The Better Letter: Tasty Poison

Coming to terms with the George Floyd outrage

Thanks to social media, everybody can see what’s going on and it isn’t good.

“Picket lines and picket signs | Don't punish me with brutality | Talk to me, so you can see | Oh, what's going on.”

This great Marvin Gaye song sounds like a party but it’s really a prayer.

We can see what’s going on, but figuring out what to do about it is another thing entirely. 

It’s easy to head down a blind alley (they weren’t quite the first, but Fanny was the seminal all-female rock band in the early 1970s).

An old white guy shouldn’t presume to have the answers to this, anyway. But we should all try.

One thing I do know, I want to be more like Givionne Jordan, the speaker, truly the preacher, in the video below, who was singled out and jailed for his powerful eloquence.

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Tasty Poison

One

On May 25, a deli employee called 911 to accuse George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, of buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. Seventeen minutes after the first squad car arrived at the scene, Mr. Floyd was handcuffed, face-down, unconscious, and pinned beneath three police officers, showing no signs of life.

Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is white and had been the subject of 18 prior misconduct complaints, kept his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, well after Mr. Floyd lapsed into unconsciousness and for a full minute after paramedics arrived.

While pinned to the ground, in an eerie echo of Eric Garner’s death in 2014, Floyd repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe,” and then, “I’m about to die.” Thereafter, a bystander said, “They just killed him.”

Two

It was once axiomatic that the revolution would not be televised.

This week’s revolution is possible only because of the instant media provided by security cameras, surveillance videos, and citizen journalists.

It’s easy to conclude that privacy no longer exists. That’s mostly terrifying.

Sometimes, however, that lack of privacy comes in handy. Things that bad actors like Derek Chauvin would prefer to keep hidden are illuminated. Reality is exposed.

Even Rush Limbaugh had to admit, “I can’t find a way to justify it.”

When the truth is televised, it can be powerful indeed. 

Three

As a young attorney, I was assigned as counsel in criminal cases by various courts for people who couldn’t afford an attorney. In that role, I saw a fair number of criminal matters – those I participated in and those I watched while waiting for my cases to be called.

The cases were all petty. Drunk driving. Vandalism. Breaking and entering. There were no hardened criminals there — just unfortunates, kids in over their heads, and various deadbeats. “Guilty” hung over them liken a speech bubble in a graphic novel. No fortunate sons there.

As a generally conservative, law-and-order guy (my law professor, Walter Dellinger, later President Bill Clinton’s Solicitor General, called me his “hanging judge” in class, only partly in jest), it took a while for what I was watching to sink in. Eventually, what I had been missing became unmistakable. 

In all of those cases, every piece of contraband seized was in plain sight or found after the suspect consented to search. The pot was on the front seat. The defendant allowed the police to open the trunk. He opened the glove compartment and the drugs fell out.

On a case-by-case basis, it was all entirely plausible. As the cases and the days piled up, the aggregate implausibility of it began screaming at me.

I had to conclude that the system was rigged. The police had also determined that the system was rigged, but in a different way, and did what they deemed necessary to get what was, in their view, the proper result.

I have no doubt that in the vast majority of cases, rough justice was done. But the dishonesty of the proceedings had to have a chilling effect on the people involved. Police, prosecutors, and judges lost sight of the oaths they swore. Defendants lost faith – if they ever had it – that justice was possible. The rule of law was honored only in the breach.

“We got to fight the powers that be.”

The system was rigged.

Four

Too many black Americans have been brutalized by police. George Floyd is only the latest example. 

The fact that a black man has been elected President of the United States shows that we have made great strides against racism. In no way does it show that racism is dead, or even dying. Today’s racism is more de facto and less de jure, more systemic and less overt, but it is no less real.

Everybody laughs at the Key and Peele bit about President Obama teaching his daughter to drive and getting slammed onto the hood of his car by a cop because (a) it’s funny; and (b) we all recognize that, like all good humor, it is grounded in truth. A black man “shouldn’t have to be Dave Chappelle to survive police encounters.”

Riots are “socially destructive and self-defeating,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said during the violent unrest in the 1960s. However, “[i]t is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots.”

It is easy (and right!) to condemn rioters and looters. Rioting and looting are wrong. Full stop. You can be sure that the president and his surrogates will keep making that point non-stop.

But, even as we do that, we can also try to understand. More importantly, we can work to eliminate the causes of the protests and to give the rule of law the power it is designed to have by holding everyone accountable for their actions: police, politicians, rioters, and looters alike.

Everyone.

Throughout the country this week, many unarmed people (mostly) on the right side of the law were protesting police misconduct and were too frequently subjected to police misconduct themselves.

In Michigan, three weeks ago, armed men trying to intimidate public servants by stalking right up to the edge of the law (and stepping over) were afforded every bit of leeway and legal protection of their rights imaginable by the police. 

You do the math (h/t Jonathan Last and his excellent newsletter).

“[A] riot is the language of the unheard,” Dr. King said. “As long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.”

Important addendum: When Dr. King was assassinated, riots broke out in 110 American cities, causing immense property damage. On the sixth day of the riots, the Civil Rights Act of 1968, previously given up for dead, was passed.

Five

Forty-two years and 16 days ago, Kurt Vonnegut gave my college commencement address. Being stupid and full of myself – in other words, a new college graduate – I completely misunderstood it. At the time, what I heard was him telling us to hate more.

Happily, the speech made it into print decades later, allowing me to see reality in black and white on paper and thus to confront the depth of my error. Vonnegut’s speech was brilliant. Its climax follows.

“As a member of a zippier generation, with sparkle in its eyes and a snap in its stride, let me tell you what kept us as high as kites a lot of the time: hatred. All my life I’ve had people to hate — from Hitler to Nixon, not that those two are at all comparable in their villainy. It is a tragedy, perhaps, that human beings can get so much energy and enthusiasm from hate. If you want to feel ten feet tall and as though you could run a hundred miles without stopping, hate beats pure cocaine any day. Hitler resurrected a beaten, bankrupt, half-starved nation with hatred and nothing more. Imagine that.

“…The members of your graduating class are not sleepy, are not listless, are not apathetic. They are simply performing the experiment of doing without hate. Hate is the missing vitamin or mineral or whatever in their diet, they have sensed correctly that hate, in the long run, is about as nourishing as cyanide. This is a very exciting thing that they are doing, and I wish them well.”

Sadly, as this week’s news demonstrated, again and again, our experiment failed utterly. The allure of the tasty poison proved too strong.

When substantial numbers of Americans want to burn things down at home, whether on the battlefields of the Civil War, the black churches of the Jim Crow south, or the streets and campuses of 1968, hate is on the march, somehow and in some way.

Today, America is again burning and hate is again marching. 

Six

We all suffer from selective perception. Based upon various commitments and allegiances, “Still the man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

Partisans tend to see “my side” as not just true, but obviously true. It’s a by-product of bias blindness, whereby we see bias in others but not in ourselves. We see our strongly held positions as objectively and obviously true. After all, if we didn’t think our positions were true, we wouldn’t hold them. And (our thinking goes) since they are objectively true, anyone who makes the effort should be able to ascertain that truth. Our opponents are thus without excuse.  

Accordingly, few partisans accept that their opponents can be people of goodwill who simply disagree. Because the assumption — steeped in bias blindness — is that the “other side” is not generally acting in good faith, the necessary conclusion is that they must be stupid, delusional, or dishonest to take the positions they do. 

“What a field-day for the heat | A thousand people in the street | Singing songs and carrying signs | Mostly say, hooray for our side.”

When we see the “other side” that way, we dehumanize them, and history is replete with horrors when a group in control takes after opponents deemed less-than-human. In the usual course, it makes sense to presume good faith. 

However, the advent of Trumpism has changed the calculus.

Acting in bad faith is crucial to the Trump brand. Too many of his opponents respond in kind, allowing the Trump chorus to criticize the hypocrisy and avoid facing up to the bad faith.

For President Trump, the world is always binary, about winning and losing. If you are not obsequiously supporting him at all times, he will deal you out and berate you as you leave. Although there are huge disparities over the meaning, essentially everyone agrees today that the answer to every political and social question is, “Trump!”

Essentially everyone is wrong. The real world is not that binary. None of us are well served by acting as if it is.

There’s a bigger point, too.

Even if you think – and even if you’re right – that “they” are stupid, delusional, or evil, they still bleed. 

Seven

The presidency of Donald J. Trump began with a speech focused upon an “American carnage” only he could fix, despite crime rates that had been falling dramatically for decades. Attention is his elixir. Allegiance is his currency (loyalty is a two-way street). Division is his super-power.

President Trump’s inaugural act was a petty and absurd lie about a meaningless fact, the falsehood of which was readily demonstrable. Nonetheless, the new President demanded that the National Park Service doctor photographs to support him and sent his newly minted Press Secretary out to meet the press – the “enemy of the American people” – for the first time to keep proclaiming that silly lie.

It was all ready-proof that President Trump is manifestly unfit for office.

Mr. Trump wasn’t and isn’t afraid to lie and to do so brazenly. That is obvious even to his staunchest supporters by now (Rush Limbaugh admits the president doesn’t even try to tell the truth). Doing so shows what he’s willing to do to get what he wants and shows his supporters what is required to stay on the team. As he sees it and demands, there is no higher authority about anything than Donald J. Trump.

Lincoln, on the brink of war, only accepted it when it was thrust upon him: “We are not enemies, but friends.” Mr. Trump, despite relative (if not universal) peace and prosperity, at least until the pandemic hit, is always itching for a fight.

He came to political prominence due to his insistence on promulgating racist, utterly false, and bizarre “birther” claims. For many of his supporters, that Donald Trump is not a serious person is precisely the point. It’s a feature, not a bug. Getting Mexico to write a check for a wall? Ted Cruz’s father assassinated JFK? Getting North Korea to capitulate? “The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.” Accuse a television host of murder? “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Call protestors terrorists? Sure thing. Let’s keep owning the libs.*

We’re not talking about a mere personal shortcoming. It’s a grave character defect.

The president doesn’t want to build America up. He wants to tear it down. Burn it all down.

None of that is remotely Republican. The traditional conservative values of competence, character in leadership, limited government, free markets, fiscal discipline, and global leadership, all of great importance to me, aren't relevant in today’s Trump-dominated Republican Party. All was sacrificed on the altar of “winning.”

Mr. Trump’s own needy id speaks directly to the aggrieved ids of white people desperate to break free of what they see as the shackles of political correctness and tear the whole thing down. Burn it down.

The quintessential Trump voter resents the idea that well-paid black men might silently protest before a pro football game but demands the right to bellow abuse, with weapons in hand, when he – yes, he (the president has favorable approval numbers only among non-college-educated white males) – feels violated in some way. Seething resentment is the objective and the norm.

Anne Applebaum has a gripping new piece in The Atlantic examining how and why Republicans have subjugated themselves and their principles to support Mr. Trump en masse. Some want to be on the winning team. Officeholders are terrified of a Trump Twitter attack that would damage their job prospects. Would-be officeholders want a pat on the head.

Among the higher-ups, some (Mattis, McMaster) thought they could hold him at bay, some (McConnell, Kelly) thought they could use him to do some good, some (Graham, Bolton) were dazzled by their proximity to power, some (Anton, Ahmari) thought the alternative was even worse, some (Perdue, Gaetz) are charlatans themselves, some (Metaxas, Hannity) are simply sycophants, some (Pence, Pompeo, Barr) think they are being used by God, and they all have mortgages to pay.

They are of course supported by a garrison of really people, mostly in the subservient media (Mollie Hemingway comes to mind), whose entire mission is to explain what Trump really said, really meant, really intended, and why it’s not really as dreadful as it looks and sounds. As a bonus, they’ll add why [insert favored villain(s) here] really did what Trump didn’t really do, but was/were really much, much worse. The really people are often really clever, so on a one-off basis, the nit-picking defenses can sound really plausible. They fail catastrophically in the aggregate, of course, but they’re more than good enough for those who really want to believe. Really.

Looking ahead, the crucial questions are thus whether the GOP is irretrievably compromised and if the Trump family will retain control after the current Trump presidency ignominiously dies.

I guess “yes” on both counts.

Courtney Ross, George Floyd’s girlfriend, cautioned, “You can’t fight fire with fire. Everything just burns, and I’ve seen it all day. People hate, they’re hating, they’re hating, they’re mad. And he would not want that.”

But fire we got.

Donald J. Trump has made it clear all along he intended to burn it all down. Why should we be surprised when we encounter the flames?

Eight

Republicans cast the Democrats as the party of grievance. They’re right, of course, but it is a projection, too. Fundamentally, both major parties today are predicated upon grievance, differing only in who is aggrieved, how, and why. That, among other things, makes me politically homeless.

However, as Pastor David Cassidy tweeted this week, “No complaints from me about being politically homeless: Exile is often essential to faith. If your faith is so closely identified with your politics that the two are indistinguishable then your god may well be your politics - a cruel and merciless tyrant if there ever was one.”

Amen to that, at least.

_______________

* Sadly, the libs keep providing plenty of good opportunities to be owned, especially when they make everything about the president. Examples include insisting that speech they don’t like is violence, but the violence they like is speech. We’re supposed to take that view seriously, but not literally, I guess. Or consider the heterosexual woman that doesn’t know who to date because she is politically opposed to heterosexuality – really. And then there is the following, by a real live public health official, which defies explanation. 


Totally Worth It

In last week’s TBL, I explained how nobody really knows what the world will look like post-pandemic. In Sunday’s edition of The New York Times, Nobel laureate Robert Shiller agreed.

The most touching thing I read last week was by comedian and SNL alum Jim Breuer. Unless it was this, by NFL wide receiver Zay Jones. Or this: “I just wanna live.”

This is the most important thing I read this week. This is the funniest thing. This is the best thing.

Let Sam Cooke offer you a bit of hope, especially if you think this edition of TBL has been too dark.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Jem asks, “How could they do it, how could they?” Atticus replied, “I don't know, but they did it. They've done it before and they did it tonight and they'll do it again and when they do it – seems that only children weep.”


Benediction

It felt like everything was on fire this week. Truth be told, we need fire, but of a different sort. Moreover, quiet contemplation isn’t cutting it for me today. Thus, we return to the dynamic duo of sisters, Larkin Poe, for this week’s benediction. Crank it all the way up and scream along. 

Testify.

Burn, baby, burn.

Sing! 

Contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright). Don’t forget to subscribe, share, and forward it widely.

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Issue 16 (June 5, 2020)