Monday, 1 June 2015

Decline of the left, part 4: Ferguson, Baltimore, and race

Since the previous post in this series it has become ever clearer that left-wing commentators are wise to the failings of the left that I have been describing. This article by Owen Jones, as well as this one, for instance, seem to grasp the nettle – if politics is about persuading people, then the left’s assumption that left-wing beliefs are self-evidently morally right, no argument necessary, is obviously bad, dead-end politics that won't persuade anyone. It is heartening to see commentators like Jones see the problem for what it is – and I will enjoy a small feeling of vindication for having reached this conclusion before a whopping electoral defeat made it throbbingly obvious for all to see.

While it may seem that there is no need for me to keep on pointing out problems that the modern left are addressing themselves – which would be problematic as this stuff is all pre-written and I’ve got to offload it somehow – I’ve still got an axe to grind with the identity-political left, which is increasingly distinct from the Labour left (though, again, so do left-wing commentators, as here. From now on, then, ‘modern left’ will refer quite specifically to the identity-political left ). 

Test case no.3: the Ferguson disturbances 

To recap: previously, I argued that, despite good intentions, modern-left arguments concerning discrimination are so badly conceived that they are self-defeating, and are more likely to harm than serve the interests of those to whom the left has appointed itself guardian.

I’m interested in why the issue of race in particular causes the modern left's moral compass to spin so wildly. Arguments about the corrosive effects of colonialism in the third world, for instance, despite being well-intentioned, invariably career towards the colonialist’s own premise that the peoples of Asia and Africa are infantile and unfit for responsibility, usually because the modern leftist’s attempts to diminish third-world responsibility inevitably also diminish third-world agency. This is hopelessly self-defeating.

The same genius for the self-undermining argument is seen in the debate surrounding cultural appropriation (white women ‘twerking’ e.g.). When white Brits appropriate American blues, say, they are at some level affirming its cross-cultural, cross-ethnic value as art – it expresses human universals of sadness, love, stoicism, etc. that we can all get. But when the anti-appropriationist denounces this appropriation, and says that blues only has its true value in the ethnic and cultural context in which it originated, then the blues’ universal value is diminished and it is made narrowly parochial, a mere intra-ethnic shorthand.

Given that the anti-appropriationist's stated intention is to protect the value of black-American culture, this is another profoundly self-defeating argument – a crystal-clear example of cutting off the nose to spite the face (even worse, it’s usually someone else’s face). It protects black culture by making it not worth stealing in the first place. Great art says much more important things about us than our ethnicity. Shakespeare does, and so does Howlin’ Wolf – that’s why they belong to all of us, not just to white Britons or black Americans.

Now take the modern left’s response to the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri provoked by the shooting of Michael Brown. The recent events in Baltimore are also relevant, though I’ll focus only on Ferguson – it’s anyway the commentariat’s reaction that I’m interested in. First things first: I read the Department of Justice report on the killing in as much detail as I could, and as a result my basic opinion is:

  • that the shooting of Michael Brown was regrettable but justified;
  • that the Ferguson police are corrupt and racist, and that Ferguson’s black community was therefore justified in its anger;
  • but that nevertheless, that anger did not justify the violent rioting, which was anyway misplaced (it very likely was not a racist killing in this instance).

What interests me is why modern-left commentators were so often unable or unwilling to concede basic truths that they would normally agree to as a matter of course: namely, that anger can be justified but does not justify, and that the interests of Ferguson’s black community were not well served by rioting. In fact, modern leftists were contorted into all sorts of odd and self-defeating postures in their attempt to avoid at all costs the conclusion that, while understandable, the actions of the rioters were unwise and wrong.

Ok, consider this. We all agree that, in addition to the (premature, as it turned out) assumption that Michael Brown was unjustly killed, there were very valid socio-economic and criminal-justice reasons for Ferguson residents to be angry. 

Granted, yes?

What is the best way, then, of making an economy and a criminal-justice system fairer – consensual politics, or violent coercion? 

We’d all go for the former, I hope. 

And should a political solution be imposed on Ferguson’s black community by a white political elite, or would the solution work better if the community were involved in the process of their own healing? 

Unquestionably the latter. 

And if America’s political processes are, or should be, strictly non-violent, then surely Ferguson residents’ violent rioting pushed them away from this desirable goal, rather than pulled them towards it? Surely it did more harm than good, was a step in the wrong direction?

The rioters’ violence was assuredly a bad thing, then, and an unwise choice. Understandable, mitigated even, but unhelpful and harmful to their interests – cementing the dysfunction that did so much to prompt the disturbances in the first place.

If all this holds good, then why did so many people find it so hard to say that, whatever the legitimate feelings of the rioters, rioting was a bad idea? Why, indeed, could they not bring themselves to be true friends to the black population of Ferguson, and instead waved them on them as they sped headlong towards more dysfunction, more violence?

People who would say that every violent death should be followed by an inquests, a trial, due process, not by immediate violent retaliation – why were they unable to keep hold of this principle regarding Ferguson? Why did they, extraordinarily, parrot the rumour that Brown had his hands up when he was shot – they surely knew that rumours spread by angry crowds (even justifiably angry crowds) are not reliable, and certainly not reliable grounds for accusing someone of the callous murder of a defenceless victim? (But then, as we've seen, disproportionate accusation is a modern-left forte).

Even more culpably, why was the modern left happy to normalize violence as a form of political expression appropriate for black Americans, but not one they would adopt themselves? Remember, if the series of conclusions above is correct (and I think it is) then violent political expression can only lead black America away from success and equality. What is it about race that so consistently leads the left into self-defeating arguments?

Perhaps I need to be more even-handed. There is an argument for saying that we should go easy on the rioters, even though their actions violate our legal and political norms, because society failed them in the first place by excluding them from the benefits of living in America. Seeing as America excluded them from the good things such as wealth, why should America only decide to include them when it comes to bad things like legal sanction and punishment? Wouldn’t this be arbitrary? Wouldn’t America in fact be punishing them twice – impoverishing them in every way, and then punishing them for reacting in the only way they could react to their impoverishment?

Provided that two wrongs do indeed make a right, this is a compelling argument. However, two wrongs do not make a right, and it is a wretched argument. 

If the exclusion of black Americans is bad, how could we possibly remedy that exclusion by creating, as the left do, another exclusion in which black Americans are accorded a separate moral and legal and political status? How could this 'gift' of a double standard, by which black America is cut some slack, be anything but a poisoned chalice?

We know, surely, that this is a bad idea. This whole problem was caused by segregation and double standards, and it is clear that nothing has changed such that, this time around, it would be a good idea to have a legal and political system determined by double-standards based on racial difference. Moreover ethnic minorities would almost certainly end up being the victims of such a system. Isn’t the modern leftist making race as dangerously determinative as the racist ever did – making Ferguson’s citizens black first and citizens second?

If democratic non-violent legal and political systems are good things, nothing but bad is likely to result from exempting black Americans from them: we know that failure to equally share America's wealth is a bad thing, and I think we know too that failure to share access to its consensual, non-violent political and legal systems is an equally corrosive denial of a common good. 

Here, I think, lies the rub: if our non-violent legal and political systems are good things. I have no doubt that they are – or at least, that non-violent laws and politics are much better than the violent sorts. The modern leftist, however, feels an intense squeamishness here, because to say that rule of law is better than mob rule, to say that the black population of Ferguson did something unwise, and should instead be urged to participate in legal and political systems – for the modern leftist, to say these things is to line up on the wrong side of the ideological barricade, to identify with hegemony. In fact, to sound like a racist.

When there is such danger of resembling a racist, and thereby being denounced, why take that tightrope walk across uncertainty and difficulty? Why think carefully when there is the much easier option of automatic anti-racism, even if it is unreasoned, self-defeating, and ultimately harmful to victims of racism? If careful thought incurs the danger of resembling a racist – superficially, wholly falsely – then it is much safer to be thoughtlessly anti-racist, because the risk of denunciation is much greater for the modern leftist than the risk of absurdity.

And so we see the intellectual spinelessness and short-termism of so much modern-left thought: building society’s long-term anti-racist values on shabby, unreasoned foundations merely to avoid the immediate risk of denunciation, of being called a name, of losing face.

Worst of all, at its heart is fear: fear of denunciation, but also fear of being forcibly misrepresented, of having thoughts imputed to us and words put in our mouths because of a merely coincidental resemblance. This is what I call the fear of guilt by resemblance, and it will be the topic of the next and final entry in this series.


  1. "If all this holds good, then why did so many people find it so hard to say that, whatever the legitimate feelings of the rioters, rioting was a bad idea? Why, indeed, could they not bring themselves to be true friends to the black population of Ferguson, and instead waved them on them as they sped headlong towards more dysfunction, more violence?"

    Because they aren't friends of Ferguson's Black population but enemies.

    The people who cheered the rioting and property destruction were 1) criminal elements in Ferguson and its surrounding areas 2) Fox News and 3) the pseudo-left. They all prefer (for different reasons) self-defeating violence to the difficult road of democratic politics.

    1. Hello there – thanks for leaving a comment. I read the linked-to post, and very much enjoyed it: it addressed the details of Ferguson's problems, and the possible solution to them, with much greater clarity than I was able to and I agreed with pretty much all of it. I'd probably say that the solution you propose will necessarily demand a positive embrace of the politico-legal status quo (i.e. of the criminal justice system, of the rule of law, democratic structures), and the cultural and political and racial anathemas of the left (and to a lesser extent of large parts of black America) will probably make this very difficult.

      Was it your own blog that you linked to?

    2. No, it was my blog that was linked. Sabra Nott's blog is this: Of relevance also:

      Excellent posts/discussions here. Will have to read up.

    3. Apologies for the late reply, and thanks for the encouragement. Feel free to have at anything here. I've got both your blogs in my bookmarks and look forward to engaging with you. B

  2. I know your blog has moved on since this post, and I apologise for the delay in replying.

    I have no real disagreement with what you say here, but I do feel that a few more things need to be said. One is that “due process” is not an end in itself, but a means to an end: the end, clearly, is justice (and I’d be grateful if you didn’t ask me to define what I mean by “justice”, because I don’t think I could answer coherently).

    Due process is important, as it is, we may agree, the best means to the desired end. The problem however arises when due process is widely perceived, as it is here, not to work. Even if this perception happens to be wrong, it is a serious issue, as, ideally, justice should not only prevail, but be seen to prevail; if, therefore, justice is widely perceived, even erroneously, *not* to prevail, then we have a serious problem, and appeals merely to follow “due process” will prove, in purely practical terms if nothing else, ineffective.

    This does not mean, of course, that we should condone, or fail to condemn, the rioting; but it does mean, I think, that condemnation of the rioting *in* *itself* is not a sufficient response.

    1. Thanks for the reply Himadri.

      Hmmmm. Interesting. I absolutely agree that justice must be seen to be done so that the public can witness it and embrace it as their own justice, administered in their name for their and for their interests. And I could certainly agree that this might be part of the problem.

      But, inevitably, I’m afraid, I think at the root of the problem is in fact the definition of justice (nooooo!). By which I mean, the problem isn’t necessarily justice not being seen to be done, but some of the protestors having a conflicting, sometimes unrealistic notion of what justice should be.

      I spent rather a long time debating this with Binesh Hassanpour on my Facebook wall. Repeating it would be exhausting for all concerned. So, to precis:

      1. Justice (as in ‘no justice, no peace’) is not the automatic right to get the verdict you want.

      2. If we are not careful in how we reconcile social, or ‘structural’ justice with criminal justice we might find that, as so happens with ‘structures’, important and valuable things fall through the gaps. I’d say a feature of justice is that one shouldn’t suffer harm without valid reason – Officer Wilson was not to be deprived of his liberty, or his good name, by imprisoning or indicting him when there was no case to answer; shopkeepers were not to have their shops burnt down by rioters angry about a crime they couldn’t possibly have known the details of (and which in fact, in many cases, they misunderstood entirely – Brown was not surrendering when shot). But how easy it is to bedwarf and overlook entirely these potentially wronged individuals when the question is reframed so as to encompass the fairness or otherwise of society and its structures.

      If any social or structural justice, or any demonstration of ‘justice such that it be seen to done’, had involved as its cost or corollary the indictment of Officer Wilson, *when the available facts exonerated him*, then it would have been massively unjust. I say this because I think that, for many, the justice they wanted to see done was the trial of Wilson as a recognition of their anger, of their too-often overlooked wishes, and as a gesture that the authorities empathized. But none of this could possibly have been worth the unfair, politicized show trial of an innocent man.

      3. I forget the third point I was going to make.

  3. I don’t think we are disagreeing here on this particular instance: to punish an innocent man merely to appease public opinion would be monstrous. I am trying to take a step back from this individual case, and consider the general public mood. I think it is worth questioning how this public mood has come about; and then addressing what can be done to put matters right.

    The reasons so many people so irrationally (given the facts) wanted Officer Wilson punished are:
    - there is a deep mistrust and suspicion of the police in general;
    - in particular, there is little or no confidence in the police to treat black people fairly; and
    - there is little or no confidence in “due process” to redress these perceived wrongs.

    Even if these perceptions are entirely unjustified, the very fact that they exist and are so widespread is a cause for concern. Given that these perceptions exist – even if they are misperceptions – appeals for “due process” to have its course will fall on deaf ears. The course of action you are proposing – i.e. to condemn the rioting and to rely on due process – would fail on purely practical grounds.

    And I am not convinced that these *are* misperceptions. I do not carry the statistics in my head and am too lazy to hunt them out, but the last set I saw (I am happy to be corrected on this) indicated a grossly disproportionate number of black deaths in police hands; and the number of officers successfully indicted virtually zero. If this indeed is the case then I am not surprised that perceptions exist that the police are racist, and do not treat black people fairly; and neither would I be surprised if these perceptions turned out to be correct.

    So while I am not disagreeing with what you say, I am suggesting that in addition to appealing to “due process”, the “due process” itself be scrutinised, and its shortcomings addressed.

    How to go about that, I haven’t , however, the faintest idea: I’m merely a gobshite, as you know – an armchair commentator.

    1. “The reasons so many people so irrationally (given the facts) wanted Officer Wilson punished are:
      - there is a deep mistrust and suspicion of the police in general;
      - in particular, there is little or no confidence in the police to treat black people fairly; and
      - there is little or no confidence in “due process” to redress these perceived wrongs. “

      Agreed – see this for facts, which I cited in my post:

      To a certain extent, you misrepresent my argument. I do not call solely for ‘due process’ – I call for full engagement of African-Americans in the legal and political process of America. I urge for them to share the riches of the common law and democratic government, as well as to share America’s economic bounty.

      That means, black people engaging *and being urged to engage by their representatives in the commentariat* in the criminal justice system, in local government, and simply in voting. But these things are inimical to rioting because law and politics and non-violent – so the only way to be a friend to the rioters is to understand their anger but to refuse to condone how they act upon it (because to do so will damage their interests massively). Anger can be justified, *but it does not justify*.

      These would be the best long-term solutions for the bad relations between the CJ system and black America – my argument is that the modern-left supporters of Ferguson’s people are unable to make this argument, because they misperceive it as a racist one and lack the argumentational means for determining that it in fact is not, and is premised entirely differently to a racist argument, even if it does have superficial similarities.

      What I don’t get is why you are happy for black Americans to contribute to political debate with such vague, generalized, woolly notions and emotions – anger, ‘deep mistrust and suspicion’ – when you yourself make, and demand from others, particularized, clear arguments? No change to anyone’s life or to a political settlement can be justified on the grounds of ‘there’s just this feeling of, like, mistrust’ – and the willingness to accept this from the black American community will only create a two-tier system of law and politics, in which the poorest members of society are encouraged (by their supposed advocates!) to make do with inarticulate, undirected, emotionally incontinent arguments. But this won’t do! If the black community ‘perceive’ unfairness, then they must argue it, prove it, using the instruments of law and representative government (the best instruments we have at our disposal) – and if they are unable to make these arguments because of long-term racism, then we must do everything we can to bring them into the fold, to educate them, and to enable them to be engaged citizens in exactly the same way you and I are (or potentially are).

      America should be ashamed that so few black Americans have any better argument against police brutality than ‘fuck the police’. But they shouldn’t be surprised – it’s what inevitably happened when they refused to hold their fellow to the same standards as themselves (and also refused to share the same benefit – my argument is that law is a good, a valuable thing like wealth).

      Woolly perceptions, misgiving, widespread emotionalism do not meet our threshold as reasons for intervening in people’s lives or changing public institutions. And this IS what I mean by due process of argumentation. Either our thresholds, our standards are bad ones – in which case let’s have that debate – or they are good ones, in which case black, white, everyone is to be both held to them AND brought up to them. No racial double standard, no matter how well-intentioned, can work.

      Condoning rioting is merely to say that we expect less from black people.

    2. Yes, I did, I now see, misrepresent your argument: my apologies. You did, indeed, call for “full engagement of African-Americans in the legal and political process of America”, and, yes, this does mean “black people engaging *and being urged to engage by their representatives in the commentariat* in the criminal justice system, in local government, and simply in voting” (your emphasis). No argument there. I do not, however, see how this can be anything other than a long term solution: if an injustice is entrenched – injustice not in terms of legislation, which is in US non-discriminatory, but in terms of practice that is often contrary to what is legislated – it may take generations to effect change through the kind of means you advocate. But what happens in the meantime? Public mistrust has the effect of undermining the machinery of law-enforcement: how do we prevent this happening in the immediate short term? When mistrust, however woolly and unfocussed and however badly it is articulated, is so deep and so widespread, how are you going to convince people to take part in the very process that they currently so mistrust?

      Please note that I am not disagreeing with the logic or the reasonableness of what you’re saying, and neither am I letting so many on the Left off the hook for not having said it. What I don’t see how it can be *practically* implemented, given the current situation, when the very people who most need to hear and act upon it most probably won’t. This is not to have lower expectations of black people: my expectations are pretty low for all people – I think most people, irrespective of race, are inarticulate, and engage their emotions before they do their intellects. I am actually quite sympathetic to this, as I am often guilty of this myself. But given this – then what?

      I do not have the answer in my back pocket, but the question seems to me worth asking. At the risk of sounding like Father Ted (“is there anything to be said for another mass?”) an official enquiry into possible racism in law enforcement may at least send some sort of message that this issue is at least being taken seriously – I don’t know. But as things stand, your message, however impeccably argued (and it is), will not be taken on by the very people who most need to take it on.

      I am not, I hope, happy for anyone, black or otherwise, to contribute to debate merely with “vague, generalized, woolly notions and emotions”. People with notions and emotions of this nature are not capable of debate. I do think, though, that those who *are* capable of debate should not necessarily dismiss emotions because they are “vague, generalized, woolly” . I think we need to acknowledge that most people – regardless of race or of anything else – are not entirely or even primarily rational: mistrust, even “like, mistrust”, when so deep and so widespread, does need, I think, to be taken seriously.

    3. 'At the risk of sounding like Father Ted (“is there anything to be said for another mass?”)'

      (-: a nice touch of levity, sir.

      All very fair points. So what can I say?

      - full quantitative and qualitative analysis of all killings by cop in *all* states (data that currently does not exist). That a disproportionate number of young black men are killed by police might be a reflection of higher crime rates, greater probability of coming across the police in a violent context (and the solution to *that* must be socio-economic, but mainly educational). So we need to know whether black encounters with police are more likely, statistically, to end in death and then to use qualitative analysis to look at the actual circumstances in which young black men (YBM) were killed by the police. Are they unjustified? what were the circumstance? It was only such analysis that revealed that the killing of Michael Brown was, while tragic, justified.

      - if the large number of YBM killed by police turns out to be disproportionately large because of the disproportionate rate of crime among YBM (i.e. their probabilty of being killed when encountering cops is roughly the same as everyone else's, they just commit more crime and therefore encounter cops more often), then what will be needed will be an enormous, coordinated campaign between the CJ system and African-American (AA) educators, parents, politicians, clergy, community activists to discuss how change can only come by black America meeting halfway and committing less crime. It is possible this should happen anyway - depending on what crime statistics among the black community are (my guess - not good).

      - if it turns out that police just have a disproportionate tendency to kill YBM, then: federal govt. to sponsor national retraining of police; all cops to wear body cameras; fed. govt to consider legislation that makes it easier to bring charge against any cop who kills unjustly - perhaps a charge of abuse of public office as well as murder?

      - generally, retraining of all police to minimize gung-ho, 'warrior culture'; substantial links cultivated with UK/Commonwealth police to see how the US might consider introducing policing by consent.

      - concerted and strenuous criticism of all commentators and tweeters and bloggers who inflame dangerous situations by spreading unsubstantiated rumours in the immediate aftermath of police killings. Greater education / awareness of how social media can propagate false, anger-fuelling rumours in exactly the same way as used to happen with urban mobs. Police to be extremely vigilant for where such behaviour turns into incitement or contempt of court (i.e. by prejudicing a potential trial). The spreading of the false 'hands up don't shoot' rumour was outrageous, and caused real harm.

      - legal professionals and politicians to go out among the people - schools workplaces, TV, youth clubs - to impress on the populace the importance of refraining from immediate judgement, of innocence before proof of guilt, of a fair hearing to establish facts. Quite simply, of epistemological restraint - it is normal for us to say that we do not know (yet) what happened in a given situation, and we are not weakened or impaired by having to wait for a hearing to uncover the details, by saying 'we don't know yet'. There is growing a terrifying divide between the demands and impetuosity of the populace on the one hand, and the legal system that govern them on the other. This must be remedied. Legal doubt, circumspection should not be rarefied, or a privilege - it is part of the basic citizenship of all of us, inasmuch as we are all governed by the common law.


    4. - voices of counsel urging moral courage to those who must stand up and demand patience while facts are established. Greater public presence for those in the CJ system to put forward the ethos of rule of law, to make their case for patience and open-mindedness in the teeth of the inciters and ideologues and demagogues and mindless commentators. Greater confidence also in asserting that not all black deaths by cop are racist murder, not all white cops are racist, nor all blacks criminals or saints - show some emotion and passion in demanding fairness, in defending the rule of law as something immeasurably greater than mob rule.


    5. Excellent points all - I can't take issue with a single one. Given the seriousness of this matter, allof these should be on the agenda.

      And I wouldn't rule out another mass either...

    6. Excellent! I'll knock this into a shape, while you get on the blower to the attorney general. We should be able to get this sorted in time for tea and cakes tomorrow evening – job's a good 'un.

  4. Ha ha! Well, tat's one problem sorted. Let's sort out the Ukraine crisis next.