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7 Liberal Lessons of Ebola

Disease should make us think like a species, not like rugged individualists.

One perverse aspect of the public reaction to Ebola is the way it seems to be playing politically, at least in the short run. Ebola is making people afraid, and pushing them towards the party whose central narrative is about fear and anger: the Republicans.

Republican politicians are certainly playing up this angle: exaggerating the threat, and calling for xenophobic actions to combat it — cut off contact with Africa, seal the border against … well it’s not clear against who. Candidates have been amalgamating all the current fear-objects into one nightmare narrative: ISIS terrorists are going to infect themselves with Ebola, then sneak across our southern border to spread it here.

Senator Ron Johnson and Rep. Joe Wilson have put it most bluntly, but Republican Senate candidates around the country — Scott Brown, Thom Tillis, Cory Gardner — have been highlighting the pieces of this dark fantasy and hoping voters will assemble it for themselves: Ebola, ISIS, southern border.

Like most nightmares, this one evaporates as soon as you look at it by daylight: Ebola sucks as a bio-weapon, because it’s so hard to spread, and by the time the carriers were contagious they’d mostly just want to sleep; they certainly wouldn’t be able to swim the Rio Grande or hike the Arizona desert. Except in fantasy, no one has found any links between ISIS and Mexico. And unlike Texas, Mexico has no Ebola cases so far; if anybody should want to seal the border, it should be them, not us.

But nightmares — even very, very unlikely ones — raise fear, and fear makes people vote Republican. Or at least that’s what Republicans believe.

A rational person, though, ought to become more liberal when they think about Ebola, not more conservative. Here’s why.

1. Ebola points out why we need government. Libertarian rhetoric about sovereign individuals has a lot of superficial charm. But biology knows nothing about that; humanity is a species, and sometimes we have to act as a species. We do this through government.

If you want to get some distance on these issues, I recommend reading John Barry’s The Great Influenza, about the 1918-19 epidemic that killed as many as 100 million people around the world. The cities that did well with that plague were the ones whose governments were most draconian about it. As you read, try to imagine a plague hitting Galt’s Gulch, where each sovereign ubermensch would do his own research and make up his own mind about the disease and how to handle it. I don’t think they’d do very well.

There’s a lot of thankless, profitless work involved in controlling Ebola. For example, tracking down all the people who have been in contact with an infected person, and testing or quarantining them. It’s hard to imagine a free-market system that would do this well. The most obvious libertarian system would make individuals responsible for tracking their own exposure, and if some more complicated system created a profit motive for controlling a small outbreak, waiting until it’s a larger outbreak would be even more profitable.

2. Ebola points out why we need a fully funded government. When there’s no immediate threat of disease, government agencies like the CDC look like bureaucratic waste. When Rand Paul put out a “Tea Party budget” in 2011, it included a big cut in the CDC, and virtually no explanation as to how this would affect its mission. As I explained at the time:

sometimes you don’t get even that much justification, and the cut seems to be based on little more than an ideological assumption that waste must be in there somewhere. Take the CDC again. It’s our front line against plagues and epidemics, the folks we depend on to helicopter down in astronaut suits if SARS or ebola breaks out or drug-resistant tuberculosis gets out of hand. It has a total budget of $6.342 billion in 2011, so $1.165 billion represents a 28% cut for the final 2/3 of the year (assuming Paul’s bill could be passed immediately).

How should the CDC fulfill its mission with 28% less money? Given how disastrous a mistake could be, you might hope for some kind of expert justification, maybe a new strategy based on a medical study or two. Nope. The overview just suggests “focusing on domestic priorities rather than spending billions on overseas initiatives.” So basically, the CDC should stop worrying about plagues in other countries, and wait until they show up here. In Rand Paul’s world, that kind of thinking saves money.

I quote from my 2011 article to make this point: Hindsight wasn’t necessary to grasp how misguided this was.

NIH Director Francis Collins has speculated that we’d have an Ebola vaccine by now if not for the budget cuts that did get made: The $37 million we spent on Ebola vaccine research in 2010 was down to $18 million by 2014. Various other people have pushed back against that speculation. (And then Mike the Mad Biologist pushed forward again.) But the bottom line is simple: If you could reach back in time and reverse those cuts, wouldn’t you?

Now ask yourself: How many other cuts are like that? How many other agencies not currently in the headlines are we looking at as “wasteful spending” when it’s just that we don’t personally need them right now? And is it possible that events might make us wish we’d spent more before the emergency hit?

3. Ebola points out why we need a fully staffed government. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a surgeon general about now? (Just as it would have been nice to have had an ambassador to Russia when the Ukraine thing broke out or a Turkish ambassador as we were trying to get Turkey’s cooperation in opposing ISIS.) As former Surgeon General Regina Benjamin put it:

The surgeon general is America’s doctor. Delivering information to the American people in a language they can understand. Not having one right now, you don’t have that face and that person that the American people can identify with as their doctor who’s looking out for them on a large scale.

But we don’t have one because of the NRA. President Obama nominated Dr. Vivek Murthy back in March. But it turned out that Murthy views gun violence as a public health problem. (So does the AMA.) That makes him unacceptable to the NRA, so the Senate has been unable to confirm him (and a recent Supreme Court ruling prevents Obama from installing him as a recess appointment).

It wasn’t so long ago that the Senate believed in staffing the government, without making every appointment into a political football. But today’s Republicans have blocked Obama’s appointments on principle, even when they have no issue with the nominee. If they get control of the Senate in the upcoming election, expect the government to remain understaffed at least until the next administration.

If you’ve ever worked in an understaffed department, you know what that means: Stuff falls through the cracks. When that inevitably happens, Republicans will blame “government” rather than the true culprit: understaffed government.

4. Ebola demonstrates why we need to fund foreign aid. Foreign aid is one of the most unpopular parts of the federal budget (possibly because Americans grossly overestimate how much we spend on it). But viruses point out that the world is more interconnected than our political systems account for.

Bush administration officials used to tell us that we had to fight terrorism “over there” or else we’d eventually have to fight it over here. That’s debatable when it comes to terrorism, but it’s absolutely the fact when you talk about contagious diseases.

Ebola is controllable — previous outbreaks have been controlled, and the world has gone entire years without new cases. But ultimately it has to be controlled at the source, in west Africa.

Now widen your view a little: Anyplace in the world where people are living in unhealthy and unhygienic conditions, the next super-bug might be evolving. Any population that is “off the grid” of the global medical establishment might where a pandemic gets rolling before anyone notices.

5. The specter of a deadly infection demonstrates why we need universal health care. Conservative rhetoric revolves around individuals, and in particular how wrong it is to “give” individuals benefits — like health care — that they haven’t “earned”. Such individuals become “dependent on government” and take money away from “job creators”. It’s even worse if some of those benefits reach people who entered the country illegally or stayed past the expiration of their visas.

But when an infection gets loose, you want everybody who might be sick to seek treatment. You don’t want them to stay away from doctors because they can’t pay, or avoid the emergency room for fear of being deported, or not tell anybody about that undocumented cousin they might have infected.

I’m still not terribly worried about the spread of Ebola in the United States. (The number of cases and the likelihood of spreading the infection are both low.) But we might not be so lucky with the next disease. That’s why we should all be tremendously grateful that (so far) ObamaCare has gotten health insurance to ten million more people, and we should be working to plug the holes in that system rather than tear it down.

If a real epidemic got rolling, where would you rather be? In Massachusetts, where the model for ObamaCare, RomneyCare, became law in 2006, and only 1.2% of the population lacks health insurance? Or in a conservative wonderland like Texas, where 24.8% — probably including the Hispanics who clean your office or work in the kitchen at your favorite restaurant — are uninsured?

6. The Ebola panic demonstrates the danger of legitimizing conspiracy theories. During a plague, you need affected people to cooperate with the containment plan — seek treatment, accept quarantine, and report all their contacts truthfully — while unaffected people stay calm rather than doing panicky, stupid things. That’s when it’s important that the country trust its scientific establishment and its government.

Now of course it is important that the media and the political process police the trustworthiness of both those institutions. On those rare occasions when scientists fake data, they should be exposed. When the government lies, the media should investigate and seek the truth.

But what we’ve been seeing inside the conservative news bubble during these last six years goes way beyond that. Political opportunism has been seeking every opportunity to tear down public trust, even when — maybe especially when — the accusations are baseless.

And so, much of the public believes that the scientific community is involved in an elaborate conspiracy to promote a climate change “hoax”, or to destroy the Christian religion via the theory of evolution. So how can we believe what the doctors are telling us about Ebola?

And the Obama administration? If President Obama faked his birth certificate to hide the fact that he’s not really eligible to be president, if he’s been plotting to destroy the U.S. since he was a student, if he has a gun-confiscation plan that’s always just a month or two from implementation, if he is funding “death panels” that will decide whether your life is worth saving, if he has a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” worldview, if he “hates white people” or “has a deep-seated hatred of white people or the white culture” … why would his administration tell us the truth about Ebola? Fox News’ resident psychologist Keith Ablow lays it out:

[Obama's] affinities, his affiliations are with [Africans]. Not us. That’s what people seem unwilling to accept. He’s their leader … we don’t have a president. We don’t have a president who has the American people as his primary interest.

This is irresponsibility on a grand scale. Every era has a lunatic fringe with paranoid notions. But this kind of stuff comes from governors, members of Congress, a news network, and lots of other folks who seem to be part of a trustworthy establishment. And major national leaders — I’m looking at you, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell — sit at the same table and humor the purveyors of this destructive nonsense.

So it’s no wonder we’re seeing all kinds of weird behavior out there: Like the school in Maine that suspended a teacher for 21 days (the incubation period of Ebola) because she’s been to Dallas. Her hotel was less than ten miles from the hospital where two nurses got infected, so how can we have her in the same room with our children? (The local news report on this mentions a local parent who believes the government has “downplayed risk factors”. I wonder where he gets his news.) Thursday, several entire schools closed in Texas and Ohio because of Ebola contagion fears.

What would happen if we were having a real epidemic? I think mobs would be roaming the streets, burning down the houses of suspected carriers — all because the conservative movement and the Republican Party have prioritized destroying Obama over maintaining public trust in trustworthy institutions.

Pandering to people’s worst instincts may seem like a political freebie. But it isn’t. There’s a big social cost to this kind of stuff. But “social cost” is one of those things that conservatives are trained not to see. And that’s a 7th reason why you should be a liberal.

Is the Battle For Same-Sex Marriage Nearly Over?

I hated last summer’s Windsor decision. That is, I loved the result — the Defense of Marriage Act overturned — but I hated Justice Kennedy’s mushy legal logic. What did the decision mean? How would it apply to anything beyond the specific case in front of the Court? How would it apply to state bans on same-sex marriage?

Lower-court judges wondered too. As he was striking down Oklahoma’s ban in January, Judge Terence Kern placed a subtle barb into his decision:

This Court has gleaned and will apply two principles from Windsor.

I unpacked that statement like this:

Ordinarily, a lower-court judge just “applies” principles from a higher-court ruling, rather than having to “glean” them first.

Nevertheless, judges all over the country were managing to glean something similar out of Windsor. In one federal district after another — Indiana, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin — state same-sex marriage bans were going down. The states were appealing those decisions to the Supreme Court, but the Court did not necessarily have to make a ruling, because so far the appellate court rulings were unanimously against the state bans. If one district found them constitutional and another unconstitutional, the Supremes would have to step in. But so far that hadn’t happened.

On Monday, the Court announced that it would take advantage of its right to remain silent: It was refusing to hear the appeals. That instantly established marriage equality in the appealing states, and made virtually automatic its extension to other states in the same appellate districts: Colorado, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming. (The near-automatic ruling in North Carolina happened Friday. Thursday, West Virginia officials dropped their case rather than waste time losing.)

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which comprises much of the Northwest, will hear cases involving Idaho, Nevada, and Hawaii soon. Alaska’s ban went down Sunday, so it might be added to that hearing.

When the dust settles fairly soon, gays and lesbians will be allowed to marry in 30 states — 35 if the 9th Circuit joins the appellate-court consensus. Can anything stop its extension to the whole country before long?

The politics of the Supreme Court. One of the intriguing facts about the Court’s non-decision is that hearing an appeal only requires the approval of four justices, not the five it would take for the appeal to succeed. The Court’s four most conservative members — Roberts, Scalia, Alito, and Thomas — all dissented in Windsor and presumably believe in the constitutionality of state same-sex marriage bans. If they had stuck together, they could have agreed to hear the appeals. That would have stopped the spread of marriage equality at least until the Court ruled, maybe as late as June.

The only reason not to take that course is the fear that they would lose, and that Justice Kennedy would join the Court’s liberal justices — Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Breyer, and Kagan — in establishing a constitutional right to same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Similarly, the four liberal justices could have accepted the appeal and gone for the win rather than for the sizable advance the non-decision represents.

All the justices — especially Kennedy — might want the battle for marriage to play out in a more gradual, more organic way, rather than ending it in a quick thrust with the Court’s fingerprints on the knife.

And both sides can keep their victory scenarios alive, though the conservative victory scenario is shakier: If they can’t convince Kennedy to join them, the conservative justices have to hope a Republican wins the White House in 2016 and has a chance to replace Kennedy or a liberal judge with a conservative.

Nationally, marriage equality has substantial momentum, so a decision upholding it becomes less controversial by the day. And if the Court never decides, in the long run the political process will.

The legal debate. Reading the post-Windsor lower-court decisions, one conclusion is inescapable: The anti-gay side has run out of ammunition. In case after case, they have had no better strategy than to trot out the same arguments all the previous courts rejected, and hope that this judge will be more sympathetic to their cause.

Way back in Lawrence, the Supreme Court rejected the notion that mere moral disapproval (without any substantive injury to those disapproving or to society in general) was an acceptable basis for making a law (against sodomy, in that case). So “I think two men kissing is yucky” is not a rational basis for banning same-sex marriage. Similarly, “The Bible says it’s wrong” doesn’t cut it, because the Bible has no legal standing.

Since those are the actual reasons people oppose marriage equality, the legal arguments against it have always been facades. More and more, they have looked like facades, and judges have routinely knocked them down: There is zero legitimate evidence that letting same-sex couples marry harms heterosexual couples, or the children being raised by either same-sex or opposite-sex couples, or anyone else.

Looking back at the Goodridge decision (that legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts in 2003), it’s striking how little has changed on the anti-gay side. The arguments that were unconvincing a decade ago are still the only ones they have.

The political debate. My prediction after Goodridge has been borne out:

Personally, I expect the same-sex marriage issue to follow the same course as interracial marriage. After a few years of Chicken-Little panic, the vast majority of Americans will recognize that the sky has not fallen, and that the new rights of homosexuals have come at the expense of no one.

Focus on the Family’s James Dobson’s predictions, on the other hand, have not fared nearly so well:

Barring a miracle, the family as it has been known for more than five millennia will crumble, presaging the fall of Western civilization itself.

Same-sex marriage has been legal in my state (New Hampshire) for almost five years. And I live just across the border from Massachusetts, where it’s been legal for a decade. If the family or Western civilization is any closer to crumbling here than in heterosexual-marriage-only states like Texas or Alabama, the signs are escaping me.

Scare tactics like Dobson’s are an all-or-nothing gamble. If you can frighten people out of trying something, they’ll never find out that your visions of doom are baseless. But as soon as somebody does try it, then the sky either falls or it doesn’t.

The sky isn’t falling. The more states that implement marriage equality and the more same-sex couples that are visibly pursuing their chance at marital happiness, the more obvious it becomes that the sky is not falling. Little Bobby’s friend Susie has two Dads or two Moms, and it’s just not a problem. You’ll never be able to explain to Bobby why you want the government to break up Susie’s family.

That’s why the poll results are so age-determined. The main people against marriage equality these days are the grandparents, who don’t have to explain stuff to Bobby.

So here’s what I expect to happen as a result of this latest expansion of marriage equality: The opposition will harden in the states affected, but it will also shrink. More and more people will have a chance to observe first-hand the absurdity of the “pro-family” scare tactics.

Here’s what I don’t expect to happen: The Republican Party will not launch a crusade to get this reversed, or play up the Republican-president-appoints-an-anti-gay-judge scenario in 2016. Because nationally, that’s a losing issue. The public has turned.

The last-ditch resistance. In “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party“, I defined the Confederate worldview like this:

The essence of the Confederate worldview is that the democratic process cannot legitimately change the established social order, and so all forms of legal and illegal resistance are justified when it tries.

On the national level, conservatives can’t win this battle either legally or democratically any more, and the number of states where they could win democratically is shrinking every year. More and more, the national Republican leadership wants to talk about anything else — Ebola-infected ISIS terrorists crossing our Mexican border, maybe.

Republican strategist Alex Castellanos put it like this:

Increasingly, there is less room in the GOP for ‘big-government’ social conservatives, i.e., social conservatives who believe in using the power of the state to tell people whom they can love or marry. Instead, there is growing agreement, in an ever younger and increasingly libertarian Republican party, that the role of the state in prohibiting relationships should be minimized.

And northern Republican governors like Scott Walker and Chris Christie are happy to leave the issue behind.

But that pragmatic approach to politics doesn’t sit well with the older Confederate types. Mike Huckabee is threatening to leave the party if it doesn’t fight this. Other voices are calling for civil disobedience, though it’s not clear what form that would take.

The most outrageous response came from Pat Buchanan, who recalled resistance to an earlier act of “judicial dictatorship”:

In 1954, the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of all public schools. But when the court began to dictate the racial balance of public schools, and order the forced busing of children based on race across cities and county lines to bring it about, a rebellion arose.

Only when resistance became national and a violent reaction began did our black-robed radicals back down.

Again, it’s not clear what specific acts of violence he’s calling for.

I also cited the reaction to school desegregation as an example of Confederate tactics in the modern era. And Buchanan apparently sees that relationship too (though he views it positively). He ends his article with a quote from Robert Lewis Dabny’s 1867 book A Defense of Virginia.

American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. … Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious, for the sake of the truth, and has no idea of being guilty of the folly of martyrdom.

Buchanan is arguing against conservatives who believe that the debate about same-sex marriage is over. Dabny was arguing — after the end of the Civil War — with those who thought that the debate about slavery was over. Dabny was a prophet of the insurgency that ultimately won Reconstruction for the South and established Jim Crow.

And he’s an example that Buchanan wants to emulate.

Sam Harris and the Orientalization of Islam

The argument about Islam between Ben Affleck and Sam Harris on Bill Maher’s HBO show Real Time brought to mainstream attention a phenomenon that’s been simmering for a long time: Islam brings out something ugly in many of the most vocal atheists like Harris and Maher.

Part of the problem is obvious in the staging: Maher has arranged the show in such a way that the onus of defending non-jihadi Muslims falls not on some prominent Islamic leader, or even on a rank-and-file Muslim, but on Ben Affleck, an actor who (as far as I know) has no connection to Islam. Affleck occupies a position that I occasionally find myself in (usually with regard to political issues like Birtherism) and thoroughly hate: He recognizes that the conversation is taking an ugly turn, and he’s completely unprepared to respond to it, but everyone else is just letting it go. He boils over not because he thinks he is the right person to have this argument, but because he’s the one who’s here.

Probably this post has already gotten three comments from people who have read no further and are shocked that I’m taking Affleck’s (and Islam’s) side over Harris and Maher. The Weekly Sift has a substantial atheist/agnostic readership, and for good reason: I’m a consistent defender of the wall of separation between Church and State, and I fight back against the attempts by right-wing American Christians to subvert concepts like religious freedom. Whether or not I am an atheist myself depends on your definitions, but a major theme of my explicitly religious writing and public speaking (like this recent example) is how someone with a secular worldview can get the benefits claimed for traditional religion (serenity in the face of death, for example) without accepting its doctrines.

Plus, I’m usually a Bill Maher fan. (Though don’t expect me to defend him segueing out of a Sarah Palin joke with “speaking of dumb twats“.) I’ve linked to a number of his New Rule rants, and used a Maher quote to lead off the Sift as recently as September 29.

So, Harris and Maher might ask, what’s up with me? Why do I have what Joseph Farah has called the “liberal blind spot on Islam“? Here’s how Harris made that case on Real Time:

We have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people.

Maher had introduced the segment like this:

Liberals need to stand up for liberal principles. … Like freedom of speech, freedom to practice any religion you want without fear of violence, freedom to leave a religion, equality for women, equality for minorities (including homosexuals). These are liberal principles that liberals applaud for, but then when you say “In the Muslim world, this is what’s lacking” — then they get upset.

The discussion that follows largely misses what I think is the main point, and in that sense it resembles those why-don’t-you-care-about-black-on-black-crime discussions that followed the shootings of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. Statistics are quoted (“78% of British Muslims think that the Danish cartoonist should have been prosecuted”, much like “[blacks make up] 50% of homicide victims in this country, and 90 percent of those victims are killed by other black people.”), and many true facts are stated — but stated within a frame that already embodies the offensive content. “This is based on reality, Ben,” Maher insists. “We’re not making this up.”

Nicholas Kristof does push back in the right direction:

This does have the tinge, a little bit, of the way white racists talk about African Americans.

But, like Affleck, he isn’t prepared well enough to unpack that idea.

Let me give it a shot. The problem here is the one that Edward Said wrote the entire book Orientalism about: The privileged outsider encloses some large group of diverse “others” inside a conceptual fence, gives the enclosure a name like “the Orient” or “the Muslim world”, and then takes it on himself to pronounce what the defining essence of that fenced-off region is.

Remember when Cliven Bundy said, “I want to tell you one thing I know about the Negro”? It doesn’t really matter where Bundy goes from there. The racism is already built into the idea that there is such a being as “the Negro”, and that a white man like Bundy is qualified to make pronouncements about the defining characteristics of “the Negro”.

Now look at what Harris snuck into the Islamophobia quote above: “the doctrine of Islam”. To Harris, Islam is not a cacophony of people who have been arguing with each other since the 7th century. It’s one thing. It has a unified body of doctrine, and Harris can tell you what that doctrine is. And if there are people who consider themselves Muslims but disagree with whatever Harris defines from the outside as the essence of Islam, well, too bad for them.

Harris’ rhetoric is shot through with this orientalist framing. Elsewhere in the conversation he maps it out:

Just imagine some concentric circles here. You have at the center, you have jihadists. These are people who wake up in the morning wanting to kill apostates, wanting to die trying. They believe in Paradise. They believe in martyrdom. Outside of them we have Islamists. These are people who are just as convinced of martyrdom, and Paradise, and wanting to foist their religion on the rest of humanity, but they want to work within the system. They’re not going to blow themselves up on a bus. They want to change governments. They want to use democracy against itself. Those two circles are arguably 20% of the Muslim world. … But outside of that circle you have conservative Muslims, who can honestly look at ISIS and say: “That does not represent us. We’re horrified by that.” But they hold views about human rights, about women, about homosexuals that are deeply troubling.

Look what he’s done there: Jihadists are the real Muslims. They’re at the center. The further you are from being a jihadist, the fringier your Islam is.

So the question of who is a real Muslim, and what makes someone a real Muslim — that’s not something for Muslims to wrangle out among themselves, it’s for a hostile outsider to pronounce. That’s where the bigotry is. Statistics about how many people fall into Harris’ concentric circles are irrelevant. The bigotry has already been baked into the circle-drawing itself.

In case that point went past you, Harris underlines it later on:

There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are nominal Muslims, who don’t take the faith seriously, who don’t want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS, and we need to defend these people, prop them up, and let them reform their faith.

So if you think you’re a Muslim, but you don’t support ISIS or want to kill apostates, your Islam is just “nominal” and you “don’t take the faith seriously”. It doesn’t matter if you’re an imam and have devoted your life to your vision of Islam and your relationship with Allah; you’re not “serious”. Because it’s up to Sam Harris to decide what “serious” Islam is. And, like a colonial governor of hostile natives, he’s going to “prop up” the people he has identified as not “serious” about the native culture.

Harris ought to be old enough to remember the final decade or so of the Cold War — the era when “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance — when similarly vicious framing was used against atheists: Soviet Communists were the real atheists. Secular humanists might nominally be atheists, but they were just fellow-traveling dupes of the Soviet Communists.

If you lived through that, you shouldn’t want to do it to anybody else.

Such manipulation of categories and essences is a fundamental flaw in all of Harris’ writing, as I pointed out when I reviewed The End of Faith for UU World magazine in 2006. He implicitly assumes from the outset that fundamentalism is the essence of religion. This isn’t a conclusion he draws from facts, it’s the a priori conceptual framework into which facts are placed.

The End of Faith presents contemporary religious debate as an argument between fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden or Pat Robertson and atheists like Harris. Everyone else is a “moderate” — wishy-washy people who don’t have the intellectual integrity to choose between fundamentalism and atheism. The message of The End of Faith is that “moderates” need to get off the fence; by continuing to support theistic religion in any form at all, they’re empowering the fundamentalists.

When Harris argues that “moderates” do not represent the essence of their faith, he quotes scripture — just as a fundamentalist would. He accepts without question or examination the fundamentalist assertion that a faith is defined by a literal interpretation of its scripture.

A more mature view of religion is contained in another book I reviewed for UU World: James Carse’ The Religious Case Against Belief. To Carse, Christianity is the conversation that Jesus began, not a belief system laid down by Jesus and recorded once-and-for-all in the New Testament. Likewise, Islam is not the Quran, it is the sum total of conversations the Quran has inspired. The Bible and the Quran are central cyclones of mystery that over the centuries have spun off any number of belief systems, each of which has its day in the sun and then eventually crashes, as all human belief systems must.

This is not some bizarre notion unique to Carse. In Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel The Penitent, the novel’s ultra-orthodox narrator announces a similar opinion: that the highest form of Judaism was not the one Moses brought down from Sinai with the Torah, but the Judaism that developed after millennia of discussion about the Torah.

Harris’ failing isn’t that he has gotten the essence of Islam (or of religion in general) wrong. (This is another key point of Orientalism.) It’s that religion is a complex human phenomenon that can’t be reduced to a single essence. There is nothing to know about “the Negro” or about the Orient or Islam or Judaism or religious people in general. These are all conceptual fences that enclose diverse populations, not natural categories that each have a unique Platonic essence. So you can quote all the statistics you want about, say, the size of Jewish noses. But that caricature of the big-nosed Jew is still anti-Semitic.

So finally, what should we make of the claim that “you can’t criticism Islam” or “you can’t criticize religion”? First, note it’s resemblance to the common claim by white conservatives that they can’t criticize President Obama without being called racists. If you look at the specific instances they point to, it’s usually not that hard to see something racist going on. And the airwaves seem to be full of criticism of President Obama; lots of people manage it without sounding racist. Conservatives should learn to see what separates racist criticism of Obama from non-racist criticism of Obama, not squawk because somebody thinks they’re racists.

The reason to pause before you criticize Islam or religion isn’t that these topics are or should be surrounded by some special aura of protection. It’s that there’s really no such thing as Islam or religion, at least not in the sense that most critics would like to assume.

Want to criticize something that people do, like when families murder their own girls in “honor killings“? By all means criticize that. Want to point out that many such murderers justify themselves by pointing their Muslim faith? That’s fine. (Of course, you might also point out that the problem appears in other religions too, and that many other Muslims disagree with the killings.) What you shouldn’t do, though, is set yourself up as the Pope of Islam and pronounce that the killers are the “real” Muslims and their critics are just “nominal” Muslims.

Vlad Chituc, who writes for a very good secularist blog called NonProphet Status, has an excellent set of suggestions for criticizing religion effectively and without orientalizing it. One of them resembles what I’ve been saying here:

You also have to be appropriately specific: if you say that Christianity is sexist, and your friend practices a form of Christianity that isn’t, then there is a discrepancy you need to address. Is it the Bible that is sexist? Or just certain passages? Are they being interpreted in the same ways? Suddenly the conversation gets more productive and detached from a facet of their core identity.

… I occasionally hear various sorts of essentialist arguments where it’s claimed that religions just are their holy books. That seems obviously wrong to me: no one would say that Christianity is anti-fig because Jesus cursed a fig-tree in Mark, and no one would say that a pro-fig Christian isn’t even really Christian because of their position on figs. I don’t see why we ought to treat passages about homosexuality any different.

A Conservative-to-English Lexicon, 2nd edition

Preface to the Second Edition

The popularity and inadequacy of the First Edition led its readers to submit many terms which had unfortunately been overlooked. While still far from complete, the Second Edition (I hope) will make far more Conservative speech comprehensible to non-residents of the conservative echo chamber.

But before listing the terms new to the Second Edition, other comments motivate me to say a few words about the origin and intentions of the Lexicon.

Origin of the Lexicon. While researching “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party“, I discovered many examples of language drift among conservatives. The great majority of the new usages are transparent, and can be easily understood by readers without my help. (When, for example, Paul Ryan says “inner city” he means “black”.) But confusion became likely when the drifting terms began to interact.

One example in particular required unpacking, because it was key to the Tea/Confederate identification: Many in the so-called Tea Party talk about their “Second Amendment rights”, by which they mean their right to the means to resist or even overthrow the government of the United States, if it should become “tyrannical”.  By itself, this seems a reasonable — some might even say laudable — goal, one in line with their identification with the original Tea Party protest against the tyranny of George III.

However, when I then looked into the current conservative usage of tyranny, I discovered that it has virtually nothing to do with George III, or even with the more recent Hitler/Stalin models that most Americans picture when they hear the word. Instead, tyranny refers to the implementation of any progressive policy at all — ObamaCare, immigration reform, cap and trade, taxation with representation, and many others — even when that policy is enacted via the constitutional process of our duly elected representatives passing legislation. Tyranny even includes any proposed gun control measures, no matter how slight, which completes a vicious cycle: We can’t have gun control, because we will need our guns to overthrow the tyranny of gun control.

Fully translated, then, the Tea Party’s Second Amendment rhetoric amounts to: We need the means to resist or overthrow the government of the United States, in case liberals win too many elections and start implementing the agenda they were elected on.

That sounds a lot different.

Intention of the Lexicon. Some of the First Edition’s commenters seemed to be interpreting the Lexicon as a work of mockery, born out of frustration, bitterness, or anger. This response was independent of ideology: Some conservatives felt themselves victims of a bitter, angry attack, while some liberals expressed satisfaction with an expression of their own frustration and bitterness, which I presumably shared.

This is a misinterpretation. The Lexicon should be read as a light-hearted presentation of a serious message. If, while reading, you find yourself feeling bitter or angry — either at me or at conservatives — I recommend taking a walk. The extreme strain of conservatism found in America today is only one of life’s many absurdities. If the absurdity of life makes you angry, let me suggest that you are suffering from what the Buddhists call attachment. Life is life; your anger is irrelevant to it. (If you are monotheistic, let me put it differently: God clearly tolerates life’s absurdity; you should too.)

However, the light-heartedness of the Lexicon doesn’t mean that it is nothing but a joke. A non-bitter, non-angry response of: “Wow, this is way more fucked up than I thought!” — similar, I imagine, to how biologists felt when they discovered the platypus — is completely appropriate, and mirrors the attitude I had while compiling the Lexicon.

Seriousness of the Lexicon. The light-heartedness of the Lexicon should not be misread as mere mockery, in which the mocker attaches to his target whatever negative images might stick. The Lexicon is serious. The intention of the definitions is to match the actual usage of terms within the conservative echo chamber, thereby interpreting conservative statements in ways that are more coherent, more comprehensible, and more likely to be true than when those statements are interpreted in standard English.

For example, the frequently uttered syllables, “Obama is a Marxist” are gibberish if Marxist is interpreted in the literal English sense of “a proponent of the philosophy of Karl Marx”. Actual Marxists believe that Obama represents their eternal enemy: the Wall Street capitalists. Just this week, I found this Obama-resenting comment in The Socialist Worker:

If liberals learn anything from the bitter taste Obamaism left in their mouths, it should be that ‘progressive’ and ‘populist’ talk from politicians is cheap–especially when they’re running for office.

However, if you look at the full usage of Marxist among conservatives and consider what all the people they classify as Marxists have in common — Elizabeth Warren, Jim Wallis, Thomas Piketty, Paul Krugman, Harry Reid, anybody involved in Occupy Wall Street, etc. — you get the definition I presented in the First Edition: “one who regrets the increasing concentration of wealth.” Using that definition, “Obama is a Marxist” is coherent, comprehensible, and probably true.

This combination of light-heartedness and seriousness has a fine tradition, going back at least to Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary from 1906. Look, for example at Bierce’s definition of aboriginies: “Persons of little worth found cumbering the soil of a newly discovered country.” Or peace: “In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.”

Bierce was not simply trying to be funny. He was pointing to incongruities between the definitions in a standard dictionary and the actual usage of words in his era. So am I.

Terms New to the Second Edition

The Second Edition incorporates all the terms found in the First Edition and adds the following:

Activist judge. A judge who applies the Constitution and other laws, rather than the Bible or the Constitution written by the Founding Fathers.

Amnesty. The basic English meaning is unchanged since Bierce: “The state’s magnanimity to those offenders whom it would be too expensive to punish.” In conservative usage, amnesty is an abandonment of all moral standards if applied to undocumented immigrants, but “makes perfect sense” when applied to corporate profits held off-shore to avoid taxes. To spin amnesty positively, use holiday. Example: a tax holiday, but not an immigration holiday.

Bankrupt. Requiring taxes that the wealthy do not want to pay. Usage: “The government is bankrupt.”

Celebrity. A disparaging term applied to a liberal who can draw a crowd. Usage: Barack Obama “is the biggest celebrity in the world.” Not to be confused with a politician who is popular in Real America, like Sarah Palin, or with statesmen like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Ronald Reagan.

Class warfare. When the 99% fight back against the 1%. Usage: “Obama’s priority is class warfare.  That’s why he relentlessly denounces job creators as ‘millionaires and billionaires.’ That’s why he demands that they be punished with higher tax rates.”

Collateral damage. Humans whose deaths would rattle the conscience of a nation not blessed with American exceptionalism.

Common sense. The opinion of the People, as opposed to the opinion of experts who have devoted their lives to studying the subject. See: science, junk science.

Common sense solution. A (usually unspecified) way to make a problem vanish without inconveniencing any job creators or real Americans, or making them pay taxes. Usage: “All across this country, women are standing up and speaking out for common sense solutions.”

Contract. An inviolable pledge, except when made to a union.

Dividing the country. Starting a class war by encouraging the 99% to fight back. Usage: President Obama “won by dividing the country.”

Elite, Elitist. Those who challenge common sense by insisting on facts. Usage: “The power of the knowledge elite does not stem primarily from money, but in persuading, instructing and regulating the rest of society.”

Family. A group of people related by blood to, and under the control of, straight white man wealthy and powerful enough to protect and control them.

Holiday. A temporary suspension of tyranny. Usage: “tax holiday

Illegal immigrants (or illegals). Hispanics. Usage: “the more illegals that vote, the better the Obama administration thinks it will do.”

Impeachable offenses. Anything President Obama does or fails to do.

Impeachment. A means of reversing elections, when voters mistakenly choose Democrats. Established by the Constitution, impeachment requires impeachable offenses.

Junk science. Research not funded by a corporation whose profits depend on the outcome. Examples: climate research not funded by fossil fuel companies, tobacco research not funded by cigarette companies, etc. All you really need to know about the term is that JunkScience.com is run by Steve Milloy, who is also Director of External Policy and Strategy for Murray Energy, the largest privately owned American coal company. Usage: “It’s just an excuse for more government control of your life. I’ve never been for any [greenhouse-gas reducing] scheme or even accepted the junk science behind the whole [climate change] narrative.” See sound science.

Lucky Ducky. Anyone whose income is low enough to escape the punishment of income tax. Collectively, lucky duckies are known as “the 47%“. Usage: “Who are these lucky duckies? They are the beneficiaries of tax policies that have expanded the personal exemption and standard deduction and targeted certain voter groups by introducing a welter of tax credits for things like child care and education.”

The People (or We the People). All real Americans, considered collectively. Usage: “I believe Owen Hill is one of those future leaders and must be supported by ‘we the people’ to take back our country and to restore our constitution as the law of the land.”

Personhood. A quality shared by fertilized ova and corporations, but not by Afghans, Iraqis, or Pakistanis who become collateral damage. Usage: “Corporations are people, my friend.”

Punishing success. Restoring upper-level tax rates to their levels during the Clinton administration, a dark time of peace and prosperity when no one bothered to become rich because it was too painful. Usage: “If you want to punish successful people, vote for Democrats.” Synonym: punishing job creators. Usage: “We shouldn’t be punishing job creators.”

Rammed through Congress. Passed by majority vote, without granting a extra-constitutional veto power to the conservative minority. Usage: “Senate Democrats rammed through what would later be called ObamaCare … The vote on Monday, in the dead of night, was 60 to 40.”

Rammed (or forced) down the throat of the People. Any government action taken against the will of a majority of real Americans. Usage: “They’re going to do what they have to, the Democrats are, to force this [ObamaCare] down our throats.”

Real America. Rural areas and small towns, where the majority of voters are real Americans. Usage: “the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America.”

Real American. 1. A white conservative Christian born in the United States at least 30 years ago. 2. A typical resident of real America. Usage: “Real Americans do not recognize [Obama] as a president.”

Science. 1. A religion devoted to conquering the world in the name of the No God it worships. Usage: “Science, like God in the Old Testament, behaves jealously against any other religion. So science will say to its followers: ‘You shall have no other gods before me’. If you have any doubts, try asking an audience at a scientific convention to join you in a prayer.” 2. A conspiracy to impose world government through hoaxes like global warming. Usage: “Global warming is not about science, but about politics — that is, about expanding the power of elites using the coercive instruments of government to control the lives of people everywhere.”

Social justice. A plot to turn mainstream Christian denominations Communist. Usage: “I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words.”

Sound science. The opposite of junk science. Coined by The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, “a front group set up by Philip Morris in 1993 … to question the science showing detrimental effects of cigarette smoke.”

States rights. 1. The belief that the 14th Amendment‘s guarantee of “the equal protection of the laws” was never intended to be taken seriously. Usage: “I believe in states’ rights … and I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the Constitution to that federal establishment.” — said by Ronald Reagan near the site of the KKK’s Mississippi Burning murders, which were solved by federal investigators after being covered up by local police.

Take back our country. Restoring the dominance of the People. As Hank Williams Jr. sang in “Take Back Our Country“: “Move over little dog, cause the big dog’s moving in.” Usage: “It’s time to take our country back.”

Thug. 1. Young black male. Usage: “Trayvon Martin was a thug. His parents know that, you know that, I know that.” and “The Ferguson thugs aren’t alone. The overwhelming majority of violent crime across America is conducted by young, black males.” 2. An agent of government tyranny who might descend upon real Americans at any moment. Usage: “”jack-booted government thugs [who have] more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us.” 3. A union organizer.

Traditional marriage. The type of marriage commonly portrayed in the media when the speaker was a child. Does not include common features of marriage from earlier eras, such as the inability of the wife to own property, the impossibility of divorce (except by act of the Pope), the right of the husband to beat his wife, or the right of the husband to take multiple wives. (Biblical marriage may not have been Adam and Steve, but it was Jacob and Leah and Rachel and Bilhah and Zilpah. Don’t think too hard about why the link also has a picture of a sheep.)

Classism and Corporal Punishment

The Adrian Peterson controversy started a national discussion about parental discipline techniques. What Peterson did is obviously over-the-top and deserves the condemnation it has gotten. But I understand why there has been push-back. The argument has focused mainly on racial differences in discipline styles, but to me this seems more like a class issue.

I fear to tread here, because I have no children myself and my position is complicated. I grew up in the white working class, where it was assumed that all families spanked. My parents stopped when I was four, not because they were against the practice in general, but because it didn’t seem to work very well on me. I have no memories of being spanked. (I’ve heard my father tell the story of the last time he spanked me. He seemed more traumatized by it than I was.)

Having watched most of my professional-class friends raise children without spanking, I think that’s what I’d recommend if anyone thought my opinion was worth seeking out. But I’m appalled at the level of classism I hear whenever this issue gets discussed. Lots of otherwise thoughtful people talk as if working-class parents routinely beat their kids up for amusement.

Here’s what I observed growing up: For the vast majority of the households I knew, spanking was part of a well-thought-out system of discipline. It was rare — used only when a series of lesser punishments had failed — and relied more on its symbolic value than the physical pain inflicted. It was not supposed to be done in anger. (That was the whole point behind, “Wait till your father comes home.”) My friends were not going to the emergency room or showing up at school with visible welts and bruises.

Child abuse seems to me to be something else entirely, and it happens in families across the class spectrum. Slapping your toddler’s hand when he reaches for the burner on the stove is a completely different thing than breaking his collarbone because you had a bad day. It’s not a difference of degree.

In every era, the upper classes rationalize why they are better and more deserving than the lower classes. Usually there is some core of truth behind their justifications. (In Victorian England, the upper classes could quote fine poetry, sometimes in Latin or Greek, which is an admirable skill.) I-never-raise-a-hand-to-my-child has taken on that role in our era. There’s a core of truth; in general, professional-class discipline probably is better for the child than working-class discipline. But this class virtue is being exploited for the sinister purpose of justifying class differences in general: Those working-class barbarians. No wonder they live in squalor.

A Conservative Lexicon With English Translation

Yes, you can understand what conservatives are saying.


Liberals and moderates often find statements by conservatives to be nonsensical or even incomprehensible. Sarah Palin, just to name one example, is frequently accused of speaking in “word salad“, a style in which terms are thrown together without apparent attention to syntax or meaning.

I have come to believe that this view does conservatives an injustice. What has actually happened is that conservatives, like tribes marooned on inaccessible islands, have developed what is essentially a new language. While language-drift in the wild may take generations or even longer, conservative word use has diverged from English far more quickly due to (1) the speed of modern communication, (2) the very tight circles of conservative discourse (sometimes described as an “echo chamber”) in which outside input is discounted or viewed as sinister, and (3) the neologisms of conservative candidates facing election, who often need to seem to be saying something different than they actually are.

Consequently, the new Conservative language outwardly resembles English, but its terms have been redefined and repurposed in ways that create the seeming unintelligibility. For example, statements like “Voter ID laws are necessary to reduce voter fraud” may seem delusional to someone who interprets voter fraud in the standard English sense of “votes cast by people legally ineligible to vote”, since this very rarely happens, and (when it does) happens in ways voter-ID laws would not affect (i.e., absentee ballot fraud or hacking vote-counting machines). But once you understand the true conservative meaning of voter fraud (“votes cast by people whose demographic profile makes them likely to vote Democratic”), the statement makes perfect sense.

In a similar way, seemingly bizarre utterances like “Obama is a Marxist” or “Fox News is fair and balanced” are perfectly coherent, understandable, and even true once you have access to the proper definitions.

Previous lexicons have been attempted (here, for example), but I don’t think they have captured the systemic nature of Conservative, i.e., the way its terms interact to describe a complete worldview.

And so, in hope that Americans of all political persuasions will better understand what conservatives are really saying (rather than write off their statements as harmless nonsense), I present this incomplete Conservative-to-English lexicon.

American exceptionalism. The belief that the United States is exempt from all legal and moral standards. Example: Waterboarding is a capital crime when done to Americans, but legally and morally acceptable when practiced by Americans.

Appeasement. Hesitating before attacking or overthrowing the unfriendly government of an oil-rich nation.

Balance. 1. Providing Democrats as well as Republicans the opportunity to criticize President Obama. 2. Providing blacks as well as whites the opportunity to indict black culture. Usage: “Fox News is fair and balanced.”

Color-blindness. Fighting racial injustice by refusing to see it, much as an ostrich avoids danger by sticking its head into the sand.

Confederacy. An early attempt to restore the freedom envisioned by the Founding Fathers. Still an object of nostalgia in the GOP’s southern base.

Constitution. A holy scripture written by the Founding Fathers. Like the Bible, it means whatever conservatives want it to mean, regardless of its actual text. The Constitution, for example, protects corporate personhood, and the near-infinite powers it assigns to Republican presidents vanish when a Democrat takes office. Unlike the real-life Constitution, the Constitution includes the Declaration of Independence, and so really does mention God.

Controversial. An adjective applying to any fact or set of facts that conservatives don’t want to believe. Examples: evolution and climate change. Once facts have been labeled controversial, stating them as facts is evidence of liberal bias.

Dependent on government. Anyone receiving welfare, encompassing retirees, students, and the disabled. Usage: “there are 47 percent … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”

Europe. A hellish dystopia governed by liberals, where people belong to unions, have guaranteed health care, and earn high wages with long vacations. Soon to be overrun by Muslims. Usage: “I want you to remember when our White House reflected the best of who we are, not the worst of what Europe has become.”

Fair. Favoring the wealthy. Usage: “A true free market is always fair.”

Fascism. An insult with no meaningful content, similar to “bastard” or “asshole”. The previously well established Mussolini/Hitler sense of the term —  a militarist, nativist, corporatist style of totalitarianism claiming to restore a nation to the greatness of its mythic past — is now archaic, having been successfully jammed by tangential usages like Islamo-fascism and oxymorons like liberal fascism.

Founding Fathers. Loosely based on the American generational cohort that fought the Revolution and wrote the Constitution, the conservative Founding Fathers are heroes of a great mythic past constructed by pseudo-historians like David Barton. Divinely inspired, the Founding Fathers intended to create a non-denominational Christian theocracy, but inexplicably failed to mention God in the Constitution. They were implacably opposed to Big Government, even as they were writing a constitution that vastly extended the powers of the national government beyond those laid out in the previous Articles of Confederation. They “worked tirelessly” to end slavery, while owning hundreds of slaves themselves, and without actually ending slavery until long after they were all dead.

Free market. A system of decision-making based on the only fair principle: one dollar, one vote.

Freedom. 1. The ineffable quality that exempts the United States from all moral standards. (See American exceptionalism). Usage: “They hate our freedom.” 2. The right of the powerful to use their power as they see fit. Usage: “The minimum wage is a freedom killer.” 3. The right of job creators to use public infrastructure without paying taxes, or to exploit common resources (like air, water, or public land) without regulation. Example: Cliven Bundy.

Freedom of religion. The right of conservative Christians to shape society and define social acceptability. Intended by the Founding Fathers only to protect expressions of religion, not atheism or Islam.

Freedom of speech. 1. The right of a conservative to speak and write publicly without criticism. (See persecution.) Example: Sarah Palin’s objection in 2008 to the characterization of her charge that Barack Obama was “paling around with terrorists” as “negative campaigning”. “If [the media] convince enough voters that that is negative campaigning, for me to call Barack Obama out on his associations, then I don’t know what the future of our country would be in terms of First Amendment rights and our ability to ask questions without fear of attacks by the mainstream media.” While no one had disputed Palin’s right to say what she said, the fact that she faced criticism for it violated her freedom of speech. 2. In election campaigns, the right of the rich to drown out all competing voices.

God. Jehovah, the father of Jesus, as revealed by a literal reading of the Bible. Non-Christians do not believe in God, but in other supernatural beings like Allah. Some liberals claim to believe in God, but they use the word incorrectly.

Hate. Criticism of conservative ideas or disputation of facts alleged by conservatives. See persecution.

Innocent human life. The unborn, who possess souls of infinite worth. At birth, a child inherits the soul-value of his parents, which — if they are black or poor — does not amount to much. Consequently, abortion in the United States is a moral crisis equivalent to the Holocaust, while our third-worldish infant mortality rate (34th in the world, just behind Cuba) is no big deal.

Job creator. A wealthy person, who may or may not be an employer, and who may even have become wealthy by firing people or shipping jobs overseas. Usage: “Let’s cut taxes for job creators.” Does not apply to public works, public schools, or any other government program, no matter how many Americans such a program might productively employ.

Judicial activism. When judges rule against corporate interests or white supremacy, or in favor of separating Church from State.

Liberal media bias. The fading tendency of certain portions of the journalistic establishment to require supporting facts before promoting a conspiracy theory. For an example of the frustration this causes conservatives, consider the following quote from Jonah Goldberg shortly before the 2012 election: “If you want to understand why conservatives have lost faith in the so-called mainstream media, you need to ponder the question: Where is the Benghazi feeding frenzy?”

Marxist. One who regrets the increasing concentration of wealth. Unrelated to any theories contained in the writings of Karl Marx. Usage: “Elizabeth Warrren, who has almost confessed to her Marxist views”. (Synonyms: communistsocialist, liberal.)

Persecution. (1) Denying conservatives the special rights they believe they are entitled to. Example: The War on Christmas, in which conservative Christians are persecuted if they are not allowed to dominate all public space for the month of December. (2) Criticism directed at conservatives. Example: If a conservative says something racist and you point that out, you are persecuting him. (See freedom of speech.) (3) Enforcing laws broken by conservatives. Example: Dinesh D’Souza.

Political correctness. The bizarre liberal belief that whites, men, straights, Christians, the rich, and other Americans in positions of privilege should treat less privileged people with respect, even though such people have no power to force them to.

Poor. Lacking in gumption or virtue, undeserving, black.

Racism. Calling attention to racial injustice with an intention to rectify it. Also called “playing the race card”. (See color-blindness.) Example: the Fox News commentator who said, “You know who talks about race? Racists.”

Religion. Christianity, not including degraded liberal variants that accept evolution or gay rights.

Second Amendment rights. The right of whites, Christians, the wealthy, and other traditionally privileged groups to commit violence when their privileges are threatened by democratic processes. (People not from privileged groups may be gunned down by police — with full conservative support — if they are even suspected of being armed.) Best expressed by Sharron Angle in her 2010 Senate campaign: “if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies.” Also by Virginia Republican Catherine Crabill: “We have a chance to fight this battle at the ballot box before we have to resort to the bullet box. But that’s the beauty of our Second Amendment right. I am glad for all of us who enjoy the use of firearms for hunting. But make no mistake. That was not the intent of the Founding Fathers. Our Second Amendment right was to guard against tyranny.”

Taxes. A method of stealing money from job creators and giving it to poor people. Unrelated to Social Security, Medicare, roads, schools, lowering the deficit, or any other useful goal.

Terrorist. 1. A Muslim. 2. Any violent person conservatives don’t like. Cannot be applied to violent anti-abortionists, white supremacists, or tax resisters. (See Second Amendment rights.)

Tyranny. When a Marxist gets elected and then tries to carry out the platform the people voted for. Example: ObamaCare.

Values. Beliefs that condemn gays or promiscuous women. Usage: the Values Voters Summit.

Voter fraud. Any votes cast by people whose demographic profile makes them likely to vote Democratic, i.e., blacks, Hispanics, or students. Alternate form: election fraud. Usage: “Obama likely won re-election through election fraud.”

Welfare. Any payment from the government, including (when convenient) Social Security, unemployment compensation, or student loans. Usage: “Unemployment compensation is just another welfare program.”

While far from complete — please suggest additional entries in the comments — I hope this lexicon will make conservative speech more comprehensible to the general public, and persuade voters that the apparent gibberish spoken by conservative candidates actually expresses a unified worldview that should be taken more seriously.

Is Ray Rice’s Video a Game-Changer?

The reality of domestic abuse gets harder to deny.


Star NFL running back Ray Rice’s assault on his then-fiancée/now-wife is old news. He was arrested in February, and plea-bargained from criminal charges down to court-supervised counseling. (Emily Bazelon explains: “when a victim refuses to cooperate with the prosecution, the calculus for prosecutors shifts away from trial and conviction.”) Way back then, TMZ released a video showing Rice dragging the unconscious mother-of-his-daughter out of an elevator in an Atlantic City casino.

The NFL suspended him for two games, a punishment that raised a furor in light of the season-long suspension of receiver Josh Gordon for “substance abuse”, presumably marijuana. The NFL claimed it was bound by its previous policies, which it changed so that any future domestic violence incident would draw at least a six-game suspension. (But abusers keep playing while their cases work through the legal system.)

The Rice family.

None of that is new. But this week TMZ released a video of what happened inside the elevator. In it, we see Rice throw the punch that knocked Janay Palmer out. In an abstract sense, the new video didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know: We knew he knocked her out, we just hadn’t seen him do it. It shouldn’t have changed anything.

But it did. Almost immediately, the Baltimore Ravens released Rice, who otherwise would have been their main ball-carrier when his original suspension ended next week. The NFL then made his suspension “indefinite”, and New England Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft speculated that Rice would never play in the NFL again.

One of the most striking reactions came from ESPN analyst and former player Mark Schlereth, who nearly dissolved into tears as he imagined a player in his own locker room, someone he would have identified with and felt loyal to, doing such a thing. It’s worth watching.

[The video] put a face to domestic violence. I’m not saying Ray Rice’s face, I’m saying the act of domestic violence. Because it was so shocking. And as the father of two daughters, and the [grand]father of a granddaughter, it was frightening for me to see that. The violence that occurred, the callous nature with which that violence occurred … I guess I had never really gone through that mentally before, to really understand what that looks like. And that put it together for me, of how vicious in nature this is.

I’m sure a lot of women are shaking their heads in a well-duh sort of way: You discovered that domestic abuse is callous and vicious? Your Nobel Prize is in the mail, Mark.

But if Schlereth is typical of a larger group of men — and I believe he is — then the Rice video may be a tipping point in the public discussion of domestic violence. Until now, when men have heard accounts of domestic violence, a lot of us have at some level empathized with the abuser, as if he might be like us on a really bad day. Just as an ordinary man might snap in the middle of an argument and say something he doesn’t mean and later regrets, or maybe act out physically by slamming a door or punching a wall, maybe an abuser does something reflexive that — unintentionally, almost accidentally — results in physical harm.

That’s obviously not what happens in this video. Rice just decks his fiancée. Yeah, they are tussling physically, but the much larger and stronger Rice could easily have fended off Palmer’s blows or held her wrists and waited for her to calm down. Instead, he knocks her out, then looks down at her limp body as if he’s seen all this before.

Witnessing that reality could significantly change the way men listen to accounts of domestic violence. Like Schlereth, many men had “never really gone through it mentally before”, and now they have. Now they understand viscerally that this isn’t something any man might have done on a sufficiently bad day. The man in this video doesn’t deserve a single ounce of our sympathy.

Related short notes

Not to say that there aren’t still some men who will make excuses for Ray Rice. And even some women.


Meanwhile, women have been writing about Janay Palmer, who is now Janay Rice. An anonymous writer on The Frisky wrote “Why I Married My Abuser“.

when I saw the footage of ex-Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée Janay Palmer, I wasn’t surprised that she was now his wife. It isn’t — as many of the commenters on the original TMZ video have said — “all about the money,” or “she doesn’t care about taking a punch,” and it’s especially not that “she is telling all women it’s okay for your man to beat you.”

… It’s beyond silly to say that any woman who is getting smacked around thinks it’s acceptable to be smacked around. No one knows better than a woman who is being abused that it is wrong. Not leaving isn’t the same as consent. I stayed because I was traumatized and isolated. I believed that Hank really loved me and that no man with less passion/ anger (those words were conflated for me) would ever love me like him.

There’s a whole Twitter feed of stories like this: #WhyIStayed. And a companion: #WhyILeft. As with #YesAllWomen, it’s not abstract argument, it’s people telling their stories. The sheer accumulation of them is hard to explain away.


The NFL and the Ravens came out looking really bad — more interested in managing a PR problem than anything else. They claim they didn’t see the inside-the-elevator video until it became public, but that seems doubtful. Schlereth certainly didn’t buy it:

A Rice souvenir repurposed.

Protecting the shield means that we’re supposed to honor and understand the privilege of playing in the league, not supposed to cover up our mistakes and accept those. And that’s where the NFL in my mind is really letting me down, and let every guy who plays in this league down. Because I can’t imagine saying “No, we don’t have access to that video” and you saying, “OK, well, that’s good enough for me. We’ll move forward.” That’s unacceptable.

And besides, what the video changed is the depth of the public anger, not our factual understanding of what happened.


Jon Stewart’s reaction is also worth watching.


If you’re looking for a male hero in this story, I propose this girl’s Dad.

Infrastructure, Suburbs, and the Long Descent to Ferguson

Three dots connected.


Dot 1. The Long Descent. The most pessimistic book I’ve ever reviewed in the Sift is John Michael Greer’s The Long Descent: a user’s guide to the end of the industrial age. Greer paints a very plausible picture of how, over centuries, industrial civilization might fall apart.

The short version is that as the climate degrades and fossil fuels become simultaneously more expensive and less useable, each generation inherits from its more prosperous ancestors an infrastructure that it can’t afford to maintain. Society muddles through from year to year — sometimes even seeming to advance — until some part of that poorly maintained infrastructure snaps and causes major destruction. The destroyed area may get rebuilt, but not to its previous level. The resulting community has less infrastructure to maintain, but is also less prosperous, and so the cycle continues into the next generation.

New Orleans is one example. Hurricane Katrina was an act of Nature (and possibly a consequence of global warming), but the reason it destroyed so much of New Orleans was the failure of the city’s infrastructure. As Jed Horne reported in The Washington Post:

key levees, including the 17th Street and London Avenue canals in the heart of the city, failed with water well below levels they were designed to withstand. As the Army Corps [of Engineers] eventually conceded, they were breached because of flawed engineering and collapsed because they were junk. … The Corps and local levee boards that maintain flood barriers pinched pennies, and suddenly Katrina became the nation’s first $200 billion disaster.

For a rising city like London in 1666 or Chicago in 1871, such large-scale destruction is an opportunity to rebuild bigger and better. But New Orleans has rebuilt smaller, losing almost a quarter of its population between 2000 and 2012. The flood protection system has been rebuilt, but still not to a level that could withstand the next Katrina.

The collapse of Detroit lacks a Katrina-level catastrophe, but follows a similar pattern: Detroit’s sinking tax base can’t maintain a major city, and every attempt to either raise taxes or spend less just exacerbates the decline.

At any particular moment, you can always find something else to blame: corruption, say, or mismanagement. But rising cities are also corrupt and mismanaged, maybe more so — see Tammany Hall. It’s not that declining communities lack virtue, it’s that flourishing communities can afford vice.

Greer imagines the same scenario on a planetary scale. He sees places like New Orleans and Detroit not as unique examples of dysfunction, but as coal-mine canaries. The same vicious cycles that are driving them downward will eventually manifest everywhere.

Dot 2. The suburban Ponzi scheme. In June, 2011, Charles Marohn published “The American suburbs are a giant Ponzi scheme” at Grist (also reviewed in the Sift). His point is that car-oriented suburbs create only the illusion of wealth. In the long run, they are enormous bad investments that create unmaintainable communities.

America’s early suburbs were outlying towns that were gradually engulfed by urban sprawl in a more-or-less natural way — Oak Park, Illinois and Arlington, Massachusetts come to mind. But the 20th century created car-oriented commuter towns out of nothing. Everything was new at the same time: new houses, new roads, new schools, new stores, new sidewalks, new bridges, new sewers, and so on.

As a result, nothing needed fixing right away, so taxes could be low. Sound accounting would have required these towns to build up big maintenance funds for the day when things started wearing out. But under sound accounting, those communities wouldn’t have been quite so attractive in the first place. And whatever the accountants said, why would voters tolerate higher taxes if the town was sitting on a pile of money?

As long as there was rapid growth — new subdivisions, new roads, new malls, etc. — the game could continue: Even after the potholes started, the tax base was still big compared to the relatively small part of the suburb that needed fixing. That’s why Marohn calls it a Ponzi scheme: Just as Ponzi’s later investors paid the dividends of the early investors, the suburb’s new neighborhoods pay for the maintenance of its old neighborhoods.

But trees don’t grow to the sky, so eventually a suburb reaches its carrying capacity. And when growth plateaus, the maintenance time bomb starts ticking. A decade or two later, everything seems to wear out at once, while the tax base stays comparatively flat. Now the local government faces a choice: raise taxes or let things start falling apart. Either option makes the town a less attractive destination for the high-income families and high-margin businesses it needs — especially in comparison with fresher suburbs still in their low-tax, low-maintenance, everything-is-new growth phase.

That starts a slow-but-steady decline, until eventually you have not just high tax rates, but also cracked sidewalks, pot-holed streets, underfunded schools, dingy libraries, litter-filled parks … and the kind of residents who can’t afford to live anywhere nicer.

Eventually, in other words, you have Ferguson, whose population reached its current level in 1960. Marohn spelled it out in late August.

When places like this hit the decline phase – which they inevitably do – they become absolutely despotic. This type of development doesn’t create wealth; it destroys it. The illusion of prosperity that it had early on fades away and we are left with places that can’t be maintained and a concentration of impoverished people poorly suited to live with such isolation. … Unfortunately, nothing I’ve brought up here is really unique to Ferguson. All of our auto-oriented places are somewhere on the predictable trajectory of growth, stagnation and decline. Racial elements aside, I think we are going to see rioting in a lot of places as this stuff unwinds.

Dot 3. The Ferguson revenue structure. As I’ve discussed before, Ferguson didn’t erupt simply because Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown. That was just the spark. Combustible anger had been building up in Ferguson for a long time.

Ferguson erupted because the less affluent black majority resented being in a predator/prey relationship with the mostly white police. It would be bad enough if that relationship were entirely based on racism or abuse of power, but it goes deeper than that: It’s economics. Reuters reports:

Traffic fines are the St. Louis suburb’s second-largest source of revenue and just about the only one that is growing appreciably. Municipal court fines, most of which arise from motor vehicle violations, accounted for 21 percent of general fund revenue and at $2.63 million last year, were the equivalent of more than 81 percent of police salaries before overtime.

That’s why in 2013, Ferguson police issued 3 warrants for every household in the city, raising $321 per household. According to Thomas Harvey of Arch City Defenders:

Some of our municipalities are seeking to raise revenue through the use of their municipal courts. This is not about public safety. The courts in those municipalities are profit-seeking entities that systematically enforce municipal ordinance violations in a way that disproportionately impacts the indigent and communities of color.

Charles Mudede of Slog widens his view to include a statistic from AP: The “homicide clearance rate”, i.e., the percentage of murders that police solve in America, has dropped from 91% in 1963 to 61% in 2007.  Mudede suggests a simple explanation:

Catching murderers costs money. Cities do not have money.

In other words, why have your police out spending the town’s money investigating serious crimes when they could be making money for the town by hassling jaywalkers like Michael Brown? In an era when your businesses are already moving away and your property values are stagnant or sinking, how else are you going to raise revenue?

Mostly, that revenue is going to come from poor people who can’t afford lawyers and have no place to move to. That may seem harsh, but if you change the practice, you’ll have to come up with an alternative revenue stream, preferably one that won’t chase away more businesses and more professional-class families. What could it be?

And so, concludes Reuters, changing the way Ferguson polices its people is going to be “easier said than done”.

Put it together. For the last couple centuries, we’ve had a simple formula for increasing wealth: Take something that people used to do with their muscles and figure out a way to do it by burning fossil fuels. Augmenting human effort with the energy stored in coal, oil, and gas has created a level of luxury that would have seemed magical to our ancestors.

During that time of increase, you didn’t have to worry much about either the fuel you were burning — there was more where that came from — or the atmosphere you were burning it into. Now we’re starting to hit limits on both sides. We have to go to extremes — deep in the ocean, deep underground, far into the polar regions — to find new fuel; and if we burn all that we have discovered, the change in our climate could be catastrophic.

So you don’t have to go all the way to Greer-level pessimism to realize that creating wealth will be trickier in the centuries to come. Many of the things that may look like wealth-creation actually aren’t; they just shove someone else into poverty, or create debt that will eventually have to be written off — like the “profits” investment banks booked during the housing bubble.

When generation-to-generation economic growth is large and reliable, you don’t have to worry too much about the long term, because your grandchildren will be rich enough to handle the messes you leave for them. So it makes a certain amount of sense to push costs off into the future. But if we genuinely don’t know whether generations-to-come will be richer or poorer than we are, then it’s important that we do our accounting right. It’s also important that we build robustly, so that communities are viable under a wide variety of scenarios. Assuming that everybody will have a car or that food can be imported cheaply creates brittle communities that someday may have to be abandoned. A flourishing society can afford such write-offs. But if maintaining the infrastructure we inherit is the difference between advance and decline, we’ll have to be smarter.

And finally, we need to figure out how to rebuild or write off the mistakes of the past. Places like Ferguson — and there are a lot of them — are not sustainable in their current form. They will never generate the capital to remake themselves, and the outside capital they attract will be mainly from vultures who want to squeeze the last bits of value out of the community’s decline and despair.

In the short term, the easiest way to deal with that dysfunction is to blame it on the people who live there and lack more viable options. Their local governments can figure out ever more inventive ways to squeeze money out of them and leave them in squalor, while the rest of us lecture them about their lack of middle-class values. But the fundamental mistakes are not theirs. Those mistakes were made decades ago, and have been quite literally set in stone.

Terrorist Strategy 101: a review

What if ISIS acts like our worst nightmare because it needs us to attack?


It’s been ten years since I wrote “Terrorist Strategy 101: a quiz” explaining how Osama bin Laden’s apparent insanity actually made sense. In retrospect, I overestimated Al Qaeda’s ability to launch attacks in the U.S. — a popular mistake at the time — but the general framework holds up pretty well. Replace “Bin Laden” with “al-Baghdadi” and “al Qaeda” with “ISIS”, and the main points still apply today.

The core message of TS-101 is that if you are a violent extremist with a big dream, your toughest problem isn’t that there are violent extremists on the other side ready to oppose you. Your toughest problem is that almost all the people who (at least at some level) share your big dream have better things to do with their lives. They have jobs and kids and classes, bands that might hit it big, possible lovers to flirt with, and novels they’re sure would be best-sellers if only they could get them finished.

If you’re a would-be Supreme Leader, it’s a huge challenge: Around the world, people would rather get on with the business of living than give their all to the Great Struggle.

Somehow you have to screw that up.

So your big mission — which, ironically, you share with the extremists on the other side of the spectrum — is to flatten the bell curve. In order to bring your air-castles to Earth, you need to make the center untenable. All those folks who consider themselves moderates — if you let them, they’ll muddle along while you get old and the Great Historical Moment slips away. You need everyone to realize right now that compromise is impossible, the other side can’t be trusted, and we all have to kill or be killed.

Perversely, your best allies in this phase of the struggle are the people you hate most, who also hate you. Of course you’d never actually conspire with them, minions of Satan that they are. But you don’t need to, because the steps in your dance are obvious from either tail of the distribution: rachet up the rhetoric and escalate an attack-and-reprisal cycle until compromise really is impossible and everyone is radicalized. Only after the center is gone do the two extremes meet in the second round of the play-offs. It’s a very basic pattern of history, and it never changes: from Caesar/Pompey to Bin Laden/Cheney, extremists have to come in pairs, because they need each other.

What ISIS has.

OK, so now imagine you’re Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of ISIS. At the moment, you control a large swath of not very much. In Iraq, the Shiite government holds the southern oil fields around Basra, and the Kurds have the northern fields around Kirkuk. You’ve got the western desert. In Syria, flip it around: All the good stuff is in the west, and you’ve got the east. You made headlines by expanding your map-area really fast, but that’s because there wasn’t much there in the first place. (John McCain and Lesley Graham describe your territory as “the size of Indiana“, but a better analogy would be the parts of Nevada that don’t include Reno or Vegas.)

But you do have one important asset. You are the current holder of the Big Dream: a re-unified Caliphate, all the Muslims in the world (or at least the Sunnis) joined in the kind of empire that made Harun al-Rashid a storybook legend. Once, before the West cut the Dar-al-Islam into little pieces and put puppet kings and sticky-fingered generals in charge of each one, Baghdad was the jewel of the world, the center of the greatest empire on Earth.

It could be again.

Lots and lots of the world’s billion-or-so Muslims share that dream at a low level, the way suburban Methodists share the dream of Jesus’ return. It’ll happen someday and that’ll be great, but … you know … I’ve got to get ready for that thing at the office Monday afternoon, and then there’s little Jamal’s soccer game in the evening.

You need to screw that up — all the distracting stuff that gives Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia more to live for than the dream of the Caliphate — and you can’t do it alone. You need help if you’re going to radicalize enough idealistic young men and women to overthrow the current governments of Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and a dozen other places.

A restored Islamic Caliphate.

You need America.

In particular, you need a big, blundering, violent America that kills children and calls it “collateral damage” as if Muslims weren’t human at all. You need American troops kicking down doors of innocent families and looking under the chadors of virtuous women in case they might have weapons down there. You need the American president acting like he’s Emperor of the World, drawing other countries’ borders and deciding who can be involved in their governments.

You need an America that says it’s at war with all of Islam — not just you, all of it. Nobody believes you when you say that, but when Americans say it, they will.

You need an America that won’t let its own Muslims assimilate, that harasses them whenever they try to fly or build houses of worship or just walk around looking like Muslims.

You need an America that is scared of you. Nobody cares if you proclaim yourself Grand High Poobah of Everything. But if Americans are on global TV, telling the world that you’re the Baddest Baddy in the History of Badness … you can work with that. That looks great on your website. Deep down, lots of the people whose allegiance you are seeking wish they had what it takes to make U.S. senators quiver with fear or quake with anger. If you have that special something, they’re going to want to identify with you.

Maybe you need to wave a red handkerchief at the American bull to get him to charge. So don’t just execute the Americans you find. (Any thug can do that.) Cut off their heads and put the videos on YouTube. You and I both know that it makes no difference — dead is dead, after all, whether the instrument of death is a barbaric sword or a civilized missile from a high-tech aerial drone. But Americans go crazy when you do shit like that. Maybe crazy enough to come back and start killing people again, crazy enough to return their soldiers to places where ordinary people can get a shot at them. And then the cycle will become self-stoking, because the dead can’t have died in vain, can they? Once you get the feedback loop started, death justifies more death.

So far, it seems to be working.

And so you don’t have to be a mind-reader to know what al-Baghdadi is thinking right now: Thank you John McCain and Lindsey Graham. Thank you, Joe Biden. Thank you, Phil Robertson and Sean Hannity. Thanks to all the other crazy right-wing Christian preachers far too numerous to list. Thanks to everybody who is making it impossible for President Obama to follow his own advice not to “do stupid stuff“.

The stupid stuff ISIS needs from America is on its way, so al-Baghdadi is grateful to all of you. You’re doing a job he could never do for himself.

But he owes you nothing, because it’s a fair trade: He’s radicalizing your followers just like you’re radicalizing his. The bell curve is flattening. The center is becoming untenable.

It’s amazing what extremists can accomplish when they share a common goal.

What Your Fox-Watching Uncle Doesn’t Get About Ferguson

It doesn’t matter how many details you know. If you start the story in the wrong place, you won’t understand it.


Part of my regular news-watching cycle is to check in on Fox News from time to time. It keeps me honest and helps me anticipate the kinds of arguments I’m likely to start hearing from conservatives.

Watching Fox was particularly interesting in the early part of this week, because in the evenings they (like MSNBC and CNN) gave a lot of air time to their reporters on the streets in Ferguson, Missouri. So it was a rare opportunity to see all three cable news networks cover the same controversial events at the same time. Most days, the difference between the networks lies mainly in what they choose to cover — a new report on climate change might lead the news on MSNBC, while Fox focuses on Benghazi hearings in Congress. But for a few days the what of the news was obvious and inescapable, so Fox’s unique perspective on the world could only express itself in the how.

Some of the difference in coverage has been on the detail level and is easy to filter out if you’re aware of the various networks’ points of view. When police would start moving in on demonstrators, for example, Fox would report as fact whatever they were hearing from police — that, say, shots had been fired from the crowd — while MSNBC would stick closer to what they could see (police moving in), express ignorance as to why it was happening, and then later report what police were saying (shots were fired from the crowd) as a claim they couldn’t verify. Whether you were pro-demonstrator or pro-police, you could watch either network and make a good guess about what the other was reporting.

But there has been a much more subtle, harder-to-compensate-for difference in the way each network answers the fundamental question: What are the demonstrations in Ferguson all about?

On Fox, the answer to that question is very simple. Demonstrators in Ferguson are reacting angrily to a single, one-of-a-kind event: White police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed an unarmed black 18-year-old, Michael Brown. That restricted context drives the rest of their narrative.

The apparent mystery. Like any good narrative hook, Fox’s omission of context creates a mystery: Why do so many people in Ferguson care so much about that particular event? Of course, Michael Brown’s family would be upset, and even Fox’s audience can cut them some slack if they want Officer Wilson nailed to the wall. But what about all those other people on the street night after night? It’s safe to say that most of them never even met Michael Brown. Why were they giving up their evenings and risking arrest or worse?

Once you have that question in your head, several answers suggest themselves: Maybe they’re all just crazy. Fox’s resident psychologist, Dr. Keith Ablow, says “the psyche of the community” deserves as much investigation as the actions of police.

Or maybe most of the protesters really don’t care about Brown, and the demonstrations are just an exciting thing to do in a boring town. At night on the streets, you’re where it’s all happening. You might even get on national TV. That’s the interpretation Fox correspondent Steve Harrigan was promoting when he described the demonstrations late Monday night as a “media event” and “child’s play”. (In response, he got cussed out on camera by one of the black “children” he was demeaning: “We go through this shit every day,” the young man reported. Harrigan did not follow up on that observation.)

An even more sinister solution to the mystery evokes racial stereotypes that Fox doesn’t need to spell out. A hint is enough: Maybe these young black men are just wired for anarchy and violence. The Brown shooting was nothing more than an excuse for doing what they’d do all the time if police weren’t stopping them. And once you raise the stereotype of the lawless black savage, the incidents of looting take on a significance far beyond their number or the number of people responsible: This isn’t about Brown or the police at all, it’s about grabbing some free liquor or a new pair of Air Jordans.

In addition, the why-do-they-care mystery leads right into a question Fox raises at every opportunity: Why do blacks only go to the streets about white-on-black cases like Brown and Trayvon Martin, when black-on-black violence [see endnote 1] kills far more people? How street demonstrations could prevent black-on-black violence is a question they never address. (Demonstrations speak to governments and the national electorate, and have little effect on criminals or hot-headed youth.) But Fox presents the Brown and Martin demonstrations as pointless anyway, so why shouldn’t there be equally pointless demonstrations against black-on-black violence instead?

Second, restricting your attention to that one context-free event makes the crowd look like a lynch mob. Why are they so sure Officer Wilson wasn’t justified in shooting Brown? Why can’t they wait for the investigative process to play out? And why can’t they cooperate with police now to keep the peace?

And finally, the mystery-framing makes the politics of the situation look purely venal. How outrageous it seems that liberals — they must be liberals — are exploiting the Brown shooting to register Ferguson’s black population to vote!

What makes Fox’s frame so convincing to its audience is that you can feel well-informed inside it. You can know how many people were arrested each night and which stores they looted. You can learn details of the shooting (though anonymous leaks from police will be reported more authoritatively than eye-witness testimony from black citizens). You can learn statistics about black crime in America. You can know just how rare police killings are compared to drug killings or other black-on-black murders. You’re not ignorant; you’re a walking storehouse of the kinds of information MSNBC would never tell you.

But in spite of that well-informed feeling, you don’t understand what’s really going on, because Fox is leaving out key background information and then beginning the story in the wrong place. The right story begins not with Officer Wilson’s bullets, or even with Michael Brown in the convenience store, but with a community where lesser forms of police abuse are an everyday occurrence.

Start by asking. Slate‘s Jamelle Bouie did what Fox reporters (or most individual whites) hardly ever do: ask the black community what they’re concerned about and listen to their answers.

Talk to anyone in Ferguson and you’ll hear a story about the police. … Everyone—or at least, every black person—can recall an incident. Everyone can attest to friends and relatives who have been harassed, assaulted, or worse by the police.

The right story begins here: A majority-black community feels abused by its almost entirely white police force. [2] And complaining to the white-dominated local government does no good. (As a report from Arch City Defenders spells out, the town of Ferguson gets significant revenue from assessing fines against poor people.)

If you start there, the narrative takes a completely different path. When a policeman shot Michael Brown six times on a city street in broad daylight in front of witnesses, the Ferguson community was not shocked (the way I would be if one of my white friends were gunned down by police in my majority-white town). Quite the opposite, this was the kind of incident they found all too believable, given the police behavior they see all the time.

So the reaction we’ve been seeing on the streets isn’t “OMG! How can something like this happen?”, it’s “This shit has to stop.”

No mystery. So it’s no mystery at all why people who never met Michael Brown have been out on the streets. Brown’s death is part of a bigger issue that they all have a stake in: How can the police be gotten under community control, and disciplined to treat the community with respect?

Their tactics are also no mystery: When the political process is unresponsive, the streets are the only communication channel left. Trayvon Martin’s mother is supposed to have said, “If they won’t hear us, make them feel us.” And Ja’han Jones put it more aggressively on Salon: “What if being peaceful won’t change a thing?”

As far as Officer Wilson is concerned, the crowds are not rushing to judgment, they are speaking from experience. Yes, police act this way, and the result is always the same: If the incident isn’t ignored completely, it is shunted into a opaque “process” in which eyewitnesses are ignored and no quantity of physical evidence is sufficient to bring charges. Ferguson police have showed every indication of wanting to go that way: keeping back relevant information as long as possible, smearing Michael Brown, responding to protests with even more excessive force, leaking bogus “facts” that support Wilson, and arresting reporters.

What’s rare about the Brown shooting isn’t the shooting itself, but how visible everything is: The body was lying in the street for hours. The eyewitnesses have been on TV. Nothing in the autopsy or other available evidence contradicts their testimony. If the police don’t have to answer for this, then what are the limits? Is there anything they can’t sweep under the rug?

Once you understand where the story really starts and what it’s really about, then the whole detour into black-on-black crime is revealed to be “the politics of changing the subject“. Other than corpses, the two issues have nothing in common. It’s like asking Sean Hannity, “Why have you spent so much time on the four Americans who died at Benghazi when tens of thousands of Americans die in car accidents?”

My reality and theirs. Demographically, I look more like a Fox viewer than a Ferguson protester. I’m white, over 50, and have an above-median household income. I barely notice when a police car goes by, and when I have had occasion to deal with my local police — usually because I approached them with a question — they have been unfailingly polite. When I arrange to meet people socially or promise to be somewhere, I don’t allow extra time for the possibility that I might be stopped and frisked, or taken down to the police station and questioned about some crime I never heard of. That kind of stuff never happens to guys like me.

If I did find myself in an unexpected and unpleasant run-in with police, it would feel like snow in July. My instinct would be to wait it out until polite normality re-asserted itself. So I could easily follow the advice of LAPD’s Sunil Dutta:

if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. Most field stops are complete in minutes. How difficult is it to cooperate for that long? … Save your anger for later, and channel it appropriately. Do what the officer tells you to and it will end safely for both of you. We have a justice system in which you are presumed innocent; if a cop can do his or her job unmolested, that system can run its course. Later, you can ask for a supervisor, lodge a complaint or contact civil rights organizations if you believe your rights were violated. Feel free to sue the police! Just don’t challenge a cop during a stop. [3]

Great advice for me, but I don’t believe it has much to do with the reality of places like Ferguson, or even parts of Dutta’s own Los Angeles.

What if I weren’t a middle-aged middle-class white guy? What if police abuse is normal in my experience? What if I’ve cooperated before, and before, and before that … and the stop wasn’t “complete in minutes” and I got tased, pepper-sprayed or worse anyway? What if I “saved my anger for later” and the appropriate channels laughed at me? What if I have dead or injured friends whose attempts to cooperate didn’t “end safely”, and other friends who weren’t “presumed innocent” in court, and are now in prison on sketchy or manufactured evidence?

What’s your advice for me then, Officer Dutta?

What your Fox-watching uncle doesn’t get. The frustrated citizens of Ferguson are pursuing a plan that makes sense: Wait for an incident so egregious that it can’t be swept under the rug, and then get out on the streets in large numbers. Tell your story to the country, put your political leaders on the spot, and show the world how “justice” works in your town. Shine a spotlight on the usual shadowy self-investigation process, and dare the powers-that-be to work their usual trickery in front of a national audience.

That plan might not work — it didn’t work in Florida — but what more likely plan have you got for them? They can’t just be quiet and wait for justice to be served. They’ve got to do something.

Because “we go through this shit every day”, and that shit has to stop.


[1] Reason‘s Steve Chapman asks:

Most crimes are committed by males, but we don’t refer to “male-on-male crime.” Whites in the South are substantially more prone to homicide than those in New England, but no one laments “Southerner-on-Southerner crime.” Why does crime involving people of African descent deserve its own special category?

[2] Unlike Bill O’Reilly, Ferguson residents aren’t giving police credit for all the people they stop and don’t kill. What’s up with that? And what about the 3/4ths of the people police across the nation kill who aren’t black?

[3] This advice was funnier when Chris Rock was giving it.

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