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Ferguson, Missouri and the Fog of Partisanship and Ideology

Be Careful What You Think You Know

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Having a coherent political philosophy is a good thing. So is being active in partisan politics and choosing a side. But the saga of events in Ferguson, Missouri is a reminder of the hazards of letting your choice of side do all your thinking for you.

I am particularly reminded of this by the juxtaposition of two items of news today. On the one hand, we have the preliminary autopsy report showing pretty clearly that Michael Brown was shot in the front, not in the back – which had been the original inflammatory claim that helped incite riots in Ferguson. On the other, we have people like Al Sharpton pushing voter registration drives in Ferguson, with Markos Moulitsas, Steve Benen and ThinkProgress cheerleading.

The former point is significant because it is yet another reminder that Brown’s shooting by a Ferguson police officer, and the subsequent back-and-forth between the anti-police protestors (including rioters and looters as well as peaceful protests) and the local and area police (including some very heavy-handed responses) is a specific case, and while it is useful to come to understand a specific case through the lens of our worldviews, it is also perilous to overcommit to the idea that the facts will always come out the way we would expect them to. If a baseball team wins two-thirds of its games, it can be true that it’s the better team and yet also true that it loses a third of the time. Ideology (and partisanship) should be a compass, not a straitjacket. I am generally pro-police, as a rule, and inclined to be skeptical of the knee-jerk attacks on the cops after a confrontation like the one with Brown. But that doesn’t mean I should close my eyes to the fact that there are specific cases where the cops are very much in the wrong. Here, having shot an unarmed man, there is certainly a good reason to want an explanation of how that happened, and more than a little reason to think the answer will end up being that the cop at issue shot Brown without justification. Should you be outraged about that? Yes, you should – but not if that’s not what actually happened. And as of now, we still do not know for sure what did happen.

The problem here is that the initial reports of these kinds of cases – like the Trayvon Martin shooting – tend to paint the world as an either/or choice: either Brown was a virtuous, totally law-abiding kid, or a gangbanging thug. Either he was wrestling the gun from the cop’s hands to shoot him, or he was blown away for no reason at all while jaywalking. Either evidence of him doing bad stuff is totally incriminating or totally irrelevant. Sometimes, some stories have no other side – but those are rare. The more we learn about Brown and the shooting, the more we see that the original, riot-inducing narrative was full of falsehoods: he was not shot in the back, and he had that very evening assaulted a storekeeper who caught him shoplifting cigars. On the other hand, the fact that a teenager posed in pictures and self-penned rap lyrics as a tough guy and smoked pot probably tells us nothing at all besides that he was a teenager who wanted to look tough and smoke pot, and basically nothing at all of relevance to the evening’s events. People who insist on using these facts as proof that the shooting was justified are letting their worldview overtake the need to judge what actually happened. (Many similar illustrations on both sides of the hazards of politics by anecdote come to mind – the Cliven Bundy case being one).

Much the same, as Erick has noted, is true of the response of the police and the community after the shooting. Rioting and looting, in my view, is never justified, at least not unless and until you have reached that point of total breach of trust with your government that would justify armed revolution (in this sense, I disagree with Leon). The police have an absolute obligation to suppress that sort of thing and not let innocent people get robbed and their businesses and homes burned down. On the other hand, as many on the Right have been noting for a while now, there are real concerns in general about the over-militarization of local police (often funded with federal money) in places that have no particular need for a major anti-terrorism strike force. And there are valid concerns to be aired in the specific case over whether the cops in this particular situation overreacted against peaceful demonstrators and journalists. Firing up your rhetorical high horse over such issues is fine – I’m a big believer in the value of adversarial writing as a way of getting at the truth – but it’s vital not to let general principles obscure the specific facts on the ground.

As to the other item about voter registration, it brings up the related question of politicizing events like Ferguson. We have, of course, endured many years of lectures from liberals about not politicizing racially divisive events, lectures that are usually comical in their hypocrisy. Personally, I have no problem with voter registration drives, or with politicizing tragic events in general: life and death issues are the most serious stuff of politics, after all. It’s fair to raise again any number of related and relevant issues. But there are three important cautions to bear in mind.

The first, of course, is that simple common decency should restrain us from leaping immediately into the fray in the first 24-48 hours. That can be easier said than done, when one is tempted to respond before the other side sets its political narrative in concrete (Hurricane Katrina was maybe the most notorious example of the Left selling a narrative in the first 48 hours that got widely accepted as truth long after most of its original factual claims got debunked). But the very immediate aftermath of an event is often not conducive to much in the way of rational thought, either.

We’re beyond that by now, so the second issue arises: getting the facts straight. Part of the problem when you have immediate, ideological agitation in the interim between a shooting and getting to the truth is, you end up with things like riots based on extensive misinformation. My concern here, as it was at the start of the Trayvon Martin case, is that the Left (the Democrats, the progressive activists, the Sharpton-style race hustlers, media liberals) comes into cases like this deeply invested in fitting them into a particular narrative, and that ends up driving us further from the truth because every dispute over the particular facts becomes a Referendum On Race In America instead of a question of “what does the evidence actually show?” It would probably be a lot worse already but for the fact that both the President and the current Governor of Missouri are Democrats, so the Democrats’ incentive to turn this into a meta-narrative about America’s current leadership has been somewhat hamstrung.

If you want an illustration what that ideological lens is, consider the question of “black on black crime”. Ta Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic debunks, here and here, the notion that African-Americans don’t care about violent crime committed by black people against each other. As Coates notes, if you talk to people at the grassroots level or search Google for local news stories, you find quite a lot of examples of black folks – especially those living in high-crime urban areas – who are protesting and organizing and putting themselves on the line against the forces that make their neighborhoods unsafe.

What Coates does not ask is why you have to dig through Google to find this stuff. The more interesting question is why the very people on Coates’ side of the partisan and ideological aisle, the Democratic politicians and progressive writers and activists, don’t trumpet these stories the way they trumpet a story like the shooting of Michael Brown. Not that conservative outlets and Republican politicians are innocent of this, either – it is the case that folks on the Right sometimes fall lazily into just assuming that all black people believe the same lockstep hyper-partisan nonsense that black Democratic politicians say, even when we know full well that not all white people believe the same nonsense that their white representatives say. But ultimately, it is the Democrats and the progressives who mostly have the votes of African-Americans, and who purport to represent their concerns. And yet, when those concerns involve something other than stirring up anger at Republicans, they are not really important enough to get sustained attention. The left-wing magazines, blogs and TV networks will swoop into Ferguson to talk about Michael Brown, but if a year from now there’s a protest in Ferguson like the ones Coates collects, they’ll be nowhere in sight.

Finally, there’s a third issue, which is that there are actually some things that Right and Left agree on here – which is not always the case – and we actually could have a productive discussion of, say, militarizing the police. Real bipartisanship is not about making deals that corruptly pay off both sides’ donors at once, or about pushing bills that have a veneer of bipartisanship but are stuffed with poison pills the other side can’t ever accept. It’s about recognizing when common ground emerges, and setting aside differences (even real, important ones) to work on that common ground. But the minute you turn your energies into just another effort to register Democratic voters and fire up the Democratic base in advance of an election, the harder you will work to push a totally one-sided narrative of events, and the harder you make it to keep the common ground from vanishing in the fog.

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