‘He’s No Angel’: The unbearable whiteness of innocence

Dear Rebecca:

Conor Friedersdorf is one of my favorite writers around right now. He’s conservative, but he’s probably the most intellectually honest commenter I know of — during the Obama Administration he was equally tough on both the president and the president’s most-stupid critics.

His latest post over at The Atlantic involves the consideration of a podcast interview between Sam Harris, professional atheist and Trump-hater, and Scott Adams, “Dilbert” creator and Trump-lover.

He quotes from the interview at length, and it was in those quotes that something jumped out at me:

Screen Shot 2017-07-13 at 6.40.50 PM
Technically, he’s white.

Adams: Keep in mind that President Trump’s past is far more public than other people. So you’re going to see the warts as well as the good stuff. But let me stop acting as if I disagree with the general claim that you’re making, that he has done things that you and I might not do in the same situation, and would disapprove of. That is common and would be shared by Trump supporters as well.

Harris: But then you seem to give it no ethical weight.

Adams: Here’s the proposition. He came in and he said in these very words, ‘I’m no angel.’ But I’m going to do these things for you. Now he created a situation where for his self-interest, if you imagine he’s the most selfish, narcissistic, egotistical human who ever lived, he only cares about himself, he put himself in the position where there was exactly one way for any of those things to go right for him, which is to do a really, really frickin’ good job, and to imagine that he wants to do anything but the best job for the country now, now that he’s in the position, and probably even when he was running, is beyond ludicrous.

“No angel.” Where had I heard that term before?

Oh. Yeah. It’s used anytime a black person has been abused by police — to suggest that even if the victim of that abuse didn’t haven it coming, he or she probably still had it coming. It’s a cliche among activists now, one that had its origins in the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and the New York Times coverage afterwards.

Justin Cohen explained the problem with this last year for HuffPo:

In the wake of police executions, you are bound to hear a few things that distract from the real issues. One of those storylines is that “he was no angel,” wherein the media will outline the various ways in which the victim behaved inappropriately in the past. None of this matters, and it certainly does not change the fact that the police killed the person outside of any legal process. I smoked pot when I was in high school, for example, and if the police used that as justification to murder me, that would be ludicrous.

Which brings us back to the president. As Friedersdorf notes: “It is fascinating that Adams counts the pronouncement, ‘I’m no angel,’ as a point in Trump’s favor, as if unapologetically acknowledging moral depravity lessens its weight.”

Indeed, for our white president, “he’s no angel” is his “boys will be boys” get out of jail card, an exculpatory phrase, whereas when the phrase is used with black people, it’s to heap guilt upon them in, at best, ambiguous circumstances.

Seems wrong, somehow.

Sincerely, Joel

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