, at least when the cameras were rolling, and this obnoxious act of self-destruction, discourtesy, and outright assault helped to define him as a ‘conservative’ voice in the ever more carnival circles of right wing politics. He became a shining star of right wing politics, for a time, riding a wave of support with a cigarette in his hand.
And then of course it killed him.
As I recall, it was Rush Limbaugh who replaced him when Downey got himself fired from a radio gig in Sacramento California. Rush also replaced Downey in his role as the most prominent right wing loud mouth. Rush got to keep that role way longer than Downey did, and he accomplished way more with it too. Rush substantially transformed ‘conservative’ politics in the age of Clinton (or more to the point, Newt). Through Rush Limbaugh, bigots and bullies everywhere learned to call themselves ‘conservatives,’ and through Rush conservatives learned to lean less on the authority of age-old traditions and enjoy the role of petulant children defying the authority of liberals whenever and whenever possible. Where old-school conservatives would invoke timeless truths as though speaking with an ancient voice, Ditto-heads mocked and sneered like the slackers from the back of the classroom.
Limbaugh also took on the role of the public smoker in chief. I don’t recall seeing him blow smoke in anybody’s face, but then again, I don’t recall seeing Rush ever spend much time in the company of those who didn’t share his childish pseudo-conservative politics. What I do remember is countless images of him with a cigar in his hand or in his mouth and a smug look on his face. He too wanted us to know that we couldn’t stop him from smoking. He too wanted everyone to know that we couldn’t stop him from killing himself. He was enjoying his personal freedom and there wasn’t a damned thing we could do about it.
It isn’t merely that these two clowns have smoked themselves into cancer. Were that the case, I really would consider it their own business. No, what makes this all a matter of public concern is their use of tobacco in fashioning their own self-image. Both used smoking to symbolize right wing politics, to cast their own personal dances with death in the guise of rebellion and to cast efforts to combat the tobacco industry as just so much arrogance by the left. Just as Mort before him, Rush minimized the threats of secondary smoke. He too denied the health risks that smokers impose on others as well as themselves. Limbaugh too celebrated a known health risk on a regular basis, and he too turned it into a disingenuous symbol of rebellion against authority.
To hear these professional morons speak, American smokers had become freedom fighters and accomplished healthcare professionals become just another form of meddlesome liberal out to take your freedoms.
Sadly, this is hardly an unusual feature of right wing politics, not just the self-destruction part; the taking the rest of us with them part as well. From pollution controls and safety standards throughout industry to the flagrant refusal to address climate change, right wing pseudo-conservative politics embraces countless risks to human health and happiness. They flaunt the half-based idiocy of Sunday-Morning Scientists in answer to the work of dedicated scientific professionals on countless issues of public policy. They consistently do so in the name of personal freedoms and stories about confrontation with left wing authoritarianism.
These fuckers will one day kill us all.
Mort’s cigarette and Rush’s cigar really are perfect symbols of what American ‘conservatism’ has become.