The debate over the Confederate flag that has erupted since the Charleston massacre has, for the most part, put the flag’s defenders on the spot in a way that doesn’t seem to happen very often. It usually seems like a day or two of mumbling about heritage is enough to stave off those who want the flag taken down, but that hasn’t worked this week. Journalists - particularly at the Post And Courier - have been pressing representatives to publicly state where they stand. There’s palpable frustration that candidates equivocating on the issue are being questioned more closely than those who aren’t.
(As for Tantaros’ complaint that the Democrats were the party of Jim Crow and, for many years, segregation: yes, and it’s a terrible stain on their history. But then they passed federal civil rights legislation about fifty years ago and the Dixiecrats stormed out of the party. And by the way, if tolerating them was terrible many years ago - which it was, and Tantaros is right to imply as much - then how much worse is it to house their ideological descendants in 2015? Or more pointedly, what does it say about a political party that would have those racist crackers?)
Others on the right are trying to stake out a savvier position, namely that the fiendishly clever libs have laid a trap for conservatives by forcefully denouncing the Confederate flag and what it stands for.1 I tend to put the causation in the opposite direction; liberals were incensed by the Confederate flag’s symbolism so near a racist terror attack, and denounced it. The right just happened to be poorly served by its animating impulse (“today’s conservatism is the opposite of what liberals want today: updated daily”) in this case.
In any event, it’s been surprising how poorly the fight has gone for the neo-Confederates this time around. They usually don’t lose ground like this. The intensity and relative length of the story (a week is a long time to stay in the headlines in the Internet era) has also caused some of the more obscure talking points on the issue to bubble up. I’ve encountered two new - to me anyway - narratives on how slavery’s evil is mitigated. If the puke funnel theory of the news is correct then there’s a decent chance at least one of the following will be a talking point when the issue flares up again.
The first and more plausible theory seems to have its roots in Barbara J. Fields’ paper “Ideology and Race in American History.” In it, Fields traces the history of African slavery in the US. One of her themes is that because the idea of race is nonsensical, any attempt to interpret history through race is a fool’s errand and will inevitably fail. Other factors - most notably class - will be neglected, which will further distort our understanding of what actually happened.
There’s a lot to be said about that approach. The idea that monied interests in the North and South had a common goal of creating large scale industrial agriculture - in opposition to the common interests of small scale farmers both black and white - is fairly compelling to me. We might well have underappreciated class dimensions in our history because race has been so prominent. We might also wonder, as Fields does, what our history might look like had lower class interests shown more solidarity.
But she isn’t naive either. The fact that America’s institution of slavery used only African slaves from the beginning doesn’t escape her notice. She just draws a distinction between “prejudice and xenophobia” as the de-humanization of The Other, and “the enterprise of classification and identification” - the pseudo-scientific gloss - that came to be known as racism. She doesn’t think racism caused slavery because the very idea of race is absurd - but prejudice and xenophobia were very much factors.
It’s a fine distinction, one certainly worth exploring in an academic paper, but one that can easily get lost in public discourse. Prejudice and racism are used pretty much interchangeably in everyday use. So when some clever academic on Twitter states that “Historians discarded this ‘racism caused slavery’ nonsense decades ago” using Fields as a citation, it throws a wrench into the discussion. Using a technical definition of a word in a vernacular dialogue is too clever by half at best - and outright deceptive at worst. But maybe that’s where we are headed.
Then there is the less plausible theory. It’s actually just a part of the much larger politics of grievance on the right, which in this case can be summed up as Whites Are The Real Victims. The most perfect expression of how completely untethered from reality this thinking can get comes from Kennewick Man. It seems that in 1996 an 8,500 year old skeleton was found, and self-styled anthropologists with no axe to grind at all determined that this was a white man murdered by colored savages. So whites were really here first! And were the original victims of genocide in North America! Haha, we win!!! Or not.
(In perhaps the most hilariously clumsy piece of messaging in human history, black or white, the forensic reconstruction of Kennewick Man’s face is a reproduction of Captain Picard from Star Trek.)
I learned this week that Whites Are The Real Victims of slavery too. At least, unlike with Prehistoric Patrick Stewart, there is an actual generally accepted historical record to fall back on. But as with the discussion of racism it requires a little sleight of hand.
Ever hear of the Barbary slave trade? Pirates from Algeria and elsewhere in northern Africa raided European coasts - even inland villages and towns - and carried residents back to serve as slaves. We don’t have accurate records from the time so good numbers can’t be had outside of extrapolation, with the upper estimate being around 1.25 million. A huge number, though still about one twelfth the number of African slaves.
Barbary’s slave system had some key differences from America’s too, perhaps the largest being a ransom system. Europeans that raised enough money could buy back a slave, making that institution more volatile across generations - but the bottom line is slavery is slavery and it’s all abhorrent. Of course, in the present case that means getting “BUT THERE WERE WHITE SLAVES TOO” tweets as a way to point out that our slavery wasn’t so bad after all. Instead of saying that maybe we should reckon with our past and let Algeria reckon with its past, we should apparently just declare the entire subject off limits - or only describe it in the blandest, most technocratic terms.
So there’s your preview of (possible) coming attractions: it had nothing to do with racism and anyway white people were enslaved too. I’m already nostalgic for the comparatively high-minded dialogue we’re having at the moment.
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre there’s been an increase of a very particular commentary: dissident Muslims critical of Western liberals for being reluctant to weigh in with forceful condemnations of Islamic intolerance. Ayaan Hirsi Ali raised the issue in April, and last month Eiynah at Nice Mangos made similar points. Since both women come from Muslim cultures I tend to give their commentary more weight than, say, Bill Maher, whose acquaintance with Islam consists of what he sees in the news. As they say, you only hear about the planes that crash.
Ali and Eiynah raise good points though. I think it is true that Western liberals like me tread more carefully when it comes to criticizing Islam. There are several reasons for that, the first being familiarity. As a general rule it’s a good idea to be a little more tentative when dealing with an unfamiliar topic - which Islam is for many of us. Christianity is the dominant religion here. Even those who are atheists or who grow up without practicing it can’t help but learn about its rough contours through osmosis. That puts us on surer footing and makes it easier to weigh in sensibly on the subject. Not doing so with Islam is less about moral relativism or some misguided stab at sensitivity than it is a healthy respect for our own ignorance.
To the extent that we do comment, we often first try to draw parallels with our own experience with organized religion - which again, Christianity is our reference point. And the Christianity we see in the news disproportionately represents the Westboro Baptist churches and Ku Klux Klans of the world. They aren’t the majority of Christians and we know that, but someone observing from the outside could easily get that impression. When we see something similar elsewhere we take that into account.
We also take into account how religion is interpreted. We see fundamentalist Christians take a line of scripture about homosexuality being an abomination - right next to, say, a line that says shellfish is also an abomination - and think: yeah, maybe they’re not getting a real good reading on that. Mainstream Christian denominations are more likely to interpret those passages as artifacts of their time and not the inerrant word of God. It isn’t hard to imagine zealots of another religion having such a literal reading of their sacred texts.
Most importantly, our stance towards Islam can’t be divorced from our recent history. Before the war in Afghanistan was launched we were told that it would liberate women there. It was pretty obviously done to give progressives a reason to support the war, and at a minimum it created some hesitance to oppose it. After it was clear the war was having a disastrous effect on women, some remained deeply conflicted about it. And of course, once second thoughts began to emerge we were treated to graphic depictions of what would happen if we left.
Islam’s status as a religion, and its stance towards women in particular, cannot be divorced from our foreign policy. The issue gets raised here not for the promotion of more enlightened thinking but as the prelude to a new round of freedom bombing. It’s not like we’re saying: there’s a humanitarian crisis happening, let’s set up an extensive network of well-supplied refugee camps to reach out to and aid the victims. It’s: let’s have a military response. Criticism of Islam has slipped too easily into demonization, and greasing the skids for the latest adventure, for many of us to feel comfortable signing on too freely to it.
I understand the frustration people like Ali and Eiynah have with that. They’ve felt (and continue to feel) the effects of religious intolerance firsthand, and would like the vocal support of those who would seem to be natural allies. In the West, though, Islam is not as well understood and is often treated as a monolith. Liberals want to be extra careful that condemnation of its violent lunatics not be conflated with comment on the religion as a whole - a reflection on the planes that don’t crash, as it were.
We know how Christian fundamentalists use the Bible to justify hatred and intolerance, and are anxious not to allow a corresponding criticism of extremist Muslims to be taken as a comment on Islam generally. And since we’ve seen how the Othering of Islam has been bundled with highly problematic responses, we know that any such commentary is not made in a vacuum. There is, in short, an awful lot of context that Ali, Eiynah and other Muslim-raised critics do not account for.
Saturday morning northeast Ohio came to a standstill to watch judge John O’Donnell’s live reading of his verdict in the Michael Brelo trial. (Background here.). I’ve uploaded an OCR copy of the verdict here if you’d like to read it for yourself. I was fairly astonished at this portion (pp. 20-1):
Despite not being convinced of which shot it was, I have found beyond a reasonable doubt that Brelo fired a shot that by itself would have caused Russell’s death. But proof of voluntary manslaughter requires a finding, beyond a reasonable doubt, either that his shot alone actually caused the death or that it was the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” to use Justice Scalia’s locution, combined with other non-lethal wounds. Dr. Wiens opined that each of the four wounds was fatal if suffered alone and she described all of them as antemortem, i.e. pre-death….In other words, any one of the four caused the death, and not necessarily the first to hit Russell, since the time from injury to cessation of life varied depending on the wound.
Ultimately, Dr. Wiens could not offer an opinion on which antemortem wound caused death first, leaving me as the finder of fact to guess at which of the four undoubtedly deadly bullets caused the “cessation of life.” Guessing and being convinced beyond a reasonable doubt are incompatible. Brelo’s deadly shot would have caused the cessation of life if none of the other three were fired, but they were and that fact precludes finding beyond a reasonable doubt that Russell would have lived “but for” Brelo’s single lethal shot.
Because three unequivocally fatal wounds were caused by one, two or three other people besides Brelo, and because I am unable to find beyond a reasonable doubt which shot caused the cessation of Russell’s life, I find on count one, the voluntary manslaughter of Timothy Russell, that the essential element of causation has not been proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
Not being a legal scholar, I had been unaware of this particular bit of jurisprudence. From a layman’s point of view, I would have thought the law would take the opposite position: that if multiple people fired fatal shots, each one of them would be liable for the death. If they all fired shots just prior to death and the law only considers it manslaughter if and only if a single person fired a fatal shot, then the sensible response is for everyone to empty their clips. Doing so increases the odds of more than one person firing fatally, in which case everyone gets acquitted.
It also makes it sensible for everyone to make sure they are armed to the teeth, and to fire all of their bullets in response as well. Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams were unarmed. But once you know the law’s stance on fatal shots, it only makes sense to pack as much heat as you can and use every last bit of it in order to give yourself a fighting chance. That’s particularly true if a car backfiring or police officer firing will be taken as reasonable belief that the suspects themselves are armed and firing. While that kind of shooting gallery might be the NRA’s wet dream, I don’t think most people would regard it as very desirable.
Endorsing such a wild state of affairs means, then, that O’Donnell’s approach to the verdict was not a strictly legal one - it was political as well. He chose an arch-conservative judge to buttress his reasoning. While that is perfectly legitimate - he was citing a Supreme Court justice and not a shouting head from Fox News - it certainly gives an indication where his sympathies lie. He could have instead looked to a centrist or liberal. Given how Scalia’s logic inevitably led to such a curious outcome in this case, he also could have cited it in order to specifically reject it. New case law gets created precisely by challenging precedent. Perhaps Scalia did not anticipate his reasoning leading to the kind of outcome the Brelo trial ended with, and he may have been willing to revisit it.
O’Donnell chose not to do any of that, though. He took the quote and treated it as binding. Which again: that’s legitimate. But it’s also something that one does when one agrees with the reasoning - and that in turn is an expression of one’s political position. O’Donnell didn’t make his ruling in a vacuum, and it wasn’t the result of a detached and objective review. Like all decisions, it reflects his biases and predispositions. It was made in a context, and that is how we should understand it. If, having done so, some observers conclude there’s a thumb on the scales of justice, well, it would be hard to blame them.
In the last week there have been two controversies involving social media and academics. Since they involved different ends of the political spectrum, though, they seemed to get considered independently of each other. First, Duke professor Jerry Hough used his Facebook account to share some thoughts on a New York Times editorial titled How Racism Doomed Baltimore (sample: “Virtually every black has a strange new name that symbolizes their lack of desire for integration.”)
Meanwhile, Boston University professor Saida Grundy sent out some Tweets with her own unique take on things (“why is white america so reluctant to identify white college males as a problem population?” etc). Both were condemned for their statements, which was followed by support and defiance, then to reflections on how universities deal (poorly) with social media use by professors, along with more general pieces on free speech in the age of Twitter and Facebook.
While it’s good to take a step back and consider the broader implications of virtual firestorms like those caused by Hough and Grundy, it seems like in many cases people’s position depends on whether they agree with the statements in the first place. If they do, then it’s “provocatively fierce freedom of expression;” if not, then not so much. And that usually leads to trying to explain why the one you like is acceptable, if explosive, while the other is hate speech - a tough needle to thread.
The push to make such incidents fireable offenses or cause for institutional censure strikes me as a bad idea considering colleges are among the few remaining workplaces where freedom of expression hasn’t already gone down the drain. Having lots of people criticize a Tweet or Facebook comment is one thing. Barring threats of violence or other attacks, having lots of people say “you’re an idiot” can pretty much be filed under More Free Speech. Calling it monstering or a mob or or the like is silly. I’m sure it’s uncomfortable to get that kind of blowback, but it you’re dishing it out you have to be prepared to take it - perhaps in unexpectedly large quantities. There are all kinds of potential consequences for broadcasting your opinions for the world to hear, one of which is having a certain portion of the world respond negatively. (I write this knowing full well that I too am broadcasting my opinions for the world to hear.)
It’s possible to make very sharp points, and write with a polemical style, without generating the kind of massive, spontaneous backlash that those two did. Even if you fancy yourself a bold teller of uncomfortable truths, or a besieged lonely voice in a wilderness of political correctness, or whatever other kind of self-mythologizing works for you, there’s no affirmative requirement to piss people off. And should that happen, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to go into a defensive crouch either. You like tossing grenades? Great, good for you - but don’t act surprised if shrapnel starts flying your way.
As for wading into these issues, more often than not I think it’s a waste of time. Some people seem to relish getting a rise out of others and with inflammatory rhetoric. Hough and Grundy have both showed a willingness to do that elsewhere. Even if you agree with their points, how much do you want to bother with someone whose primary goal seems to be ginning up controversy? Is no one else addressing those issues in a way that doesn’t generate so much heat? If not, maybe that should tell you something. If so, why not weigh in over there instead?
For those who thrive on reaction, the worst thing you can do is help them become the outrage du jour. It only encourages them. In Hough’s case, for instance, it’s worthwhile (if dreary) to take on his “blacks won’t assimilate” argument: so what exactly are the approved names (besides Jerry) for real Americans? How does the lack of such a name indicate an unwillingness to integrate? And if patriotism can be measured by one’s name, why not take the next logical step and insist citizens only have names popular at the founding of the nation - such as Eleazar, Thaddeus or Zachariah? Why does Hough insist on using his strange new name instead of adopting an authentically integrated one?
If one has the patience, rebutting tired and discredited talking points seems much more useful. Ignoring someone who is just trying to be outrageous is also a nice option, and well-done mockery never goes out of style. But pushing for some kind of sanction only creates a First Amendment martyr. Better to just give ‘em enough rope, I say.
I’ll admit my first reaction to Seymour Hersh’s piece on the killing of Osama bin Laden was, why are we interested in this exactly? It doesn’t start out too well either. The first paragraph claims the raid was “a major factor in [Obama’s] re-election.” I must have been reading different news in the fall of 2012. I seem to recall it being mentioned a few times but it was hardly a central plank of the campaign. Moments like Mitt Romney’s 47 percent comment or the “please proceed, Governor” debate fiasco are individual moments that stand out. As for messaging, it seems like economic issues dominated. By far the most memorable commercial was the “It Was Like Building My Own Coffin” ad. So no, calling it a major factor just seems like empty hype for what follows.
Then the very next sentence, the third of the story, the thing that’s supposed to grab you and compel you to read on, is: it was not true that “senior generals of Pakistan’s army and Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) were not told of the raid in advance.” That may be front page stuff in Pakistan, or not, who knows, but the ISI being in the loop is not the kind of thing I’ll spend much time worrying about.
The narrative didn’t exactly propel me forward - there’s a lot of inside baseball. A few items are fascinating though. For instance, Hersh claims bin Laden was no longer in command of anything of consequence. If true, that changes the story we’ve told ourselves about bin Laden’s death. As it currently stands, it was something like an act of self defence. Public enemy number one was still in operational control of a vast and implacably hostile terror network, so killing him kept him from murdering any other Americans. The trove of material found in the compound would help prevent additional deaths.
If Hersh’s reporting is correct, though, there were considerably less noble intentions at work. It wasn’t protecting the citizenry but simple revenge. He killed 3,000 of us, fuck him, we want him dead. I suspect that would still have been accepted, too. I doubt too many of his countrymen would have recoiled if Obama had said something like: “We don’t know if he’s in control of al Qaida or not, and we don’t care. This is retribution for 9/11. While it won’t bring back any of the dead, it satisfies a desire for a grim kind of justice.”
That is a very different story, though. It may be justifiable, maybe no one would blame us for wanting him dead on those grounds - but it’s hardly virtuous. And I don’t think many of us would easily give up the tone of righteousness we’ve used concerning the Global War On Terror.
So even if you have problems with the overall arc of the story, Hersh’s piece has some worthwhile bits to chew over. And typically when a big investigative piece drops, the initial reaction is collective shock as it sinks in. Then people start to digest it, poke at it, and look to either discredit or confirm it. But this piece is getting attacked right away, and in very personal terms.
Max Fisher, for example, says “[Hersh’s] reports have become less and less credible.” Among these “newer and more conspiratorial stories” is one about a military strike on Iran which never happened. Considering that imminent war with Iran is a go-to subject from Atlantic cover stories down to the neocon fever swamps, it seems a bit strange to single out Hersh for his entry in the genre.
When he finally does turn to the piece, Fisher muddies the water. Hersh claims there was no trove of intelligence material taken from the Abbottabad compound, and writes: 1. A Washington Post story purportedly summarizing some of the trove was vague and contradictory. 2. A government-contracted private research group provided translations of some of the material, and it was underwhelming and contradictory. 3. An anonymous retired official insisted the CIA did not contribute to the private research group’s effort.
Hersh doesn’t say nothing came out of Abbottabad, just nothing with the kind of relevance officials claimed. Here is Fisher’s characterization: “The intelligence ‘treasure trove’ was thus a fabrication, cooked up by the CIA after the raid to back up the American-Pakistani conspiracy” - which strongly implies Hersh reported nothing at all came from the compound. He did, though. He just questioned its relevance, as well as the provenance of some of what was claimed to come from there. That hardly strikes me as tin foil hat territory.
Overall, Fisher writes as someone who presumptively believes the government’s story. Contradictions, thin sourcing, overly generous grants of anonymity - these aren’t problems for those who pass along the official line from Washington, but for those who question it. I’m not saying Hersh should get a pass. His work absolutely should be scrutinized, and should be challenged on many of the points Fisher highlights. But that approach is used with a curious inconsistency.
It’s revealing that Fisher links to a story by another Hersh critic - one that puts the word rendition in scare quotes and notes Hersh is “writing a book on what he called the ‘Cheney-Bush years’ and saw little difference between that period and the Obama administration.” Because God forbid anyone detect institutional rot at the heart of our homeland security strategy. Whatever you do, don’t question the existing power structure. To succeed in DC you need to play the game, and stories like Hersh’s, if nothing else, make it very clear who’s on the team and who isn’t.