Tag Archives: violence

Democracy Will Survive This, With Damage

 

Donald Trump will lose, but afterward the Republic will be weaker and more vulnerable.


Almost as soon as President Obama took office, his opponents began trying to delegitimize his presidency. He couldn’t really be president, they claimed, because he wasn’t really an American, or at least not a native-born one, as the Constitution requires. Within two months of his inauguration, the Oath Keepers organization was formed, for the purpose of encouraging members of the military and the police to disobey the “unconstitutional orders” they were sure would soon come from the new tyrant.

It’s tempting to believe this is just how partisan politics has always worked, but in fact it’s new. In 2000, by contrast, there were very legitimate questions about whether George W. Bush had really won the election. But Al Gore conceded graciously, and when 9-11 happened ten months later, Democrats rallied around their president. As recently as 2008, John McCain politely corrected supporters who raised bizarre theories about his opponent. “No ma’am,” he told one elderly woman, “He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign’s all about.”

After Obama was sworn in, though, everything changed.

Conspiracies. Every month or two for the last eight years, the fringe of the conservative media has found some new reason to tell its audience that we are on the brink of martial law or some other illegal seizure of power. FEMA is setting up camps to hold dissidents. ObamaCare is establishing death panels to eliminate the unworthy. New executive orders will soon confiscate guns. Obama plans to start a race warcancel the 2016 elections and stay in office forever. He’s secretly running ISIS from the White House. On and on.

Somehow, this apocalyptic mindset has achieved eternal youth. No matter how many times the predicted coup or edict or confiscation fails to materialize, the next one is absolutely going to happen, even if you’re hearing it from the same people who told you all the others. To conspiracy mongers like Alex Jones, the American Republic is like Kenny in South Park: Somebody has always just killed it, but with no explanation it will be back next week, when somebody else will kill it in a different way.

Occasionally — as with last summer’s Jade Helm 15 exercise — the mainstream press notices enough of the craziness to let the rest of us laugh at it. But usually these stories pass beneath most people’s radar until some uncle or cousin forwards them an email warning of the looming disaster.

GOP fellow travelers. Republican leaders have occasionally winked and nodded in the direction of this lunatic fringe. Maybe they “joke” about Obama’s citizenship, or pass laws to make sure that all future candidates have to present their birth certificates, or add legitimacy to one of these issues in some other way, without actually promoting them in so many words. They know these people are crazy, but they’re part of the Republican base, so why alienate them?

But the answer to that question ought to be obvious: Democracy only survives in a country as long as the overwhelming majority of people believe that it is working, or that it could work with some achievable revisions. The more Americans who believe in the kind of crazy crap that can only be corrected by an armed rebellion, the more fragile our whole system of government becomes.

The Trump normalization. Particularly since the conventions, Donald Trump has moved these fever-swamp issues into the spotlight, normalizing them as beliefs respectable Republicans might hold.

From the beginning of his candidacy, Trump has specialized in saying wild and dangerous things that draw media attention, whipping up white Christian anger, and flirting with violence. The sheer volume of bonkers things he says has overwhelmed the fact-checkers, [1] and can overwhelm our own ability to process each new outrage.

But it’s important to notice the recent shift in the kind of crazy he’s been promoting. As long as he was doing well (or could convince himself he was doing well), he played the bully, targeting politically weak groups like immigrants or Muslims. But as the polls turn against him, he has devoted more and more of his effort to undermining democracy itself.

Consider the claims in this week’s three major Trump stories:

  • He can’t lose this election, he can only be cheated out of it. [2]
  • Obama and Clinton are “founders of ISIS“, i.e., working for our enemies and against the American people.
  • If Clinton wins, only “Second Amendment people”, i.e., gun owners, will be able to stop her from “abolishing” constitutional rights. [3]

It’s hard to lay things out much more clearly than that: If Trump loses, then democracy has failed and it’s time to move on to more violent forms of resistance. After all, once an election has been stolen, what’s the point of waiting around for the next election? On the lunatic fringe, that message is coming through loud and clear.

This kind of talk goes far beyond fantasies about Mexico paying for a border wall or claims to have personally witnessed events that never happened. It strikes at the legitimacy of the government — or at least of any government that Trump doesn’t head himself. After he loses, a substantial number of his supporters are going to go on believing what he said about cheating and implied about violence. And that sets up a lot of bad things in the future.

We’ll get through this, this time. It’s important not to over-react. Despite his authoritarian and nativist tendencies, Trump is not Hitler. (As a friend recently pointed out to me, Hitler was more talented and more dedicated to his cause.) And all the signs currently point to him being soundly rejected by the American people. The more dangerous he sounds, the more likely it is that the electorate will turn out en masse to vote against him. Even many Republicans are disturbed by the idea that they are now in the party of Alex Jones.

In the short run, Trump’s loss might make things better. Mainstream Republicans seemed to have no answer for him in the primaries. But if Trump-like candidates appear in 2020, sane Republicans can at least say, “We don’t want to do that again.” A sound thrashing this fall might well send the Republican establishment back to the drawing board. Maybe they’ll conclude that pandering to the crazies wasn’t such a good idea after all.

But what about the sizable minority that will come out of the election believing what Trump said? That will be far fewer people than the 40-45% who will vote for him, but what if it’s 10%? What if 10% of the American electorate comes to the inauguration believing that their candidate legitimately won the election, but had it stolen? What if 10% believes that election fraud is not just a one-off event, but is how America works now? That our enemies are now in charge, that everything the government does is illegitimate, and that violent resistance is the only way for justice to prevail?

I don’t believe that there will be riots, assassinations, and civil war. As many people as might fantasize such things, I think few will try to carry them out. But Trump’s legacy could leave a very fertile ground for the next demagogue to mix politics and violence in a brownshirt fashion. As I said, Trump is not Hitler. But we may look back on him as Hitler’s warm-up act.


[1] The Week‘s Paul Waldman was already complaining about this in March:

The real genius of Trump’s mendacity lies in its brazenness. One of the assumptions behind the fact-checking enterprise is that politicians are susceptible to being shamed: If they lie, you can expose the lie and then they’ll be less likely to repeat it. After all, nobody wants to be tarred as a liar. But what happens when you’re confronted with a politician who is utterly without shame? You can reveal where he’s lied, explain all the facts, and try as hard as you can to inoculate the public against his falsehoods. But by the time you’ve done that, he has already told 10 more lies.

[2] Adding on to widely debunked comments he made last week, Trump said this Friday in Altoona:

Is everybody [here] voting? [Cheers.] If you do that, if you do that, we’re not gonna lose. The only way we can lose — in my opinion, I really mean this — Pennsylvania, is if cheating goes on. I really believe that. Because I looked at Erie and it was the same thing as this. And I’ve been all over the state, and I know this state well. I know the state well. But let me just tell you, I looked all over Pennsylvania, and I’m studying it, and we have some great people here, some great leaders here, of the Republican Party, and they’re very concerned about that. And that’s the way we can lose the state. And we have to call up law enforcement, and we have to have the sheriffs and the police chiefs and everybody watching. Because, if we get cheated out of this election, if we get cheated out of a win in Pennsylvania, which is such a vital state. Especially when I know what’s happening here folks — I know it. She can’t beat what’s happening here. The only way they can beat it, in my opinion, and I mean this 100%, [is] if in certain sections of the state, they cheat.

We’re gonna watch Pennsylvania. Go down to certain areas and watch and study and make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times. The only way we can lose, in my opinion – and I really mean this, Pennsylvania – is if cheating goes on. I really believe it.

His I-can’t-really-lose claim flies in the face of the last four polls of Pennsylvania, all of which have Clinton up by double digits. And that ties the “cheating” claim to another bogus claimall the polls are skewed against Trump. (Romney supporters claimed the same thing before the 2012 election, and the results proved them wrong.)

Think about what this means: After Trump loses Pennsylvania — which he will — his supporters will have already denied any basis for claiming that he lost legitimately. The polls were biased, the election results were fraudulent — all that remains is Trump’s pure feeling that he would have won a fair election.

The substance of the fraud claim also deserves to be addressed, particularly since Sean Hannity and others have been backing Trump up on it. They have nothing. There is no reason to believe voter fraud played any role in 2012 or will play a role in 2016. 

Trump and Hannity discussed the fact that Mitt Romney got zero votes in 59 precincts of Philadelphia as evidence that some kind of fraud must have happened. Ryan Godfrey, an independent (former Republican) election inspector in Philadelphia, explained in a tweetstorm just how ridiculous that accusation is to anyone who understands the process.

Here’s how it looks to anyone who understands journalism: Hannity has been complaining about those 59 precincts since 2012, as if he were not part of a news organization and is helpless to investigate any further. But if in fact fraud happened in Philadelphia, it would not be hard for a real journalist to come up with solid evidence. That’s the beauty of that zero result: If you can turn up anybody who claims to have voted for Romney, that’s evidence of fraud.

So Sean, here’s how you could do it:

  1. First, get access to the Romney campaign’s get-out-the-vote data for these precincts, and see if they were expecting anyone to vote for him. (That’s how GOTV works: You compile databases of the people you expect to vote for you, then on election day you remind/cajole/nag them until they vote.) If there are no such people, then you’re done; the zero-vote outcome is credible.
  2. If there are, check publicly available records to see if any of them voted. (Again, if none did, you’re done; there’s no story.)
  3. If you still have some names on your list, contact them and see if they will testify that they voted for Romney in a precinct where no Romney votes were recorded. One person might be explained away, but if you get a half-a-dozen-or-so such witnesses, you can probably send somebody to jail and maybe get yourself a Pulitzer.

The Philadelphia Inquirer tried something like this immediately after the election: They went looking for registered Republicans in the zero-for-Romney areas. They didn’t find them. (In Godfrey’s tweetstorm, he notes that some of those areas didn’t record any votes in the Republican primary either.)

Take North Philadelphia’s 28th Ward, third division, bounded by York, 24th, and 28th Streets and Susquehanna Avenue. About 94 percent of the 633 people who live in that division are black. Seven white residents were counted in the 2010 census. In the entire 28th Ward, Romney received only 34 votes to Obama’s 5,920. Although voter registration lists, which often contain outdated information, show 12 Republicans live in the ward’s third division, The Inquirer was unable to find any of them by calling or visiting their homes.

… A few blocks away, Eric Sapp, a 42-year-old chef, looked skeptical when told that city data had him listed as a registered Republican. “I got to check on that,” said Sapp, who voted for Obama.

That’s real journalism: You go out, talk to people, and get answers, rather than just raise questions because you think something smells off. The fact that Hannity, after four years of suspicions, still can’t point to anything more solid than his feeling that zero can’t be right, tells me that he knows there’s no real fraud here. Either he has so little confidence in the charge that he didn’t even think it worthwhile to do the follow-up work, or he did the work, turned up nothing, and decided his listeners didn’t need to know that.

This is a general pattern in election-fraud stories: Somebody does just enough research to find something that sounds suspicious, and then runs with it. Either they never do the follow-up investigation that seems called for, or when somebody else does, it turns up nothing — like this case in South Carolina, which I told you about in 2013.

[3] This also deserves a lengthy discussion. Here’s the quote:

Hillary wants to abolish — essentially abolish — the Second Amendment. By the way, if she gets to pick [booing from crowd] if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don’t know.

The official Trump-campaign explanation — that he meant gun-rights supporters could use their political power to make sure Trump wins — is obviously nonsense. The scenario Trump had laid out in “if she gets to pick her judges” assumed she’d already been elected.

My favorite response was tweeted by Sarah Milov:

Maybe 19th amendment people can do something about Trump

(The 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote.)

Paul Ryan interpreted the quote as a joke gone bad, and if you watch the video, Trump’s tone and phrasing is consistent with a joke. But English-professor-turned-lawyer Jason Steed, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the social function of humor, explained in a tweetstorm that

Nobody is ever “just joking”. Humor is a social act that performs a social function (always).

A joke, he explains, defines an in-group that laughs and an out-group that doesn’t.

If you’re willing to accept “just joking” as a defense, you’re willing to enter [the] in-group, where [the] idea conveyed by the joke is acceptable.

This is why you should never tell a racist joke, even if everybody in the room knows that you’re joking: The joke itself normalizes racism; by laughing, your audience ratifies that normalization.

Rolling Stone‘s David Cohen connected Trump’s “joke” to the important notion of stochastic terrorism: when you mark someone for attack by the wackos that you know are out there, while keeping your distance from the attack itself. Last November, after a mass shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, Valerie Tarico explained the process:

1. A public figure with access to the airwaves or pulpit demonizes a person or group of persons.
2. With repetition, the targeted person or group is gradually dehumanized, depicted as loathsome and dangerous — arousing a combustible combination of fear and moral disgust.
3. Violent images and metaphors, jokes about violence, analogies to past “purges” against reviled groups, use of righteous religious language — all of these typically stop just short of an explicit call to arms.
4. When violence erupts, the public figures who have incited the violence condemn it — claiming no one could possibly have foreseen the “tragedy.”

Previous examples include the role Bill O’Reilly played in the assassination of the Kansas abortion-provider Dr. George Tiller, and Byron Williams, who shot two California policemen when stopped on his way to attack the Tides Foundation, which had become central in Glenn Beck’s fantastic theories.

BTW: Hillary Clinton has never called for “abolishing the Second Amendment” — essentially or otherwise. Here’s her list of proposals on guns, all of which are within current Supreme Court interpretations of the Second Amendment.

Tick, Tick, Tick … the Augustus Countdown Continues

If we can’t make our republican system of government work, eventually the people will clamor for a leader who can sweep it all away. Many of them already do.


In the 2013 post “Countdown to Augustus” I laid out a long-term problem that I come back to every year or so:

[R]epublics don’t work just by rules, the dos and don’t explicitly spelled out in their constitutions. They also need norms, things that are technically within the rules — or at least within the powers that the rules establish — but “just aren’t done” and arouse public anger when anyone gets close to doing them. But for that public anger, you can often get an advantage by skirting the norms. And when it looks like you might get away with it, the other side has a powerful motivation to cut some other corner to keep you in check.

… As Congress becomes increasingly dysfunctional, as it sets up more and more of these holding-the-country-hostage situations, presidents will feel more and more justified in cutting Congress out of the picture.

We know where that goes: Eventually the Great Man on Horseback appears and relieves us of the burden of Congress entirely.

The immediate motivation for that post was the debt-ceiling crisis of 2013, when Congress was threatening to blow up the global economy unless President Obama signed off on the repeal his signature achievement, ObamaCare. Various bizarre ways out were proposed, including minting a trillion-dollar coin to deposit with the Federal Reserve.

I had previously raised the declining-norms theme in “Escalating Bad Faith“, about the tit-for-tat violation of norms relating to presidential appointments and the filibuster, going back several administrations. And I returned to it in 2014 in “One-and-a-half Cheers for Executive Action” as Obama tried to circumvent the congressional logjam on immigration reform.

The historical model I keep invoking is the Roman Republic, which didn’t fall all at once when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon or his nephew Octavian became the Emperor Augustus, but had been on such a downward spiral of norm-busting dysfunction for so long (about a century) that it was actually a relief to many Romans when Augustus put the Republic out of its misery. In “Countdown” I pointed out the complexity of that downward trend:

About half of the erosion in Rome was done by the good guys, in order to seek justice for popular causes that the system had stymied.

So now we are experiencing a new escalation in norm-breaking: The President has nominated a well-qualified judge to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, and the Senate is simply ignoring him.

At various times in American history, individual senators of both parties have postured about the Senate’s prerogatives, usually in the abstract, and usually in an attempt to influence the president to choose a nominee more to their liking than the ones they suspected he had in mind. But in the long history of the American Republic, we have never been in this place before. The Senate has never simply ignored a nominee for the Supreme Court.

The gravity of this may not be apparent to most Americans. Day to day, the country is continuing just fine without a fully staffed Court. Justice Scalia died over a month ago, and his absence isn’t causing anything in particular to go wrong. In some ways it’s like operating a nuclear power plant with the emergency-response systems turned off: As long as there’s no emergency that needs a response, nobody notices.

But what happens if the 2016 election comes out like the 2000 election? What if the outcome hangs on some dispute that only the Supreme Court can resolve? As hard as it was on the country when the Court’s poorly reasoned 5-4 decision in Bush v Gore handed the presidency to the man who lost the popular vote, imagine where we would be if the Court had tied 4-4 and been unable to reach a decision?

Constitutional crises are rare in this country, but they happen, and only the Supreme Court can resolve them in a way that preserves our system of government. Legally, a tie at the Court means that the lower-court opinion stands, whatever it was. But in a true crisis, would a lower court have the prestige to make the other branches of government respect its decision?

Go back to the Watergate crisis, and the Court’s order that the Nixon administration turn over to Congress its tapes of Oval Office conversations. At the time, some advised Nixon to defy the Court and burn the tapes. What would have happened next is anybody’s guess, but the unanimity of the Court’s decision gave it additional moral force, and Nixon complied — even though the tapes led quickly and directly to his resignation. If that decision had split 4-4, along what were seen to be partisan lines, history might have played out differently. Nixon might have reasoned that he wasn’t defying a lower court, he was just breaking the tie.

Disputes between lower courts also happen, and if the Supreme Court can’t resolve them, we wind up with different laws applying in different jurisdictions. Imagine, for example, if the availability of ObamaCare or whether you could get married, depended not on which state you live in, but which federal appellate district.

What if appellate courts disagree about jurisdiction? If a government computer in Utah captures a phone conversation between Georgia and Wisconsin, that one case might lead three courts to rule simultaneously on whether the Fourth Amendment has been violated. Whose order should be followed?

Scenarios like that show why leaving a vacancy at the Court is playing with fire. Maybe we’ll get away with it this time. Maybe nothing that can’t be put off or papered over will happen between now and whenever the Senate starts processing nominations again — say, next year. (Or maybe something will happen, and some other branch of government will decide to seize whatever illegitimate power it thinks is necessary to keep the country running.)

But an optimistic reading of the situation only works if we ignore the larger trend. This is not an isolated incident, and we will not return to “normal” after it resolves. Once broken, a norm is never quite the same. The next violation is easier, inspires less public outrage, and usually goes farther. Jonathan Chait elaborates:

It turns out that what has held together American government is less the elaborate rules hammered out by the guys in the wigs in 1789 than a series of social norms that have begun to disintegrate. Senate filibusters were supposed to be rare, until they became routine. They weren’t supposed to be applied to judicial nominations, then they were. The Senate majority would never dream of changing the rules to limit the filibuster; the minority party would never plan to withhold all support from the president even before he took office; it would never threaten to default on the debt to extort concessions from the president. And then all of this happened.

More likely than a return to the prior status quo is that blockades on judicial appointments will become just another “normal” tactic. After all, the Constitution may assign the Senate the duty to “advise and consent” on nominations, but it sets no time limit. Founding-era commentary, like Federalist 78, may envision a Court that is above politics. (The whole point of a lifetime appointment is to make any political deal with a nominee unenforceable. Once a justice is in, that’s it; he or she is beyond reprisal and requires nothing further from any elected official.) It may take for granted that the Senate will consider nominees on their individual merits, rather than on which partisan bloc chooses them. But the Founders didn’t explicitly write any of that into the rules, so …

If Hillary Clinton wins in November and Republicans retain the Senate, they may feel shamed by their promises to let the voters decide the Court’s next nominee and give her a justice. Or maybe not — maybe some dastardly Clinton campaign tactic, or reports of voter fraud on Fox News, will make them rescind their promise. The Supreme Court could remain deadlocked at 4-4 for the remainder of her term, causing federal rulings to pile up and further fracturing the country into liberal and conservative zones with dramatically different constitutional interpretations.

Conversely, if a Republican wins the White House while Democrats retake the Senate, the new Senate majority leader may decide that, rather than let Republicans reap the benefit of their new tactic, he’ll just push it further. Chait describes what either course leads to:

A world in which Supreme Court justices are appointed only when one party has both the White House and the needed votes in Congress would look very different from anything in modern history. Vacancies would be commonplace and potentially last for years. When a party does break the stalemate, it might have the chance to fill two, three, four seats at once. The Court’s standing as a prize to be won in the polls would further batter its sagging reputation as the final word on American law. How could the Court’s nonpolitical image survive when its orientation swings back and forth so quickly?

… The Supreme Court is a strange, Oz-like construction. It has no army or democratic mandate. Its legitimacy resides in its aura of being something grander and more trustworthy than a smaller Senate whose members enjoy lifetime appointments. In the new world, where seating a justice is exactly like passing a law, whether the Court can continue to carry out this function is a question nobody can answer with any confidence.

Our awareness of our dissolving norms ought to be sharpened by the current presidential campaign. Donald Trump makes a lot more sense as a candidate when you realize that he’s not running for President, he’s running for Caesar. His fans and followers are looking for that Man on Horseback who will sweep away all the rusted-over formalities and just make things work.

The Washington Post provides the following graph, based on data from the World Values Survey. It’s disturbing enough that 28% of American college graduates think it might be good to have “a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with congress and elections”, but among non-graduates it is actually a close question: Democracy still beats authoritarianism, but only 56%-44%.

Vox has several graphs like this one, showing that frustration with democracy is increasing:

The pundits, representing an educated class that still mostly thinks democracy is a good idea, are horrified whenever Trump breaks one of the norms of American political campaigns by endorsing violence, or insulting entire religions or ethnic groups, or talking about the size of his penis during a televised debate. Yet his popularity rises, because here is a man who won’t be bound. He refuses to be tied in knots by rules or traditions or archaic notions of courtesy and honesty and fair play. His willingness to break our taboos of public speech symbolizes his willingness to break our norms of government once he takes power — not one at a time, like Mitch McConnell, but all of them at once. And lots of people like that.

Some of the biggest applause lines in a Trump speech are when he imagines exercising powers that presidents don’t have (if Ford tries to move an auto plant to Mexico, he will impose punitive tariffs until they back down), or using American military power for naked aggression (if Mexico won’t pay for the wall he wants to build, he’ll attack them), or committing war crimes (if terrorists aren’t afraid of their own deaths, he’ll have to kill their families).

Establishment Republicans are currently wringing their hands about the prospect of Trump leading their party into the fall elections. They are searching party rules for norm-bending ways to deny him the nomination in spite of the primary voters. But long-term, the way to stop Trump and future prospective Caesars is simple: Make democracy work again.

It’s not rocket science: End the policy of blanket obstruction. Pass laws that have majority support rather than bottling them up in the House or filibustering them in the Senate. Seek out workable compromises that give each side something to take pride in, rather than promoting an ideal of purity that frames every actual piece of legislation as a betrayal. Stop trying to keep people you don’t like from voting, or gerrymandering congressional districts so that voting becomes irrelevant. Come up with some workable campaign-finance system that lets legislators pay attention to all their constituents, rather than just the deep-pocketed ones.

In short, don’t just follow the rules in the most literal way possible, grabbing every advantage they don’t explicitly forbid; govern in good faith, fulfilling to the best of your abilities the duties you have been entrusted with.

They could start by holding hearings on Judge Garland, as if he were a presidential nominee and one of the most widely respected judges in the country (which he is). By itself, that may not save the Republic, but it would be a welcome gesture of good faith.

The 2016 Republican primaries, in which none of the establishment candidates seemed to understand where the real threat was coming from until it was too late, have a lesson for politicians of both parties: The most important fight of our era is not the Republicans against the Democrats, the liberals against the conservatives, or even the collectivists against the individualists. The battle we have to win is the Catos and Ciceros against the Caesars.

If the American Republic is going to survive, its mechanisms have to work. If they don’t work — if the system stays as clogged as it has been these last few years, and each cycle of attack-and-reprisal gums things up worse — then eventually someone will sweep it all away. Maybe not Trump, maybe not this year, but someone, someday sooner than you might think possible. That would be a tragedy of historic proportions, but crowds would cheer as it happened.

Back to Ferguson

If Ferguson can’t justify its behavior, but can avoid change by pleading poverty, then what do we say to the guy who can’t figure out how to support his family without dealing drugs or robbing liquor stores?


In the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death in August 2014, the eyes of the country were on Ferguson, a city of 21,000 that is part of the St. Louis metropolitan area. Through the subsequent fall and winter, I discussed Ferguson several times on this blog, including “What your Fox-watching uncle doesn’t get about Ferguson” about the protests, and “Justice in Ferguson“, which covered the two reports the Justice Department issued last March.

The gist of what the Justice Department found was that in the specific case of Michael Brown, the evidence matched the account of the shooter, a white police officer, well enough that no charges were called for. (I felt good about my coverage here: I hadn’t claimed the officer was guilty of murder, but only that local authorities hadn’t performed a fair and credible investigation. The Justice Department’s investigation satisfied me.)

But Justice Department found that the more general complaints of Ferguson’s black community were justified: Policing in general was racially biased, and excessive force was commonly used, including inappropriate use of tasers and dogs. Complaints of excessive force were largely ignored, and officers were not disciplined. (As the Justice Department’s lawsuit — which we’ll get to in a few paragraphs — charges: “The supervisory review typically starts and ends with the presumption that the officer’s version of events is truthful and that the force was reasonable.”)

The Department’s report found that the root of the problem was even bigger than the police: Ferguson used its municipal court system to wring revenue out of the poor, creating an adversarial relationship between the police and the community. In short, the primary mission of the police was not to maintain order, but to find violations for which people could be fined. The city budget called for and depended on regular increases in revenue from fines.

Last month, Ferguson and the Justice Department worked out an agreement to reform Ferguson’s police and court practices without taking a lawsuit through the courts. But Tuesday, Ferguson’s City Council unanimously “approved” that agreement with seven unilateral amendments.

Those seven conditions on acceptance are that (i) the agreement contain no mandate for the payment of additional salary to police department or other city employees; (ii) the agreement contain no mandate for staffing in the Ferguson Jail; (iii) deadlines set forth in the agreement are extended; and (iv) the terms of the agreement shall not apply to other governmental entities or agencies who, in the future, take over services or operations currently being provided by the City of Ferguson; (v) a provision for local preference in contracting with consultants, contractors and third parties providing services under the agreement shall be included; (vi) project goals for minority and women participation in consulting, oversight and third party services shall be included; and (vii) the monitoring fee caps in the Side Agreement are changed to $1 million over the first five years with no more than $250,000 in any single year.

The arguments for these changes amount to: We can’t afford it. Ferguson can’t afford to raise police pay to attract better officers, particularly if the other reforms are going to reduce the city’s revenue. It can’t afford to monitor compliance with the agreement. It can’t afford to change as quickly as the Justice Department would like (and maybe stalling will allow it to strike a better deal with a Trump or Cruz administration). Revision (iv) gives the city an additional card to play: It could nullify the agreement by disbanding its police department and contracting out to some neighboring town or to St. Louis County. (Other nearby towns — a report by Arch City Defenders named Bel Ridge and Florissant in addition to Ferguson — also misuse their municipal court systems, and probably don’t like the precedent the Justice Department is setting in Ferguson. )

The Justice Department responded the next day by filing a lawsuit in federal court. The suit does not ask for specific remedies, but that the Court “Order the Defendant, its officers, agents, and employees to adopt and implement policies, procedures, and mechanisms that identify, correct, and prevent the unlawful conduct”. Presumably, the government has a court order in mind and thinks it has a good chance of getting it.

It’s possible to tell this story in a way that creates sympathy for Ferguson’s officials: Even if they now have the best of intentions, their budget is already in deficit, and that deficit will only get worse if the police and courts stop shaking down poor blacks for money. And if change also requires additional expenditure … well, where is that money going to come from?

On an abstract level, Ferguson raises issues similar to the ones in Flint: Once we segregate poor people into their own city or town, how does that municipality raise enough money to provide the basic services civilization demands? Where does the money come from to pump in clean water and truck out garbage? How are roads paved and buses run, so that people can get to their jobs? Who puts out fires? Who drives the ambulances and where do they take people for care? Who educates children and protects the innocent from crime?

If no external help is available, the answer is often to victimize the poor and voiceless. If somebody has to suffer, why not somebody the larger public doesn’t care about?

But we need to recognize where this financial-necessity logic leads: If Ferguson can’t justify its behavior, but can avoid change by pleading poverty, then what do we say to the guy who can’t figure out how to support his family without dealing drugs or robbing liquor stores?

The Justice Department may have no practical answer to the question of how Ferguson can afford to start policing its citizens fairly, with due regard to their rights as Americans. But nonetheless it must insist that the buck not stop there. If a Ferguson that respects the rights of its citizens is not financially viable and is doomed to bankruptcy, then the county and the state and even the nation have a problem. In truth, that problem already exists. The question is whether the rest of us will be allowed to hide it inside the borders of Ferguson and then look away.

Am I Charlie? Should I Be?

Let me start by saying what should be obvious, something I hope will provoke no disagreement: Nothing that people say or write or draw should get them killed. Not by a government, a church, a political party, or offended individuals. No opinion or blasphemy or insult or truth or lie, no matter how it’s packaged or delivered, justifies violence.

In almost every case, the proper response to speech is speech, or perhaps a shocked or dignified silence. Truth is the best answer to lies, insight the proper response to fallacy. Sometimes an insult can be topped by a cleverer insult, and sometimes it’s wiser to walk away. If a comedian tells a cruel joke and the audience responds with stunned silence, justice has been served. No violence is necessary or called for or warranted. Say what you may, you don’t “have it coming”. As Hassen Chalghoumi, the Muslim imam of the Paris suburb Drancy said in response to the Charlie Hebdo killings:

We can argue over liberty, but when we’re in disagreement we respond to art with art, to wit with wit. We never respond to a drawing with blood. No! Never.

Even the classic exception — yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater — just calls for someone to put a hand over your mouth and hustle you out the door, maybe to face a misdemeanor charge that underlines the seriousness of the situation. No beat-down is necessary. No lengthy imprisonment. No execution.

Nothing you say or write or draw should get you killed.

My next point isn’t quite as obvious, but also shouldn’t be controversial: Some legal speech should be socially unacceptable. After Mel Gibson went on a drunken rant about the “fucking Jews”, he wasn’t imprisoned or assassinated, but his popularity took a dive. When Duck Dynasty‘s Phil Robertson spewed a lot of demeaning nonsense about gays, blacks, and anyone who isn’t Christian, he was not arrested, but the show’s ratings dropped.

If I started sprinkling words like nigger and faggot through all my conversations, I would be breaking no laws, but people would avoid me. If I talked like that in a workplace, to my co-workers or our employer’s customers, I’d probably get fired. That’s an entirely appropriate response that has nothing to do with free speech.

Free speech has social consequences. If you want to be protected against the nonviolent social consequences of what you say, you’re talking about something else, not free speech.

Free speech also doesn’t require anyone to sponsor my speech or provide a convenient platform for me to say things they find offensive. (That actually isn’t hypothetical; I occasionally get invitations to speak in public, which I believe would dry up if I made a habit of saying racist or otherwise hateful things.) So when A&E briefly decided to separate itself from Robertson (and then reversed that decision), that wasn’t about free speech. Neither were the examples raised by David Brooks Thursday in his NYT column. If the University of Illinois doesn’t want to pay a Catholic priest to preach his doctrine in a for-credit class as an adjunct professor (and then reverses that decision), that might violate academic freedom (depending on what academic freedom means in the tradition of that school), but not freedom of speech. If universities do or don’t want to host Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Bill Maher, that’s a sponsored-speech issue, not a free-speech issue.

If people respond to what I say by calling it “hate speech” or by calling me a racist or sexist or some other name I don’t like, my rights have not been violated. (No matter what Sarah Palin thinks the First Amendment says.) Those words don’t have some magical power to “silence” people. Free speech doesn’t end when I’m done speaking; other people get to speak too — about me, if they want.

So I should be free to say or write or draw what I want without violence, but everybody else should be free to argue with me or insult me or shun me, if that seems appropriate to them. And if your response to me seems over-the-top to some third person, he or she should be free to criticize or insult or shun you too. That’s how freedom works.

So am I Charlie? After 9-11, Le Monde titled an editorial “Nous sommes tous Américains” — we are all Americans. For decades, the French had resented being in the shadow of American power, and had been reluctant allies at best. But in 9-11 Le Monde saw a violation of the civilized principles France and America share, and realized that what had happened to us could happen to them. So they put aside any petty urge to gloat over our misfortune and instead chose to identify with us: In the aftermath of 9-11, we were all Americans, even if we happened to be French.

In the same spirit, the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris has people all over the world saying “Je suis Charlie” — I am Charlie. (Wednesday, it led to a Le Monde op-ed by American ambassador Jane Hartley gratefully recalling “Nous sommes tous Américains”.) But are we really Charlie? Should we be?

There are a lot of ways in which we are all Charlie, or wish we had it in us to be Charlie. Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine that refused to back down when it was threatened or even attacked. (It’s still not backing down; the next issue will have a million-copy run.) All of us want to speak freely, and want to identify with people who stand up to intimidation and bullying, even if we don’t always stand up ourselves. Nobody wants to see the bullies win.

To that end, a lot of web sites have been re-posting the Charlie cartoons that offended Muslims (with translations at Vox), and are presumably the ones that 12 people died for. If anybody thinks that murder is an effective way to suppress cartoons, they should find out how wrong they are. Here’s one:

“Muhammad Overwhelmed by Fundamentalists” says the headline, and Vox has a red-faced Muhammad saying “It’s hard to be loved by idiots.” That sentiment would also fit well in Jesus’ mouth, IMHO, and would make the cartoon funny, if that’s what it really said. I could imagine such a cartoon in The Onion.

But something isn’t quite right about Vox‘s translation, because idiot is a perfectly fine French word, and Muhammad isn’t saying it. French has never been my subject, but after a little poking around online, I’m suspecting that cons is actually closer to cunts, which changes the impact considerably. (That’s also the translation favored by Saturn’s Repository.)

Then there’s the cartoon I won’t re-post, but The Hooded Utilitarian did: the one that turns the Boko Haram sex slaves into welfare queens. Is that supposed to be funny?

The American media has been portraying Charlie Hebdo almost as a French equivalent of irreverent American publications like The Onion or Mad, but it really isn’t. Something much darker has been going on. Charlie wasn’t just trying to be funny without worrying who it offended; it was trying to offend people for the sake of offending them, while maybe incidentally being funny. And although you can find examples here and there of attacks on Catholics or Jews, it put special effort into offending Muslims.

Which leads to the next question: If Charlie Hebdo was attacked for baiting Muslims, should those of us who find ourselves identifying with Charlie carry on its mission by doing our own Muslim baiting?

For me, that’s where Je suis Charlie starts to break down. Glenn Greenwald makes the obvious comparison:

[I]t is self-evident that if a writer who specialized in overtly anti-black or anti-Semitic screeds had been murdered for their ideas, there would be no widespread calls to republish their trash in “solidarity” with their free speech rights.

Greenwald (who is of Jewish heritage but was not raised in any organized religion) illustrates that point by posting an ugly series of anti-Semitic cartoons and asking: “Is it time for me to be celebrated for my brave and noble defense of free speech rights?”

Punching down. Humor works best as a weapon of the weak against the powerful. But when the powerful make fun of the weak — like when popular high school jocks trip the new kid into a mud puddle and laugh — it soon stops being humorous and turns ugly.

Sometimes telling the weak from the powerful is tricky. When Rush Limbaugh plays “Barack the Magic Negro” on his show, is he a free citizen lampooning a powerful politician, or a rich and influential white celebrity telling American blacks that even the best of them don’t deserve his respect? I can imagine someone taking the first view, but the mere existence of the second restrains me from laughing.

In France, Muslims are not just a minority religion, they are an underclass. Many come from former French colonies like Algeria, and work low-status jobs for considerably less than the average French wage. Whatever other messages Charlie Hebdo‘s anti-Muslim cartoons might send, they also express the social power that educated white Frenchmen have over their darker-skinned menials. And that makes those drawings considerably less funny.

The Hooded Utilitarian sums up:

White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire, and needs to be called out. People getting upset does not prove that the satire was good. And, this is the hardest part, the murder of the satirists in question does not prove that their satire was good.

Satire, even bad satire or bigoted satire, is not something anybody should be killed for — or arrested or beaten up or vandalized for. I’m not making a both-sides-are-wrong point, because the wrong on one side is completely out of scale with the other. But that doesn’t mean I want to celebrate anti-Muslim bigotry.

So in some ways I want to be Charlie and in other ways I don’t. I hope that if anyone ever tries to intimidate me out of speaking my mind, I will be as courageous as the staff of Charlie Hebdo. I hope their successors remain free to print what they want, and that the people who appreciate their work remain free to buy it. But I can’t endorse what they published. All speech should be legal and free from violence, but some should be socially unacceptable.

This Time, Will the Outrage Matter?

Objective people could come to different conclusions about Darren Wilson’s guilt. But no one can argue objectively that the investigation of Michael Brown’s death was impartial and conducted appropriately.


Monday night, after Prosecutor Bob McCulloch announced the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown — my Facebook news feed exploded with anger: Wilson got away with murder. Police have free rein to keep shooting young black men. Black lives don’t count. And much more.

I had heard similar outrage when Trayvon Martin’s killer walked free. And yet, nothing changed; if it had, we wouldn’t be doing this all over again, would we? Will anything change this time? Or will we be right back here in another few months — another unarmed black youth killed by a cop or vigilante, who faces no substantive consequences?

After Trayvon, we already know how the nothing-changes path looks: Rather than evidence of systemic dysfunction, the case becomes an identity marker in the endless Red/Blue partisan battle: George Zimmerman is a racist murderer, or Trayvon Martin was a thug who got what was coming to him. There seems to be no objective truth; you just pick your side and wave its flag. To one side, the martyrdom of an innocent motivates change. To the other, failure of yet another an attempt to railroad a good man is proof that the system works, but just barely; give an inch, and the next time the grievance industry wins.

It’s already easy to see how that could happen again. If I had a different batch of Facebook friends, no doubt my news feed would have exploded with reactions of a different flavor: I always knew there was nothing to that case. It was obvious a bunch of the witnesses were lying, and when the grand jury had all the evidence in front of it, they agreed. What a shame Officer Wilson decided to resign — all the liars who smeared him should be prosecuted for perjury. The whole thing was all just an excuse to riot.

If we want anything different to happen this time, I think we need to re-establish the notion that there is an objective truth to this matter — the kind that persuades the uncommitted and converts some of the opposition — and that objectively, the system did not work. More than that, we need to argue that the reasons it did not work are not specific to the details of the Brown shooting; the same reasons will continue to endanger innocent people until something changes.

As in every attempt to speak the truth, this means choosing our words carefully, rather than saying whatever it feels good to say. That’s what I’m going to try to do.

Here’s my best statement of what went wrong: The process was rigged to get Darren Wilson off. And the same forces that created this rigged process will still be there for the next case.

Notice what I didn’t say: that Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown. I didn’t say it because (although I suspect it) I don’t actually know that it’s true. But I have no doubt whatsoever that the process was rigged, and I believe that any person who looks at the situation objectively will have to agree.

In refusing to say that Wilson murdered Brown, I am also refusing to get into the minutia of the evidence — which witnesses were and weren’t believable, what the autopsy or the forensic evidence said, and so on. That’s one prime way that the Red/Blue debate goes nowhere: by producing fractal he-said/she-said arguments that spin off ever-smaller he-said/she-said arguments, until the larger point the case exemplifies is lost.*

You don’t have to go into any of that to see that the process was rigged at two levels:

  • The Ferguson police were more focused on getting Wilson off than finding the truth.
  • The prosecutor subverted the ordinary grand jury process in Wilson’s favor.

The police. The Washington Post outlined the ways that crime-scene protocols were ignored in gathering the initial evidence:

When Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson left the scene of the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, the officer returned to the police station unescorted, washed blood off his hands and placed his recently fired pistol into an evidence bag himself. … the officers who interviewed Wilson immediately after the shooting did not tape the conversations. The [grand jury] transcripts also showed that an investigator from the medical examiner’s office opted not to take measurements at the crime scene and arrived there believing that what happened between Brown and Wilson was “self-explanatory.’’

In addition, the Ferguson police violated their internal protocol by not creating a use-of-force report. As a result, Officer Wilson had the time to concoct an account of the shooting that covered all the points necessary to avoid guilt without directly contradicting the undeniable physical evidence. (Again, we do not know that he did so — perhaps his hard-to-believe story is actually true — we only know that the Ferguson police gave him that opportunity by violating all their usual procedures.)

If I had any temptation to give the Ferguson police the benefit of the doubt — maybe they were just so shocked that one of their own could be a suspect that they forgot how to do their jobs — it vanished when the police started acting as the unofficial Darren Wilson Public Relations Department. As a Justice Department spokesman put it: “There seems to be an inappropriate effort to influence public opinion about this case.” At a time when the police were still withholding the name of the officer and the number of shots fired, they released video of Brown appearing to steal cigars from a convenience store, and leaked that the autopsy had shown THC in his bloodstream. As for the false rumor (with fake photo**, no less) that Wilson had suffered a fractured eye socket — we have no way of knowing whether that came from police or not.

The prosecutor. In the day-to-day course of their jobs, prosecutors work hand-in-glove with police. So if the police have circled the wagons around one of their own, it takes a brave local prosecutor to go against them.

That’s why Governor Nixon was urged to appoint a special prosecutor, one who had no prior relationship with either Michael Brown or the Ferguson police. He refused, saying:

There is a well-established process by which a prosecutor can recuse themselves from a pending investigation, and a special prosecutor be appointed.  Departing from this established process could unnecessarily inject legal uncertainty into this matter and potentially jeopardize the prosecution.

In other words, procedural abnormalities that worked in Officer Wilson’s favor were fine, but any that might counter that bias would “inject legal uncertainty”.

As a result, Prosecutor Bob McCulloch engineered something that bore no resemblance to a typical grand jury.

The ordinary purpose of a grand jury is to determine whether probable cause exists to move on to a trial. In other words: Does the prosecution have a case that would be convincing in the absence of any defense rebuttal? For this reason, a grand jury investigation is entirely the prosecutor’s show; he is under no obligation to present evidence that favors the suspect, or to challenge the testimony of witnesses against the suspect.

As Justice Scalia (of all people) wrote in a different case:

It is the grand jury’s function not ‘to enquire … upon what foundation [the charge may be] denied,’ or otherwise to try the suspect’s defenses, but only to examine ‘upon what foundation [the charge] is made’ by the prosecutor. … As a consequence, neither in this country nor in England has the suspect under investigation by the grand jury ever been thought to have a right to testify or to have exculpatory evidence presented.

But the ordinary grand jury process assumes the prosecutor is motivated to get an indictment; it completely misfires if his intention is not to get an indictment.

Instead, McCulloch ran the equivalent of a trial, but one that had only a defense attorney, not a prosecutor. Law Professor Marjorie Cohn explained:

[McCulloch] put the grand jury in the role of being a trier of fact, which is not its role. The grand jury was put in the position of basically being a jury, but in a one-sided, closed proceeding.

Witnesses whose testimony indicated that Wilson was not in danger, that Brown was far away and surrendering when Wilson gunned him down, were grilled hard. In McCulloch’s words, they were “confronted with the inconsistencies and conflict between their statements and the physical evidence”.

But one witness was treated with unusual deference: Officer Wilson himself. His unusual story — in which Brown does everything he can to goad Wilson into shooting him — was not challenged in any way. MSNBC legal analyst Lisa Bloom tweeted that the cross-examination “Should have been a grueling session, not the tea party the transcript shows.” She focused on the conflict between Wilson’s statements about Brown’s attack and his incredible strength, and Wilson’s complete lack of injury when examined afterwards.

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi suggests another opening that a serious cross-examination might have pursued:

Wilson’s description of Brown as a “demon” with superhuman strength and unremitting rage, and his description of the neighborhood as “hostile,” illustrate implicit racial bias that taints use-of-force decisions. These biases surely contribute to the fact that African Americans are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than whites in the U.S., but the statement’s racial implications remained unexamined.

The icing on this misshapen cake was identified by Lawrence O’Donnell: The grand jury was misled about the law. Vox summaries:

Before Wilson testified to the grand jury on September 16, prosecutors gave grand jurors an outdated statute that said police officers can shoot a suspect that’s simply fleeing. This statute was deemed unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1985; the court ruled that a fleeing suspect must, at least in a police officer’s reasonable view, pose a dangerous threat to someone or have committed a violent felony to justify a shooting.

Like the Ferguson police, McCulloch also joined the Wilson public-relations effort. Repeated leaks from the grand jury were all favorable to Wilson. His public statement announcing the non-indictment — itself a nearly unprecedented event — “read like a closing argument for the defense” according to a University of Missouri law professor.

His release of the grand jury transcripts — also highly unusual — merely reinforced the need for a trial. As The New Republic‘s Noam Scheiber put it:

The problem with this is that we already have a forum for establishing the underlying facts of a caseand, no less important, for convincing the public that justice is being served in a particular case. It’s called a trial. It, rather than the post-grand jury press conference, is where lawyers typically introduce mounds of evidence to the public, litigate arguments extensively, and generally establish whether or not someone is guilty of a crime.

Objective people could come to different conclusions about Wilson’s guilt. They might disagree about which witnesses were credible, and envision the scene differently. But no one can argue objectively the investigation of Brown’s death was impartial and conducted appropriately.

So what if the process was rigged? If you believe Wilson was justified, you may not care that Michael Brown’s killing was never impartially investigated. The reason you should is that police killings and other police violence against unarmed victims in questionable circumstances is not rare in America.

No one keeps track of the exact number, but at least 400 Americans are killed by police each year, compared to (for example) six in Germany in 2011. No one knows how many of these shootings were of unarmed and otherwise unthreatening people, but now that the world is filling up with cameras, we’re seeing more and more videos of such cases. (Conor Friedersdorf collects several.)

You and I weren’t the only ones watching the rigged process that protected Darren Wilson. Police all over the country were watching with great interest. And they learned that if they over-react and kill someone — perhaps particularly if they kill a young black man, but more generally as well — they are very unlikely to be held accountable. Their colleagues will protect them, and prosecutors will not want to take a stand against them.

Several reforms are needed, which Friedersdorf lists: lapel cameras for police, dashboard cameras for police cars, independent prosecutors in cases where police are suspects, and more.

Wisconsin has such an independent-prosecutor law, probably because that state had the perfect poster case: Michael Bell, a white retired Air Force colonel whose son was shot in the head by police in 2004 after his hands had been cuffed behind his back. With the Bell case in front of them, even white citizens understood that unjustified police violence could happen to them.

Black citizens had always known.


* It’s worth pointing out that endless argument is not a draw; it’s a victory for the side that believes nothing should change.

** The fake photo trick was also used in the Trayvon Martin case.

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.

#YesAllWomen and the Continuum of Aggression

Men look at Elliot Rodger and say, “I would never do something like that.” Women look at his victims and say, “That could totally happen to me.”


Last week the Isla Vista murders — and Elliot Rodger’s bizarre rants justifying his revenge on the female gender because women wouldn’t have sex with him — were recent enough that I hadn’t processed them. I described my snap reaction as feeling “slimed”. Letting Rodger’s thoughts into my head just made me feel dirty, polluted, unclean. And I wrote, “I can’t imagine how women feel about it.”

This week women told the world how they feel about it. (They were already starting to tell the world last Monday, but I hadn’t discovered it yet.) I have read only a tiny fraction of what has been tweeted with the #YesAllWomen hashtag, but it has been eye-opening.

The struggle for meaning. Every striking news event starts a debate about what it means, or if it even means anything. For a lot of men, Isla Vista didn’t mean much: Crazy people do crazy things. Shit happens.

For others, it restarted the eternal gun-control debate, which always ends in the same place: Yes, a large majority of Americans want at least minor restrictions on guns, and no, it’s not going to happen, because America really isn’t a democracy any more. A victim’s father channeled the majority’s frustration in an interview with Anderson Cooper: “I don’t want to hear that you’re sorry about my son’s death,” he said to any politicians who might be planning to make a condolence call. “I don’t care if you’re sorry about my son’s death. You go back to Congress and you do something, and you come back to me and tell me you’ve done something. Then I’ll be interested in talking to you.”

Bizarre exception, or part of a pattern? To a lot of women, though, Isla Vista looked very different. Rather than a bizarre random event, it seemed like the extreme edge of the male aggression they experience constantly: They get grabbed or groped; men yell obscenities at them or make unwanted “flattering” comments about their bodies; they are harassed online; men demand their attention and refuse to go away; when women try to walk away, men grab their wrists or stand in the doorway or follow them as stalkers; men get angry and abusive when their uninvited advances are rejected; and on and on and on.

And while the exact statistics on rape are hotly debated — the difference depends in large part on how forcefully a woman has to say “no” before you count it — I have a lot of confidence in this qualitative statement: Just about every woman knows somebody who has been raped. (If you don’t believe me, ask some.) Whatever the definition is and whatever percentage that leads to, rape is not a monsters-in-the-closet phobia; it’s the well-founded fear that what happened to her (and maybe also to her and her and her) could happen to me.

So while men look at Elliot Rodger and say, “I would never do something like that”, women look at his victims and say, “That could totally happen to me.” Men divide the world into murderers and non-murderers, observing that the murderer pool is very small. Women look at murder as the extreme edge of a continuum of aggression, disrespect, and threat that affects them every day.

#YesAllWomen. And that is what I see as the point of #YesAllWomen: encouraging women to express and men to feel the oppressive weight of that continuum. #YesAllWomen is at its best when women simply tell their stories, one after another. Read enough stories and the bigger reality starts to break through: The meaning of Isla Vista isn’t that shit happens, it’s that the same kinds of shit keep happening day after day all over the country. And when there’s an widespread pattern like that, sooner or later it’s going to break out into something really horrific.*

The brilliance of #YesAllWomen is in its framing: It sidesteps the objection “Not all men are like that.” True or not, that objection misses the point. Whether or not feminist terms like misogyny or rape culture unfairly tar some good men is a minor issue compared to the environment of danger all women have to live in. Let’s not drop the larger issue to discuss the smaller one.**

And let’s not fall into the trap of interpreting every problem in the forest as the fault of individual trees. Laurie Penny explains:

of course not all men hate women. But culture hates women, so men who grow up in a sexist culture have a tendency to do and say sexist things, often without meaning to. … You can be the gentlest, sweetest man in the world yet still benefit from sexism. That’s how oppression works. Thousands of otherwise decent people are persuaded to go along with an unfair system because it’s less hassle that way. … I do not believe the majority of men are too stupid to understand this distinction

[And before we leave the gun-control issue entirely, can we discuss how the two issues interact? Think about the open-carry demonstrations in Texas or Georgia’s new guns-everywhere law. Now picture a woman you care about having a drink after work with some friends, and being accosted by a strange man who won’t go away. Now picture him armed. And no, NRA spokesmen, picturing a second gun in your sister/daughter/friend’s purse doesn’t fix the situation.]

The game. Men, by and large, have not handled our side of this discussion well, attempting either to disown the problem or to mansplain what women should do to fix it.*** But a few men have had intelligent things to say. I thought the Daily Beast piece by self-described nerd Arthur Chu was particularly on point:

[T]he overall problem is one of a culture where instead of seeing women as, you know, people, protagonists of their own stories just like we are of ours, men are taught that women are things to “earn,” to “win.” That if we try hard enough and persist long enough, we’ll get the girl in the end. Like life is a video game and women, like money and status, are just part of the reward we get for doing well.

The game metaphor explains a lot about what was wrong with Rodger’s point of view, and how it relates to a problem in the larger culture. Elliot Rodger’s complaint wasn’t that he couldn’t find his soulmate or that his genes might fail in the Darwinian struggle for immortality. It wasn’t even about pleasure, really, because you don’t need a partner for that. The essence of Rodger’s complaint was that he couldn’t level up — no matter how long he played or how hard he tried — in the multi-player game of sex.

To grasp the full dysfunction of that game, you need to understand who the players are: men. Rodger wasn’t playing with or even against women when he went out looking for sex. He was playing against other men to gain status. Women are just NPCs — non-player characters. Figuring out what to say or do to get their attention or their phone numbers or to get them into bed is like solving the gatekeeper’s riddle or finding the catch that opens the door to the secret passage.

Rodger’s virginity wasn’t just a lack of experience, comparable to someone who has never seen the ocean or been to Paris or tasted champagne. It was his state of being. He was a newby, a beginner, a loser. And it wasn’t fair. He had put so much of his time and effort and passion into the game; he deserved to get something out.

Chu explains the error:

other people’s bodies and other people’s love are not something that can be taken nor even something that can be earned—they can be given freely, by choice, or not.

We need to get that. Really, really grok that, if our half of the species ever going to be worth a damn. Not getting that means that there will always be some percent of us who will be rapists, and abusers, and killers.

What will we pass on? Phrasing the game metaphor in computer terms makes it sound like a new problem of the internet generation, but it’s not.**** Computer games are just a good way of describing an attitude that has been around since Achilles and Agamemnon argued over a slave girl: that women are just tokens in a competition among men. In junior high in the 70s, my friends and I talked about “getting to second base”, and today commercials sell Viagra and Grecian Formula to older men by telling us we can “get back in the game”. We all know what game they’re talking about.

As long as that attitude gets passed down from one generation of men to the next, there’s going to be an aggression-against-women problem. Because that’s how men play: You sneak some vaseline onto the ball, hide an ace up your sleeve, take that performance-enhancing drug, or push away a defender when the refs aren’t looking. If you can get away with it, it’s part of the game. So if it raises your score to grab some body part otherwise denied you, or to intimidate women into submission, take advantage of their unconsciousness, drug them, or even kidnap and imprison them, someone’s going to do it.

No one ever asks a boy whether he wants to play this game. At some point in your adolescence, you just find yourself in the middle of it, being told that you are losing and advised on how to win. There are competing visions that (for most men, I believe) eventually win out as they mature: the search for companionship, or looking for an ally to help you face life’s challenges. In those visions, women can be “protagonists of their own stories” rather than NPCs. But no one ever tells you there is a choice of visions and lays out the consequences.

If we did discuss these competing visions openly with boys, I don’t think the game metaphor would stand up to conscious scrutiny. Few men would openly defend the idea that women exist to be tokens of our competition, and even most teens already have enough empathy and experience for it to ring false. But the game attitude survives because we don’t bring it out into the light and discuss it.

Changing that dynamic would be a fine response to #YesAllWomen.


* I shake my head at the people who want to make an either/or out of whether the blame for Isla Vista belongs to a misogynistic culture or to Rodger’s personal insanity. Growing up, I had the chance to observe a paranoid relative. She went crazy during the McCarthy red scare, so the Communists were after her. If she’d broken with reality a few years earlier it might have been the Nazis; a few years later, the Mafia. Maybe people go crazy because their brains malfunction, but how they go crazy is shaped by their culture.


** One of the prerogatives of any form of privilege is that your concerns move to the top of the agenda, even if they are comparatively minor. Privileged classes of all sorts take this prerogative for granted and have a hard time seeing it as an injustice. So it is here: Men who feel smeared by a term like rape culture tend to think the conversation should immediately shift to their hurt feelings. It shouldn’t. To the extent that this objection is justified, it can wait. Let’s talk about it later. (Privileged classes aren’t used to hearing that response, but under-privileged classes hear it all the time.)

An important reason it should wait, in addition to its comparative insignificance, is that when a man fully grasps the continuum of aggression, it’s hard to claim that he’s never played any role in perpetuating it. (I know I can’t make that claim.) But by changing the subject to their own victimization, men avoid that realization.


*** Most advice about how to avoid rape — how to dress, places to avoid, not leaving your drink unattended — is really about making sure the rapist picks someone else. It’s like, “You don’t have to swim faster than the shark, you just have to swim faster than your sister.” It’s got zero impact on the overall rape problem.


**** And the attitude behind it is not even unique to men. In the pre-war chapters of Gone With the Wind, Scarlett is playing her own version of the game. While she wants to wind up with Ashley eventually, in the meantime she wants every eligible man in Georgia to be her suitor, and she “wins” whenever a bride realizes that she has married one of Scarlett’s cast-offs.

But there’s one important difference between the male and female versions of the game: Men who tire of Scarlett’s game can get on their horses and ride away, and in the end, it’s up to Rhett to decide whether or not he gives a damn. Women would like to have those options in the male version of the game.

Cliven Bundy and the Klan Komplex

Why the rancher’s racist rant shouldn’t have surprised anybody


If you’ve been paying attention to the Cliven Bundy situation at all (as I started doing last week) you no doubt heard that Wednesday night he went off script in front of a New York Times reporter:

“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.

“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Reactions varied. Bundy’s own first reaction was to claim he had been misquoted — “I didn’t say nothing about picking cotton” — until Media Matters released the video of him saying it.

Mainstream Republicans who had made a hero of Bundy — Rand Paul and Sean Hannity in particular — claimed to be shocked, and dropped the rancher like a hot rock. But the true believers promoted a smeared-by-the-liberal-media theme. InfoWars posted a longer version of the video that it claims vindicates Bundy: “his argument is actually anti-racist in that it laments the plight of black families who have been caught in the trap of dependency on government.” (I invite you to click through and examine the larger context for yourself. I don’t think it vindicates much of anything, probably because I already see the “dependency on government” meme as a racist dog whistle. I mean, we all know who those dependent-on-government people are, don’t we? We’re not talking about my white mother depending on Medicare to pay her hospital bills.)

One of the best responses came from satirist Andy Borowitz, whose invented quotes nail the hidden meaning of the mainstream Republican reaction:

“We Republicans have worked long and hard to develop insidious racial code words like ‘entitlement society’ and ‘personal responsibility,’ ” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky). “There is no excuse for offensive racist comments like the ones Cliven Bundy made when there are so many subtler ways of making the exact same point.”

Fox News also blasted the rancher, saying in a statement, “Cliven Bundy’s outrageous racist remarks undermine decades of progress in our effort to come up with cleverer ways of saying the same thing.”

If you hear someone saying that Bundy just wasn’t “politically correct” — or that the problem is “an old man rancher isn’t media trained to express himself perfectly” —
that’s what they really mean: It’s fine to imply that slavery wasn’t so bad and to characterize black people receiving government assistance (i.e., all of them) as lazy and promiscuous and criminal, but you have to use the right words, like Paul Ryan did in March:

We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work. There is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.

Ryan presumably does have some media training, so he didn’t say Negro or mention slavery or picking cotton —  and it’s those words (and not the ideas behind them) that make Bundy’s quote racist, right? Ryan criticized the “culture” of the “inner city” rather than black people, so his comment couldn’t be racist — “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” he said afterward — even though everybody knew who he was talking about and what he meant.

By contrast to the apparent shock of Sean Hannity, liberals mainly expressed surprise that anybody would be surprised by the discovery that Bundy is a racist. Matt Yglesias found it “clarifying” that Bundy had gone off on race “because race has not been far from my mind since the story first hit the papers.”

On Bill Mahr’s Real Time, Daily Beast editor John Avlon explained:

The reason it’s predictable is that we’ve seen a pattern, especially at a time when the face of the federal government is an African-American. The association with racists is becoming the black lung disease of the conservative movement. It’s an occupational hazard. … You start seeing a pattern and at some point you’ve got to confront it: “How come we keep making common cause with racists?” Maybe it’s got something to do with some of the appeals they’re making.

Rachel Maddow did the best job of laying that pattern out: Much of what Bundy had been saying all along were the kinds of bizarre ideas that are not themselves racist, but are way more popular in white supremacist circles than anywhere else. (It’s like an accent; you don’t have to be Canadian to end a question with “eh”, but if you do you probably are.) Rachel drilled down into the history of one particular strange notion: that county sheriffs are the ultimate in legitimate legal authority. Bundy had been urging his own county sheriff to disarm the federal agents, as if the sheriff’s authority were paramount. (In 2012, a fringe candidate for sheriff in my own Hillsborough County, NH professed a similar view of the job he imagined himself to be running for. He lost.) Rachel chased that notion back through the 20th-century Posse Comitatus movement, and from there back to the Southern resistance to Reconstruction in the 19th century.

Something I’m just beginning to appreciate is how influential the Southern anti-Reconstruction movement that birthed the KKK has been in forming the ideas that are still running around on the extreme Right. If you want initiate yourself into this mindset, I recommend reading Thomas Dixon’s 1905 best-seller The Clansman: a Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, which inspired the 1915 movie classic The Birth of a Nation, and whose themes were still echoing in 1936’s Gone With the Wind. Dixon drops you into a world where the Klan are the good guys. Evil Washington politicians have conspired with corrupt and rapacious local blacks to upend the natural order and create a black-dominated society. Unable to take any more, the noble Southern whites arm and organize themselves into a freedom-seeking secret society, the KKK. Once they do, the fundamentally cowardly black troops that Washington has tried to stand up against them scatter like nine-pins.

This “historical romance” has essentially nothing to do with the actual history of the KKK, which from the beginning was focused on terrorizing blacks out of claiming their rights.

But there’s a configuration of ideas we might call the Klan Komplex — a combination of Lost Cause mythology, John Calhoun’s* misinterpretation of the Constitution and miscasting of the Founders, love of guns, and hatred of the federal government — that survives to this day in radical right-wing fringe groups. Today many of these ideas sound like nonsense to outsiders, but the whole Komplex makes sense if you picture yourself as a defeated Southern aristocrat watching victorious Union troops side with your former slaves against you, and looking to the heroic knights of the KKK to restore you to your rightful dominance.

  • The federal government is illegitimate, having grossly exceeded the authority legitimately granted by the Constitution. Government officials have no claim to represent the American people.
  • The Founders were divinely inspired men whose vision has been betrayed.
  • The true federal government was an agreement among the states, and had no direct authority over the American people.
  • The Founders intended states’ rights to be paramount and the federal government to be weak.
  • Slavery in the old South was a benevolent institution. Through slavery, African savages were civilized and taught Christianity. They were treated well by their masters.
  • Slavery is the worst thing that can happen to a white man. Any time the federal government forces a white man to do something he doesn’t want to do, he is being enslaved.
  • Federal taxes are confiscation.
  • The federal government has corrupted blacks by removing them from the benevolent authority of whites and giving them goods that it has confiscated from whites. Blacks are addicted to these government handouts, and through that addiction the government dominates them more completely than their masters ever did.
  • The United States was founded to be a white Christian nation. Non-whites and non-Christians have been generously allowed to settle and prosper here, but now they are illegitimately taking over.
  • States can nullify federal laws.
  • States have the right to secede, and the South was right to do so.
  • The Second Amendment was put into the Bill of Rights so that citizens could overthrow the federal government if it exceeded its authority.
  • The vast armament of private citizens is the only thing that keeps the federal government from establishing tyranny. Armed citizens ready to revolt against the federal government are the true American patriots.

The three-percenters are fighting a new American Revolution.

Those ideas are not related to each other in any logical sense, so it would certainly be possible to believe a few of them without the others. But they originated together in the defeated South and have spread through the same channels ever since. As a result, although lots of people believe one or two of these ideas, if you hear more than a few of them from someone, probably you’ll eventually hear all the rest. When well-armed white men are rabidly opposed to the federal government and talk at length about their love of their own freedom, chances are excellent that they will eventually start waxing nostalgic about slavery, as Cliven Bundy did.

That shouldn’t surprise anyone.


* I keep meaning to write a longer article on the seminal influence of Calhoun on the Right. (Sam Tanenhaus has already done one, but I have a different take.) Whenever right-wingers talk about “the Founders” or “the Constitution” in ways that make no historical sense, they are probably invoking John Calhoun without realizing it. Calhoun re-interpreted (i.e., misinterpreted) the Founders in a way that allowed Jefferson Davis and the other Confederate secessionists to claim that they were the true heirs of the Revolution. In particular, Calhoun cast the Constitution as a confederation agreement among the states (similar to the Articles of Confederation it replaced), ignoring that it begins “We the People” rather than “We the States”.

Combining freedom-loving rhetoric with a positive attitude towards slavery goes back to Calhoun’s 1837 Senate speech “Slavery a Positive Good“. Slave-holding founders like Washington and Jefferson had been ambivalent about slavery, regarding it as an evil but not willing to support any of the schemes to end it. (Jefferson described slavery as holding “a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” Lincoln’s campaign platform that slavery should not be extended the territories — the cause of the South’s secession — was originally Jefferson’s idea.) But by the 1830s, abolitionism had progressed to such a point that Calhoun foresaw the slave system’s destruction unless the South full-throatedly defended it as good. Already in the first paragraph, though, he uses slavery as a vision of horror, if it should happen to white people.

[E]ncroachments must be met at the beginning, and those who act on the opposite principle are prepared to become slaves.

So Calhoun urges Southern whites to stand up to the abolitionists, lest they metaphorically become slaves of the North. But he holds literal slavery to be a good thing, when it happens to an inferior race like the Africans. That fundamental hypocrisy has been with us ever since.

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.”