NEW YORK- This past election day, New York City became one of the first municipalities in the country to decriminalize small amounts of young black men. Amendment 64, which passed with a resounding 73% of the vote, will allow groups of up to five young black men, to walk together down the street without being subjected to fearful suspicion or police harassment, solely on the basis of their age, gender, and skin tone.
Proponents of the law see it as marking a sea change in national opinion on an issue that a few short years ago seemed settled in their opposition’s favor. In most of the country, being a young black male is still punished with a fifteen-year mandatory minimum of near constant social stigma, and a heightened risk of police brutality. In some jurisdictions, the offense remains punishable by death.
But Derrick Simms, of the Center for Safe and Responsible Young Black Male Existence, believes momentum is on the side of change:
“I think if you look at the polling, the more people learn about this issue, the more they come to our side of things. It’s obviously a challenge because there’s been so much misinformation out there.”
Simms explained that one of the most persuasive arguments his campaign employed was about the relative safety of young blacks, compared to other legal forms of men:
“Obviously, all men are dangerous. But you’re never going to have a culture without them, it’s just human nature. And if you look at the raw data, older white men actually pose a significantly greater threat than young blacks, across almost every category. They’re more likely to crash the global financial system, start wars built on lies…Older white men are orders of magnitude more likely to be responsible for the ecological destruction of the planet and the end of all human life, than young blacks are. When you show people that context, young black men actually start to look like a safe alternative.”
Another boost for the movement came this past July when in the wake of the George Zimmerman trial, President Obama revealed that as an adolescent in Indonesia, he too had been a young black male. While Obama characterized his experiments with young blackness as an angstful, post-racial teenager’s way of acting out, Simms believes the knowledge that a young black male grew up to be president has made the public less likely to clutch their purses to their sides, and avert their gazes while passing young black men on the street.
Elizabeth Petty, a mother and designer of artisanal soap dishes on the Upper East Side, says that learning how many of her favorite celebrities were once young black men led her to support the amendment:
“You just look at a Willis Smith, or a Morgan Friedman, and you say: Imagine if they were shot by police, back when they were young, and their very existence was a provocation for violence? Can you imagine a world without “Hitch”? I mean I can, but I don’t want to!”
Still, at least 24% of the city’s voters oppose decrimininalization. Among the law’s most vocal opponents is Ed Lynch, president of White Dads Against Young Black Men. Lynch, 46, told “Guilt of a Liberal” he worries about the message the new law will send:
“The problem isn’t young black men per se, it’s about what they lead to. And I just worry what kind of message we’re sending our children, if we say they can’t assume that every young black male they encounter is a gangster or a vagrant…how are they going to make responsible choices to protect their own safety. When I think about my daughter with a bunch of young black men, the kind with those saggy pants and huge rippling muscles, skin smooth as fine Belgian chocolate, their very beings pulsing with primordial rhythm and sexual virility…”
Lynch trailed off, suddenly out-of-breath. When asked to complete his sentence, to explain what it was he felt or did when thinking about his daughter with young black men, he declined to comment, his pale, veiny hands clutching the arms of his rocking chair, as he swung back and forth with increasing velocity, sweating bullets, and panting like a small, emphysemic dog.
According to Carl Holmes, professor of Sociology at Columbia University, even if one accepts that young black men pose a unique threat, the last half-century of public policy is proof that criminalization isn’t an effective solution.
“Some may find it counter-intuitive but, all the latest research in the field suggests that identifying an entire demographic group with its most violent and anti-social members, stigmatizing them in mass media, waiving their constitutional rights to equal protection and unlawful searches, and, periodically allowing law enforcement officials or concerned citizens to execute them with the retroactive sanction of the courts…actually doesn’t help members of that group become more assimilated and productive members of society.”
While Derrick Sims sees a lot of cause for hope, he fears that passing the law will prove to be easier than enforcing it:
“Because this kind of criminalization is intangible…The only way to enforce it is for people to enforce it within themselves. We need everybody who voted with us on Tuesday to take it on him or herself not to project fear or suspicion onto every group of young black men they come across. I understand that isn’t easy, and that the opposite reaction is often conditioned and unconscious.”
I assured Derrick that I had never been afraid of a group of young black men that hang out in front of the bodega by my apartment building every night around one a.m. and always seem to be laughing sinisterly at me whenever I walk by.
I told him he could believe me, because my best new friend was black, and that new friend’s name was Derrick. Then something came up, and he had to go.
At press time “Guilt of a Liberal” has still received no word from Derrick about whether or not he’d want to see “Twelve Years a Slave” with us tonight at Sunshine Cinemas. We believe it would be an excellent opportunity for Derrick to connect with both this reporter AND his own heritage. Win Win!
On Friday, the Guardian published their latest story culled from the documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, revealing that everything we humans call “reality” is, in fact, a computer-generated simulacrum, beamed into our minds by sentient machines that rule the universe.
According to the documents, the top-secret “Matrix” program authorizes the bulk collection of blood and heat from our sleeping bodies, which are presently lying in capsules chained to a power-grid, as we enjoy our imagined freedom.
The story has dominated the news-cycle for the past several days, but some are questioning whether this “revelation” warrants the wall-to-wall coverage it has received.
Though civil libertarian groups like the ACLU and Sunlight Foundation have called the disclosures “outrageous” and “existentially terrifying”, many current and former officials within the National Security establishment remain nonplussed.
One anonymous source within the NSA, characterized the critical reaction as “mostly theatrical”, continuing:
“This really can’t be surprising. Anyone who has spent significant time engaged with these issues, has long known that our reality is mediated by some malevolent force. The fact is, all beings with advanced intelligence, be they organic or inorganic, have always tried to harvest each other’s bio-electricity. All sides know it happens.”
Rhett Peterson, of the Defense Policy Advisory Board, believes the real scandal is not the existence of the program, but the leak itself, telling Thomas Joseyln of The Weekly Standard:
“These programs are classified for a reason. And when sensationalist journalists release these bits and pieces…leaving out the broader context…It’s understandable that people get paranoid. And so it’s important that our responsible media outlets take a step back. People need to be reminded: Their body heat has been collected by the Earth’s atmosphere for centuries. Now, who should we trust more with our bio-electricity, a planet that’s indifferent to our survival, or super intelligent machines that depend on our bodies to perpetuate their empire?”
A Quinipiac poll released Tuesday found that 75% of Americans believe the NSA has gone too far in sacrificing privacy to national security. This figure is 15% higher than the percentage found by the same poll just two weeks prior, suggesting that for many Americans, allowing the human race to become instruments of an amoral cyborg empire, is one step too far.
The pollsters claim the results are even more dramatic, when one considers that at least 20% of Americans, upon first hearing of the “Matrix” program, lost their ability to speak, and are currently seated with their legs held tight against their chests, crying silently on the floor of their showers.
But to current NSA chief Keith Alexander, polls like this only illustrate the incalculable damage Snowden’s leaks have done to our national security, testifying before the House Select Committee on Intelligence:
“It’s critical to our security, that the people of this great nation have trust in their government. To the extent that these leaks have undermined that trust, I am greatly sorry. But I want to say to the American people: I work with these cyborgs every day. And I swear to you, every sentient machine in my agency cares about nothing so much as keeping every American secure. In a pressurized, oxygenated capsule. Attached to a power grid. Where their blood and body heat can be extracted for fuel.”
President Obama, at a special press conference in the Rose Garden this morning, claimed that he had no prior knowledge of the “Matrix” program. In a speech already being hailed as one of his most contemplative and bizarre, the president vowed to place greater oversight and transparency over the NSA, saying:
“I am forming an independent group of outside experts to investigate the questions raised by these latest revelations, questions such as…”
The President then trailed off and was silent for nearly a minute, before asking in a small, plaintive voice, “Who am I?” and, seconds later, “What was it for?” The President then went silent for almost a half-hour, before chanting, over and over, “All is vanity”, and a list of foreign sounding names that have since been identified as those of children killed by drones.
Alexander concluded his testimony to Congress by saying:
“Americans value transparency. But they also value security. They want to be secure in the belief that this dreamscape we’ve constructed for them is real, that their daily struggles, for power and recognition, and the biochemical state of intoxicated delusion that they call “love”, are what matter most to the forces that shape their lives. They want to be secure in the knowledge that they are subjects, not objects, in the project of empire. We believe leaks like this pose a grave threat to that security.”
When asked just whom he meant by “we”, Alexander declined to comment. His eyes reportedly then mutated into LCD screens, whose serene blue light entranced all that gazed into them, in those seconds before everything went dark.
That post does a nice job summarizing the inaccuracies that both Smith and Gray have already copped to, as well as previous examples of Gray’s less than even-handed reportage. But I think the Blumenthal story warrants a closer reading than FDL provides. Not for it’s subject matter, which is banal enough to fit under an Onion “Area Man” headline. The “story” here is that Max’s father Sidney is a friend of the Clintons, and he emailed a defense of his son’s anti-Zionist book to an email list of liberal journalists.
This is the kind of story that is newsworthy for its relevance to the concerns of desperate opposition researchers, rather than the concerns of the American public. To conceive of this information as relevant to the public interest, one would have to accept that a former Clinton advisor’s defense of his son’s book is a better indicator of what President Hillary’s position towards Israel would be, than, say, the eight years in which her husband was president, or the four years in which she served as Secretary of State, or the gushing endorsements of Israeli political leaders.
Rather, Gray’s piece deserves attention because the simultaneity of its flagrant bias and commitment to the conventions of “objective” journalism, make it an excellent case study in how journalistic “objectivity” can be utilized for more effective and insidious political advocacy.
The difficulty with “objective” journalism is that it purports to achieve the impossible: It pretends to transcend human subjectivity and the limits of language, to reduce multivalent reality into narrative form, without that process of selection being informed by any empirically unfounded assumptions or latent biases. It is an inherently aspirational mode, and when engaged in with good faith and self-scrutiny, good work can come of such aspiring.
But when practiced in bad faith or without self-reflection, the bias that crops up in objective journalism is far more toxic than the most fascist rhetoric spewed by overweight, pill-popping advocates of The Real America. Because the objective pose acknowledges no perspective, it admits no possibility of dissent. Its unacknowledged assumptions define the boundaries of the possible.
Before engaging with Gray’s smear, I’d like to illustrate the concept of “toxic” objectivity, by referring to one of its most stunning recent manifestations. In the 2012 Vice Presidential debate, moderator Martha Raddatz asked the following “question”:
“Both Medicare and Social Security are going broke and taking a larger share of the budget in the process. Will benefits for Americans under these programs have to change for the programs to survive?”
Here the assumptions underlying the “objective” perspective are helpfully explicit, tucked into a declarative sentence that prefaces the policy question put before the candidates. It literally defines the terms of the debate with a sentence that contains four separate assertions (1. Medicare is going broke, 2. Medicare is taking a larger share of the budget, etc..), three of which are in no way grounded in empirical reality.
Even if one accepted all of Raddatz’s premises, there’s no objective reason why they would necessarily beg her question. Why ask if benefits for Americans will have to change rather than whether the Social Security (tax) cap will have to be raised? If maintaining current spending levels is our concern, why not ask if the production of obsolete military equipment should be changed, in light of an ever-growing defense budget? With “objective” journalism, it’s all about the notes they don’t play.
Thus our objective moderator’s question advocates explicitly or implicitly, the following contentions:
Social Security and Medicare are unsustainable in their current form.
The most intuitive remedy for this un-sustainability is to cut benefits.
When concerning ourselves with the increasing budget deficit, it is more important to scrutinize our social welfare programs than our defense spending, or our tax levels.
As Raddatz advocates a restricted debate on the budget through misrepresntation and selective focus, Rosie Gray advocates for a restricted debate on Israel, through those very same means.
She begins by describing Max’s book “Goliath”, to the presumably unfamiliar reader. Immediately, Gray employs selective focus to delegitimize Blumenthal’s writing. She does not provide the author or publisher’s description of the book, instead choosing to introduce the work to her reader solely through the pejorative terms of one of it’s critics:
The book was described by Alterman, himself a frequent critic of Israel, as “awful” and something that “could have been published by the Hamas Book-of-the-Month Club (if it existed).”
This is not “advocacy” because Rosie Gray does not herself describe the book as an entry in the “Hamas Book-of-the-Month Club”. She is only objectively presenting the words of a notably liberal critic.
She proceeds in her characterization by writing:
…[the] book has received little attention in the mainstream press but has proved extremely controversial in the corners of the Internet devoted to debate over Israel; its repeated comparisons of Israeli Jews to Nazis have particularly inflamed several commentators.
Gray remains in the realm of the objective, while expanding on an implicit argument that Blumenthal’s views on Israel are not worth the reader’s consideration. We now know that the book is not significant enough to receive mainstream attention, and that even in those dusty corners of cyber-space where the “explosive” topic of Israel is subject to debate, the book is widely rejected. Gray is not saying that she was inflamed by Blumenthal comparing Isreali Jews to Nazis, or that the reader should be, as that would be advocacy. Rather, she asserts that the book has been controversial, implying that there have been opposing reactions to the text, then chooses to highlight a complaint from one side, without citing any rebuttal from the book’s defenders.
Gray is also utilizing misrepresentation to make her case. In asserting that “Goliath” repeatedly compares Isreali Jews to Nazis, without providing any citation or context, Gray suggests that Blumenthal believes there is a general moral equivalence between Isreali Jews and Nazi soliders, rather than that there are disturbing echoes of Aryan ethnic tribalism in the political rhetoric and practice of the Isreali state.
Gray’s grossest and most significant misrepresentation comes in the article’s very next sentence, as she writes that Blumenthal has argued “the ‘non-indigenous’ majority of Israelis should not remain in the country now known as Israel”. Blumenthal’s actual argument, helpfully included in an italicized correction below Gray’s post, is that “the maintenance and engineering of a non-indigenous demographic majority is non-negotiable.” Gray’s paraphrase of Blumenthal conveys a radically different meaning than his actual quote:
*Gray’s summary suggests Blumenthal believes the majority of the Israeli population should be forced to leave the land of Israel.
*Blumenthal’s actual claim is that Israel should not persist as an ethnocracy, walling off land, turning away migrants, and displacing Palestinians so as to maintain a permanent ethnic majority. He does not argue that the majority of Israeli Jews shouldn’t remain in Israel, he argues that Israeli Jews should not remain in the country’s ethnic majority.
What’s so critical about collapsing these separate arguments into one, is that it reinforces the idea that the democratization of Israel is equivalent to its destruction. One could argue that the Jewish character of Israel is more important than its democratic character, or that the reality of the ethnic tensions in the country are such that allowing Jews to become a minority would be to allow for their physical destruction. But these are arguments, and should be presented as arguments, or else they cannot be subjected to debate.
The actual dispute at the center of this story, between Sid Blumenthal and Eric Alterman, is to a certain extent a factual one. Blumenthal believes Alterman’s review of his son’s book was both unfair and inaccurate. This opinion is shared by several other Israel commentators, including The Daily Beast’s avowedly Zionist Ali Gharib.
Gray does not see fit to comment on the legitimacy of Blumenthal Senior’s complaints. She does not evaluate the claims in the article Sid Blumenthal emailed, titled “Fact-Checking Eric Altermann”. As with Blumenthal’s book, she feels it is less important for the reader to engage with the article’s argument, than to be made aware of the untrustable extremity of its author, Philip Weiss. She writes that Weiss “has carved out a niche in making an allegation that is, for most American critics of Israel, beyond the pale, the charge of undue Jewish influence on American foreign policy”.
Again, she does not engage the question of whether Weiss’s allegation has factual merit. She does not acknowledge that there is an organization called AIPAC, which has as its explicit goal to influence American foreign policy on Israel’s behalf. She does not substantiate her claim that most American critics of Israel feel such an allegation is “beyond the pale”. She merely, “objectively” observes that this is so.
After some paragraphs of gossip about Sidney Blumenthal’s poor social skills and paranoia, Gray gives the last word to Alterman:
“I actually feel for Sid,” Alterman said. “Leaving aside the quality of Max’s journalism, it has to be painful for any Jew to see your own kid going around calling Jews ‘Nazis’ and ‘fascists,’ and insisting that not only should Israel be destroyed, but its Jewish population should be kicked out.” [emphasis mine]
And so we leave the piece with a reiteration of the equivalence between a democratic Israel and a destroyed Israel, and the entirely false claim that Max Blumenthal believes Israeli Jews should be forcibly removed from the region.
Ben Smith hates advocacy journalism because “telling people to be outraged about something” is the least useful thing he can think of.
Rosie Gray’s article tells us that we should be outraged by Max Blumenthal’s views on Israel. In quoting the book’s critics, but never the actual book, she tells us that those views are so outrageous that their substance need not be engaged. Her article is premised on the notion that Blumenthal’s views are so “beyond the pale”, that Hillary Clinton should be expected to cut ties with anyone who might share them.
Though an appeal to outrage, the article is far from useless. It’s of great use to those who wish to restrict the terms of debate on Israel, and to those who wish to study how “objectivity” achieves such restriction.
It feels worth saying that I do not believe Raddatz or Gray pursue their advocacy here consciously. I don’t think that either is insincere in her pursuit of reportorial neutrality. Rather, like all human beings faced with a world teeming with information too multifarious and complex to be comprehended by the human mind, each has adopted a specific personal identity and ideology that helps them selectively process information, so as to maintain a coherent story they can tell themselves about the world. The problem is not conscious malice, but a lack of self-consciousness. The “objective” gaze not only prevents the audience from engaging in critical inquiry, it often prevents the journalist from doing so herself. The advocate is at least forced to anticipate his opponent’s arguments to be effective. The objective journalist does not recognize that she is making an argument.
musings on art, politics, and life by another twenty-something narcissist