Tag Archives: violence

The Sifted Bookshelf: Angry White Men

They may not feel powerful, but they do feel entitled to feel powerful.


One of the privileges that still comes with being white or male is that you get to be an individual. When you do something unusually good or bad, the media doesn’t take you as a representative of all whites or all men. You’re just you; you did something; it’s news.

So nobody remarked on George W. Bush being the United States’ 43rd consecutive white male president, but 2008 buzzed with speculation that the 44th might be black or female. For example, pundits questioned whether a woman could be tough enough to be commander-in-chief of the military, but nobody has ever successfully made an issue of whether a man can be compassionate enough to be nurse-in-chief of Medicare, or understand small children well enough to be teacher-in-chief of Head Start.

Nobody ever asked why a white man had killed President Kennedy or tried to kill President Reagan. The gunmen had names; their stories were presumed to be personal. When Bernie Madoff conned his investors out of billions, nobody asked “What makes a white man do something like that?” or “What should be done about the white male swindler problem?”

Sikh temple shooter.

Even when the perpetrators themselves frame whiteness or masculinity as an issue, the media tends not to pick it up. Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 69 people at a camp for liberal youth in Norway, saw himself as a crusader against a Muslim takeover of Europe. His manifesto advocated a restoration of European “monoculturalism” and “patriarchy”. Wade Michael Page, killer of six in the Sikh Temple shooting in Wisconsin, was acting on his long-held white supremacist views. In each case, this motivation was spun mostly as a symptom of personal instability, and not of a dangerous cancer in the white community.

Mad as hell.

The upshot is that although we are surrounded by angry white men — on talk radio, on the internet, on the highways, in the workplace, in the NRA and the Tea Party, in the “men’s rights” movement, and in countless acts of domestic violence or public mayhem from Columbine to Sandy Hook — we aren’t having a national discussion about the anger problem of whites or men or white men. That’s because we don’t see them as “white men”; we see them as individuals whose stories reflect unique psychological, political, or social issues. (By contrast, consider how little Michelle Obama has to do to evoke the angry-black-woman stereotype.)

Enter Michael Kimmel and his book Angry White Men.

Chapter by chapter, Kimmel calls attention to angry white men wherever they are found: the loudest voices on the radio, the school shooters, the anti-feminist men’s-rights movement and its Dad’s-rights subculture, the wife beaters, the workers who go postal, and the white supremacists. He asks and answers the question you seldom hear: What makes white men so angry?

What links all these different groups … is a single core experience: what I call aggrieved entitlement.

Aggrieved entitlement is the belief that you have been cheated out of status and power that should have been part of your birthright. (It’s a close relative of what I have called privileged distress: the feeling that advantages you never consciously acknowledged are slipping away from you.) White men are angry, Kimmel claims, because

They may not feel powerful, but they do feel entitled to feel powerful.

How it was supposed to be.

High standards and failure. White men also feel judged (and judge themselves) according to the standards of fathers and grandfathers who received the full white-male birthright, who didn’t have to compete with other races on an almost-level playing field, and who could count on subservient wives, mothers, daughters, and Girls Friday at the office to rally behind their leadership rather than outshine them or make demands.

You want a recipe for anger? Here it is: I’m a failure and it’s not my fault.

The seldom-examined setting for white male anger is failure, or at least failure according to the standards of another era. Dad and/or Grandpa supported a family on one job, and when he got home he commanded respect from his family. His marriage lasted, and his kids were not being raised by a resentful ex-wife on the other side of the country. When Dad or Grandpa was young, he was comfortable in his masculinity. He hunted deer and lettered in football. Girls waited by the phone for him to call, and when he paid for dinner they knew they owed him something.

It’s not that way any more, and it’s not my fault. Don’t look at me like that.

The rich and powerful speak for me.

The visible spokesmen for angry white men may be millionaires like Rush Limbaugh or Donald Trump. But such success is what their listeners wish they had, not what they do have or will ever have. Kimmel observes:

It’s largely the downwardly mobile middle and lower middle classes who form the backbone of the Tea Party, of the listeners of outrage radio, of the neo-Nazis and white supremacists— in many cases literally the sons of those very farmers and workers who’ve lost the family farms or shuttered for good the businesses that had been family owned and operated for generations.

Violence. This sense of being cheated out of what was promised — and being judged as if it had been delivered — interacts badly with another part of the traditional male identity: Men have the privilege/right/duty to make things right by violence.

I don’t want to be violent, but I can be.

That is the plot of just about every action movie with a male hero: A man who would rather be left alone to live his life and take care of his family is confronted with an injustice that can only end if he becomes violent and defeats it. If he successfully wields violence he is a hero. If he remains peaceful he is a wimp.

And so, while many women also feel cheated and judged unfairly, they tend not to snap in a violent way. Kimmel observes that all the recent rampage school shooters (other than the Korean Virginia Tech shooter, whose race evoked a discussion, and another Korean shooter since Kimmel finished writing) have been white males, mostly from rural and suburban areas. Kimmel imagines what would happen if they’d all been, say, inner-city black girls

Can you picture the national debate, the headlines, the hand-wringing? There is no doubt we’d be having a national debate about inner-city poor black girls. The entire focus would be on race, class, and gender. The media would doubtless invent a new term for their behavior, as with wilding two decades ago.

Likewise,

In my research, I could find no cases of working women coming into their workplaces, packing assault weapons, and opening fire, seemingly indiscriminately.

The explanation is simple: When a man feels disrespected — on the job, in his school, in his family — the disrespect threatens not just his personal identity, but his identity as a man. (The archetypal Man is entitled to respect; if you are not being respected, you are failing as a man.) The obvious response is to re-assert manhood through violence, simultaneously righting the scales both socially and psychologically.

The Real and the True. One point I made in “The Distress of the Privileged” was that the “distress” part of privileged distress is very real: If you have convinced yourself that you don’t have any unfair advantages, and then those advantages start to go away, it feels like persecution. You’re not making it up; there are real events you can point to.

Kimmel covers this ground by distinguishing between what is “real” and what is “true”.

White men’s anger is “real”— that is, it is experienced deeply and sincerely. But it is not “true”— that is, it doesn’t provide an accurate analysis of their situation.

And what is most likely to be untrue is the object of the anger. When your well-paid factory job is shipped overseas and you can’t find another one, the villain isn’t the teen-age Chinese girl who does your old job for fifty cents an hour. If you can’t support a family on your income, the villain isn’t your working wife or her reasonable demand that you share the housewife duties she doesn’t have time for any more. If the value of your house crashes, the villain isn’t the black family that got talked into a sub-prime mortgage it couldn’t afford. If you judge yourself by the standards of another era, the villains are not the people whose fair competition keeps you from meeting those standards.

The collapsing pyramid. Patriarchy and racism are both systems of dominance that are coming apart. The white men who feel the change first are the ones just one step up from the bottom: Their step collapses, throwing them in with the “lesser” blacks and women, and the pyramid resettles on top of them. The white men higher up the pyramid want the victims of this collapse to identify with them and with the pyramid that gives them their status: What’s wrong isn’t that the pyramid itself is unfair — as you now can clearly see, being at the bottom of it. What’s wrong, they want you to believe, is that the pyramid is collapsing. You should defend the pyramid, blame the other bottom-dwellers for your loss of status, and maybe one day your one-step-up can be restored.

They know that’s not going to happen; they’re just counting on you not figuring it out. The Masters of the Universe are not going to bring your job back from China. Wal-Mart is not going to make room for your family shop to re-open. Bank of America is not going to forgive your underwater mortgage. Agri-business is not going to rescue your family farm.

The rich white men are not going to rebuild the lower step of the pyramid, no matter how much power they get. And nobody is making room for you on the upper levels.

If you have to blame someone, blame the people who promised you something they couldn’t (or decided not to) deliver. They sold you a bill of goods. Don’t buy another bill of goods from them.

But the best solution of all would be to get past the anger, forget about how things were supposed to be, and just start dealing with the situation as it is. Like a lot of people you never expected to have anything in common with, you find yourself at the bottom of the pyramid. It’s an unfair pyramid.

Let’s bring it down.

Too Simple

The process by which banks create money is so simple that the mind is repelled. – John Kenneth Galbraith (1975)

This week everybody was talking about guns again

In an effort to save their party from its lunatic fringe, even Republicans were talking about gun control. Frank Luntz:

The Second Amendment deserves defending, but do Republicans truly believe that anyone should be able to buy any gun, anywhere, at any time? If yes, they’re on the side of less than 10 percent of America.

Mark McKinnon lists some of Mayor Bloomberg’s gun-control proposals, notes that they don’t affect “hunting, recreation, or self-defense” and then asks:

[I]f the ideas are reasonable and don’t limit legitimate activities, then why not consider them?

But gun-advocate rhetoric takes place in a binary frame where (1) no restrictions and (2) total confiscation are the only real options. So when Vice President Biden said that some action might happen through executive order, gun-nuts went nuttier: Obama was threatening confiscation by executive order! Alex Jones:

1776 will commence again if you try to take our firearms! It doesn’t matter how many lemmings you get out there in the street begging for them to have their guns taken. We will not relinquish them. Do you understand?

No, it won’t by 1776 again. It will be 1791.

I wonder if Luntz and McKinnon have noticed something that the NRA hasn’t: The binary frame used to work in the NRA’s favor, because the NRA would win an all-or-none choice. But maybe we’ve hit a tipping point, where if you force the public to choose between the status quo and confiscation, confiscation might win. Maybe the NRA should be the side looking for reasonable compromise.


The most extreme part of the gun debate isn’t about hunting or home-defense at all. It’s about the right of the People to overthrow the government by force — even if it’s the government the People just elected. As Kevin Williamson put it in National Review:

There is no legitimate exception to the Second Amendment for military-style weapons, because military-style weapons are precisely what the Second Amendment guarantees our right to keep and bear.

This was Myth #6 (“The Second Amendment Allows Citizens to Threaten the Government”) in Garrett Epps’ recent constitutional law book Wrong and Dangerous. The Economist’s “Democracy in America” column characterized it as “the right to commit treason” and noted that

Popular militias are overwhelming likely to foster not democracy or the rule of law, but warlordism, tribalism and civil war. In Lebanon, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Colombia, the Palestinian Territories and elsewhere, we see that militias of armed private citizens rip apart weak democratic states in order to prey upon local populations in authoritarian sub-states or fiefdoms. Free states are defended by standing armies, not militias, because free states enjoy the consent of the governed, which allows them to maintain effective standing armies.

Undeniably, this is not how the Founders expected history to play out. But that’s how it has played out. A popular militia resisting authoritarian takeover and restoring democracy

is a thing that happens in silly movies. It is not a thing that happens in the world.

Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf notes that the conservative movement that promotes this Second-Amendment myth shows no inclination to support rights that actually do deter tyranny.

If you were a malign leader intent on imposing tyranny, what would you find more useful, banning high-capacity magazines… or a vast archive of the bank records, phone calls, texts and emails of millions of citizens that you could access in secret? Would you, as a malign leader, feel more empowered by a background check requirement on gun purchases… or the ability to legally kill anyone in secret on your say so alone? The powers the Republican Party has given to the presidency since 9/11 would obviously enable far more grave abuses in the hands of a would be tyrant than any gun control legislation with even a miniscule chance of passing Congress. So why are so many liberty-invoking 2nd Amendment absolutists reliable Republican voters, as if the GOP’s stance on that issue somehow makes up for its shortcomings? And why do they so seldom speak up about threats to the Bill of Rights that don’t involve guns?

In reality, the greatest threat to our democracy are the Alex-Jones and Sharron-Angle types who want to take up arms because their candidate lost the election.


Jon Stewart characterized the attitude blocking reasonable gun control as the fear of “imaginary Hitlers”. Gun-nuts’

paranoid fear of a possible dystopic future prevents us from addressing our actual dystopic present.



Like climate change and voter fraud, the gun-policy debate takes place largely in Bizarro World, as gun-rights advocates freely make up whatever facts they need and cite each other as references for them. Here are two debunking articles to keep bookmarked:

  • The Hitler Gun Control Lie (Salon). No, Hitler did not take away the German people’s guns. Actually, the Nazi regime weakened the gun restrictions it inherited from the Weimar Republic. (Stalin wasn’t big into disarming the public either.)
  • Mythbusting: Israel and Switzerland are not gun-toting utopias (WaPo). Gun advocates point to Israel and Switzerland as “societies where guns are reputed to be widely available, but where gun violence is rare”.  In non-Bizarro-World, American gun-control advocates would love to have the laws of Israel or Switzerland.

The NRA’s Wayne La Pierre says, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” I guess he never saw Witness.


And let’s give the last word to The Onion:

Following the events of last week, in which a crazed western lowland gorilla ruthlessly murdered 21 people in a local shopping plaza after escaping from the San Diego Zoo, sources across the country confirmed Thursday that national gorilla sales have since skyrocketed.

… and trillion-dollar coins

This idea has been bouncing around since before the last debt crisis (and I’ve linked to explanations of it several times), but this week it crossed over from a fringy what-if to a policy option that Serious People need to have an opinion about.

I collect a number of those opinions in The Trillion-Dollar Coin Hits the Big Time. (Most boil down to: It’s nutty, but it’s better than defaulting.)

A side-effect of this discussion is that more and more of the public is coming to understand how money really works. Long-time Sift readers have had cause to remember my review of Warren Mosler’s book in the summer of 2011.


James Fallows suggests The Two Sentences That Should Be Part of All Discussion of the Debt Ceiling:

  1. Raising the debt ceiling does not authorize one single penny in additional public spending.
  2. For Congress to “decide whether” to raise the debt ceiling, for programs and tax rates it has already voted into law, makes exactly as much sense as it would for a family to “decide whether” to pay a credit-card bill for goods it has already bought.

An analogy I’ve used before: It’s like eating out when you don’t have cash, but then refusing to pay with your credit card because you’re taking a principled stand against running up more debt. The time to take the principled stand is when you decide what you’re going to do, not when the bill comes.

… which once again brings up the issue of unraveling social norms

The coin and the debt-ceiling hostage crisis it’s supposed to avert are both examples of something I’ve tried (and mostly failed) to describe before: unraveling the norms that make society governable. Maybe Chris Hayes expresses it better:

Behavior of individuals within an institution is constrained by the formal rules (explicit prohibitions) and norms (implicit prohibitions) that aren’t spelled out, but just aren’t done. And what the modern Republican Party has excelled at, particularly in the era of Obama, is exploiting the gap between these two. They’ve made a habit of doing the thing that just isn’t done.

He goes on to give examples: filibustering everything the Senate does, refusing to confirm qualified candidates to positions because you think the position shouldn’t exist, and now “using the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip with which to extract ransom”.

He might also mention the proposal that Republicans should rig the Electoral College in states where they control the legislature. The point, pretty clearly, is to be able to win presidential elections even if the People vote for the other guy. (That’s what would have happened in 2012 under at least one plan: Obama gets 5 million more votes, but Romney becomes president.) It’s all perfectly legal, but this is the United States. We don’t do things like that. Or at least we didn’t used to.

The meta-question of the trillion-dollar coin is whether Democrats should strike back with their own inside-the-rules-but-outside-the-norms actions, recognizing (as Chris puts it) that “There is no way to unilaterally maintain norms.”

We need to get a handle on this trend somehow, because it doesn’t go anywhere good. That’s one of the themes in Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series: Ultimately, even respect for the written law is just a norm. At some point you start to think, “Why shouldn’t I stick my enemies’ heads on spikes and display them in the Forum?”

… and racism

Republicans hate it when you point to the implicit racism in the intensity of their hatred for Obama and all his works. But Colin Powell went there Sunday on Meet the Press, talking about the “dark vein of intolerance” in the Republican Party. He pointed to voter suppression, to racial code phrases like “shucking and jiving” applied to Obama, and to Birtherism.

But racism is also part of the willingness to violate previously accepted norms (that I was just talking about). Republicans feel justified in doing things that just aren’t done because (until now) electing and re-electing a black president just wasn’t done. Racism is the ultimate root of the Tea Party certainty that we are in uncharted waters that require unprecedented means of resistance. Just voting and campaigning and giving money to your favored candidates isn’t enough any more. We need to arm ourselves and prepare for “Second Amendment solutions” because … because why, exactly?

If you doubt the racial subtext here, think about how different it would sound for a black CEO to threaten that if a white president’s policy “goes one inch farther, I’m gonna start killin’ people.” Fox News would play that clip 24/7 for weeks.

… and you also might be interested in

Mitch McConnell might face a primary because of the fiscal cliff deal. Good news for Democrats? An Aiken/Mourdock Tea Party wacko is much more likely to lose this otherwise safe Kentucky senate seat to a Democrat (Ashley Judd?). Or bad news? If the minority leader goes down in a primary, no Republican will ever again compromise or negotiate.


The Greek economic crisis has taken on symbolic importance in this country; in any discussion of the deficit conservatives are bound to say that overspending is turning us into Greece. But Foreign Policy provides a seldom-mentioned tidbit:

the [Greek] state is facing a revenue crisis, in part because of rampant tax evasion. In 2012, the European Commission estimated the size of Greece’s shadow economy to be 24 percent of GDP, resulting in an annual $13 billion loss in revenue.

And the Center for American Progress amplifies:

when Greece is properly placed in the context of its EU partners and neighbors, it becomes clear that its spending is very much in line with European norms. … In fact, total government spending for the European Union as a whole equaled 50.7 percent of GDP, actually a bit higher than Greece.

So Greece spends less of its national income on government programs than its sensible cousin Germany. And the Greek people work more. Maybe the lesson for the U.S. to learn from Greece isn’t that the safety net is unsustainable. It’s that you’ve got to collect taxes.


No matter how many disastrous gaffes they suffer, Republicans just can’t stop talking about rape. This Democrat is no feminist prize either.


Remember Roy Moore, the “ten commandments judge” who lost his job as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court by defying federal court orders? He’s back. The people of Alabama elected him chief justice again in November, and he was sworn in Friday. Remind me why we didn’t let Alabama secede.


The White House’s We the People project promises that if an online petition gets enough support

White House staff will review it, ensure it’s sent to the appropriate policy experts, and issue an official response.

Well, 34,000 people signed a petition asking for construction of a Death Star to begin by 2016. So the head of OMB’s Science and Space Branch responded with these criticisms: The Death Star project would increase the deficit. It has a fatal design flaw exploitable by a one-man ship. Plus “The administration does not support blowing up planets.”


One Nation, Under Guard: fantasy, reality, and Sandy Hook

A special kind of panic results when fear mixes with helplessness.

Big plane crashes are like that. You hear about one and you can’t help thinking about the last time you flew or the reservations you already have. You wonder what you would do if your airliner started going down.

In my imagination, I do nothing of any practical use: Scream. Pray. Tell myself it’s not happening. Maybe hold hands with my wife (if we happen to be traveling together) and wait to die.

Panic like that isn’t put aside by statistics. Either it fades with time, or you raise enough courage to overcome it and get on with life. Or you do something that lets you tell yourself (maybe falsely) that the world is different now, so the possibility that panicked you can’t happen any more.

Very often, the something is stupid, like canceling a plane trip and driving instead. Never mind that driving is more dangerous than flying. You’ll die with a steering wheel in your hands rather than falling helplessly out of the sky. The horrible fantasy is calmed.

Because that’s what the something is really about. If you can also make the world safer for yourself or your loved ones, great. But if you can’t, you still need to quiet the horror in your mind.

School shootings are like that. Every day, you drop your kids off at school — knowing, at some level, that you’re surrendering your ability to protect them. But you put that aside: It’s OK. They’re safe. Nothing will happen.

Until something happens. Probably it happens to somebody else and you see it on TV, but it happens. And you can’t get the horrible image out of your head: your precious little son or daughter crouched behind a desk, hearing the gunfire, waiting to die.

To a lesser extent, any public shooting is like that. It could be you, huddling behind a table at Food Court at the Mall, while a gunman walks your way, shooting one person after another. Or maybe you’re huddling behind your seat at the theater or behind your shopping cart at the supermarket. Then, there will be nothing you can do.

And that’s why it feels so important to do something now. Something. Anything. Even if it’s stupid.

Any rational discussion of the Sandy Hook shooting needs to start by acknowledging that psychological reality: We are, at every moment of our lives, helpless against the full range of bad things that could happen. The next person you see could pull out a gun and start blasting, or set off a suicide-bomber vest, or breathe some killer microbe into your airspace. The food you buy could be poison. A chemical spill could send a toxic cloud blowing your way. Nuclear war could start. A meteor could fall out of the blue sky. Even if the environment around you is perfectly safe, your heart (at any moment) could find reasons of its own to stop beating.

To a certain extent, you are never safe and you are always helpless. That’s the human condition.

Other than saints, bodhisattvas, and stoic philosophers, we spend about 99% of our lives in denial of that basic fact. Big public disasters — Sandy Hook, Aurora, 9-11 — break through our denial and cause panic. Panic makes us want to do something. Anything.

Sometimes there’s something sensible to do. Our air safety regulations, for example, have done a lot of good. You know how many people in the United States died in commercial air crashes in 2012? Two. Air bags, antilock brakes, and other car safety changes (plus better emergency response) have dropped the number of automobile-accident deaths in the U.S. from 54,000 in 1972 to 32,000 in 2011, despite having more people, cars, and passenger miles.

But sometimes we’re just making ourselves feel better without improving our safety at all. That’s the question to keep in mind as you think about responses to Sandy Hook: Are we actually improving safety, or are we just banishing a horrible fantasy?

The “solutions” put forward by the NRA and other gun advocates are almost entirely about banishing horrible fantasy. NRA President Wayne LaPierre:

when you hear the glass breaking in your living room at 3 a.m. and call 911, you won’t be able to pray hard enough for a gun in the hands of a good guy to get there fast enough to protect you.

Yep. You’ll be helpless, waiting to die. Then you’ll wish you had a gun. Just like when your airliner is crashing, you’ll wish you had driven instead. You’ll wish you had a steering wheel to twist and a brake pedal to stomp on.

Owning a gun is exactly the same kind of “solution” as driving instead of flying. Statistically, a household with a gun is far more likely to experience a violent death than a household without a gun. Maybe you’ll worry less about the sound of breaking glass at night — or maybe you’ll lose just as much sleep worrying about how fast you can get to your gun and whether you’ll win the shootout with the intruder —  but a gun won’t make your family safer.

Thinking of you, sis.

I don’t know of any statistical study, but I’ll place my bet that arming teachers or deploying armed guards in schools won’t make kids safer either. Picture the elementary school teachers you know personally. I’m picturing my sister. She’s going to shoot it out with a guy in body armor wielding a Bushmaster? Seriously?

Once you put a gun in a classroom — or a home or a supermarket — all kinds of things can go wrong. This is a big country with a lot of classrooms. Some of those things will go wrong somewhere.

Open carry is now legal in Oklahoma. Feel safer?

And what have we solved? We have banished the particular fantasy of a gunman shooting up a school (unless an armed guard or teacher goes nuts). But have we made it significantly harder to kill large numbers of children, if somebody is determined to do that? Or are we going to have to put armed guards everywhere that children gather? Or are we all going to carry guns to protect ourselves against all the other gunmen?

Is that the society you want your child to grow up in?


There’s been a lot of bad writing on both sides of this issue, but a few pieces here and there have been worth recommending. The best stuff gets past the horrible-fantasy stage and gives you something serious to think about.

Firmin DeBrabander goes directly at the what-kind-of-society question, and argues that guns do exactly the opposite of what the NRA contends: They decrease freedom, diminish democracy, and make dictatorship that much easier. Our front line of defense against violence is that we live in a civil society. If arming everyone undoes civility, then we are much less safe, no matter how well armed we are.

Private gun ownership … nourishes the illusion that I can be my own police, or military … Our gun culture promotes a fatal slide into extreme individualism. It fosters a society of atomistic individuals, isolated before power — and one another — and in the aftermath of shootings such as at Newtown, paralyzed with fear. That is not freedom, but quite its opposite.


Bad anti-gun writing usually comes from people who have never touched a gun in their lives. (Personally, I’ve shot a variety of guns, but not often, and I’m no kind of expert.) Dan Baum is not that guy. His 2010 article Happiness is a Worn Gun describes his experience training for a concealed-carry permit and then carrying his gun for several months.

The big thing that comes through is that concealed-carry isn’t just a plan, it’s a worldview. His training classes “were less about self-defense than about recruiting us into a culture animated by fear of violent crime.” Baum eventually stops carrying his gun, because he doesn’t like the way it changes his experience from Condition White (everyday awareness) to Condition Yellow (constant threat-monitoring).

Condition White may make us sheep, but it’s also where art happens. It’s where we daydream, reminisce, and hear music in our heads. Hard-core gun carriers want no part of that, and the zeal for getting everybody to carry a gun may be as much an anti-Condition White movement as anything else — resentment toward the airy-fairy elites who can enjoy the luxury of musing, sipping tea, and nibbling biscuits while the good people of the world have to work for a living and keep their guard up.


The best thing I read was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ On Living Armed. As a person who grew up in a violent neighborhood, Coates directly confronts the what-if-you-faced-a-shooter fantasy and expands it.

one does not simply do violence – or live prepared for violence – and remain the same. I carry all of West Baltimore with me, and I am in constant conversation over the fact that that part of me is wholly inappropriate for this world. That part – the part that is analyzing every person who walks up on me, who is trying to figure out every angle, who sees a crowd and walks the other way – is fit for a world of violence. That pose is totally draining. (It has no time to go off and learn French.)

So if you ask me if I wished to have a gun when an active shooter is present, then I will tell you that guns don’t magically appear in the holster, that the capacity to do lethal violence requires an expense of time, energy, and responsibility, which I would rather not make. I would tell you that I have, already, spent too much of my life preparing for violence. I would say that the person who should wish to have a gun in that situation, should be a person capable of shooting a gun, and a person comfortable with the responsibility of carrying a gun during the 99.9 percent of the time when violence – much less lethal violence – is wholly inappropriate.

A gun is power. And power demands responsibility. I don’t want to spend my time that way.

“Don’t politicize tragedy” is itself partisan rhetoric

Some lines in our political dialog sound non-partisan, but they only come up in a one-sided way. Once the media habit gets established, those unwritten usage rules are very hard to change.

For years now, liberals have been trying to turn judicial activism back against conservatives. But no matter how many Citizens United or Bush v Gore decisions right-wing judges write, judicial activism only has glue on its left side; it won’t stick to the Right.

We shouldn’t politicize this tragedy is similarly one-sided. It is only said in two situations:

  1. To stop liberals from talking about gun control after a mass shooting.
  2. To stop liberals from talking about worker safety after a mine disaster, factory fire, or some other big industrial accident.

It never limits conservatives, who routinely score political points in the wake of tragedy without even a sense of hypocrisy. The possibility that don’t politicize tragedy could apply to them just doesn’t register.

So Fox News’ Megyn Kelly can guiltlessly respond to the Newtown School shooting by asking a security expert:

I have two kids. Now I suddenly want to see an armed police officer in the school. I mean, I never even thought of that prior to now, but what would that take, to have an armed police officer in every school?

Kelly reaching for a more-guns solution is fine, but imagining fewer guns — as Bob Costas did two weeks before — politicizes tragedy.

In any other situation, major loss of life leads to action. The Patriot Act was signed six weeks after 9-11. I don’t recall anyone saying we shouldn’t politicize the tragedy. And as Chris Hayes observed Saturday,

If yesterday we had found out that the shooter’s name was Abdulmutallab and that he had been attending a mosque in Connecticut, everything about the response would be different.

One difference: No one would be shutting down the Islamophobes for politicizing the tragedy.*

The most predictably outrageous politicization of tragedy always comes from the Religious Right. Who can forget Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blaming 9-11 on

the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America

Falwell is dead, but his blame-the-secularists game continues. Thursday, when a Fox News anchor suggested to Mike Huckabee that people might ask “How could God let this happen?”, Huckabee responded by denouncing separation of church and state:

We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage? Because we’ve made it a place where we don’t want to talk about eternity, life, what responsibility means, accountability — that we’re not just going to have be accountable to the police if they catch us, but one day we stand before, you know, a holy God in judgment. If we don’t believe that, then we don’t fear that.

So suggesting any limitation to Second Amendment rights politicizes the tragedy, but it’s fine for Huckabee to advocate against our First Amendment right to be free from an establishment of religion.

Huckabee was not alone. Bryan Fischer also started with “Where was God?”and went the same place with it:

Here’s the bottom line: God is not going to go where He’s not wanted. Now we have spent — since 1962, we’re 50 years into this now — we have spent 50 years telling God to get lost.

He then went through a litany First Amendment cases that limit Christian establishment before concluding:

We’ve kicked God out of our public school system. And I think God would say to us: “Hey, I’ll be glad to protect your children, but you’ve got to invite me back into your world first.”

I’m sure the Amish parents of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania wonder how exactly they banished God from their schoolhouse before five of their daughters were gunned down in 2006. But apparently Fischer’s God** is subject to the same rule as vampires: Even if He wants to help, He’s stuck on the threshold until somebody invites Him in.

In short, liberals: Don’t be cowed by people who tell you not to politicize a mass shooting or a mine cave-in. The don’t-politicize rule applies only to you. Whenever conservatives can spin a tragedy to their advantage, they will, and the self-appointed umpires who criticize you now will be completely silent.


*The same people who blame Islam for any crime by a guy with a Arab name — they twisted themselves into pretzels denying Christianity’s responsibility for Anders Breivik’s mass murder of liberal children in Norway (even though Breivik styled himself as a defender of Christendom). “No one believing in Jesus commits mass murder,” Bill O’Reilly declared.

If you would laugh at a Muslim who said that about believers in Allah, you should laugh at O’Reilly too.


**In some ways conservative Christians preachers are a special case, because their flocks do ask “Where was God?” and the ministers have no answer. The question points to a hole in their theology: If the Universe were governed by the God they describe (all-powerful, loving, good, and personally involved), these things would not happen. It’s that simple. It’s not a paradox or a mystery, it’s just a contradiction.

They can’t admit that, so they have to deflect blame onto someone else.

White Right-Wing Christian Terrorist

Tuesday, when CBS News did a segment on the man who killed seven at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, one word was conspicuously absent: terrorist. All the pieces to make that judgment were in place: Wade Michael Page had a long history in white supremacist groups. (The album covers of his white-supremacist bands are pictured at the bottom of this article, where you can easily avoid looking at them.) His victims were non-Christian and non-white, and they gathered at a non-Christian temple.

His massacre was violence against civilians, apparently for the political purpose of terrorizing the racial or religious groups they belong to. That’s terrorism.

No white Christian terrorists. But the mainstream media doesn’t often call white Christians terrorists, and even if they express their motives in Christian or white-supremacist terms, you seldom run across the phrase “white Christian terrorist”. Almost by definition, terrorists are Muslims. And conversely, violent Muslims are terrorists.

When someone does tie a terrorist act to Christianity, you can count on seeing a lot of pushback — articles begging for nuance, emphasizing how out of the Christian mainstream the terrorist’s views are, refusing to take seriously a childhood connection to Christianity, and instead demanding specific evidence of a religious motive (which hasn’t shown up yet in Page’s case). Again, these principles don’t apply when the killer has brown skin and a Muslim name.

The white killer also gets portrayed with more sympathy. The CBS report includes pictures of Page as a cute boy, and shows his step-mother describing him as “kind and gentle and loving”.

I’ll bet Khalid Sheik Mohammed was a cute child once, but this is the picture of him I’ve seen over and over.

No right-wing terrorists. You also don’t hear the term “right-wing terrorist” very often. In 2009, a report by the Department of Homeland Security called attention to the problem of right-wing violence, and identified “disgruntled military veterans” as targets for recruitment by right-wing hate groups. It quoted a civil rights organization:

large numbers of potentially violent neo-Nazis, skinheads, and other white supremacists are now learning the art of warfare in the [U.S.] armed forces.

The potential recruits were “a small percentage” of veterans, but a small percentage of a large number can still be disturbingly large.

Page was precisely the kind of veteran the report was talking about. But it’s too late for the report’s author (Daryl Johnson) to get credit in DHS, because he’s long gone. The report raised a furor in the right-wing media, which interpreted it as a slander against both veterans and the rising Tea Party movement.

Michelle Malkin wrote in the Washington Times:

It’s no small coincidence that Ms. Napolitano’s agency disseminated the assessment just a week before the nationwide April 15 Tax Day Tea Party protests.

Her column ended: “We are all right-wing extremists now. Welcome to the club.” That message was echoed by Fox News and Republican leaders: Right-wing terrorism was something the Obama administration dreamed up to slander all conservatives.

DHS responded to the furor by dissolving Johnson’s team, and Johnson himself left DHS a year after the report was published.

What I think is going on. There is an underlying narrative in mainstream culture that People Like You are threatened by People Like Them. If a story fits neatly into that frame, then OK, go with it.

But if the obvious interpretation of an event is that People Like You are the threat, that’s a problem. Nobody wants to hear that. And so Juan Cole’s Top Ten differences between White Terrorists and Others includes:

6. White terrorists are random events, like tornadoes. Other terrorists are long-running conspiracies.

 Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf puts it like this:

Watching Oak Creek, that subset of Americans was put in a position to realize that a day prior they’d have identified with the terrorist more than his victims. And so they quickly looked away.

Instead, we want to hear that the Threatening One is really not like us after all. He’s not a member of a group; he’s a loner. He’s not acting on beliefs that we share; he’s crazy. And his action is not a one-sided eruption of our hate onto their innocence; he’s a tortured soul who once had the potential for goodness; the suffering he inflicts arises from his own suffering.

The same thing happens on smaller scales. A couple years ago, the director of my church’s religious education program was describing the articles she’d been reading about bullying. They all discussed how to help your child deal with being bullied. “None of them,” she told me, “addressed the possibility that your child might be the bully.”

But the bully is always someone’s child. And no one wants to hear that.

Trayvon Martin: the Racism Whites Don’t Want to See

I tend to filter out crime stories, because so often they get more coverage than they deserve, like O. J. Simpson. So I’ve been slow to catch on to the significance of the Trayvon Martin story. But lately this has turned into a meta-story: reactions to the killing say even more about our country than the killing itself did.

The basic facts are simple: A white-Hispanic neighborhood-watch volunteer (George Zimmerman) got suspicious of a 140-pound black teen-ager (Trayvon Martin) for no apparent reason. He called 911, and the dispatcher told him not to follow the kid. Zimmerman followed anyway. Some kind of confrontation ensued and he shot Martin dead. Martin was unarmed and had nothing easily mistaken for a weapon, but the police accepted Zimmerman’s self-defense claim (in spite of at least one witness who denied it) and let him walk away. That all happened back on February 26, there’s still been no arrest, and the local African-American community is getting pretty upset about it.

The story points out the continuing presence of racism in America. To some segment of the population, being black raises suspicion all by itself. Probably Zimmerman is not the kind of racist who would go out hunting black teens at random. Probably he really believed that Martin was planning some kind of mischief, and that Martin must be armed, so that he had to shoot first once the confrontation started. But why did he think that? Why did he frame the situation in such a way that shoot-to-kill seemed sensible?

And why did the police find his story credible and his actions excusable? You’re an armed white adult chasing an unarmed black teen-ager you outweigh by about 100 pounds. Naturally, you would feel threatened.

That’s the kind of racism that is still endemic in every nook and cranny of America. We’re almost entirely past the “I don’t hire niggers” phase, but still in a phase of “he just doesn’t look trustworthy to me”. What would look like a well-deserved break for a white employee is goofing off when a black does it. An ordinary mental glitch becomes evidence of low intelligence, and so on.

Being black is no longer three strikes against you, but it’s still one or two.

By and large, White America doesn’t want to believe that. Last year a poll found that 51% of whites (also 60% of Republicans and 68% of people who name Fox as their most trusted news source) say that reverse discrimination against whites is at least as big a problem as discrimination against minorities.

You can see just how badly White America doesn’t want to believe in its continuing racism by how it has reacted to the Martin story. Fox News did its best to ignore the whole thing. ThinkProgress totaled up how much attention each cable news network gave the Martin story during its first three weeks:

Compare this to Fox’s obsessive coverage of a series of scary-black-people stories. For example, it devoted 95 segments totaling 8 hours of air time to the trumped-up voter-intimidation charges against the New Black Panther Party.

Or check out how the Glenn-Beck-founded blog The Blaze has covered Martin’s death. Searching on the word “Trayvon” got me 15 stories, five of which were about the scary ways black people are reacting to the incident — the New Black Panther Party (of course), Louis Farrakhan, Al Sharpton, Barack Obama, and the New Black Liberation Militia. The Sharpton post ends by raising more suspicion about Martin. (He was on a 10-day suspension from school, and “Sources sympathetic to Martin say he was suspended for ‘excessive tardiness’.” But the Blaze makes sure we know all the more serious stuff that a 10-day suspension could be about.)

A sixth Blaze post quotes Beck himself, who is worried not about white vigilantes, but about black extremists “winding everybody up”:

“We have this extremist African-American militia group that says they’re just going to come in and handle it. You’re got Al Sharpton winding everybody up. You’ve got Color For Change winding everybody up.” … Beck ceded that the man who shot Trayvon could indeed be a racist, but that many of his detractors are driven by a racial agenda too, and thus are everything they claim to stand against.

Got that? You should focus not on what actually happened to an innocent black teen, but on what “extremist” black groups might do. Zimmerman could be a racist, but blacks and liberals upset by the Martin story are racists.

So the beat goes on: For the part of the media that panders to I-am-not-a-racist whites, the Martin story is just one more example of racism against whites and one more reason for white people to be afraid of black people.


Among the presidential candidates, only Newt Gingrich directly pandered to white racists by turning the incident into a reverse-racism story. President Obama had reached out to Martin’s parents, saying “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

Gingrich’s response:

Is the president suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot, that would be OK because it didn’t look like him? That’s just nonsense dividing this country up. … When things go wrong to an American, it is sad for all Americans. Trying to turn it into a racial issue is fundamentally wrong. I really find it appalling.

Gingrich glossed over the whole walking-while-black angle that makes the story important: If Trayvon Martin had been white, he might not have been shot at all. George Zimmerman “turned it into a racial issue”, not President Obama.


While researching this case, I learned something interesting about the law: Self defense falls into a class known as affirmative defenses. In other words, at your trial you’re not just looking at the state and saying “Prove I did it”, you’re making assertions about facts that are supposed to exonerate you. When you do that, part of the burden of proof shifts to you.

So the state does not have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman did not act in self defense. In making a self-defense plea, Zimmerman would be conceding that he killed Martin, and he would then need to convince the jury of his self-defense claim by a preponderance of evidence (not beyond reasonable doubt).


Want some background music to read this piece by? Try Eminem’s “White America“:

Look at these eyes:
Baby blue, baby, just like yaself.
If they were brown, Shady lose,
Shady sits on the shelf.

Now Look What You Made Me Do

The last two weeks have seen a widespread violent crack-down on non-violent protesters, the like of which has not occurred in the United States in many years. So far the police have been using non-lethal weapons like pepper spray, rubber bullets, tear gas, sonic cannons, and the old-fashioned nightstick, so there is not a body count to report. But the difference between this suppression of dissent and the ones in Cairo that President Obama denounced as far back as last January is largely of degree and not of kind.

You would not suspect this from the coverage in the mainstream American media, which has been doing it’s usual even-handed he-said/she-said thing. Protesters “clash with police” reports the New York Times, not specifying that protesters’ eyes clashed with police pepper spray or that protesters’ heads and stomachs clashed with police nightsticks. “Violence erupted” said New York Magazine, as if violence were some volcanic process independent of human decisions.

AllVoices anchor Veronica Roberts reported that Iraq veteran Scott Olsen suffered a fractured skull “after he was caught in the violence that erupted between police and protesters”. Olsen was not “caught” in anything; he was protesting peacefully when police shot him in the head with a tear gas canister (perhaps intentionally). (He may have suffered brain damage and was still unable to speak several days later.)

(Even this morning’s NYT article about the coverage of Occupy Wall Street says nothing about the coverage of police attacks. The Times seems unaware that there could be an issue here.)

But this shouldn’t be a contest between my rants and the rants on Fox News. The only way to appreciate what is going on is to look at the pictures and watch the video for yourself. In this video, the camera-holder is slowly walking parallel to (and maybe 60 feet away from) a line of unthreatened Oakland police when one of them decides to shoot him with a rubber bullet — apparently just because he can.

Here, a UC Davis policeman calmly pepper-sprays students who are sitting on the ground, immobile. Other police watch and do nothing.

BTW, you should see how this incident ends: Starting at about the 5 minute mark, the police see that the crowd is neither retreating nor attacking, and they start to lose their spirit and look confused. Using the human mic device, a protester invites them to retreat, and they do, leaving the quad in control of the protesters. It’s a stunning example of how nonviolence works.

At UC-Berkeley, students are peacefully behind a line of police who suddenly start using their nightsticks.

Here, a young woman with her hands at her sides, surrounded by people armed with nothing more than cameras, is pepper-sprayed in the face by police in riot gear. The LA Times reports the incident in he-said/she-said terms: “Occupy Portland organizers allege law enforcement took an inappropriate and heavy-handed approach.”

In Seattle, police pepper-sprayed this 84-year-old former school teacher. Local TV news even-handedly reported that “mayhem took place” and “chaos erupted in downtown Seattle”.

Retired Philadelphia police captain Ray Lewis (who was arrested in New York Thursday) put it a little differently: “Corporate America is using our police departments as hired thugs.”

I have read many claims by police that protesters threatened or assaulted them in some way. With all the video cameras out there, you’d think someone would capture assaults on police if they were really happening with any frequency. I’ve looked for such video, but I can’t find it.

On YouTube, the query “occupy protesters assault police” led me to this local TV-news report from Toledo, which shows two protesters at a city council meeting “assaulting police” by flailing helplessly as they’re being dragged away. So far that’s the worst protester violence I’ve found video of.

In public-opinion terms, this “even-handed” coverage is anything but. Obviously, the reason there is an incident at all is because people are protesting, so if “violence erupts”, the reader’s natural inclination is to think that protesters caused it. Similarly, when ABC News reports that nine cities have already spent more than $10 million responding to the protests, the protesters seem to be to blame.

What actually costs money, though, is the cities’ extreme now-look-what-you-made-me-do over-reaction to the protests. The protesters are not demanding to be surrounded by armies of police in riot gear earning overtime. City mayors and police chiefs are making those choices, which are justified by what, exactly? Where is the bad example of a city that under-responded and suffered some awful consequence?

Virtually every “problem” offered as an excuse to break up the occupation protests is actually made worse when the police attack. Are the protesters “trashing” the public parks? Well, here’s what the Occupy Oakland site looked like the morning after the police violently “cleared” it.

Mayor Bloomberg has cited complaints about noise as a reason to drive protesters out of Zuccotti Park — with noise cannons. As the NYT’s Nicholas Kristof observed:

Sure, the mayor had legitimate concerns about sanitation and safety, but have you looked around New York City? Many locations aren’t so clean and safe, but there usually aren’t hundreds of officers in riot gear showing up in the middle of the night to address the problem.

When the unprovoked and counter-productive violence of the authoritarian reaction is masked by “even-handed” coverage, though, the natural reaction of the news-watching public is to grumble at the protesters who are causing trouble and wasting their tax money.

And as the mainstream media coverage suffers from false equivalence and fake even-handedness, the coverage from the right-wing media — Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, the Washington Times, the New York Post, the Weekly Standard, and (now that Murdoch owns it) the Wall Street Journal — drips with vitriol.

For weeks, Fox News has pushed two related lines of propaganda on a daily basis: invoking a Woodstock drug-taking dirty-hippy stereotype of the protesters, and de-humanizing them by focusing on their animal functions — urination, defecation, sex, etc. Karl Rove’s Crossroads PAC has put out an anti-Elizabeth-Warren ad tying her to the occupations, where “protesters attack police, do drugs, and trash public parks.”

Unsurprisingly, when one side’s propaganda goes uncorrected, the other side’s public image suffers. A PPP poll shows Occupy Wall Street’s popularity declining.

This combined police-and-media attack exposes a long-term weakness in the Left: We lack solidarity. When media coverage goes against some group we sympathize with, we distance ourselves rather than stand up for them.

The Right has dug-in, billionaire-financed infrastructure, so it will defend its clan from media attacks (as it has done with Herman Cain) even if the target is clearly in the wrong (like BP). Compare the Left’s reaction to the Dean Scream: Objectively, the scream meant nothing, but suddenly it was embarrassing to be associated with Dean, so his support melted.

It’s important that those of us who sympathize with the goals of Occupy Wall Street not melt away. Ordinary Americans have started protesting against the way that the rich (especially the parasitic financial community, which on the whole adds little if anything to our economy) have captured all the economic growth. In response, the rich have leaned on City Hall to call out the police to rough them up (except in New York, where no leaning was necessary because a finance-industry billionaire already is City Hall), and the corporate media has covered these events in a way that distributes the blame unfairly on the protesters.

We can’t let that be the end of the story.

Building the Rioters of the Future

[8/15/2011] I’m assuming you already know that riots broke out in many English cities this week. If not, Wikipedia has a good summary of the basic facts.

But while it was easy to turn on your TV and see video of burning and looting, getting a half-way decent explanation of what it was all about was quite a bit harder.

Everyone agreed that the riots weren’t “political” like the Arab Spring demonstrations in Tunis or Cairo. No leaders presented lists of demands. Mobs didn’t shout slogans, political or otherwise.

The riots also didn’t seem to be racial, exactly. The unrest started in London’s diverse Tottenham neighborhood, but also jumped to mostly white neighborhoods like Croydon. The Irish Times reported:

Those who were taking part in the looting and fighting, or throwing fireworks at the police, were of many shades, ages and nationalities, but they all had something in common: they felt they had little to lose.

Eliminating politics and race left even less likely simple explanations: Prime Minister Cameron seemed to suggest that lots of people spontaneously turned criminal for no reason. Others blamed bad parenting, though it’s mysterious why that would suddenly become a problem last week rather than the week before. Maybe it was “mob mentality” or “mindless violence” — terms that sound more substantive than “I’ve got no clue”, but may not be. And there were the usual attempts to blame technology, which made no more sense than giving technology the credit in Cairo.

To me, the most disturbing aspects the coverage were the journalists who didn’t want an explanation. In this BBC interview, West Indian writer (and long-time Londoner) Darcus Howe tries to raise underlying issues:

What I was certain about, listening to my grandson and my son, is that something very, very serious was going to take place in this country. Our political leaders had no idea. The police had no idea. But if you looked at young blacks and young whites with a discerning eye and a careful hearing, they have been telling us — and we would not listen — about what has been happening in this country to them.

The interviewer then cuts him often, asking if he condones the violence. After a disgusted “Of course not”, Howe tries to talk about police behavior, and how often young blacks are stopped and searched for no reason. The interviewer interrupts to accuse Howe of having been a rioter himself in the past, which he indignantly denies. (“Show some respect for an old West Indian Negro,” he pleads.)

And then time is up. Riots: Are you for them or against them?

The most insightful thing I read about the riots was on the London blog Penny Red. (You may have seen it reposted on AlterNet, Common Dreams, or some other American web site.)

Riots are about power, and they are about catharsis. They are not about poor parenting, or youth services being cut, or any of the other snap explanations that media pundits have been trotting out: structural inequalities, as a friend of mine remarked today, are not solved by a few pool tables. People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all. People to whom respect has never been shown riot because they feel they have little reason to show respect themselves, and it spreads like fire on a warm summer night. And now people have lost their homes, and the country is tearing itself apart.

As in this week’s lead article, I find myself thinking that people are looking in the wrong direction. Asking why rioters take what they want, hurt people they don’t like, or burn down establishments they resent is like asking Willie Sutton why he robbed banks. (His iconic answer: “Because that’s where the money is.”)

It’s perfectly obvious why people would loot and burn. If you want to get simple, start with the question: Why don’t the rest of us riot every day?

The best answer, I think, is: Because we participate in systems that we believe work better for us and for our loved ones in the long run. We participate in the property system because we also want to own things. We participate in the money economy because we also want to have jobs and buy things. We participate in a system of mutual respect because we also want want to claim respect.

Now imagine that you own essentially nothing, have no job prospects, and are treated with disrespect on a regular basis. What’s the system to you other than a policeman who is too busy to bother with you right now?

Riots may not be organized political actions that make clear demands. But nonetheless they have political causes. If we are leaving people out, leaving them without hope and without any clear way to channel their effort into bettering their lives, then we are building the rioters of the future. When the disorder begins, they will have no reason to restrain themselves.

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