‘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

Why is Heather MacDonald Still Talking? A Case Study in Lazy White Campus Speakers

Joel:

We both love the First Amendment, you as a journalist, me as a hate studies and religious scholar, and probably both of us as people who sometimes like to share unpopular opinions.

Which is why I remind you that the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee Heather MacDonald’s right to spout racist nonsense at a private college. It guarantees her the right to create a platform and to use it to speak, not to stand on someone else’s platform, without government interference.  She can write (another) manuscript about how police officers are mistreated (Her newest, The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe, is a new screed on an old theme for her. She released Are Cops Racist? How the War against the Police Harms Black Americans in 2003. From the subtitles, you might get the impression that she really cares people of color.), but no one has to publish it. She can stand in a public space and say just about anything she likes, but no one has to offer her an invitation into the space that they own.  That Claremont McKenna College chose to invite her is a stain on them.

This does not mean, though, that, if she is invited, she should be shouted down. Like you, I’m a believer that more speech, not censorship, is the answer to hateful speech. I love to see students responding to deplorable words and ideas by arguing for something better, and I actively work with students who are opposing hate speech on campus in efforts to do just that.  Turning MacDonald’s race baiting, fear mongering, and flirtations with fascism into an opportunity to develop new research, argumentation, and presentation is a great way for students to practice skills we desperately need in the public sphere.

But what happens when students have already done that? When the burden of doing that work falls so heavily (again) on people of color? How many times do Black Lives Activists and their supporters have to say “Black Lives Matter… They matter here!”—as was chanted during the Q & A after MacDonald presented her thesis that the criminal justice system isn’t racist and that “America does not have an incarceration problem; it has a crime problem”—before Claremont McKenna decides that its students don’t have to put up with such stupidity on their campus?

The issue, as I see it, isn’t whether the college has the right to invite her; they do. But in doing so, they make clear to their students that 1) creating a campus where students can learn free from racism does not matter and 2) faulty logic, lousy data, lazy research, and a thesis in defense of the status quo somehow comprise “scholarship” worth listening to.

Both of those issues are important. Claremont McKenna shouldn’t have invited MacDonald because she had to make a lousy argument in order to draw her wrong, racist conclusion.

HM

Above, a flyer advertising a speech by MacDonald. Professional tip for campus speakers: If your argument is factual, informed, honest, accurate, logical, and intellectually rigorous, it’s never going to end up being racist.

Consider it this way: Should a black student have to hear an argument that we know is measurably incorrect and that foments further hostility toward black people? How can anyone argue against teaching about white privilege while simultaneously teaching stereotypes of black people? (Answer: Because they are racist and also unbothered by facts.) How does permitting speech that isolates and alienates people who have historically been shut out of higher ed further the mission of higher education? When you are a black student at a predominantly white institution, why should you have to rally against what is clearly a lousy argument? The fact that you even have to do this bullshit work is a bit racist. A second-class white intellectual gets a platform to blow racist hot air, and you have to be the one to call her out? Even when white allies join the fight, it places black people, once again, as the source of the trouble. Why should any student have to listen to an argument that vilifies black people? What harms are caused when such arguments appear on campus with the stamp of university approval? (When such arguments appear on the public sidewalks, the story is different. And there, we are pretty much okay with counterpicketers shouting people down.)

But the racism is only part of my problem with MacDonald. The other part is my problem with universities inviting lazy thinkers to campus. MacDonald is a right-wing intellectual star, but that’s because the conservative galaxy is so generally dim. She seems to me to be one of what Elspeth Reeves, writing about the alt-right, calls “a handful of vain writers impressed by their own intellectual power because few smart people bother to debate them.”

MacDonald’s ideas are of little value, and campuses should not invest precious resources—and absorb opportunity costs—in creating a platform for them. In responding to the protest on campus, Claremont McKenna president Hiram Chodosh appealed to the idea that campuses should be places where challenging ideas can be freely exchanged [Italics mine]:

[T]he breach of our freedoms to listen to views that challenge us and to engage in dialogue about matters of controversy is a serious, ongoing concern we must address effectively.

This is a rather generous view of MacDonald’s writing.

College students deserve better opportunities to engage across lines of difference. And if there is no one out there who can draw the same racist conclusions that MacDonald draws using a better argument, maybe it means that colleges, which should value argumentation, don’t really need to invite racists to campus.

 

Brandishing Black Bodies to Defend Against Racism

Rebecca:

I’ve used this space to occasionally praise unorthodox conservatives. So let me now mention a conservative whose ideas I really, really dislike.

Her name is Heather Mac Donald. She writes a lot for City Journal. And she writes, mostly, about how cops are awesome and how criticism of cops is bad. (Her recent book is called “The War on Cops.”)  I’m oversimplifying here, but not by much.

Anyway, I’m torn. I hate Heather Mac Donald’s ideas. But I think she has the right to express them. And last week, we watched as campus protesters at Claremont McKenna College tried to prevent her from being heard. Which forces me to … rush to Heather Mac Donald’s defense.

Here’s the short version, which I’ve expressed before: A mob can violate the right to speak just as surely as a government agent with a warrant. The best solution to bad speech is more speech, better speech. These are concepts that liberals have long defended, and should keep defending!

I suspect you and I have a bit to quibble with there, but trust me: You’ll like my defense of Mac Donald more than you’ll like Mac Donald’s defense of herself.

Which goes something like this:

I prefaced my speech by observing that I had heard chants for the last two hours that “black lives matter.” I therefore hoped that the protesters were equally fervent in expressing their outrage when five-year-old Aaron Shannon, Jr., was killed on Halloween 2010 in South-Central Los Angeles, while proudly showing off his Spiderman costume.  … And though it was doubtful that any of the protesters outside had ever lost a loved one to a drive-by shooting, if such a tragedy ever did happen, the first thing he or she would do is call the police.

Oh, for Pete’s sake. There’s few things I hate worse than the brandishing of black bodies as a defense against police brutality against blacks. And Mac Donald does it here expertly. So let’s make a few things clear

First: The existence of crime in no way mitigates the responsibility of police to act lawfully

Second: The existence of crime in no way mitigates the right of communities and individuals to petition their government for a redress of grievances.

Third: This “but what about black-on-black” murders is a typical, loathsome evasion of the issue of police brutality questions. It implies, in racist fashion, that black people don’t care about black lives unless there’s a white person to blame for the death. And that’s crap.

Let’s talk about the Aaron Shannon case, for example. In fact, there was a substantial community response to and outcry against his death. AP reported contemporaneously:

Immediately after the shooting, at least a half-dozen city-funded gang interventionists, experts who are often former gang members, and other volunteers hit the streets in a bid to prevent retaliation.

Residents incensed by the killing of a child were quick to provide details to police, who Friday announced the arrests of Marcus Denson, 18, and Leonard Hall, 21. Both are alleged members of the Kitchen Crips, which for years has been warring with a subset of the Bloods known as the Swans.

Deputy Chief Patrick Gannon estimated as many as 15 additional shootings were stopped.

This doesn’t even mention the $75,000 reward the community managed to put forth to get the killers arrested. All in all, a robust community response. One that Mac Donald surely would’ve known about if she’d done even middling research on her topic. (I found it with  a quick Google search.)

Maybe she did. But her use of Aaron Johnson indicates to me she’s mostly willing to brandish black bodies — not even as a defense against allegations of brutal, racist policing, but as a deflection against it. And it strikes me there’s something profane about using the dead body of a five-year-old black child as a bit of rhetorical jiu-jitsu.

Which is why it might be easy for me to throw in with the people who tried to prevent her from being heard, I guess. But I also believe free expression is made especially for expressions we find objectionable. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Heather Mac Donald’s right to express her views should be protected. But those views are still tripe. I can and do believe both things.

— Joel