On the menu today: a near-complete breakdown in American leadership, driven in large part by elected officials who cannot bear unpleasant truths that contradict their preexisting worldview; the role and limited culpability of foreign intelligence operations; the coming argument about just who counts as a member of Antifa; and oh yeah, remember that ongoing potentially lethal pandemic?
Our Leaders Fear the Evidence, Even When It’s on Fire, Right in Front of Them
Let’s begin the week with words I wouldn’t have predicted writing a couple of years ago: I really liked a recent observation by Glenn Greenwald: “Until people start forming beliefs based on evidence rather than the narrative that’s most comforting, our discourse will continue to be toxic trash. (Also, as long as media outlets employ people with a documented history of fabrication & fabulism, the media will be unreliable).”
Perhaps all of our problems boil down to an unwillingness to form or adjust our beliefs based upon evidence, and the habits of mono-focusing on evidence that supports our preexisting beliefs and ignoring, downplaying, or seeking ways to refute evidence that challenges our preexisting beliefs.
Greenwald made his comment in response to Saint Paul mayor Melvin Carter declaring Saturday that every person arrested in riots in his city was from out of state, and then amending it to at least 80 percent. (When someone in authority makes a sweeping statement adamantly and emphatically, and then quickly qualifies it, our spidey-sense should start tingling. This is often an indicator that the speaker wants something to be true but realizes that what they said is not quite true.)
Minnesota governor Tim Walz and Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey made similar comments Saturday morning. But data from arrest reports released later that day indicated that was not the case. “In Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, 47 of the 57 people arrested in protest incidents through Saturday morning had provided a Minnesota address to authorities, according to Jeremy Zoss, a spokesman for the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office.” Surely, there were some non-Minnesotans in the mix of those committing crimes in that area. But Minnesota’s government leaders simply didn’t want to acknowledge the possibility that members of their own communities could do something so destructive and callous. Confronting that problem was too daunting and intimidating to them, so they turned to a more morally convenient villain.
It was not hard to find people, generally on the Left, arguing that the violent rioting, looting, arson, and other crimes were being committed by white nationalists who sought to exacerbate tensions between whites and blacks. Walz told reporters he suspected white supremacist groups and drug cartels were carrying out some of the violence in Minneapolis.
With such widespread urban violence across the country this weekend, it is certainly possible that some perpetrators fit that description. But the vast majority of those were young whites, in anarchist or Antifa regalia, and young blacks and other minorities. (Omar Kelly is correct: Count the number of skateboards you see in those videos. Separately, you can read how Antifa is preparing to hit the streets right on Reddit.) The young people you see in those videos are unlikely to be white nationalists or the pawns of white nationalists.
There was a much simpler and sadder explanation than a vast right-wing conspiracy. A lot of young people saw an opportunity to either steal things or indulge their most destructive impulses without significant consequence to themselves and embraced that opportunity. They may be driven by some sort of left-of-center ideology, but it is likely that many were driven by simpler human instincts: greed, selfishness, malevolence, and a desire to feel powerful, at least for a moment.
Elected officials’ inability to accurately characterize the protesters and their actions was matched by an inability to accurately characterize the government responders and their actions. On Saturday, Walz said the Pentagon was providing “intelligence support of what they’re seeing, what they’re signal intercepting, they have obviously from NSA and others massive support to be able to see who these operators are.” This raised quite a few eyebrows, as the National Security Agency is not a domestic law-enforcement agency; it is focused on intercepting and collecting signals intelligence from foreign sources. Later, the governor’s office stated he had misspoken and there was no NSA involvement. Apparently, the governor just went before the cameras and winged it, saying things he thought were true, or hoped were true.
Every one of these people in elected office asked for their jobs and put considerable effort into telling the public they were prepared to handle the difficult duties that came with it. One of those duties is communicating accurate information to the public. That accurate information may be difficult and painful to hear. Mayors and governors across the country may be pained to declare something like, “Significant numbers of young people of all races are taking advantage of widespread outrage about the police role in the death of George Floyd to commit selfish and cruel crimes.” (If you doubt that these crimes are cruel, listen to Stephanie, a disabled Minneapolis woman.)
But that is a more accurate description of what is happening than the idea that the significant numbers of African-American youth looting the Nike store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago are somehow being manipulated by those losers who marched in Charlottesville. (Even if you contend that the worst of the situation is being driven by “outside agitators,” you are eliding the fact that your local population — the one you want to believe is good and decent and law-abiding and peaceful — is reacting just as the outside agitators desired.)
Not every crime leads back to the suspect you already disliked. Sometimes the trail leads back to the people you thought better of, who you thought were on the right path, the people who you thought weren’t capable of this.
The combination of the coronavirus pandemic and widespread urban violence should be reinforcing to all Americans the hard lesson that elected office is not about being a celebrity. It is not about looking good on television, or an opportunity to manipulate and control the lives of human beings like moving pawns on a chess board. It is not about soaring rhetoric and pretty words.
Leadership in elected office is often about telling people difficult truths that they don’t want to hear, making hard decisions that will fully satisfy no one, and accepting the responsibility for making those decisions. If you are not willing to accept that, don’t run for the job.
We Can Blame Foreign Disinformation Only So Much
Speaking of “outside agitators . . .”
National-security adviser Robert O’Brien, former national-security adviser Susan Rice, and senator Marco Rubio pointed to foreign intelligence operations seeking to exacerbate tensions through disinformation and propaganda on social media. (Great, more foreign competition for jobs Americans traditionally do.) Rice pointed the finger at Russia, Rubio said “at least three foreign adversaries” were at work, and O’Brien named Russia, China, and Iran.
Hostile intelligence services make the decision to lay out the bait, but Americans make the decision to take the bait. Our problem is not that the secret efforts of Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran involve malicious and incendiary lies; they’ve always done that. Our problem is that some Americans want to believe their lies.
Those Labels Come On and Off So Easily, They Must Use Velcro
In the coming days, you’re going to see a lot of semantic arguments about just who can be accurately labeled “Antifa” — just as we saw in previous arguments about which perpetrators of crimes really qualify to be labeled a member of al-Qaeda, ISIS, militia members, white nationalists, incels, and any other violent ideological movement that is tenuously connected to an American community or either side of the aisle in U.S. politics.
To a lot of folks on the Right, a masked young person who is dressed mostly in black, oftentimes wearing an anarchist symbol, and spray-painting a public building is de facto Antifa, whether or not they have a formal membership. To a lot of folks on the Left, that person is just some young punk, with no meaningful connection to the left-wing politics, and certainly not one of “their side” that warrants denunciation from allies.
There is, admittedly, quite a contradiction between statism and anarchy. Quite a few hardline activists on the Left say they believe in bigger, stronger, and more far-reaching government, but act like anarchists. No doubt some progressives look at Trump voters and see a lot of people who say they’re motivated by liberty and fear of powerful government, but somehow they always end up calling for the cops to crack some skulls.
I suppose it’s just a matter of time before Antifa is characterized as having a political wing and a militant wing.
Back in 2014, I discussed that alleged division within Hamas:
From over here, it looks like a public-relations wing and a convenient-scapegoat wing. “Oh, it wasn’t us that fired those rockets! It was our militant wing!” Militant wings are the evil twins of geopolitics. If your organization has a military wing — as opposed to an actual, declared, uniforms-and-everything-military — you’re probably a troublemaker. You notice the good guys in life rarely have a militant wing. “I’m with a hardline faction of the Red Cross.” “I’m with Mother Theresa’s paramilitary branch.”
These groups really seem to think that the political wing can’t be blamed for what the militant wing does. Guys, you’re two halves of the same chicken. Colonel Sanders just sees one bird.
Hey, Remember Coronavirus?
Oh yes, there’s still a pandemic going on, even though apparently large swaths of the public decided to stop worrying about it. Most of the cities that burned this weekend still have various quarantine, stay-at-home, and other restrictions on large gatherings, restrictions that are now effectively suspended — and as Rich observes, barely even mentioned anymore. The good news is many protesters were wearing masks and were outdoors. The bad news is that lots of people were much closer to each other than six feet apart and shouting all day long. (Perhaps the fear of tear gas or being identified in photos can spur mask-wearing when the fear of the coronavirus cannot.)
New York City mayor Bill de Blasio declared Friday, “I want to just say anyone who wants to protest, we’re going to protect your right to protest.” This is the same man who declared in late April regarding Orthodox Jews attending funerals in Brooklyn, “My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed. I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups. This is about stopping this disease and saving lives. Period.”
We can all see what’s going on. The mayor fears crossing those who are protesting the police, but he does not fear crossing the Jewish community in Brooklyn.
Varad Mehta observed, “Remember, many local authorities have closed swimming pools, community centers, and other facilities because of the coronavirus. Take one release valve for the summer heat away and the pressure will just vent elsewhere. If this weekend is a preview, the summer won’t be pretty.” Jon Gabriel added, “Add to that the people furloughed, fired, and bored out of their skulls at home. With the only socially acceptable way to go outside is to riot.”
Nearly three months of lockdowns and restrictions didn’t cause this weekend’s violence. But they probably exacerbated it.
ADDENDUM: The editors are correct: “Restoring order should be the first priority. The dynamic of riots is always that if the police don’t show up, if they hold back, or worse, if they retreat, the disorder gets more intense and destructive. Violence must be met with overwhelming (and, obviously, lawful) force.”
A few people with reading disabilities interpreted these tweets as “don’t enforce the law” or “looting is okay.” No. The point is if police are going to use deadly force, they must do so in circumstances to protect human life. My perspective is not some sort of bleeding-heart soft-on-crime idealism. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6–3 in Tennessee vs. Garner that a police officer may use deadly force to prevent the escape of a fleeing suspect only if the officer has a good-faith belief that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.
This means that if a cop sees that woman walking out of Cheesecake Factory with that whole cake, the cop cannot shoot the woman in the head. I’m such a squish.