Talk about a dramatic entrance. When the St. Louis Rams took the field last Sunday, several teammates raised their hands, palms out. It was an act of solidarity with Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager killed last August in a struggle with a white police officer. Moments before his demise, it is said, Brown raised his hands and pleaded: “Don’t shoot.”
Since then “hands up, don’t shoot” has become the rallying cry of protesters and rioters furious that the officer, Darren Wilson, was not indicted by a grand jury. There is just one problem: It is not clear that Brown put his hands up. Nor is it certain that he said, “Don’t shoot.” On the contrary, the evidence released by the grand jury suggests that the fatal incident began when Brown assaulted Wilson.
Indeed, the foundations of the Brown story have been eroding from the moment a St. Louis television station broadcast security video from the convenience store where Michael Brown, prior to his fatal encounter, stole merchandise and assaulted a clerk. It was for example claimed that Brown was shot in the back. The evidence before the grand jury showed that he was not.
Is the movement to “de-militarize” the police that was sparked by Brown’s death therefore based on lies? “Those questions may never be answered,” says the New York Times, which campaigned for the indictment of Officer Wilson and sympathized with the violence and looting that have plagued Ferguson, Missouri, after the grand jury announced its decision.
Well, maybe those questions won’t be answered. What I do know is that the Times would be much more definitive and much more emphatic if the empirical data conformed even in the slightest to its preferred narrative, to its politicized storyline of pacific young black men gunned down needlessly by racist cops. What I do know is that the sensational and electric assertions made by liberals to further their agenda, especially on issues of race and sex, have a habit of being untrue. And it is the recurrence of such factually suspect accounts that raises troubling questions about the relation of liberal myth to human reality. (The case of Eric Garner, in which there is video of the deadly engagement, is different and should not be conflated with the fable of Ferguson.)
Liberal myths propagated to generate outrage and activism, to organize and coordinate and mobilize disparate grievances and conflicting agendas, so often have the same relation to truth, accuracy, and legitimacy as a Bud Light commercial. Marketing is not limited to business. Inside the office buildings of Washington, D.C., are thousands upon thousands of professionals whose livelihoods depend on the fact that there is no better way than a well-run public-relations campaign to get you to do what they want. What recent weeks have done is provide several lessons in the suspect nature of such campaigns.
The 2006 Duke Lacrosse case is the paradigmatic example of a liberal rush to judgment when the perceived victim is a minority (in that case, a black woman) and the alleged perpetrator a straight white male. But it is not the sole example.
In 2007, an instructor at Columbia’s Teachers College specializing in racial “micro-aggressions” and under investigation for plagiarism discovered a noose hanging from her office door; when she was fired the following year for academic malfeasance it was widely suspected that she had put the noose there herself. The racist graffiti and Klan sightings that rocked the Oberlin campus in 2013 and served as the basis of an anti-racism campaign were later revealed to be a left-wing “joke.” And of course the leader of the Michael Brown protest movement, tax cheat Al Sharpton, was involved in the Tawana Brawley hoax of 1987.
Recently critics noted serious flaws in the reporting and writing of a Rolling Stone article that purports to describe a violent gang rape in a University of Virginia fraternity house. The article was the basis for the university’s decision to suspend Greek life on campus for the duration of 2014. The magazine was evasive in its response to the challenges. Then, on Friday afternoon, it released the following statement: “There now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s [the alleged victim’s] account, and we have come to our conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.” The story is false.
Does it even matter? Some liberals are upfront that the factuality of these cases is secondary to their political import. “Actually, in both the case of the UVA rape and in the case of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri,” says a writer for The New Republic digital-media company, “the major takeaway of recent weeks should be that our systems do not work” (emphasis in the original).
What The New Republic means by “our systems” is our systems of power: the institutions through which a free society allocates resources and decision making, chooses priorities, delegates responsibilities and authority. It is the goal of contemporary liberalism to command these institutions — in particular institutions resistant to the left such as police and fire departments, fraternal societies and private clubs, the military and extractive industry — and to alter them according to fashionable theories of equality and justice. The details are unimportant so long as the “takeaway” is communicated, the desired policy achieved.
It is sometimes difficult to understand that, for the Left, racism and sexism and prejudice are not ethical categories but political ones. We are not merely talking about bad manners when the subject turns to Michael Brown or UVA or Thomas Piketty. We are talking about power.
“The new elite that seeks to supersede the old one, or merely share its power and honors, does not admit to such intention frankly and openly,” writes Vilfredo Pareto. “Instead it assumes the leadership of all the oppressed, declares that it will pursue not its own good but the good of the many; and it goes to battle, not for the rights of a restricted class but for the rights of almost the entire citizenry.”
Such is the conduct of our new elite, the archons and tribunes of the “coalition of the ascendant,” which proclaims itself the advocate of minority rights, of the poor, of the sick, as it entrenches its power and furthers its self-interest.
For an example of that rising and fabulist elite, look no further than Jonathan Gruber, the MIT economist who in a 2013 speech confided that the passage of Obamacare was due to a “lack of transparency” and “the stupidity of the American people or whatever.” Here is a highly compensated professional, who has received close to $6 million in consulting fees from state and federal government, admitting to like-minded audiences that the Obama administration rigged the process at the Congressional Budget Office, and that the law was written so if states did not establish health exchanges they would not receive Medicaid subsidies (the government is now arguing the opposite before the Supreme Court).
The response? More lies: Nancy Pelosi says she’s never heard of Gruber, and the president and his former secretary of Health and Human Services minimize his role in creating their signature legislation. (Gruber visited the White House, including the Oval Office, more than 20 times.) Gruber hasn’t been delivering speeches over the last few years. He’s been delivering confessions. And his words only embitter the recollection of other Obamacare promises that have been exposed as false: that the law would cut the deficit, that it would lower health care premiums by $2,500, that if you like your plan you can keep your plan.
What are the apocalyptic predictions of climate alarmists but Sorelian myths intended to shape legislation, regulation, and the culture in the radicals’ favor? To merely profess agnosticism on the subject of global warming is to elicit calls for one’s removal from the Washington Post. Yet the “pause” in warming has lasted for more than 15 years, leaving puzzled climate scientists, whose jobs depend on the imminence of crisis, speculating that the heat is hiding somewhere in the ocean. The “Climategate” e-mails revealed an insular and opaque scientific community sensitive to the political and financial ramifications of contradictory data. The Sharknado-like hurricanes that environmentalists predicted as a consequence of global warming have yet to appear. Indeed, no hurricane has made landfall on Florida in nine years.
I gave up predicting the weather the first time I didn’t do my homework in expectation of a snow day and was proven wrong. Nevertheless I recognize the political appeal of climate change, the rhetorical power of a threat to correlate forces, to direct their activity. Not to mention the aromatic whiff of potential economic rewards. Retrofitting an economy for a post-fossil-fuel world is a business opportunity for well-connected entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk or the coal baron, radical environmentalist, billionaire, and Democratic mega-donor Tom Steyer, who is on record that the government-subsidized green-energy bonanza is above all an opportunity “to make a lot of money.”
So much of contemporary liberalism reeks of a scheme by which already affluent and influential people increase their margins and extend their sway. Liberalism, mind you, in both parties: The Republican elite seems as devoted as their Democratic cousins to the shibboleths of diversity and immigration even as they bemoan the fate of the middle class and seek desperately the votes of white working families.
Just-so stories, extravagant assertions, heated denunciations, empty gestures, moral posturing that increases in intensity the further removed it is from the truth: If the mainstream narration of our ethnic, social, and cultural life is susceptible to error, it is because liberalism is the prevailing disposition of our institutions of higher education, of our media, of our nonprofit and public sectors, and it is therefore cocooned from skepticism and incredulity and independent thought. Sometimes the truth punctures the bubble. And when that happens — and lately it seems to be happening with increasing frequency — liberalism itself goes on trial.
Has the jury reached a verdict? Yes, your honor, it has. We find the defendant guilty. Liberalism is a hoax.
— Matthew Continetti is the editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon, where this column first appeared. © 2014 All rights reserved