Tag Archives: violence

Republican Whataboutism Gets More Desperate

Trump has been promoting many of the same white-supremacist themes that are found in mass-shooter manifestos. That can’t be excused or explained, so his cultists need to divert your attention.


Whataboutism is the tactic of responding to criticism of a politician you like by asserting (often falsely [1]) some equivalent wrongdoing by someone on the other side. (Examples: responding to mention of one of Trump’s 10,000 lies with “What about when Obama said you could keep your health insurance?” or to Trump’s birtherism by claiming Hillary Clinton started it.) Whataboutism has long been a tactic favored by conservatives, but Trump has taken it to a new level: It’s hard to come up with an example of him addressing a criticism any other way. He never explains or apologizes, but instead launches some new accusation against someone else.

David Roberts points out the general moral immaturity of a whatabout response

One thing to note is the bizarre implicit assumption that if responsibility is equal on both sides, then … we’re fine. We’re even. Move on. In other words, it’s not the damage done, or the principle violated, that concerns [WaPo columnist Marc Thiessen], it’s *blame*. We need not strive to be good as long as we are no worse than the other side. It’s the moral reasoning of a [10-year-old], focused exclusively on avoiding responsibility or sanction.

Gonna be lots of right-wing whataboutism focused on antifa and environmental extremists in coming weeks. [Conservatives] need to head off the growing consensus that [right-wing] terrorism is a unique problem.

This week saw two prominent attempts at whataboutism, both aimed at diverting attention from Trump’s role in promoting the false claims that inspired the El Paso shooting and have inspired other acts of white-supremacist terrorism.

  • What about the liberal views of the Dayton shooter?
  • What about Rep. Joaquin Castro revealing the names of Trump donors in his district?

Dayton. Roberts was specifically responding to the Thiessen column “If Trump is Responsible for El Paso, Democrats are Responsible for Dayton“.

But if Democrats want to play politics with mass murder, it works both ways. Because the man who carried out another mass shooting 13 hours later in Dayton, Ohio, seems to have been a left-wing radical whose social media posts echoed Democrats’ hate-filled attacks on the president and U.S. immigration officials.

The difference between the two cases is pretty obvious: The El Paso shooter justified his rampage in a manifesto that used Trumpist rhetoric about the “invasion” of our southern border. [2] His massacre took place near that border, and targeted Hispanics under the assumption that they were the “invaders”. Similarly last October, the man who slaughtered 11 Jews at a synagogue in Pittsburgh believed Jews were organizing the immigrant “invasion” caravans that Trump had been making the focus of his midterm-election messaging, and the MAGA bomber targeted people he saw as Trump’s enemies.

A window of the MAGA bomber’s van.

But so far no one has found any connection between the Dayton shooter’s left-wing views and his crimes. If the Dayton shooter had shot at “the president and immigration officials”, that would be comparable. In future, if someone follows up his retweets of Elizabeth Warren statements by, say, shooting some of the bankers or drug company CEOs Warren criticizes, that also would parallel the El Paso shooting (and we could expect Warren to issue a statement telling her supporters not to be violent). But the Dayton shooter did nothing of the kind.

In the wake of the El Paso shooting, Hispanics might legitimately fear further attacks from copycat killers; but fear of a copycat Dayton shooting afflicts anybody who goes out in public rather than some group criticized by Democrats.

Picturing what a comparable liberal shooting would look like just emphasizes the Trump connection to El Paso.

“How do you stop these people? You can’t,” Trump lamented at a May rally in Panama City Beach, Fla. Someone in the crowd yelled back one idea: “Shoot them.” The audience of thousands cheered and Trump smiled. Shrugging off the suggestion, he quipped, “Only in the Panhandle can you get away with that statement.”

Trump wasn’t horrified by the suggestion that someone might shoot Mexican border-crossers, and did not say it would be wrong. Instead he talked about what his followers could “get away with”, as if it’s natural to want to shoot Hispanics, but politically incorrect to say so out loud. If the El Paso shooter was listening to that exchange, it’s fair to assume that he was not discouraged from his plans.

“Hate has no place in our country!”

You have to go back to 2017 to find any kind of legitimate liberal parallel: the shooting of Republican Congressman Steve Scalise by someone who once volunteered for Bernie Sanders. Unlike Trump, who denounced the El Paso shooting in general terms (in one of his read-from-the-teleprompter statements that look as insincere as a hostage video) without acknowledging any connection to it, Sanders did the responsible thing:

I have just been informed that the alleged shooter at the Republican baseball practice is someone who apparently volunteered on my presidential campaign. I am sickened by this despicable act. Let me be as clear as I can be: Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms. Real change can only come about through nonviolent action, and anything else runs against our most deeply held American values.

Trump, on the other hand, undercut even his general denunciation of the shooting by implying that the shooter might have had a point: Limiting immigration should be part of the response. It’s as if Sanders had proposed that Republicans respond to the Scalise shooting by ending their attempts to repeal ObamaCare.

Trump also undercut his anti-white-supremacy statement by reverting to the both-sides rhetoric he used after Charlottesville: He’s against not just white supremacy, but “any other kind of supremacy“. (Both Trevor Noah and Seth Myers wondered what “other kind of supremacy” Trump might have had in mind. The Bourne Supremacy?) He’s also against “any group of hate”, and singled out the amorphous anti-fascist group Antifa, as if hating fascism is similar to hating Hispanics or Jews, and as if the Antifa body count (0) bears any comparison to the many dozens killed recently by white supremacists. Matt Bors makes the point with a cartoon.

Shaming Trump donors. The second whataboutist controversy started with a tweet on Monday: San Antonio Congressman Joaquin Castro listed the names of 44 San Antonians who had given the maximum allowable personal donation to Trump’s re-election campaign, and commented

Their contributions are fueling a campaign of hate that labels Hispanic immigrants as ‘invaders.’

He got the names from publicly available FEC records; you could have looked them up yourself had you been so inclined.  And he used those names for the purpose that the disclosure laws intended: So that the public knows who’s bankrolling a political campaign.

Castro was clearly trying to shame the people he listed, and you might imagine Castro’s Twitter followers, especially Hispanic ones, deciding not to do business with big Trump donors: If money I give these people might flow through to ads that threaten me, maybe I’ll deal with somebody else. (This logic is similar to why so many LGBTQ people are reluctant to eat at Chick-fil-A. It’s also why #CancelSoulCycle has been trending after word got out that owner Stephen Ross was hosting a multi-million-dollar Trump fundraiser in the Hamptons.)

But nothing in Castro’s tweet suggests violence against these donors, and in fact there is no established pattern of violence against Trump donors. But conservatives needed to divert public attention from the violence Trump incites by accusing some Democrat of inciting violence too — because, as David Roberts pointed out, that would make it all OK from their grade-school moral perspective — and Castro was what they had to work with.

So Donald Trump Jr. went on Fox & Friends to compare Castro’s list of Trump donors to a “hit list” that the Dayton shooter had kept in high school. (As far as I know, none of the people on that list were targeted in the Dayton shooting. So even if you buy the idea that there’s a comparison, we’re talking about a list of fantasy targets, not actual ones.) Ted Cruz accused Castro of “doxxing” his constituents. (Falsely. [3]) House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted:

Targeting and harassing Americans because of their political beliefs is shameful and dangerous.

And I suppose that is true if you assume that someone has been targeted and harassed, rather than just called out for sponsoring insults against their neighbors.

So the whatabout here is equating a direct connection to several real-world mass murders with a fantasy about what some Castro-follower might do, even though none of them have actually ever done such a thing, and there are no examples of similar crimes.

What does it mean? Whataboutism isn’t new, of course. (What about Hillary’s emails?) But new whatabouts point out where conservatives believe they’re vulnerable. And the less convincing the whatabouts are, the more desperate the need for them must be.

If you meet whataboutism in the wild — in face-to-face conversation or in social media — it’s important not to get distracted by it. [4] Call it out for what it is (that meme at the top of the page is kind of handy) and restate the point the whataboutist is trying to divert you from. In this case, that’s Trump’s role in promoting the rhetoric of white-supremacist terrorism.


[1] Since the point of whataboutism is to derail a criticism rather than refute it, a false assertion often works even better than a true one, because the discussion then careens off into evidence that the assertion is false. Suddenly we’re rehashing the details of what Obama or Clinton did or didn’t do, while the original criticism of Trump scrolls off the page.

The assumption behind refuting the false whataboutism is that the Trumpist will be embarrassed to be caught saying something untrue, and so will stop repeating the false statement. But the essence of Trumpism is that shame is for losers, so refutation is pointless.

[2] A wrinkle in this argument is that the El Paso shooter seems to have worried that his actions might reflect badly on Trump. So he made sure to state that his views predated Trump’s candidacy.

the media will probably call me a white supremacist anyway and blame Trump’s rhetoric. The media is infamous for fake news.

But his concern for Trump’s image belies his point, and whether or not his murderous rage against the Hispanic “invaders” predates Trump’s rhetoric is irrelevant. Nobody is saying that Trump invented white supremacy or anti-Hispanic racism. Rather, he (along with many, many conservative opinion-makers) has promoted and mainstreamed ideas that have been floating around in the white-supremacist and neo-Nazi underground for decades.

Trump’s rhetoric is a Nazi gateway drug. After you get used to the notions that Central American refugees are really “invaders”, that immigrants are spreading crime and disease, that white Christians are victims, that people of color who criticize America should “go back where they came from”, and that political correctness is a far more serious problem than racism — all core Trump points — then when you chase a link to the Daily Stormer or some other Nazi site, 90% of what you read sounds perfectly normal.

So, for example, if you marinate long enough in TrumpWorld, and then start to wonder how these illiterate Guatemalan peasants are organizing their invasion of the US, the neo-Nazi answer — Jews like George Soros are behind it all — jumps out at you like a revelation.

[3] True doxxing reveals personal contact information like a home address or personal phone number, and typically violates an assumed boundary (like when someone attaches a name, address, and phone number to someone else’s Twitter handle). But donors to political campaigns know that their names are being recorded for the public record. Suzanne Nossel explains:

It’s fair to question whether Mr. Castro’s tweet was prudent or decorous. But to refer to it as doxxing or online harassment is inaccurate, and sows confusion over what online abuse actually looks like.

CNN adds:

Richard Hasen, an expert on election law at the University of California at Irvine, said neither the boycott calls [against SoulCycle] nor Castro tweet appears to cross the line into the “unconstitutional harassment” of donors. “Being called a bad name on Twitter is not the kind of harassment the Supreme Court was talking about” in allowing exemptions [from disclosures] for people who face a real threat of harassment, he said.

Republicans can’t have it both ways here. They want to allow unlimited political donations because “money is speech”. But when you speak in the public square, people know who you are. At the very least, an ad whose donors you can’t track down should end with “The sponsors of this message have chosen to remain anonymous” so that we can assume the worst about them.

[4] Don’t do the kind of lengthy explanation I’ve done here; this was for educational purposes only. Having seen a couple of whataboutisms dissected in detail should make it easier for you to spot new ones.

Fear of White Genocide: the underground stream feeding right-wing causes

The Christchurch shooter’s manifesto is a Rosetta Stone for multiple strains of crazy.


I don’t usually recommend that you read something I totally disagree with, but this week I’ll make an exception: If you have the time, look at the the 73-page manifesto posted by Brenton Tarrant, who apparently killed 50 worshipers Friday at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. If you don’t have quite that much time, just look at the Introduction on pages 3 and 4.

Manifestos of terrorist murderers are usually described in the press as the incoherent ramblings of diseased minds. And perhaps sometimes they are; I haven’t read that many of them. But reading this one struck me the opposite way: The ideas fit together, and once you accept a fairly small number of baseless notions and false facts, everything else spins out logically. What’s more: this ideology links a large number of right-wing notions that we on the left usually imagine as separate pathologies, and either ignore as absurd or argue against in a whack-a-mole fashion.

So I think it’s worth trying to understand.

The assumption in the background. One idea seems so obvious to Tarrant, and presumably to his target readers, that it goes without mentioning until fairly deep in the text: Races are real things. So there is a White race, and its members are united by something far greater than a tendency to sunburn. Whites are a “people” who have a culture. [1] Whiteness is an identity, an Us that exists in an eternal evolutionary war with all the Thems out there.

To Tarrant, there is some essential nature to all the races and peoples.

Racial differences exist between peoples and they have a great impact on the way we shape our societies. … A Moroccan may never be an Estonian much the same as an Estonian may never be a Moroccan. There are cultural, ethnic, and RACIAL differences that makes interchanging one ethnic group with another an impossibility. Europe is only Europe because if its combined genetic, cultural, and linguistic heritage. When non-Europeans are considered Europe, then there is no Europe at all. [2]

Birthrates. There’s a worldwide phenomenon that is fairly well understood: When a society becomes wealthy, educates its women, and gives them opportunities in addition to motherhood, birth rates go down. A woman who has a shot at being a CEO or a cancer researcher may or may not decide to have children, but she almost certainly won’t have 7 or 8 of them. That’s why educating women is seen as a possible long-term solution to the population explosion.

There’s nothing about this phenomenon that is specifically white — it applies equally well to Japan, for example, and countries in Africa have seen the same effect among their educated classes — but European countries (and countries like the US and Australia that were largely settled by European colonists) do tend to be wealthy and relatively feminist. So birthrates are down across Europe. And in the US, recent immigrants of non-European ancestry have higher birthrates than whites.

So largely as a result of their own economic success, majority-white countries tend to have birthrates below replacement level. As economic growth continues, opportunities open up for immigrants, who retain their higher birthrates for a generation or two after they arrive. All over the world, then, majority-white countries are becoming less and less white, with the possibility that whites themselves might eventually become a minority.

One recent estimate has the United States becoming a minority-white country by 2045. As I pointed out in August, we’re-losing-our-country is an old story in the US: Once the US was majority-English, until German immigrants (and Africans brought here by force) made the English a minority. For a while longer, it was majority-Anglo-Saxon, until a wave of Irish, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants put an end to that. Each time, alarmists claimed that the nation was losing its soul — Ben Franklin worried about the arrival of the Pennsylvania Dutch — but somehow America continued to be America.

But now combine the diminishing white population with the conviction that race really means something. Sure, 21st-century Americans can laugh at Franklin’s fear of people who put hex signs on their barns and make all those buttery pies. But now we’re talking about a whole different race. This was a white country, and now it’s being taken over by other races! Other peoples are taking what’s ours, but they’re doing it through demographics rather than warfare.

We are experiencing an invasion on a level never seen before in history. [3] Millions of people pouring across our borders, legally, invited by the state and corporate entities to replace the White people who have failed to reproduce, failed to create the cheap labor, new consumers, and tax base that the corporations and states need to thrive. … Mass immigration will disenfranchise us, subvert our nations, destroy our communities, destroy our ethnic bonds, destroy our cultures, destroy our peoples — long before low fertility rates ever could. Thus, before we deal with the fertility rates, we must deal with both the invaders within our lands and the invaders that seek to enter our lands. We must crush immigration and deport those invaders already living on our soil. It is not just a matter of our prosperity, but the very survival of our people.

Tarrant presents demographic estimates of what will happen:

In 2100, despite the ongoing effect of sub-replacement fertility, the population figures show that the population does not decrease in line with these sub-replacement fertility levels, but actually maintains, and, even in many White nations, rapidly increases. All through immigration. This is ethnic replacement. This is cultural replacement.

THIS IS WHITE GENOCIDE.

If you believe in this demographic invasion that is taking your people’s lands, then it follows logically that there are no non-combatants. People are stealing your country simply by being here.

There are no innocents in an invasion. All people who colonize other peoples’ lands share their guilt. [4]

In particular, children are not innocent. They will grow up and vote and reproduce (probably in large numbers, because “fertility rates are part of those racial differences”). So Tarrant was not worried that he might kill children. The point here is not to kill all the immigrants, but to kill enough to drive the rest out and deter future immigrants from coming.

Few parents, regardless of circumstance, will willingly risk the lives of their children, no matter the economic incentives. Therefore, once we show them the risk of bringing their offspring to our soil, they will avoid our lands. [5]

Why don’t I fear losing my country? As I said, Tarrant’s demographics aren’t wrong, at least in the US. (White nationalists in European countries tend to overestimate how many non-whites surround them. France, for example, is still about 85% white. The prospect of whites becoming a minority there is still quite distant.) So why don’t I, as a white American, feel as alarmed as he does?

And the answer is that I don’t see any reason why non-whites can’t be real Americans. Back in the 90s, my wife and I went to China to support our friends as they adopted a baby girl. That girl is now in her mid-20s, and I have watched her grow up, including seeing her on every Christmas morning of her life. To the best of my ability to judge such things, she is as American as I am. I do not worry in the least that some essential non-American nature is encoded in her genetic makeup, or that her presence is turning America into China. [6]

In my view, America (or Western culture, for that matter) isn’t something that arises from the essential nature of the White race. America is something we do, not something we are. It is an idea that can be shared by anyone who is inspired to share it.

So when I picture that white-minority America of 2045 (which I have a decent chance of living to see), I don’t see it as a country that “my people” have lost. That’s because I already see the idea of America and Western culture being shared by lots of other folks that Tarrant would see as invaders, like, say, Fareed Zakaria, Ta-Nahisi Coates, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I have faith in the continuing strength of the American idea, which I believe will continue to inspire a majority of Americans well beyond 2045. California, where whites are already less than half population, still feels like America to me.

Assimilation. Tarrant lacks faith in assimilation, because he sees race as having a direct effect on culture. This is a common belief among white nationalists, and many whites who resonate with white-nationalist concerns, even if they don’t identify with the movement.

A frequent complaint on the American right, which you will hear often on Fox News, is that recent immigrants are not assimilating the way previous waves of immigrants did. The data does not bear this out, but it is believed because white-nationalist ideology makes it seem necessary: Hispanics and other non-white immigrants can’t assimilate the way Italians and Poles did, because they aren’t white.

In memory, we tend to forget how long it took waves of European immigrants to assimilate. Whites who can remember their grandparents speaking Hungarian at home are somehow appalled that Hispanic immigrants don’t instantly learn English, or that they form ethnic enclaves (like, say, Little Italy in New York). American Catholics may feel that immigrant Muslims are changing the essential Christian nature of their country, but they forget that America once saw itself as a Protestant nation, and many felt threatened by immigrant Catholics in precisely the same way. (Catholicism was viewed as a fundamentally authoritarian religion that could never adapt to republican America.)

In fact, Catholics from Ireland, Italy, Poland, and other European countries did change America. But America also changed Catholicism. The same thing is happening with Islam.

Anti-democracy. If shared genes are what makes us a people, if immigrants by definition can’t join us, and if my people are in danger of losing their land due to a demographic invasion, then democracy as it is currently practiced — where immigrants gain citizenship and become voters — is just part of the national suicide process. An invasion isn’t something that can be voted on, especially if the invaders are allowed to vote.

Worse, even before the invaders become the majority, democracy has been corrupted by those who hope to gain from the invasion and the “cheap labor, new consumers, and tax base” that it brings. So Tarrant has no love of democracy.

Democracy is mob rule, and the mob itself is ruled by our own enemies.

Until now, I’ve relegated comparisons to American politics to the footnotes. But this is where it needs to come into the foreground. Because several important Trumpian concepts have moved onto the stage:

  • the notion of a unified corporate/government “elite” whose interests are at odds with the American people
  • a fundamental disrespect for democracy
  • the righteousness of violent action if and when the wrong side wins elections.

Trump and his allies have not come out and said openly that democracy is bad, but the notion that gerrymandering, the Electoral College, purging legal voters from voter lists, and various forms of voter suppression are undemocratic carries very little weight with them. The myth that undocumented immigrants vote in large numbers, which circulates despite an almost total lack of evidence, persists as a stand-in for an unspoken underlying concern: that immigrants become citizens and vote legally.

Trump fairly regularly either encourages violence among his supporters or hints that violent action might follow his impeachment or defeat.

All of this makes sense if you believe that democracy is only legitimate as a way for a People to govern itself, and becomes illegitimate when a system designed for a People becomes corrupted by the votes of invaders.

Sex and gender. Tarrant’s manifesto is addressed almost entirely to White men, whom he urges to defend their homelands.

Weak men have created this situation and strong men are needed to fix it.

He has little to say about women, but the implications of his beliefs should be obvious: If the underlying problem is a low birthrate among whites, the ultimate fault lies with white women. Women who let their professional or creative ambitions distract them from motherhood, who practice birth control, abortion, or lesbianism — their failings aren’t just matters of personal morality any more, they’re threats to the survival of the race.

The closest Tarrant comes to addressing this is:

Likely a new society will need to be created with a much greater focus on family values, gender and social norms, and the value and importance of nature, culture, and race.

But it doesn’t take much imagination to picture this new society: It will have fewer opportunities for women, and less acceptance of women in roles other than motherhood. It will also discourage men from abandoning their procreative roles through homosexuality, and will in general support the “traditional value” of separate and unchanging gender roles.

It is easy to see the attraction of this ideology to a variety of crazies, including incels, who have themselves at times become violent terrorists. The same opportunities that have diverted women from motherhood have likewise made them more picky about the men they choose to procreate with, with the result that some men find themselves unable to have the active sex lives they feel they deserve. Incels are already overwhelmingly white, so the attraction of a white-nationalist ideology that would restrict women’s choices should be obvious.

Power and purpose. All of these positions enhance the power of groups that are already privileged: whites, the native-born, Christians, and men. They could be attractive to those groups on that cynical ground alone. But cynicism alone seldom succeeds for long, because the pure quest for power and advantage only inspires sociopaths. The rest may pursue that quest, but never without misgivings.

The charm of an ideology, though, is that it can give power-seeking a higher purpose: I seek these advantages not just for myself, but to save my people from annihilation!

The underground stream. Few American politicians openly embrace white nationalism as a label, even if their views align with it. Even Steve King disclaims the term, and Republicans who share many of his white-nationalist views have felt obligated to distance themselves from him.

At the same time, though, something is motivating them. It is hard to listen to Trump’s litany of falsehoods about the border without wondering what the real justification for his Wall is. Obviously it’s something he doesn’t think he can get away with saying in so many words.

Similarly, it’s hard to see what other ideology unifies the full right-wing agenda: anti-illegal-immigration, anti-legal-immigration, anti-democracy, anti-abortion, anti-birth-control, anti-women’s-rights, anti-LGBTQ, anti-Muslim, anti-black, and so on.

When asked about white nationalist terrorism after the Christchurch shooting, President Trump waved off the problem, saying: “It’s a small group of people.”

Perhaps. Or perhaps it is the ideology that dares not announce itself: Its followers just “know” the truth of it, but can’t say so because of “political correctness”. More and more, white nationalism — and the demographic fear at its root — looks like the underground stream that feeds all the various insanities of the Right.


[1] I discussed and rejected this notion a couple years ago in a piece called “Should I Have White Pride?” The artificiality of “white culture” becomes obvious to me when I start trying to imagine a White Culture Festival: What food would we serve? What traditional costumes would we wear? It makes sense to hold a German Festival or a Greek Festival, but a White Festival, not so much.

[2] The evidence for this impossibility is of the we-can’t-imagine-that variety. If you picture a Moroccan and an Estonian next to each other, they just seem different, at least to Tarrant and his target audience.

But of course, the same is true for any lands that are far apart, even within Europe. Italians seem different from Swedes, when you picture them, but somehow they are all white Europeans. To see if the concepts of whiteness and European-ness have any real substance, you’d want to check what happens at the boundaries. So better questions would be: Could a Greek become a Turk, or vice versa? Could a Moroccan became a Spaniard? Those transformations don’t seem nearly so difficult, and in fact are easier for me to imagine than a Spaniard becoming an Estonian.

But in fact, such transformations happen all the time, particularly here in the United States, where we have a long history of light-skinned blacks passing as white, to the point that after a few generations the shift may be forgotten. If you have a Greek-American immigrant living on one side of you and a Turkish-American immigrant on the other, you might have a hard time telling the difference, either racially or culturally. Both would likely have dark hair and make baklava and strong coffee. Both sets of children will likely be as American as yours.

[3] President Trump agrees with Tarrant about this. On the same day as the 50 murders — and, in fact, during a public appearance that began with his statement of support for New Zealand in dealing with these attacks — Trump announced his veto of the bipartisan Congressional resolution to terminate the national emergency that he intends to use to commandeer money to build his wall. Within a few paragraphs, he went from denouncing the “monstrous terror attacks” in New Zealand to echoing the attacker’s rhetoric.

People hate the word “invasion,” but that’s what it is. It’s an invasion of drugs and criminals and people.

[4] Several people have cited this and many other of Tarrant’s statements as examples of projection. Who, after all, has done more colonizing of “other peoples’ lands” than Europeans? Isn’t that how the US, New Zealand, and a bunch of other places became “White nations” to begin with?

Though accurate, I doubt this observation would unsettle Tarrant. “Guilt” here is a relative concept, and is not related to a universal morality. Of course peoples contest with each other for possession of lands in the evolutionary Us-against-Them struggle for survival and dominance. Of course native peoples should have regarded colonizing whites as invaders and tried to repel them.

[5] There’s a strong resonance here with the Trump administration’s family separation policy. Like Tarrant’s attacks, it is an intentional cruelty whose purpose is to deter future immigrants by threatening their children.

[6] Iowa Congressman Steve King disagrees. He tweeted:

[Dutch nationalist leader Geert] Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.

What to Make of Antifa?

Until this week, I held the standard establishment view of the anti-fascist group Antifa and the “black blocs” they resemble: They’re anarchist or leftist mirror-images of the right-wing thugs they fight. I have heard personal friends say things similar to what Hullabaloo’s Tom Sullivan wrote Saturday:

The local Indivisible chapter organized a peace vigil downtown here last Sunday in solidarity with Charlottesville. It was one of many such vigils around the country. Not a Nazi symbol in sight. Yet the local antifa group that attended seemed bent on taking over what was intended to be a peaceful rally. There was a shouting match with police the organizers had requested. Later, the group split off and marched through downtown chanting slogans. To the usual “Whose streets? Our streets!” they added “Cops and the Klan go hand in hand.” and “What do we want? DEAD NAZIS. When do we want ’em? NOW!

The mirror-image-thug frame was present when CNN talked to a police spokesman from Portland, Oregon:

It is new, and this, like, this rumble mentality of, “I’m going to bring my friends, you’re going bring your friends, and we’re going to fight it out in the park” — it’s not something we’ve seen here. It’s not good for the city. People are just frustrated by it. It’s affecting their livability. It’s affecting their business. It’s affecting their commute.

The same piece quotes Cal State academic Brian Levin making a common liberal criticism:

It’s killing the cause — it’s not hurting it, it’s killing it, and it will kill it. We’re ceding the moral high ground and ceding the spotlight to where it should be, which is shining the spotlight on the vile. … No, it’s not OK to punch a Nazi. If white nationalists are sophisticated at anything, it’s the ability to try to grasp some kind of moral high ground when they have no other opportunity, and that’s provided when they appear to be violently victimized. That’s the only moral thread that they can hang their hats on. And we’re stupid if we give them that opportunity.

Trump took advantage of that opportunity in his controversial post-Charlottesville press conference on Tuesday:

What about the ‘alt-left’ that came charging at, as you say, the ‘alt-right’? Let me ask you this: What about the fact they came charging — that they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do.

It’s Trump, of course, so you have to take “fact” with a grain of salt. But it sounds bad.

You get a different picture, though, from a number of eye-witness accounts of Charlottesville. Like this Democracy Now! interview:

CORNEL WEST: You had a number of the courageous students, of all colors, at the University of Virginia who were protesting against the neofascists themselves. The neofascists had their own ammunition. And this is very important to keep in mind, because the police, for the most part, pulled back. The next day, for example, those 20 of us who were standing, many of them clergy, we would have been crushed like cockroaches if it were not for the anarchists and the anti-fascists who approached, over 300, 350 anti-fascists. We just had 20. And we’re singing “This Little light of Mine,” you know what I mean? So that the—

AMY GOODMAN: “Antifa” meaning anti-fascist.

CORNEL WEST: The anti-fascists, and then, crucial, the anarchists, because they saved our lives, actually. We would have been completely crushed, and I’ll never forget that.

In the heat of the moment I doubt West counted precisely, so I’ll remain skeptical of his numbers. But Slate‘s Dahlia Lithwick collected several accounts of what I take to be the same event. Rebecca Menning told her:

No police officers in sight (that I could see from where I stood), and we were prepared to be beaten to a bloody pulp to show that while the state permitted white nationalists to rally in hate, in the many names of God, we did not. But we didn’t have to because the anarchists and anti-fascists got to them before they could get to us. I’ve never felt more grateful and more ashamed at the same time. The antifa were like angels to me in that moment.

Brandy Daniels described Antifa as respectful and helpful:

Some of the anarchists and anti-fascist folks came up to us and asked why we let [the white supremacists] through and asked what they could do to help. Rev. Osagyefo Sekou talked with them for a bit, explaining what we were doing and our stance and asking them to not provoke the Nazis. They agreed quickly and stood right in front of us, offering their help and protection.

And Rev. Seth Wispelwey added:

I am a pastor in Charlottesville, and antifa saved my life twice on Saturday. Indeed, they saved many lives from psychological and physical violence—I believe the body count could have been much worse, as hard as that is to believe. Thankfully, we had robust community defense standing up to white supremacist violence this past weekend.

I wasn’t there, and have never seen Antifa with my own eyes. But here’s how it looks to me: Antifa is based on an anarchist worldview, in which state institutions like the police are not to be trusted. When that assumption is false — when, say, organizers and police have made a plan for an orderly, peaceful demonstration and that plan is flowing smoothly — then having Antifa show up can be a real nuisance.

But when that assumption is true, and the police are not going to protect you from right-wing violence, then it’s good to have some “robust community defense” around.

So if you’re disturbed by the rise of Antifa — whether you’re a conservative worried about leftist violence, a local government trying to maintain order, or a liberal group hoping to protest peacefully — the long-term way to shrink their numbers is clear: Don’t create the conditions that make them right.

When state institutions work well, and work for the benefit of the vast majority, then anarchists look like nut jobs. But when they don’t work, when the people have to start organizing their own defenses outside the system, and when the only path of protest liberals offer is nonviolent martyrdom, then anarchists who come prepared to face violence start to make a lot of sense.

Political Violence is Our Issue Too

Political violence is a problem, we’re tempted to think, but not for us.

After all, our candidate wasn’t the one who openly agitated for violence at his rallies, excused his criminally violent supporters as “passionate“, or hinted about his opponent’s assassination. Our congresspeople don’t assault reporters. We don’t use guns as props at our demonstrations, or carry banners about the Tree of Liberty needing to be watered by the blood of tyrants. (The guy on the right was protesting outside an Obama townhall meeting in 2009.) We don’t call for our opponents to be shot for treason. Our senators aren’t encouraging us “to shoot at the government when it becomes tyrannical”.

No, no, that’s not us. We build on the nonviolent heritage of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and the Freedom Riders. The day after Trump’s inauguration, we brought millions of people into the streets without any violence. (I was on Boston Common with a couple hundred thousand others. The most confrontational thing I heard was Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey saying to Trump, “We’ll see you in court.”)

Yeah, those other guys need to be more careful, so that they don’t encourage Islamophobes to kill people on public transit, or promote conspiracy theories that result in gullible guys shooting up pizza places or getting into gun battles with cops on their way to shut down the heart of the Great Plot.

But not us. We’re OK.

And then shit happens.

Wednesday, James Hodgkinson started shooting at Republican congresspeople as they practiced for an annual charity baseball game against Democratic congresspeople. (In other words, while they were doing maybe the least offensive thing some of them have done all year.) House Majority Whip Steve Scalise was hit, along with a staffer and two police. He was in critical condition for a couple of days before being upgraded to serious.

Hodgkinson died after being shot by police, and so far we don’t have a note or other statement explaining his actions. But the political motivation seems obvious: He volunteered for the Sanders campaign in Iowa. He made anti-Trump comments on social media. He came all the way from Illinois, so he didn’t just happen to be in that park looking to shoot some random person. During his attack, he had a list of Republican congressmen in his pocket.

To me, as a liberal, this looks anomalous. But it doesn’t to conservatives, who blame liberals for a number of attacks we don’t identify as our own: like the shooting of five police officers in Dallas, or of two other police in New York City. The shooters appear to have been motivated by revenge against police in general for police shootings of blacks. We protested the same shootings, so they must be with us. Ditto for violence in Ferguson and Baltimore after the Michael Brown and Freddie Gray killings; liberals were also angered by those killings, so conservatives pin the violence on us.

Then there are the antifa (i.e. anti-fascist) and black bloc (named for their style of dress, not their skin color) street fighters who battle against similar right-wing hooligans. (That strikes me as a case of mutual myopia: Each side sees the thugs on the other side, and conveniently overlooks its own.) Some conservatives even blame us for attacks by Muslims. We’re the ones who stick up for Muslim rights and protest when Trump tries to get tough with them, so the killers in Orlando and San Bernadino are our people too.

If you’re a liberal like me, chances are this sounds nutty to you. And mostly it is. I have never advocated assassinating police officers or street fighting or nightclub massacres or gunning down congressional ballplayers, and I don’t consider those actions to be a rational extrapolation of anything I did advocate. I can’t see that Bernie Sanders bears any responsibility for the fact that some guy both supported his campaign and tried to kill the House majority whip. And the mere fact that you don’t want the University of California to help Milo Yiannopoulos spread his hateful message doesn’t implicate you in the Berkeley riot.

But now I do have to concede something: I need to offer other people the same kind of understanding I want for myself.

So I need to say this to conservatives: You may believe that Islam poses some unique threat to the American way of life (and I may disagree with you), but that doesn’t make you responsible for the Portland guy who yelled racial slurs at two Muslim women and then killed two guys who tried to defend them. You may interpret the 2nd Amendment differently than I do, but that doesn’t make you an accomplice to every mass shooting. You may believe abortion should be illegal, but that doesn’t equate you with the people who assassinate abortion doctors or shoot up Planned Parenthood clinics.

And yet, I don’t want to let off the hook everyone (on either side) who hasn’t actually pulled a trigger. You can’t say “somebody ought to kill that guy” and then claim innocence if somebody does. You can’t put out a wanted poster saying a doctor is “wanted by God” and then absolve yourself after someone delivers him to God. You can’t pose with a facsimile of someone’s bloody head, and express shock if someone bloodies the real head. If you invent and spread baseless conspiracy theories like Pizzagate, you are implicated if someone believes you and responds in a way that might make sense if the theory were true.

Staying involved without contributing to the problem is a tricky line to walk. It’s just as important to understand what the problem isn’t as to understand what it is.

The problem isn’t “extremism”, if that word just refers to views well outside the mainstream. The kind of libertarianism that wants to privatize the streets and zero out all anti-poverty programs is extreme. Confiscating all fortunes larger than $1 billion would be extreme. Amending the Constitution to ban all privately owned firearms or to make Christianity the official religion would be extreme. And yet, these are all proposals that people might debate rationally, without killing each other.

The problem isn’t that people are taking politics too seriously. Politics is serious. Politics is whether we go to war. It’s whether sick people get care. It’s whether your children get educated or have a shot at a job someday. It’s whether your town gets rebuilt after the hurricane, whether our food is safe to eat, or if we’ll be prepared for the next epidemic. It’s serious. It’s worth arguing about. It’s worth obsessing over, even. It’s worth getting out on the street and continuing to make your demands after the authorities say no. Taking politics seriously isn’t the problem. Serious people can have debates without killing each other.

Violence is different from seriousness or extremism. It comes out of dehumanization, out of believing that your opponents are so evil that they can’t be reasoned with, and that your side’s victory is so important that if you lose you might as well pull the Temple down on everyone. It comes from feeling cornered, like if you lose this battle you have nowhere to retreat to, no chance to find more persuasive arguments and win another day.

Lots of people in America are feeling that kind of despair. Anything you say in public, you have to figure that some desperate person is going to hear.

What goes on in those desperate minds? One of the creepiest novels I’ve ever read was John Fowles’ The Collector. It centers on a young man who wins the lottery and uses the money to pursue his fantasy: He quits his job, remodels his house to include a prison cell, kidnaps an attractive young woman, and keeps her there, hoping she will come to love him. As she get more desperate to escape, eventually she dies, and then he decides to find someone else and start the process again.

What I found most disturbing about the novel was how much I could identify with the the root fantasy: Someone who doesn’t notice you might still come to love you, if somehow circumstances could be contrived to throw you together. I’ve had that fantasy, and yet it never led to kidnapping or imprisonment or death. Probably all that would have been needed to prevent the novel’s tragedy was one good buddy, who over a beer would hear some version of the daydream before it ever hardened into a plan, appreciate it on the level of pure fantasy, and then wistfully say, “Yeah, but that would be crazy. It wouldn’t turn out well.” The Collector doesn’t have that friend and never hears that comment.

Similarly, I think many of us have, at one time or another, fantasized about being an avenging hero. That’s my best guess as to what James Hodgkinson thought he was doing: Those evil Republican congressmen would go on perpetrating their villainy, until some hero stopped them. And when he did stop them, crowds would cheer.

As we live more and more inside our separate bubbles of social media, it becomes increasingly difficult to picture people in distant bubbles as anything other than villains, and all too easy to imagine a cheering crowd. And I think we’re all just a little less likely to find ourselves having that beer with the buddy who says, “Yeah, but that would be crazy.”

I believe this new reality puts an extra responsibility on us. Not to be less serious or less intense. Not to shade our views in the direction of the Center, wherever that is. Not to stop criticizing things that are actually wrong or working to correct them. But definitely to avoid letting someone else believe that we will be in the crowd that cheers their avenging hero fantasy.

I think that means avoiding images and metaphors of violence, whether it’s Kathy Griffin’s severed-head photo or Sarah Palin’s congresspeople-in-the-crosshairs graphic. It means not dehumanizing opponents, and not exaggerating their misdeeds — or making some up out of whole cloth. It means challenging the people on our own side whose rhetoric crosses the line. And it means being, whenever we can, the sympathetic voice that keeps violent fantasy within its proper bounds, and restrains it from morphing into a plan.

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.