September 4, 2020
Dear Reader (Including the four anonymous sources who claim I’m writing a 10,000 page anti-technology manifesto),
I know, we need to talk about it, but let’s hold off on The Atlantic story for a minute and instead focus on the report that national protests are “93 percent” peaceful. The opening paragraph from the Washington Post:
About 93 percent of the racial-justice protests that swept the United States this summer remained peaceful and nondestructive, according to a report released Thursday, with the violence and property damage that has dominated political discourse constituting only a minute portion of the thousands of demonstrations that followed the killing of George Floyd in May.
For the people who think the protests have been unfairly maligned—not unreasonably—this is a mic-drop fact that confirms their views.
But think about this for a second: In World War II, 16 million Americans served in uniform, but “only” 1 million saw combat. I was promised there would be no math, so I’m open to correction, but I think that means only 6.25 percent of American soldiers during World War II saw combat. Does that mean I can say that our participation in a globe-spanning deathmatch for the world’s soul was 93.75 percent peaceful? And keep in mind, the denominator here is uniformed military. If you make it the total number of Americans—about 144 million during the height of the war—then World War II was 99.31 percent peaceful. If that’s the case, then what was all the fuss about?
If Boeing came out with a new plane that only crashed 93 percent of the time, would that be something to brag about?
Now, I’m not saying it’s insignificant that most protests were peaceful. And if I were one of the peaceful protesters, I’d be pretty pissed at the idiots who gave the protests a bad name.
I also think the report makes a plausible case that, in at least some instances, the effort to dispel the protests had the unintended effect of escalating violence. But assuming such efforts were lawful, warranted, and professionally conducted, the moral blame for protests turning violent lays entirely on the people who refused to disperse and responded instead with violence. As a prudential matter, using state power might have been a mistake. If a lone cop goes into a biker bar without backup to break up a fight, he or she would be procedurally wrong. But if the cop is overpowered and beaten up or robbed, the cop is not morally culpable.
Anyway, this “93 percent peaceful” thing strikes me as an escalation of an annoying trend in the media. It’s an attempt to argue with data what CNN tried to argue with a chyron.
Last week, CNN’s aired a graphic from Kenosha that read, “FIERY BUT MOSTLY PEACEFUL PROTESTS AFTER POLICE SHOOTING."
It doesn’t matter if it’s technically accurate in some sense. The message it conveys is that you shouldn’t really pay attention to the inferno behind the reporter, because that would be unfair to the protestors or Joe Biden. Think of it this way: how often do reporters covering local fires emphasize, “Most of the buildings in this city aren’t burning right now”?
There are some 800,000 police officers in the United States. Way more than 93 percent of them have never unjustly shot a black person, or any person. And yet, how often has the media uncritically allowed politicians and activists to say some variant of “it’s open season” on black men in this country? How often have they asserted it themselves?
Just this week, Japanese tennis pro Naomi Osaka (whose father is Haitian) said “Watching the continued genocide of black people at the hand of the police is honestly making me sick to my stomach.”
I’m not trying to minimize the problem of police abuse, but why is there no check—no modicum of journalistic truth-squadding and basic skepticism—when people say these kinds of things? Whenever right-wingers talk with such rhetorical ridiculousness, there’s plenty of pushback. When Donald Trump says, falsely, that Portland is “ablaze,” the fact checkers hie to their firepoles and slide down to correct the record. And that’s fine by me. He’s the president and therefore deserves more fact-checking than pretty much anyone else. But the sheer numbers of people who say wildly irresponsible and untrue things on the other side of the cultural and political divide adds up over time to collective malpractice that’s every bit as significant.
All of these people taking pictures from peaceful parts of New York, Portland, Chicago, etc., to dunk on people concerned with rioting and looting aren’t nearly as clever as they think they are. It’s the visual equivalent of “93 percent nonviolent,” or “Fiery but mostly peaceful.” If I were to tweet a picture of a white cop peacefully talking to a black man and say, “What police abuse problem?” I’d be rightly dragged for it. If I take a picture of a nice part of Beirut, would that mean a giant explosion didn’t happen there? If I snap a photo of my fairly lean feet, do I get to say “I’m mostly skinny”?
In my first column this week, I wrote about how so much of national debate is really a contest of competing narratives that are both wild exaggerations.
Here’s the problem. There’s a difference between an exaggeration and a lie. A lie is a total fabrication: Cats are vegans. Ducks are made of uranium. Basset hounds are the fastest land animal.
An exaggeration, like a caricature, takes a truth and amplifies and distorts it for effect—sometimes dishonestly, but sometimes simply in order to convey some larger truth: “This flan tastes like the contents of a zombie baby’s diaper,” is an exaggeration, but it communicates an important truth: “Don’t order the flan.”
Donald Trump’s exaggerations are very often dishonest, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a truth lurking beneath.
No, Portland isn’t “ablaze,” but there have been blazes. If all of Cleveland hasn’t been taken over by cannibal warlords, but the Tremont neighborhood has been, you won’t get far with most normal people by heaping scorn on them for freaking out over it.
You know what a normal person thinks when they see buildings on fire behind a reporter who’s saying the protests are “mostly peaceful?”
“I’m being lied to.”
Confirmation bias and President Trump.
Human brains are weird things, and not just because they’re squishy. When we hear or see things that confirm what we already believe, we don’t grab our analytical tools to question it. When we’re presented with something that contradicts what we already believe, out come the microscopes, measuring tapes, and the rest.
Here’s a series of numbers: 2, 4, 6, 8 …
If I asked you to fill in the next three numbers, you would probably say, “10, 12, 14.” Because you think the rule is that the numbers increase by two.
But that’s not necessarily the rule at work here. The rule could actually be that the numbers are just getting bigger. The next three numbers could be 9, 10, 4,012. But we look at the pattern in front of us and leap to a conclusion. We are pattern-recognizing creatures. But sometimes—actually, pretty often—we impose a pattern on the information that isn’t there. That’s how conspiracy theories are born. We cherry pick the facts (or “facts”) that fit what we want to believe is true and screen out the others.
Right now, American politics is being driven by two very loud minorities of protagonists who are supremely confident in their patterns—or if you prefer, narratives.
Which brings me to the Atlantic story about Donald Trump calling deceased members of the military “losers.” I find the allegations entirely believable. He has a deformed character and the evidence for this is overwhelming. There are also plenty of indications that he holds these kinds of attitudes about military service.
However, just because I find the allegations believable doesn’t mean I believe them in all of their particulars. I certainly think that Jeffrey Goldberg (no relation) believes his sources and published what he believes to be a true story. But without anyone on the record—never mind the contradictory statements from John Bolton—it’s entirely possible that the sources have some details wrong for one reason or another. (Trump’s own denials count for nothing with me.
What is interesting—and at times infuriating—is how none of it really matters. For some, any account of Trump’s behavior that isn’t laudatory must be false. They think it all must be a lie because the “Fake News” got the Russia story wrong, therefore every other allegation must be wrong, too. For others, the allegations must be wrong because Trump can do no wrong. The latter is just the latest example of “Orange Man Good,” or pro-Trump Derangement Syndrome.
Of course, we hear a lot more—at least on the right—about anti-Trump Derangement Syndrome. And don’t get me wrong, I think anti-Trump Derangement is a real thing. For some, any negative story about Trump has to be true, including the ones that contradict each other. He’s both a fascist mastermind bent on destroying democracy and a moron who can’t spell “fascist.” (There’s a growing version of this on the right about Biden, too. He’s both the architect of an anti-black crime bill in addition to being a racist who said nice things about segregationists and he’s a pawn of Black Lives Matter. He’s “Sleepy Joe” and a pawn of Antifa simultaneously.)
As Matt Taibbi correctly observes: “The paradox ensnaring America since November, 2016 is that Trump never intended to govern, while his opponents never intended to let him try.”
Again, I don’t think there’s “both sides” symmetry here. The mere fact that this story is believable demonstrates that.
But what gets lost in all the screaming is that most people don’t care. I think people should, but I don’t blame them for having bigger priorities during an economy-crushing pandemic that’s still turning peoples’ lives upside down—particularly the lives of parents as school starts.
For my entire adult life, the most damning criticism of the left has boiled down to their approach to both politics and culture: “You will be made to care.” About 25 years ago, the left decided that tolerance was no longer good enough. You had to celebrate whatever they celebrated and hate whatever they hated. “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” is the single most totalitarian idea in wide circulation in American life. There are no safe harbors. No room for dissenting speech. No allowance for different passions, concerns, or pleasures. Compliance or Cancellation is the rule. That’s the fascistic spirit animating those jackwads demanding that people having a quiet dinner must raise their fist in solidarity with them.
I still think the left is worse in this regard, in part because they’ve had so much more practice during their Gramscian march through the institutions. But the right is catching up. Donald Trump isn’t opposed to cancel culture, he’s opposed to the other team’s cancel culture. He loves getting people fired and un-personed, and so does his fan base. Trumpism isn’t a philosophy or ideology, it’s a story—an allegory really—that begins and ends with one man as the savior, not of America, but of “us,” the only real Americans (I got a fundraising email from the Trump campaign that began “It’s YOUR Country—Not THEIRS!” Really, the 60 to 70 or so million Americans who won’t vote for Trump don’t have ownership of this country, too? So much for nationalism.)
We’re in a battle of narratives—narratives that don’t actually speak to the lives of most Americans—made all the more asinine by the fact that the combatants are utterly convinced that they are the sole legitimate representatives of all Americans. Actually, that’s not right. We’re not in that battle, most of us are just witnessing it. And in a healthier republic, the peaceful but mostly disgusted majority could either do something about it, or be allowed not to care.
[additional items, including links...]