There’s an NBC Meet the Press report doing the rounds on social media today purporting to establish an interesting causal connection between reporting on Donald Trump’s ties to Russia and Trump’s attacks on the mainstream media. In the video, Meet the Press’ Chuck Todd draws on the following evidence:
It’s a tactic with a pattern. The president’s attacks on the media repeatedly have directly followed reporting on Russia. On January 5th, NBC News reported on the intelligence community’s report on Russian influence in the election. On January 6th, President-Elect Trump tweeted, “I am asking the chairs of the House and Senate committees to investigate top-secret intelligence shared with NBC prior to me seeing it.” On February 13th, 14th, and 15th, news outlets reported on Mr. Trump’s ties to Russia. On February 16th, President Trump spent much of a 77-minute news conference attacking the press
The video then goes on to point out ways in which White House officials cajoled FBI officials and conservative lawmakers into trying to snuff out the ongoing news story concerning Trump’s connection to Russia.
That one kind of event frequently follows another is not of course definitive proof of direct or indirect causation. There are coincidences, for one, and sometimes the events will be independently caused by a third factor. In the northern hemisphere, there’s a strong incidence of people dressing up warmly shortly after birds migrate south; but it’s implausible to think that bird migration causes this sartorial behaviour; instead, both are caused, in part, by the changing seasons.
The repeated succession of two types of events is, however, defeasible evidence of a casual connection and at first sight, the timing of news stories about alleged connections between Russia and the Trump administration, on the one hand, and Trump’s attacks on the media, on the other, looks quite alarming. This appearance disappears, however, once one comes to appreciate that both kinds of events–the reporting and the attacks–are incessant.
What Todd’s report misses is that the mainstream media have reported on ties between Russia and the Trump administration, either explicitly or by innuendo, every single day in recent weeks. This reporting and editorializing spans the breadth of the corporate news media. Below is a non-exhaustive sample of reporting on this theme since Trump’s inauguration.
This makes the claim that Trump’s attacks against the media come directly after reports connecting him to Russia trivially true, because any time at all comes directly after such reports. That those attacks have “escalated” recently, as Todd puts it in the same segment, conceding that they have, is also poor evidence of any interesting connection for the same reason.
It’s worth mentioning that Trump’s attacks on the media are also a virtually daily occurrence, even if we restrict our attention to his Twitter feed and ignore the various speeches he has given and comments he has made to the same effect. Provided there were sufficient news stories connecting Trump to Russia to make sense of “repeatedly” (a presupposition of Todd’s claim), this would also make Todd’s claim that Trump’s “attacks on the media repeatedly have directly followed reporting on Russia” trivial.
Congratulations to @FoxNews for being number one in inauguration ratings. They were many times higher than FAKE NEWS @CNN – public is smart!
So the fact that Trump’s attacks on the media follow reports on his administration’s alleged ties to Russia appears to be either a coincidence (in the broadest sense of the word), or else derivative of a more plausible causal relationship. For instance, it seems likely that a causal relation exists between the media’s (mostly justified) general antipathy toward Trump and Trump’s criticisms of the media. This more general claim is supported at least by the fact that Trump’s “FAKE NEWS” accusations respond to a number of news themes, not just those concerning Russia.
I suppose that, in some sense, this more plausible causal connection would entail the one Todd means to establish, since the reports connecting Trump to Russia are an instance of the news media’s more general antipathy toward Trump. But the point of Todd’s claim is to distinguish the Russia-focussed reporting as uniquely reliable in eliciting Trump’s ire, since this is a way of supporting the claim that Trump is working on behalf of the Russian government (because, presumably, he would be especially sensitive to reporting that would reveal this fact). But there’s nothing here to support that unique causal relationship, even if it is true.
On his HBO show that aired on Friday the 17th February, Bill Maher interviewed Milo Yiannopoulos, senior editor at reactionary news outlet Breitbart. The interview attracted some attention not only because of Yiannopoulos’ far-right views, but also because invited guest Jeremy Scahill had declined to feature in the broadcast for this very reason.
There were many things to object to in the interview. Among them was one exchange in which Yiannopoulos discussed the way humour brings people together, arguing that this is a fundamental truth about human psychology that the modern progressive left has forgotten.
Milo Yiannopoulos: It’s a characteristic of the modern left, I think, requiring, you know, this absolute consistency and forgetting that people are messy and complicated and forgetting also some obvious other, um, human truths, I think, some realities of human psychology. Like, for instance, you know the reason they want to police humour, you know, which is very important to both of us, is that they can’t control it. Because the one thing that authoritarians hate is the sound of laughter, because they can’t control what people find funny.
Bill Maher: And also because when people laugh they know it’s true. Because laughter…
Yiannopoulos: Yeah, of course. Nothing annoys people or amuses people like the truth
Maher: …laughter is involuntary.
Yiannopoulos: Exactly, exactly…
Maher: When you laugh, even if you don’t really agree and that kind of part of your mind goes ‘holy shit’…
Yiannopoulos: …exactly, exactly, and so at my college talks you’ve got the professors at the front who are there to kind of monitor me, to make sure I don’t go off the rails, and I make a joke about Ted Cruz or something and they’re, like, [makes snickering sound]. You know, you can see it, you can see it. And the other thing, the other thing that’s really important is not just, um, is not just that. The other thing is, you know, humour isn’t how you drive people apart. You know, these sort of policing humour for racism and sexism is utterly wrongheaded, not just because normally it isn’t there but because that’s how we build bridges not how we break them. You know, when you make a joke about, when you make a joke, that’s how you connect with somebody. You know, you make jokes at the bar, you make awkward small talk. Humour’s what brings people together not what drives them apart. And these basic, you know, fundamental human psychological insights the… the progressive left has just forgotten.
The discussion was interesting for mobilizing two popular tropes about the cultural left that Maher did not question. First, that the cultural left will sacrifice the truth for ideological reasons. A recurring idea is that certain “facts” (about purported racial or gender differences, say) are inconvenient to those committed to substantive forms of egalitarianism, and cause them to deny these “facts” on political grounds—including “facts” about what is and isn’t funny. The second (which lurks in the background of the interview, if not said outright, and which is in some tension with the first) is that members of the cultural left are humourless authoritarians who, not understanding what’s funny themselves, wish to police humour to bully those using it into conformity.
I don’t deny that there are people who identify themselves with the progressive left who fit these stereotypes, deaf to countervailing evidence and ham-fistedly domineering in their cultural criticism, including of humour. That said, the progressive left has no monopoly on these traits. Take, for instance, Republican Reps. Martha Roby and Susan Brooks’ insistence that brief moments of light-heartedness during the extremely long 2015 Benghazi hearing with then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were not funny. And cases of the political right’s ignoring or denying claims on spurious ideological grounds are too abundant to list (the current U.S. administration furnishes us with many examples). But more importantly, the focus on these cases is unfortunate in that it involves attacking a straw-man version of serious left-wing criticism that is sometimes directed at humour. The result is that since the poorest weapons suffice to knock down a pile of straw, the arguments directed at mischaracterized positions tend to be pretty weak. Yiannopoulos’ interview offers a case in point.
Take this claim:
You know, these sort of policing humour for racism and sexism is utterly wrongheaded, not just because normally it isn’t there but because that’s how we build bridges not how we break them. You know, when you make a joke about, when you make a joke, that’s how you connect with somebody. You know, you make jokes at the bar, you make awkward small talk. Humour’s what brings people together not what drives them apart.
Yiannopoulos is here turning the tables on leftist critics of certain humour, arguing that in their attempt to include people and bring them together by “policing” humour they do the opposite, since “humour is what brings people together not what drives them apart”. This last claim has the air of the kind of homespun wisdom one might find on a Hallmark greeting card. It feels true, acceptable, but disguises something much darker (a metaphor for Yiannopoulos’ appearance on the show if ever there was one). Even conceding the point that humour brings people together—which is probably true of some people in most deployments of humour—this point overlooks the fact that this “bringing together” is not just a primitive fact or an unanalysable fuzzy feeling; it consists in fostering a sense of togetherness around something, be it an agreed upon claim, an attitude, a weltanschauung, whatever. And among the things around which one can foster a chuckling comradery —and here the darkness comes in—is the exclusion, denigration, and hatred of others.
So, when one of Yiannopoulos’ readers jokes to another:
Why do blacks have white under their feet and palms?
– Because everyone has some good in them.
This may help “build a bridge” between them. But it only does so by unjustly dismantling millions of other bridges, if they were ever standing to begin with. And like any other immoral act, telling such a joke in such a context merits criticism. So, the claim that criticizing it as unethical or offensive must reveal some failure to understand a fundamental tenet of human psychology, prudishness, or an authoritarian desire to compel conformity is quite obviously false.
Maher’s point that laughter betrays a (sometimes reluctant) recognition of the truth is also implausible as a general claim. The two people laughing at the above joke (told in that context) don’t recognize a truth; they both merely acknowledge a claim about how racial essences relate to virtue that they take to be true, but which is false. And many jokes require no recognition of a truth so much as a recognition of a joke-internal convention. Someone who has no distinguishable opinions about English, Scottish, and Irish people might laugh at an Englishman, Scotsman, Irishman joke because they understand—in spite of its falsity—that a convention is in play according to which the Irishman is dense.
A final thought: criticizing such uses of humour, even as being “not funny”, does not even require the critic to find the joke unfunny. She may admire its structural features or cleverness in spite of its flaws. This is not merely because some other tellings of the same joke are funny (that is, as philosopher Noël Carroll argues, it is joke tokens and not types that often ought to be the object of evaluation). Sometimes, saying that something is “not funny” is akin to saying that Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will has no beauty; as philosopher Kendall Walton points out, it can be an oblique, figurative way of saying that the joke is unethical or flawed in some other way that may or may not redound to its merits as humour.
People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate. […] It goes without saying, then, that language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power.
It’s a few Twitter outrage cycle past, so you probably need a quick refresher. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones wrote a post urging people to reserve the word “white supremacy” for Neo-Nazis and the KKK, and not for the underlying racist structures of which Neo-Nazis and the KKK are merely the most visible parts. Predictably, this misguided post received some pushback, especially from those familiar with the term’s origins.
More curious to me was Conor Friedersdorf’s defense of Kevin Drum:
It is awful to stigmatize people as cringeworthy for failing to speak in the vernacular of a tiny, insular subculture. Neither journalists nor academics speaking to a general audience can insist a term’s only meaning is a contested usage so little known that it confounds a longtime employee of Mother Jones and many residents of the Upper West Side. And it is deeply counterproductive to stigmatize those who use the common meaning of a well-known term with words like “embarrassing,” and “mortifying.”
There is the obvious, uncontroversial point that, all else being equal, people should not be stigmatized for not knowing a word’s meaning. On that I agree. But there is also the quietly controversial point about power and language engineering that Friedersdorf is making, wittingly or not. That, I want to explore more.
Friedersdorf seems to implicitly endorse a majoritarian view about language: a word’s meaning is the one accepted by the majority. So, in this case, the meaning of “white supremacy” is the one familiar to Kevin Drum and residents of the Upper West Side: it’s the stuff that only Neo-Nazis and the KKK are into, whatever those academics say.
As an academic, I don’t doubt that we deserve complaints about our jargons. But it’s worth noting here that the use of “white supremacy” to refer to structural racism is not only a part of privileged academics’ vernacular. Instead, as Chauncey DeVega notes, it goes back to WEB Du Bois and Frederick Douglass and, well, Black Americans developing the language to talk about their experiences. This subculture might too be tiny (compared to the white majority) and insulated (though not by their choice), but they deserve the credit for this vernacular.
Such precision about the subculture, though, is irrelevant to the majoritarian view about language. On this view, no subculture can ask the majority to speak the way that they do. The language is the one spoken by the majority, the vernaculars are spoken by the subcultures — whatever Baldwin says. As such, no subculture can insist on their vernacular meanings of a term. In fact, the meaning of a term accepted by the majority is — by definition!—the common meaning of the term in the language. And so the meaning of “white supremacy” is, and must be, the one familiar to Kevin Drum (who is white) and residents of the Upper West Side (who are very white).
And that is what Friedersdorf seems to be expressing. It is not the obvious, uncontroversial point that, all else being equal, people should not be stigmatized for not knowing a word’s meaning. It is in fact a thesis about who gets to decide a word’s meaning: the subcultures must not insist on their meanings, especially when they conflict with the ones accepted by the dominant culture. As such, it is a view about language that prescribes the recreation and reinforcement of existing power structures in our talks.
The No-Racist Phenomenon
While the majoritarian view of language is rarely explicitly stated, it is implicitly endorsed by many. To fully make sense of its implications, we need to consider another curious modern linguistic phenomenon: the word “racist” apparently cannot refer to any person in the actual world. That is, our language has been engineered such that there are no racists.
There is racism, of course. The word “racist” exists, obviously. And, without a doubt, the word is associated with the concept of a racist, which we certainly have in our heads.
Yes, these outright refusals to acknowledge the existence of racists, by the white extremists themselves, are extremely implausible. But they are not exceptional. In the same way that these extremists are just the most visible parts of the underlying racist structures, their claims about the word “racist” are just the most blatant attempts of engineering our language so that there are no racists. The white moderates have their methods of linguistic engineering that work more covertly.
Some go for the there-are-too-many move. For example, Nick Kristof says “do we really want to caricature half of Americans, some of whom voted for President Obama twice, as racist bigots”? It just can’t be that many. It must be built into the common meaning of the word “racist” that there are only very few racists in the actual world.
Others go for the it’s-politically-inconvenient move. For example, Drake Baer says the word “racist” is best not used, especially when you are trying to talk to someone who might be a racist (which, you know, could be anyone). The word “racist” can remain a part of the language in the abstract, but it must be excised from the way we talk. Whatever the common meaning of the word, it comes with a warning label that restricts its use.
(Baer suggests that we borrow an idea from some disability advocates and use person-first language. The thought is, I take it, that when we’d otherwise use “racist”, we should instead use “people with racism”.)
Vann Newkirk convincingly argues against these white moderate responses. As is often the case, he argues, such calls for civility fail to consider the people who suffer from the effects of racism. But I think the problem that underlies the no-racist phenomenon goes beyond civility. The problem, like the “white supremacy” controversy, has to do with power and language.
Semantics of Non-Reference
In The Racial Contract, philosopher Charles Mills introduces the concept of epistemology of ignorance. Normally, epistemology is concerned with knowledge. However, according to Mills, structural racism prescribes for the dominant group — the whites, in the actual world — an epistemology that purposefully eschews knowledge with respect to matters of structural racism. The concept thus refers to
a particular pattern of localized and global cognitive dysfunctions (which are psychologically and socially functional), producing the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made […] a cognitive model that precludes self-transparency and genuine understanding of social realities.
Mills’s insight is that it is a central part of structural racism that it hides itself from our thoughts. I contend that the epistemology of ignorance has a counterpart in language. Call it semantics of non-reference: it is a central part of structural racism that it hides itself from our talks.
And now, finally, we get to how racists are made into unicorns. It is a case study of the semantics of non-reference that structural racism prescribes.
Unicorns? The word “unicorn” exists. And the word is associated with the concept of a unicorn, which we have in our heads. But there are no unicorns. The meaning of the word is such that it does not refer to anything in the actual world.
It takes two steps to make racists into unicorns.
First, the white majority insists on linguistically privileging their preferred meanings of words. Sure, the subcultures can continue to speak their “vernaculars”, but — in a convenient interaction with the epistemology of ignorance — their meanings of words will remain so little known by the white majority such that they can still confound a longtime employee of Mother Jones and many residents of Upper West Side. (And, subculture people, don’t stigmatize the common meaning!)
Second, the white majority — now with the power to decide a word’s meaning—engineers away the problematic words. Or, at least, it engineers away the words’ problems. They might build into a word’s meaning that it just cannot refer to the majority of the majority. Or they might simply place a do-not-use label on it.
There you go. Racists are now made into unicorns. Well, at least the word “racist” is made to be like the word “unicorn”. Of course, unlike unicorns, racists are still with us. But at least our language has been untethered from reality so that we can no longer talk about them.
This morning, UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced that the UK intends to formally adopt an official definition of anti-Semitism in order to, as an earlier Downing Street statement reportedly put it “ensure that culprits will not be able to get away with being antisemitic because the term is ill-defined, or because different organisations or bodies have different interpretations of it”. The definition is written by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) and is included in a press release from earlier this year.
Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.
The UK government’s statement comes on the back of a widely reported “spike” in anti-Semitic hate crimes in the UK, which is borne out to some extent by figures collected both by UK authorities and the Jewish advocacy group Community Security Trust (CST). The data is summarized below and is available here (UK, 2009-2015), here (CST 2011-2015), and here (CST 2016).
Community Security Trust
Anti-Semitic incidents reported
Anti-Semitic incidents reported
557 (first 6 months only)
The announcement has drawn criticism from prominent voices on the left. Intercept journalist Glenn Greenwald, famous in part for his role in publishing documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, described the definition as including criticism of Israel that “officials view as excessive”.
UK to formally adopt a law defining "anti-Semitism" to include: criticism of Israel that officials view as excessive https://t.co/Bf6dH8hVzn
In another tweet, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)’s Adam Johnson quoted the guidance included in IHRA’s press release, stating “In the U.K., it is officially antisemitic to claim “the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavor””.
In the U.K., it is officially antisemitic to claim "the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavor" https://t.co/uVHeTgKyuO
I expect these kinds of worries will be raised repeatedly in the coming days following this announcement. In a broader context of attempts to conceptually tie criticism of Israel and its policies to anti-Semitism as such, nervousness about these kinds of government pronouncements is understandable. Consider, for instance, Hillary Clinton’s jab at the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement at the end of an article principally about fighting the use of violence against Israel. This article unfairly lumps BDS together with far more controversial forms of resistance to Israeli hostility and with attempts to achieve more nefarious anti-Israeli goals. Or consider Clinton’s speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in which she drew a direct, if (unsubtley) implicit, connection between the “alarming” BDS movement and anti-Semitism.
Relevant also is that these attempts are occurring in a further context of appalling Israeli policies toward Palestine, supported (albeit with occasional murmurings of dissatisfaction) by many countries in the West—primarily the US but also the UK. (For extensive documentation of these policies and practices, see here). Tying opposition to Israeli policies and anti-Semitism together, therefore, has the menacing effect of shielding oppression using the language of justice.
The definition, that anti-Semitism may be expressed as “hatred towards Jews”, is hopeless by itself; is A an anti-Semite for hating B and C, who are incidentally Jewish (perhaps A doesn’t even know B and C are Jewish) but non-incidentally arseholes? Perhaps recognizing this, IHRA have supplemented it with illustrative examples of purported anti-Semitism. At least two of the examples would be worrying were they unqualified. First there is the example Johnson quotes—claiming that “the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavor” (although saying ‘a state of Israel’ rather than ‘the state of Israel’ seems more plausibly anti-Semitic, if only because it implies that any attempt to create a culturally Jewish state, not just the current one, would be racist). The other debatable example of anti-Semitism the document provides is “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis”. It strikes me as a good default policy not to make such comparisons at least on grounds of tastefulness. But whether the comparison is anti-Semitic surely depends on the accuracy or avoidability of the comparison, as well as the circumstances in which it is made. Would comparing a Keynesian Israeli economic policy in this way, perhaps in the context of a sober historical discussion, be anti-Semitic? At the very least, such a potentially controversial case probably shouldn’t serve as a model illustration of one’s definition.
However, the document is quite clear that the examples are meant to illustrate cases that could constitute cases of anti-Semitism and which therefore, by implication, needn’t. Responses like Greenwald’s, Johnson’s, and White’s appear to ignore this important qualification, especially since the document also prefaces the examples by explicitly stating that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic”.
There are good grounds to think that various parties are trying to discredit legitimate criticism of Israeli policy by associating it or its proponents with anti-Semitism. There may even be grounds to think that people within the UK government are trying to do so too, perhaps even by adopting this definition. Still, the adopted definition (and examples) itself provides no obvious tools for doing so, even if it goes on to be misused for this purpose.
The announcement of Donald Trump as president elect of the United States left vast rumblings of confusion in its wake. Particularly among self-identified Democrats and staunch Hillary supporters, there is a shared concern that despite all the analytics and political knowledge at their disposal, they simply misunderstood the USA. Thus, news outlets are reporting a new divisiveness in the country. A deeper division than we’ve ever seen. Sadly, this is far from the case.
The response from the African-American community is humor at shock felt in response to Trump’s election. The weekend after the election, Dave Chappelle hosted SNL and used his monologue to express this precise sentiment:
“I didn’t know that Donald Trump was gonna win the election,” he says in the opening, “I did suspect it. It seemed like Hillary was doing well in the polls. Yet, I know the Whites. You guys aren’t as full of surprises as you used to be.” The reference to “the Whites,” is meant to be jarring. Of all the demographics mentioned throughout the election, “the Whites” are typically not one of them [though were we looking before the post mortem?]. Thus, besides making reference to Trump’s inappropriate terminology towards marginalized groups, Chappelle here signifies that the discord felt is a problem particular to “White America’s” own self-understanding.
The genius of Chappelle’s invocation of “The Whites” is that it positions him as an anthropological expert with knowledge to share, from an African-American perspective. The lesson is that, “We’ve been here before.” Though racism and division in America strikes the experts as new. It’s been a fundamental part of African-American experience, shaping their understanding of life in the United States.
The first sketch of the show dramatizes this difference in experience. Here, Chappelle, later joined by Chris Rock, watches the election returns with White friends in what’s presented as an upper class New York condo. Throughout the sketch, Chappelle balances cynicism and knowing detachment against the early confidence and slowly developing fear of his friends.
The sketch plays on two different forms of knowledge that separate Rock and Chappelle from the rest of the group. On the one hand, there’s the knowledge that comes with an analytic perspective grounded in traditional political analysis. In the first chain of dialog, for example, each White character has a scenario for how Hillary wins the election, by how much, and about the end of the possibility of a Republican president. All these scenarios are drawn from common media outlets offering sure data on the election results. Thus, as the night continues, there’s always another permutation on the election results that would allow their prediction that Hillary Clinton would be elected to seem true.
On the other hand, there’s Chappelle and Rock’s knowledge of the culture of the US. Chappelle, “knows the Whites,” and that “it’s a big country.” Thus, as his friends move through election scenarios and point to demographic shifts that should swing the election for Hillary, Dave is stoically aware that these statistics ignore US cultural dynamics. Chris Rock’s first line is “I mean, of course,” in response to the idea that Trump might win. For each scenario their friends offer, Rock and Chappelle have a piece of wisdom about the US that proves why their friends’ understanding rests on false assumptions. While the analysis may be correct, the data sources are not.
What Rock and Chappelle know, and their friends don’t, is that racism continues to exist in the United States. Cecily Strong declares, shocked, “I think America is racist!” To which Chappelle responds, “I think my Great-Grandfather told me something like that, but he was a slave or something.” The cultural knowledge of the continued existence of racism trumps demographic knowledge of the US because it’s more directly tied to the dynamics of US politics. The juxtaposition between Obama, “a charismatic 40 year old black guy,” and “Hillary,” the “70 year old White woman,” shows that the rally behind Obama went beyond policy to appeal to American cultural life. It’s not enough to be experienced and qualified. Candidates win through their appeal to the popular narratives surrounding national life. This knowledge is missing from an experience of the country mediated by a vacuum chamber of statistics and abstract political wisdom.
Through both his monologue and the opening sketch, Dave Chappelle aligns himself with the tradition of African-American pragmatism which has always understood that experience in the United States is fundamentally racialized. In the wake of the Trump election, for example, the media response has focused on the proliferation of “fake news” and social media as sources of disinformation and a way of amplifying the sense of one’s own rightness and the superiority of each social groups’ position. This response echo’s John Dewey’s contention in The Public and its Problems, where he laments that the media isolates individuals into their own political communities, giving an incomplete portrait of American Life.
From the perspective of African-American Pragmatists, such as W.E.B. Dubois, this analysis doesn’t go far enough. The culture of the U.S. is always already divided through the continued marginalization of African-American and other perspectives, which are excluded in most popular media coverage. When DuBois mentions that the “Negro is…gifted with second-sight in this American World” (“Of Our Spiritual Strivings”), he means precisely that African-Americans have a particular cultural knowledge of the country by virtue of their marginalization. In the wake of the election, news outlets have focused their attention on the White underclass to understand why they would vote for something or someone that isn’t in their “rational interest.” This search results from a disconnect between media and experience. One could argue that the proliferation of alternative forms of media and “fake news” is part of a response to sanitized forms of reporting that bracket or isolate their facts from the lived experience of most of the country through the lens of presumed objectivity. As the experts scramble, we should hear Dave Chappelle’s message that “we’ve been here before.”
The thought behind, “we’ve been here before,” is that we’ve never completely left the social and racial dynamics that divide the United States. The laugh that Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock share after Beck Bennet’s character claims that “this is the most shameful thing that America has ever done,” is a knowing one. Bennet’s statement ignores the history of slavery, the continued annihilation of the Native American population, and all the other various colonial actions throughout the history of the country. It’s the ultimate “out of touch” moment. At the same time, it’s a subjectively justified statement as this character has not had to undergo the types of experience that would make the presence of racism present for him. The same is true of media coverage and expert analysis in many cases.
The end of Chappelle’s monologue lets us know that all is not lost. His retelling of a hosting of African Americans, and “Bradley Cooper for some reason,” in the White House reminds us that African-Americans have made strides towards equality despite the indication that there’s still more work to do. Through his comedy, he’s also continuing the exercise in cultural education given through African-American art as a form of philosophical social engagement. African-American music, art, literature, and media have served as a vehicle for Black American economic empowerment as well as delivery system for the knowledge that comes through encounters with social inequality. Through his comedy, Dave Chappelle is once again playing the roles of philosopher, anthropologist and cultural critic, making us aware of the fact that racism isn’t isolated in Kentucky. It’s woven into the fabric of life in the United States and cannot be addressed without taking the African-American experience seriously as a part of the United States’ national history.
Michael L. Thomas is a lecturer in the Structured Liberal Education programme at Stanford University whose work deals with process philosophy, aesthetics, and the philosophy of race.
“Out of 2.6 million anti-semitic tweets sent from Aug 2015-July 2016, 70% came from just 1,600 accounts”. So Ezra Klein tweeted recently, with a link to Mathew Yglesias’s Vox.com discussion of a new report from the Anti-Defamation League containing this finding.
According to some, the inference to draw is that while the surge in anti-Semitism is troubling and not to be minimized, the fact that such a high percentage of the offending tweets was written by such a comparatively small group of people (just 1,600) is encouraging. It suggests that those writing anti-Semitic tweets are “not exactly a mass social movement” according to Yglesias. Julia Galef, cofounder of the Center for Applied Rationality, described the result as “good news”.
But I didn’t find the statistic very informative. For one thing, I have almost no intuitions at all as to whether the 70%-1,600 statistic is unusual. How few accounts are responsible for 70% of all Seattle Seahawks tweets, or 70% of all Ghostbusters tweets, or 70% of all Libertarian Tweets? Is the 1,600 figure for such topics unusually low, about average, or fairly high? Without such comparisons, I have no idea what to infer.
Or, cutting more deeply, imagine the following. Start with a scenario in which there is a distribution of anti-Semitic tweets you regard as troubling—I’ll leave it up to you what the distribution is exactly. Now add to the scenario a single person, a remarkably proficient anti-Semite. This anti-Semite matches the total quantity of anti-Semitic tweets written by all other people, and then writes one more. Has adding this proficient anti-Semite made the scenario better, made it less troubling than it started off? After all, it’s now the case that more than 50% of all anti-Semitic tweets are written by just a single person, and one person is “not exactly a mass social movement,” in Yglesias’s words. But this is absurd: surely we haven’t made the scenario better in this way.
More realistically, a scenario in which lots and lots of people are writing occasional anti-Semitic tweets while a few people are writing tons of them (70% worth) doesn’t seem like much of an improvement on a scenario with the same overall number of people writing anti-Semitic tweets but with a more equal distribution. If this is right, the 70%-1,600 figure seems like the wrong way to try to get a handle on the extent of the problem.
All that said, I do find somewhat plausible the hypothesis that the recent upsurge in Twitter anti-Semitism is mostly due to a limited group of people. Even prior to looking at any serious evidence, I think there’s a decent chance this is true. My claim is only that when we do look at the serious evidence, I would like to have something more informative than the statistic in question.
Justin Tiehen is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Puget Sound who works primarily in the philosophy of mind and metaphysics. He also maintains an impressive list of Trumpsplanations on Twitter.
Recently, I went for a run through Mexico City, where I live. The route took me around the Olympic Stadium, home of the 1968 Games. Among that Olympiad’s more notable incidents was a protest staged by 200m gold and bronze medallists, Tommie Smith and John Carlos. 48 years ago today, while the US anthem played during the medal ceremony, shoeless in black socks, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists to protest a number of injustices, including the plight of African-Americans. There are obvious parallels between that protest and Kaepernick’s, which has consisted of sitting or kneeling during the national anthem before football games to protest the same plight in its 21st Century guise. Both protests form part of a long tradition of athletes racialized as Black standing up against racial and other injustice (for examples, see here, here, here, here, and here).
Thinking about the Olympic protest got me wondering: how might responses to it in the popular press have differed from the kinds of criticisms aimed at Kaepernick? I briefly explore this question here, having looked at tens of related articles in important newspapers from the period. But I’m also interested in how persuasive some of these criticisms (of Smith and Carlos and Kaepernick) even are. Regarding this last question, I’ll look at Brooks and Albom’s central arguments.
Let’s start with David Brooks. Brooks expresses sympathy with the object of protest (oppression of US people of colour) but concludes that the protest method is inappropriate:
His main worry is that shunning nationalistic rituals such as anthem-singing degrades the national unity required to address collective problems, such as unjust race relations. Protesting as Kaepernick does is, therefore, not merely disrespectful according to Brooks. It is also instrumentally flawed because it undermines the conditions needed to address the injustices against which Kaepaernick is protesting.
Brooks’ argument relies on the claim that failing to participate in nationalistic rituals undermines national unity. This might seem obviously true. But it’s obviousness stems from a tempting assumption that nationalistic rituals effectively serve the purpose of encouraging community among a nation’s citizens. But this is far from obvious. If some such rituals are divisive or exclusionary, then the claim looks dubious. And there’s good reason to think this is the case with respect to the singing of the Star-spangled Banner. Indeed, the point of Kaepernick’s protest can be fruitfully thought of as pointing out the painful irony of engaging in rituals proclaiming that “we’re all in this together”, when the facts on the ground—obscene inequalities of various kinds—show this is far from the case. In short: a hollow or disingenuous ritual of solidarity-building is probably worse for fostering solidarity than no ritual at all. And the same can be said for participating in such rituals.
The other claim Brooks relies on here is that national unity (above a certain degree, presumably) is needed to address injustice. But no evidence is offered for this assertion. Moreover, given that important and successful protests sharply divide public opinion as a matter of course, the worry that a protest would disturb national unity and therefore fail, or be more likely to fail, in its aims is dubious. Consider the moral disgust millions of Americans felt throughout the early 20th Century towards the aims and means of the civil rights movement (it’s worth recalling that even roughly a year after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, nearly half of Americans believed the law was being implemented too quickly). Yet, that movement secured numerous forms of at least formal equality. That Brooks’ criticism could be made of virtually any nationally significant protest appears to escape his attention.
An LA Times article from the 20th October, 1968 collects the opinions of foreign sports correspondents on the Smith and Carlos protest in Mexico City. “Most of those questioned”, it reads, “think that the black man in America has legitimate grievances”, but that the protest “was not a proper expression of these grievances”. The reasons given as to why it was improper are a mix of instrumental worries about effectiveness and concerns about sullying the sacred custom of honouring the flag. A reporter for Bild remarks that raising their fists was “not the best way” for Smith and Carlos to protest, and that “a man should give honor to his flag”. A reporter for football magazine Kicker claims that the protests undermine the conditions needed to address the problems they highlight, specifically, by being so “ridiculous” that “they can never get the sympathy they need”. A Daily Express journalist agrees with his Bild colleague that ignoring their own flag was “unforgivable”. These arguments bear a striking similarity to Brooks’. The article is reproduced in full below.
Returning to the present day and the Detroit Free Press, Mitch Albom makes a different criticism to Brooks’ that shares the unfortunate property of being applicable to any protest whatsoever in a politically liberal context. He argues that the fact that Kaepernick is entitled to protest is the very reason he shouldn’t protest at all.
The underlying premise in this argument seems to be that being able to protest without official repercussions against a country makes that country sufficiently excellent to effectively exonerate it from whatever charge the protestors bring against it. But since freedom of protest is only one virtue of a political system, and doesn’t guarantee all others, this premise is clearly false; a country can quite obviously merit protest despite being excellent in other ways. And Albom’s appeal to the shortcomings of other political systems is a red herring. The fact that my shit soup tastes better than your diarrhoea soup tells us nothing about the quality of my shit soup, except as it relates to the quality of your diarrhoea soup. You certainly need not eat it without protest on this account. (I should mention, however, that I make a mean shit soup).
Returning to Smith and Carlos, we find the same reason appealed to in a Washington Post article, also from the 20th October, 1968. “The mere fact” that Tommie Smith “dared to demonstrate” his negative feelings towards the United States, the writer tells us, “underlines the greatness of the nation in which he lives”.
As it happens, Smith and Carlos were banished from the ’68 Games and faced abuse back home. So their stand didn’t go unpunished; it came at considerable personal cost. But the argument would have been just as terrible had they been welcomed back with ticker-tape parades.
Albom’s piece also argues that if Kaepernick’s cause is enough to warrant protesting the national anthem, then so are a host of other causes. But since those affiliated with these other causes do stand for the flag or anthem, unlike Kaepernick, so should Kaepernick. The form Albom’s argument exhibits is a kind of botched example of what philosophers call modus tollens. The form is this: if p then q, not q therefore not p. That is, the argument states a conditional (if p then q), then denies the conditional’s consequent (q), and from this denies its antecedent (p).
In this case, the argument is that if Kaepernick needn’t stand for the flag, then nor need Native Americans, Mexican Americans, etc. But Native Americans, etc. should stand for the flag. Thus, so should Kaepernick.
The straightforward problems with the argument are twofold. First, Albom needs to establish that Native Americans, etc. should stand for the flag. But all he establishes, or aims to establish, is that they do “manage to stand for the flag”. But the fact that someone does or doesn’t do something tells us nothing about whether she should or shouldn’t do it (that I offer you diarrhoea soup for instance, doesn’t mean I ought to—I could offer you a stipulatively tastier shit soup for instance!). Second, the claim that, say, Native Americans (all) stand for the flag is false.
But there is another problem with the argument. Modus tollens is only a powerful argumentative strategy if rejecting the conditional statement’s consequent (q) is more plausible than accepting its antecedent (p); in the case under consideration, the argument is only persuasive if the claim that Native Americans, etc. should stand for the anthem is more obviously true than the claim that African Americans (e.g. Colin Kaepernick) needn’t. But if we take Kaepernick’s protest seriously, it seems that things are the other way around: the fact that African Americans needn’t stand for the anthem is more compelling than the claim that Native Americans, etc. should.
If that’s right, then we ought to “ponens Albom’s tollens”. Instead of denying the consequent and using this to deny the antecedent, we need to affirm the antecedent and use this to affirm the consequent. That means, since Kaepernick needn’t stand for the flag, we conclude that nor should Native Americans, etc. (I call this “ponensing the tollens” because the argument form I’m proposing we substitute in is called modus ponens).
These argumentative problems also befall a 1968 L’Equipe journalist quoted in the LA Times article above:
The questions at the end of the passage are meant to be rhetorical. What if everyone with a grievance started protesting!? The Horror! But we can legimitately retort: Well, what if they did? After all, maybe athletes ought to be making such protests, at least as long as those protests are reasonable.
What do these passages tell us about how much the attitudes of newspaper pundits have changed since the 60s? Well, the examples here are hand-chosen to illustrate a point, not to provide a comprehensive survey. Accurately gauging how far US and other opinion-makers have come with regard to their thinking about race-relations and related protests since 1968 would require extensive media analysis. That said, the fact that major newspapers are still trotting out arguments almost indistinguishable from terrible ones offered in the poisonous racial atmosphere of the US in the 1960s should raise some doubts about how much progress has been made in the collective moral imagination since then. If not that, then it should raise doubts about any claimed improvements in the editorial hiring practices of major news outlets.