I’ve been honestly amused by people posting to social media that, while they support protests they see riots as a crime. There’s a meme going around that says that protests should only happen when human rights are being violated. As if there’s a time human rights aren’t being violated! People want to walk a fine line where they don’t want to appear unAmerican and say people have no right to protest marches; on the other hand, at the first sign of violence, the whole event becomes tainted, kind of like dropping a drop of sludge in a wine vat.
Except, of course, protest marches are little more than controlled riots. Anger is directed toward constructive acts like carrying signs, joining with a large of group of like-minded people shouting slogans. In a large group of people, however, there will always be those for whom this just isn’t enough. Windows get smashed. Rocks get thrown at police. People are shoved, sometimes punched (like a white-supremacist was yesterday; some people said this was wrong because it made him a sympathetic character. Really? A Nazi gets punched in the face by an African-American and suddenly we’re all boohooing for the guy?) Broken windows, bloody noses, arrests – these are part and parcel of political protest, going back to colonial times. In our oh-so-proper bourgeois world, we dislike anything messy, untidy, and disruptive. These are social goods to be maintained at all costs.
In 1765, after the British Parliament had passed the Stamp Act over the objections of many of the colonial representatives in London, people in Boston in particular were not fond of the law. Besides being onerous, there was the principle that Parliament, which had not sought to govern the American colonies for over a century and a half, suddenly thought it not a problem to pass laws for them without their voice or consent. One sunny morning, the local Stamp officer, Andrew Oliver, was hung in effigy from a tree on the High Street. A crowd gathered, with some merchants coming and making mock obeisance before the effigy. Boston’s sheriff wanted the crowd broken up, despite the fact they were doing nothing illegal. Officers told the sheriff even trying to do so would bring on the violence they were seeking to avoid.
Soon, however, the crowd seemed to break-up and the effigy was cut down and nailed to a board. They marched through the streets chanting and shouting against the Stamp Act, reaching the docks in Boston Harbor. A building under construction, thought to be the new Stamp Office, was torn down. Then, the crowd turned and marched to Oliver’s home.
Oliver and his family were spirited away even as a crowd gathered and set up a bonfire, upon which was thrown first the effigy, followed by pieces of Oliver’s chaise. I’ll let A. J. Langguth continue the story:
[Rioters] raced to the bottom of Oliver’s garden and began ripping down a fifteen-foot fence. Once inside the garden, they stripped all the fruit from the trees, brokes off the branches and tore down a gazebo. When men began to smash windows at the back of the main house, it was not idle vandalism. Window glass had to be imported from England and was expensive to replace.
. . . [M]en were sindie the house and heading for the cellars, where they helped themselves to the stores of liquor. Ipstairs, rioters found the familys looking glass, which was reputed to be the largest in North America. They left it in shards and went on to break furniture and scatter the Oliver silverplate throught the house. [A. J. Langguth, Patriots, p.56]
Before we were a Republic, Americans have protested, including using violence, to make political statements. There were anti-draft riots in New York City in the summer of 1863. In Chicago, the Wobblies and Pinkerton detectives fought running battles in the streets that are now known as the Haymarket Riots. In 1932, World War I vets looking to receive the bonus promised them at the end of their service in 1919 gathered on the Mall in Washington DC. Local businesses claimed the so-called BEF (Bonus Expeditionary Force) was responsible for vandalism, robbery, and even rape. Against the direct orders of President Herbert Hoover, Douglas MacArthur sent in tanks and cavalry who burned tents with the families of the protesters inside. A young cavalry captain named Goerge Patton bayonetted the leg of one Bonus Marcher; that veteran had, in 1918, literally dragged a young and wounded George Patton to safety on Flander’s Fields back in 1918.
Northern White America came to appreciate if not necessarily sympathize with the non-violent protests across the segregated South. Thinking well of themselves as broad minded and liberal, they thought the treatment the protestors received – beatings and arrests – an overreaction even while preferring there be no such protests at all. After all, didn’t these young men have jobs or school to attend? Wouldn’t they better serve their race if they were doing that rather than stirring up trouble? While in Seminary taking a class in Liberation Theology, I insisted that there was not nor could be any such thing as non-violent protest against injustice. Even if those doing the protesting do not act out violently, the powers that be most certainly will. American saw that in places like Birmingham, AL and in North Carolina where young men sitting in at the Woolworth’s counter were beaten and dragged off by mobs of whites, only to return to their silent protests.
It is fashionable these days to say, “Well, I like Dr. King and his peaceful protests, but people like Malcolm X and the Black Panthers were too extreme.” This ignores the reality that, at the time, officials saw no distinction among these persons and group. Thus we create the distinction between protests and riots in the face of a historical reality that denies such a distinction.
Yesterday’s bit of vandalism provided good visuals for those who don’t like protests. I’ve yet to hear whether these were people who were protesting Trump’s inauguration, agent-provocatuers (something the feds have always been very good at), or just knuckleheads who might just want to show up on TV. By and large the protests yesterday was subdued and orderly. Today as hundreds of thousands if not millions of women around the country march to remind America and the incoming Administration that women’s rights are human rights, to be respected and protected rather than dismissed, I just have to wonder why anyone would be against such protests. Because of the possibility of violence? There’s always the possibility of violence. There usually is violence of some sort, although that has been reduced thanks to the examples of the Civil Rights era. Still, whether it comes from the protesters themselves or officials (just remember that young man facing a squad of militarized police officers in Ferguson, MO; that’s what I call an overreaction), the potential for violence is always present. Rather than try and create a false distinction between peaceful protests and violent protests/riots, how about we all grow up and understand that when people protest, they’re angry. Anger, particularly over rights revoked or denied, can be on high simmer for years, with a protest offering a forum either for constructive action or destructive action. Rather than insist that violence is bad, tout court, how about we recognize these as political acts rather than criminal acts, and treat them accordingly? Rather than sit at some remove from the scene of the action and presume to pass judgment on what is right and what is wrong, how about asking these folks why they’re angry and actually listening to their answers? How about thinking, for just one moment that people are acting out like this might very well have legitimate grievances? After all, breaking window glass in a home was a political act. Why should we not think busting the window at a Starbuck’s, the epitome of middle-class and upper-middle-class complacency and serenity in the face of human suffering, might well be a political act? And please remember, there’s insurance for for things like this, so I don’t get all that upset for the companies.
Donald Rumsfeld was a horrible Secretary of Defense, but when he told reporters asking questions about post-liberation rioting and looting in Baghdad that democracy is a messy business, he was quite right. While it was an excuse and smoke-screen to cover-up the reality the invasion had occurred with no thought given to what would happen once the government fell, it is also true. Democracy is messy. It’s never tidy. Having hundreds of thousands of people engage in acts of protest, resistance, and defiance is a sign of a healthy polity. It means people are engaged, they care what happens to them and others. It means they’re willing to take risks to make the world a little better. As someone who has marched in a couple really big marches and watched as police treated peaceful protesters badly, let me just say that violence, like H. Rap Brown reminded us, is as American as cherry pie. We should just pull up our grown-up pants and deal with it, rather than pretend there’s actually a distinction between political protests and riots. They’re just different stages of the same, larger, action.
Today is the last day of Pres. Obama’s two terms as President of the United States. There’s been so much written about how people “feel” about the end of his terms, with people expressing sorrow and joy, wishing them will and wishing them ill, I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at Barack Obama’s record as President of the United States. What has happened in the United States over the past 2,922 days? Are we as a nation more economically stable? Are we safer? Have Americans lost any rights or privileges because of President Obama? What kind of America is Donald Trump going to be leading as of noon tomorrow?
One measure of economic vitality is how well the Stock Market is doing. There are many averages, but the one most commonly used is the Dow Jones Industrial Average. At the close of business on Jan. 20, 2009, the Dow stood at 7949.09. Yesterday it closed at 19,774.01. This shows both that the economy is moving along and that investors feel confident the economy will continue to be healthy.
Another way of understanding economic health is the unemployment rate. Now, that number only examines potential members of the workforce who are currently unemployed who are actively seeking unemployment. It is not a measure of the total numbers of Americans who are eligible to work and are not working. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in January 2009, the unemployment rate was 7.8 percent. Because of the worsening of the American economy due to the bursting of the housing bubble, it would continue to rise to a high of 10% in October 2009. In December 2016, the unemployment rate was 4.7%. Since the end of the Second World War, “full employment” was usually thought to be an unemployment rate of 5% or less. With that in mind, the United States has been at “full employment” since September 2015.
The safety and security of the American people and nation-state should be one of the highest priority of any state executive. There are several measures that are helpful in understanding our safety both here and abroad. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting tables, the first is the violent crime rate in 2008 was 454.5. The property crime rate was 3212.5. In 2014, the last full year for which data is available, the violent crime rate was 365.5; the property crime rate was 2596.1. It’s important to note that this continues a downward trend in the overall crime rate that began in the early 1990’s and has continued more or less unbroken in the years since. It’s also important to note these rates represent the number of persons per 100,00 Americans. In the early 1990’s, the American population was around 275 million people. It’s around 335,000,000 now. Not only are the rates lower, with a far larger population the chances of any particular individual being the victim of crime has reduced significantly.
The United States Department of Homeland Security and the University of Maryland have teamed up to create a single source database for terrorist activity around the world, including the United States. START, The Study of Terrorism And Responses to Terrorism project is an invaluable resource for scholars and your average citizen to learn about how terrorism has evolved over the past four decades, how terrorist attacks have changed, and what groups – at any given moment – are responsible for terrorist activity.
According to the report, Patterns of Terrorism in the United States: 1970-2013, just one of many reports from the Terrorist and Extremist Violence in the United States (TEVUS) Project at START, from its peak in the early 1970’s, both the frequency and fatality of terrorist acts have decreased dramatically. This graph is clear:
If you look at the actual statistics of terrorist acts by specific groups, during the period 2000-2013, “Unaffiliated Individuals” accounted for nearly a third, 31%, of all terrorist activity. This includes the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. The next two groups on the list, The Earth Liberation Front (ALF) and Animal Liberation Front (ALF), account for just about half of all terrorist actions in the United States during those thirteen years. Al-Qaida is responsible for 4% while White Extremists account for 2% of the total.
While Al-Qaida is certainly responsible for more deaths during this time period, only the Ku Klux Klan was related to American fatalities during the period 2001-2011:
Even if you include the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, the actual rate of terrorist attacks in the United States continues to be quite small.
Another measure of social and economic health is the percentage of Americans who live below the poverty rate. According to a report from the Bureau of the Census (.pdf), in 2008 13.2 percent of all American households lived below the poverty rate. According to the same report, in 2008, 15.4 % of Americans had no health insurance. In 2015, the percentage of American families below the poverty line was 13.5%. The uninsured, however, had fallen to 10.4%.
By many metrics, including the most important ones, Barack Obama had a successful Presidency. Hardly perfect, but far better than one might guess if one’s only source of information is social media.
Not too shabby, Mr. President. Not too shabby at all.
Yesterday, quite a few people on my Facebook feed were upset over Pres. Obama’s commutation of Chelsea Manning’s sentence. Six years ago, while we as a country were far more heavily involved in wars both in Iraq and Afghanistan, Manning – then Pvt. Bradley Manning – handed over thousands of pages of classified documents to Australian Julian Assange. Assange, who ran a little website called “Wikileaks”, proceeded to dump these classified papers on the Internet. Ratted out by a friend, Manning was arrested, spent three years held in atrocious conditions (two suicide attempts), and sentenced to 35 years for violation of the Espionage Act.
At the time, Manning was arrested, a civilian grand jury was empaneled and Assange may or may not have been indicted (an Australian security company employee was sent by anarchist hackers Anonymous what he claims to be a sealed indictment). Assange, living in London, sought refuge in various embassies, finally landing in Ecuador’s. That’s where he’s stayed, living and running Wikileaks all on Ecuador’s dime while being indicted for rape in Sweden and becoming a funnel for Russian hackers during the 2016 American Presidential election.
A few days before Manning’s commutation, Assange – in the immortal words of Bryan Menegus of Gizmodo – “tripped over his own dick.” He had tweeted that if Manning were set free, he’d allow himself to be extradited. Now, the original wording of Manning’s . . . what shall we call it? Dare? Challenge? Stupid drunk-tweet? – says that Manning had to be given “clemency”. Does that mean formal pardon? Clearly, President Obama couldn’t go that far, for good reasons. Sure enough, the above-linked article confirms, through Assange’s lawyers, he will stand by his promise and face charges.
Now, I have seriously mixed feelings about what Manning did. Unlike Josh Marshall, I do not believe she deserves a pardon. I don’t believe her treatment passes any kind of Constitutional muster, but since no Court has ruled that way, apparently that isn’t the case. Some of what she leaked certainly does rise to the level, if not of war crimes then at the very least questionable actions on the part of US military forces (calling in an airstrike to cover up the murder of civilians is a tad over the top, in my opinion). On the other hand, much of the information released included after-action reports, with information on unit locations and personnel; actions that were and are perfectly lawful; and the normal communications between command and field operations during a time of war (that’s why I’m not all that upset over a black-ops unit that, apparently, was taking out Taliban sympathizers in Afghanistan; war is dirty and ugly and sometimes dirty and ugly things have to be done). She had no business handing over three-quarter million pages of material knowing it was going public, even though some of the material clearly could lead to attacks on US troops. The Army has a chain of command. She could have gone first to her Sargeant, then Lieutenant, then on up the line if she felt some of the information she had indicated criminal actions on the part of US troops. Her actions endangered the lives of US troops during a time of war. Ugly business.
And Assange? He’s a creepy dude, to say the least, less a hero-warrior for the truth than a smug, over-confident self-aggrandizer who has been indicted in Sweden for rape. Staking a place as a truth-teller, he and his site Wikileaks were again in the news this past summer and fall, funneling information hacked by Russian intelligence to the public. At one point he even claimed an upcoming document dump would contain information to indict Hillary Clinton. Of course, there was nothing of the sort. It was these kinds of sensationalistic interventions that did real damage to Clinton’s campaign, however. Pretty much all of the American security establishment is quite ready to make Assange pay for what he did.
So Assange has said that if Manning is released, he’ll allow himself to be extradited. Except, of course, he never said to where. Will he go to Sweden, where he faces rape charges, hoping he can beat that rap? Will he come to the US, arriving of course after Trump is inaugurated? If it’s the latter, people need to be paying very careful attention. I’m guessing that, as of this moment, Trump has no idea who Assange is. Should he arrive in the US, be formally indicted, and if convicted go to prison all without any interference from a Pres. Trump, all is good and well. What if, however, this is a fait accompli? Doing this at the very end of Pres. Obama’s time in office, is Assange gambling that his Russian connections will protect him from any serious legal consequences in the US? Will Trump pardon him? Will Trump tweet-storm about how “unfair” the prosecution is, putting pressure on any federal prosecutor to go easy? As we have no idea how Trump will act in office, at this moment anything and everything is possible. Were I a betting man, however, I would place even odds at the very least upon Trump coming to Assange’s defense. While this will certainly piss off the Army and intelligence community, Trump has already shown he doesn’t care one way or another how they feel. While not likely (in the sense that cloud cover and high humidity are likely to bring rain), it is not out of the realm of possibility that Trump will simply force the Justice Department either to dismiss any current indictments or not pursue legal action. Of course, if he does that, he’ll enrage a whole lot of his supporters.
And Pres. Obama? He’s taking an awfully big risk. While certainly not pleasing a whole lot of people by commuting Manning’s sentence, he’s gambling that Trump will not interfere and allow the legal process against Assange to run its course. I’m guessing the only reason Manning got hit so hard by military prosecutors is they had no one else to punish; had Assange managed to be extradited to face charges, Manning would in all likelihood faced reduced charges, time served, and be free. Just like any such prosecution of an illegal conspiracy, the goal is always to get the top guy; Assange was the target all along. They couldn’t get him, so they threw the book at Manning. With Assange now, it seems, willing to face the consequences of his actions, the US doesn’t need Chelsea Manning.
I think folks should pay very close attention to all that happens in ensuing weeks and months around this matter. It will, I think, be very telling about many things, not the least of them the amount of real influence the Russian government might well have over a Trump Presidency.
UPDATE: So now it seems Assange has changed his mind. Which tells me he thought Obama would never do it. Not sure who’s the worse poker player here, Assange or Obama.
“I think one of the big differences then was you had governors and mayors and the president — whether it was President Johnson or President Nixon, Republican or Democrat — condemning violence against the police and urging support for the police.
“Today that’s markedly absent,” [William] Johnson [executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations] continued. “I think that’s a huge difference, and that’s directly led to the climate that allows these attacks to happen.”
Johnson says that Obama has not supported the police or condemned violence against them. – Adam Thorpe, “Law enforcement lobbyist says pro-police speech is ‘markedly absent’ from Obama”, PolitiFact, July 12, 2016
Donald Trump says there has been “a substantial rise in the number of officers killed in the line of duty — a very big rise.” He’s right, to a point. There has been an increase in firearms-related deaths in the last six months compared to a year ago.
But the number of fatalities from all causes, not just firearms, is largely unchanged from a year ago, and has substantially declined in recent years.
Annual fatality data compiled by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund show that there have been an average of 135 police fatalities a year under President Obama, from 2009 to 2015, compared with 162 a year for the previous seven years, from 2002 to 2008. That’s a decline of 17 percent. – Eugene Kiely, “Killed In The Line Of Duty”, Politifact, July 13, 2016
These are not isolated incidents. They are symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system.
And I just want to give people a few statistics to try to put in context why emotions are so raw around these issues. According to various studies, not just one, but a wide range of studies that have been carried out over a number of years, African-Americans are 30 percent more likely than whites to be pulled over.
After being pulled over, African-Americans and Hispanics are three times more likely to be searched. Last year, African-Americans were shot by police at more than twice the rate of whites.
African-Americans are arrested at twice the rate of whites. African-American defendants are 75 percent more likely to be charged with offenses carrying mandatory minimums. They receive sentences that are almost 10 percent longer than comparable whites arrested for the same crime.
So if you add it all up, the African-American and Hispanic population who make up only 30 percent of the general population make up more than half of the incarcerated population. Now, these are facts.
And when incidents like this occur, there’s a big chunk of our fellow citizenry that feels as if because of the color of their skin, they are not being treated the same. And that hurts. And that should trouble all of us.
This is not just a black issue. It’s not just an Hispanic issue. This is an American issue that we should all care about, all fair- minded people should be concerned. – Part of Pres. Barack Obama’s statement on two police-involved killings, Time, July 7, 2016
Yesterday, two police officers put on their uniforms to serve and protect the communities they loved. And early this morning, they were taken from us in shameful acts of violence.
Sergeant Anthony Beminio and Officer Justin Martin represented our best, most decent instincts as human beings – to serve our neighbors, to put ourselves in harm’s way for someone else. They knew the dangers of their job. They knew the risks. Yet they chose to dedicate themselves to those values anyway. So today, Michelle and I join Americans across our country in expressing our condolences and stand in solidarity with their grieving families, fellow officers, and the communities they served so honorably. – Statement by the President on the Shooting of Police Officers in Des Moines, Iowa, WhiteHouse.gov, November 2, 2016
Sgt. Debra Layton of the Orlando, FL Police Department was shot and killed yesterday while trying to apprehend a suspect in the murder of Sade Dixon. Later that afternoon, while participating in the manhunt, Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Norman Lewis, a motorcycle officer, was struck and killed by an SUV. The people, particularly law enforcement, in and around Orlando and Orange Co. are sad and angry. People around the country are offering condolences even as police continue to hunt the suspect. I think it’s fair to say that this will not end well for the suspect.
This particular situation, as horrible and frightening as it is, has become the latest instance of a political campaign being waged against Pres. Obama by some police officers and police organizations around the country. There are those who believe, and publicly insist, that Pres. Obama has remained silent as police officers are killed in the line of duty; that he is far more quick to speak about police brutality than he is to speak about the deaths of police officers killed in the line of duty; that he has created a climate that is hostile to police officers, encouraging violence against the police.
Is this true? Is it true there’s a “war on police”, either subtly encouraged or at least not discouraged by our President? Has he remained silent on the deaths of police officers even as there are more deaths than ever?
Let’s start with some raw numbers. According to the National Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial Fund, From 2009-2015 there was an average of 135 police officers killed in the line of duty. While there hasn’t been a definitive total added for 2016, one unofficial number I’ve seen, 140, certainly remains close to the average for Pres. Obama’s tenure in office. It’s easy enough to do this by Presidential Administration: George W. Bush average – 172; Bill Clinton average – 164; Ronald Reagan/ George H. W. Bush – 181. It’s true there was a 40% increase in the deaths of police officers due to gunfire in 2015, looking at the actual numbers, broken down by Presidential Administration (since that seems to be the measure being used by Pres. Obama’s critics), there has been a downward trend over the past 35 years, with Pres. Obama presiding over the least deadly eight years.
Let’s look at the charge made by Police Lobbyist William Johnson that Pres. Obama has remained silent, creating a climate for attacks on police officers to occur. After Rudy Giuliani alleged much the same thing in 2014 after the deaths of two NYC Police Officers, Politifact went back and looked at official statements from Pres. Obama from the August protests over the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO through a Dec. 8 interview with BET, discussing the need for policing in minority communities. Simply put the claim that Pres. Obama was encouraging people to hate police was utter nonsense. Using much the same method – presenting what and when Pres. Obama actually said – they concluded that Johnson, too, like Giuliani two years previously, was “Pants On Fire”, a polite way to say he was full of shit.
So there’s this narrative out there, believed by many including many police officers, that there’s a “War On Police”; that during the years of Pres. Obama’s tenure in office, there’s been a subtle or perhaps not-so-subtle encouragement of violence against police; that Pres. Obama has been far more silent on the deaths of police officers than have previous Presidents, going back to Lyndon Johnson. None of these statements are supported by any evidence whatsoever. Why is the belief persistent?
First of all, Pres. Obama has spoken out against police brutality and the reality of racial disparities in policing that occur nationwide. He has done so even as he has maintained his vocal and active support for police officers, the work they do, and mourned with us during each and every instance of violence against police officers. Because this President sees himself as President of all Americans, he has insisted that there is the need for reform of police procedures, particularly regarding matters of race. This is no more “anti-police” or “cop-hating” than are those prosecutors who bring charges against officers whose flagrant law-breaking disgraces all police. It does not create an atmosphere of hostility toward police officers that our President has recognized the legitimacy of the issues raised by Black Lives Matters, while certainly condemning acts of violence committed by members of BLM and denouncing violent rhetoric by some BLM members. It is, indeed, possible to do both things at the same time, especially when it is clearly understood that Pres. Obama has always understood himself to be President of all Americans – police and the communities they serve included.
It is horrible this young woman was murdered in the line of duty yesterday. Whatever may be justice in this instance, her death is not honored by making of it more fodder for a political agenda promoting a falsehood regarding the President of the United States. I’d ask about shame, but I know that just doesn’t exist anymore.
So I learned from a (liberal) friend that a lot of her (liberal) friends have stopped following the news. Don’t do this. Don’t let your friend do this. We need your courage. We need your intelligence. We need your power. We need you not to be one of the people who insist to your grandchildren, “But nobody knew what was going on!” – Rick Perlstein, Facebook, 12/31/16
And yet . . . We Have Matt Taibbi, an excellent reporter and writer, casting doubts upon the matter of Russian interference in the election. We have lost any grasp of who is and who is not authoritative. We have lost the ability to ensure the right questions are asked. We no longer get have a critical facility, at a social level, to weed out the spurious from the truthful. Paying attention? To whom? Upon what authority? – Me, comment on above post, 12/31/16
The problem with this story is that, like the Iraq-WMD mess, it takes place in the middle of a highly politicized environment during which the motives of all the relevant actors are suspect. Nothing quite adds up.
If the American security agencies had smoking-gun evidence that the Russians had an organized campaign to derail the U.S. presidential election and deliver the White House to Trump, then expelling a few dozen diplomats after the election seems like an oddly weak and ill-timed response. Voices in both parties are saying this now. . . . Matt Taibbi, “Something About This Russia Story Stinks,” Rolling Stone, Dec. 30, 2016
I saw the above FB post from historian and author Rick Perlstein yesterday, and among the many things I read as I went through the discussion that followed was a sense of a lack of any sense of security about what news sources we should trust to offer us some glimmer of reality. There was also a good discussion about what it means to “follow” the news. My comment, citing only one instance of a trusted reporter asking important and necessary questions about the entire narrative of Russian interference in our recent election, could very well have been longer. Taibbi is very clear on the sources for his skepticism: Our recent historical experience with fake intelligence information offered as “proof” of Iraqi perfidy in order to justify war.Other commenters noted another author accepted as authoritative among many on the libertarian Left, Glenn Greenwald, who has been doing much the same work as Taibbi: questioning the very foundations of this ongoing narrative not, it should be pointed out, in support of Donald Trump. Rather, Greenwald’s position and motives are simpler: He wishes readers to think critically about this story in order to stop what seems a headlong rush toward judgment.
Other commenters noted another author accepted as authoritative among many on the libertarian Left, Glenn Greenwald, who has been doing much the same work as Taibbi: questioning the very foundations of this ongoing narrative not, it should be pointed out, in support of Donald Trump. Rather, Greenwald’s position and motives are simpler: He wishes readers to think critically about this story in order to stop what seems a headlong rush toward judgment.
Both authors offer sound reasons for taking care in our over-indulgence in “official” stories precisely because “official” sources should not carry the authority they seem to be wielding. Particularly among a segment of the population – liberals and (some) progressives – who have been skeptical of official narratives for decades, there seems to be something akin to joy in repeating the official line over and over. Despite decades of dismissive comments concerning our national newspapers The New York Times and The Washington Post, our 24-hour news programs on CNN and FOXNews, we now have people insisting these organs of our establishment are somehow engaged in brave truth-telling (well, at least the print sources; the three major cable news channels are still dismissed as either to servile to the Establishment [CNN, MSNBC] or little more than Republican propaganda channels[sometimes CNN, FOXNews]) while doing little more than repeating an official line offered with what appears to be little to no evidence offered to the public.
There’s a story about how FOXNews parrotted a story first reported by Breitbart.com regarding SNAP fraud. The USDA says they have released no recent report regarding SNAP fraud (which is true). Breitbart insists its story was not about SNAP fraud (also true). Somehow, it seems, someone at FOXNews decided to make up a story about SNAP fraud (not exactly a shocker) and the organs of the Establishment found at the contemporary American version of the Volkischer Beobachter a story both about SNAP and that used a figure similar to the one at Breitbart. The evidence, however, just isn’t that clear-cut. Yes, FOXNews pulled the story about SNAP fraud out of its ass; what would FOXNews viewers think if they discovered the standard government estimate for SNAP abuse is around a billion dollars annually (while a much larger number than $70 million, it’s still about 1.4% of total SNAP outlays, so hardly significant)? In the sudden rush of stories concerning “fake news”, and the glee among right-wing sources labeling mainstream news “fake”, this whole story demonstrates just how difficult it is to untangle the mess of sources, of who is saying what and why, and how narratives – several stories linked together – are constructed.
We should be skeptical of official sources, particularly anonymous sources. We should also be wary of self-appointed meta-journalists like Glenn Greenwald who, not being a journalist, continually tell journalists how to do their jobs. We should also be wary of pretty much anything from a source whose sole or major presence is the Web. We should be skeptical of those whose views on the world are similar to our own. We should also be wary of those whose view of the world is significantly different.
Skepticism, however, should not equal a lack of trust. Evidence matters. The history of a particular news source matters. How one particular bit of news fits into other pieces of news is important. Precisely because we have been swamped, not just in this election cycle but for years (even decades), with what is now called “fake news”, however, we have moved from skepticism to refusing any authority save that which confirms our view of the world. We are living in a time with the total breakdown of any national consensus concerning, well, pretty much anything at all. We all seem to inhabit little conclaves that share only one quality – anything “outside” is not just suspect, but a priori untrustworthy.
We as a people no longer inhabit the same world. We are not citizens of the same country. We are not speaking the same language, regardless of how much they all sound the same. How is it possible under such circumstances to insist one group or another “should” follow the news when there just isn’t any single “news” narrative to follow, but multiple narratives with their own sources, their own presuppositions, their own larger stories into which each piece of new information fits?
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. – Edmund Burke
10-year-old Lesley Ann Downey was lured from a fairground. Brady took nine pornographic photographs of her, showing her naked, bound and gagged. Hindley recorded the scene of the child’s rape and torture on an audio tape. – “Ian Brady and Myra Hindley: Pedophile and Child Killer Couple,” Bizzarepedia.com The one thing the article does not mention is that Brady and Hindley would listen to this tape over and over again as foreplay before sex.
If the well-educated are thought to provide the leadership a society needs, that premise is usually connected to the belief that members of professional elites, individually and collectively, exercise independent, self-critical judgment. Their “objectivity,” in short, saves everyone from the error of self-indulgence and ideological blindness. The case under scrutiny here, unfortunately, does not validate that hope. Speaking denerally, German doctors and lawyers, for instance, were hardly bastions of independence. Rather they were quite prepared to advance Hitler’s authority. The same hold for German educators from the kindergarten to the university. As for scientists and bureaucrats, their dispositions may not have been so ideologically committed as those of many German teachers or as financially motivated as those of the captains of – German industry, but these professionals also joined their peers in medicine and law to salute the Fuhrer. They did no not always by flocking eagerly to the swastika. Indeed they sometimes resented and even resisted attempts to Nazify their professions. Yet by sticking to the practical, problem-solving rationality that their professional training emphasized, they remained both sufficiently apolitical and nationalistic to suit Hitler’s purposes. – Richard Rubenstein and John Roth, Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and its Legacy, p.231
I’ve seen just a few too many memes and quotes – sometimes approximating Burke’s words – that offer courage to those who sincerely (and rightly) understand the incoming Presidential Administration as inherently socially and morally threatening. It would seem to offer courage in the face of insurmountable odds. It is almost as if it were possible to convince ourselves that, now that the damage has already begun, it might yet be possible to redirect the course of upcoming events.
Nothing could be more wrong.
In the last of his landmark four-volume history of the concept of “the devil” and evil in the Abrahamic faiths, historian Jeffrey Burton Russell wrote:
On the individual level radical evil expresses itself in actions of unfathomable cruelty. The closest we get to the reality of evil is our own direct experience of evil in ourselves and in others. (p. 17)
I take issue with the qualifier “radical” to describe a particular kind of evil. Our focus on the sensationalistic aspects of the worst crimes and most horrific events – the murderous sadism of serial killers; genocide in Germany, Bosnia, Rwanda, Syria – blinds us to the far more dangerous and insidious aspect of evil: It is, as Hannah Arendt pointed out in her narrative and analysis of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, far more banal than anything else.
Indeed, Eichmann’s example is instructive on so many levels, we should consider it for a moment. I hardly imagine in the course of his day-to-day life during his time as a Nazi Administrator Eichmann thought of himself as an evil person. I’m sure neither his friends nor family would have agreed with such a description. He was, after all, just doing his job.
After the war, however, Eichmann had to become aware of the meaning of his participation in the destruction of eastern European Jewry. Why else would he have fled to South America, changed his name, and needed to be kidnapped by Israeli agents rather than legally pursued through extradition. As Arendt notes throughout her narrative, however, Eichmann never seems to show any particular sense of guilt, remorse, of responsibility for his participation in mass murder. He is conscious that the events happened; he refuses to attach a moral label to his actions precisely because, like the rest of modern humanity – lulled to a kind of moral numbness by the sheer size and weight of our modern and post-modern society – his moral sense has shrunk to the point that only radical evil, particularly of a given individual, is the only real expression of evil that seems to make any sense.
When German soldiers in occupied Belgium during the First World War would round up random citizens and execute them in groups of fifty or one hundred in attempts to stem the tide of resistance, they did not believe they were being evil; on the contrary, they were doing nothing more than carrying out the orders of soldiers during war. When British and American bombers caused firestorms in cities like Dresden or American bombers did so in Tokyo, or dropped nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; when American soldiers in Vietnam cut the ears of dead peasants and hung them as trophies on their uniforms; when ethnic Serbs in Bosnia-Herzogivina rounded up Muslims and put them in concentration camps; as we sit and watch as humanity’s oldest city dies in real time before the whole world; neither they nor we could ever imagine any moral judgment to befall us. We insulate ourselves from the moral consequences of our actions and inactions by appending that qualifier “radical” to evil, stripping it of any real meaning or moral force.
Now, however, as we in the United States ready ourselves for what will surely be four or perhaps eight years of rapacious, plutocratic, nepotistic government actions that strip the poorest of protections against poverty and disease; that eliminate the balance between our needs for natural resources and the desire to maintain public lands in the public interest; as we foolishly and ignorantly and simultaneously taunt and befriend the wrong foreign nations; all this and some seem to be calling what is happening by its name. In so doing, at least some seem to believe they are making either an insightful or courageous moral insight. Just as the nonsensical right-wingers a decade and a half ago claiming that “liberals” didn’t understand evil because we weren’t joining their chorus of condemning Islam as evil, however, these self-appointed arbiters of our public moral discourse now demand we all join together and denounce Pres,-elect Trump, the most radical of his followers, his cabinet appointments and resist each and all attempts by the incoming Administration and the Republican-led Congress to act on their convictions. As if, somehow, any of what we are seeing is either new or even worse in some moral sense than what we’ve seen from Republican politicians in power for a half-century.
Burke was wrong because, like so many, Burke missed the fact that evil isn’t just sadistic, sociopathic pedophiles torturing children for their own sexual gratification. It isn’t just the mass murder of an entire group of human beings simply because they exist. Evil is far smarter, far more intelligent, and thus far more capable than good as insinuating itself into our public (and private) lives. Many people believe it is good politics, for example, to oppose the elimination of the Affordable Care Act, Medicare, and Medicaid. Actually, it isn’t good politics, and right now the most vocal (and let’s face it, it isn’t numbers that count in mass society, but the loudest voices) among us are indeed demanding their elimination. The fact is the eliminating these three public policies and social practices will not only condemn the ill, the poor, and the elderly to further impoverishment. It will kill thousands of our fellow Americans. To support such policies, it seems to me, is by any definition evil. Yet I have yet to read anyone call it that with any seriousness.
Consider, as another example, Trump’s ignorant and destructive actions in regards our relationship with the People’s Republic of China. He accepts a phone call from the President of Taiwan, a country that exists on paper yet in no real legal sense. When the Chinese protest, he insults them further, heightening the tensions between China and the United States, with the Chinese now threatening to “teach” Trump how to treat the PRC with the proper respect. This is dangerous on many levels precisely because Trump has yet to demonstrate either a willingness or ability to grasp even the basic necessities and complexities of international affairs. In so doing he threatens not just a general sense that, while always somewhat tense, our relations with other countries can continue in their courses; he threatens real destabilization and war on multiple fronts. This isn’t just Trump being bad at diplomacy. This isn’t just his ignorance and the ignorance of his most vocal cheerleaders creating a situation which becomes more dangerous with each passing day. This is evil unfolding before us, evil that threatens not just our relations with other countries, including other major military powers, but a peace that is always fragile and tentative.
The majority of America did not want Donald Trump as their President. Even more Americans are unhappy with how he is assembling his Cabinet and the policies proposed both by them and the incoming Republican majorities in Congress. This majority, I would venture, are correct on the politics. They are not, however, correct on the depth of moral depravity we face. Were this simply a matter of political disagreement – a general consensus on ends; differences in means – their might yet be the ability to stem the tide not just of political disaster that awaits us but social and moral disaster as well. We have past the tipping point where the voices of moral order can be effective.
The insidiousness and pervasiveness of evil in our society has reached the point where, it seems to me, too few are able to recognize it in its most public, visible, and mundane form. We understand the crash is coming, and that it will be terrible. What we have forgotten is this has been decades in the making. Even if we as a society were successful in somehow “doing something”, the evil in us and among us is far too widespread for any sense that it can our even could be defeated enough to prevent pain, suffering, and even the deaths of thousands if not millions. The best the best among us can do is prepare ourselves to comfort the afflicted until the crash is over, the dust settles, and we all try to pick up the pieces.