Monday, October 05, 2020

Misplaced Civility

Lately my Twitter feed seems divided between two camps: those who wish President Trump well in his fight against COVID-19 and those who are gleeful about the karmic retribution of a man who has systematically downplayed the seriousness of this virus being struck with it himself. I’m less interested in what camp any individual falls into than in the power dynamics reflected by calls for “civility.” Why is it acceptable to call for policies that guarantee the deaths of many people but not to express an ill thought about a powerful individual?

The late Anthony Bourdain had this to say about Henry Kissinger:

“Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands. You will never again be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a new glossy magazine without choking. Witness what Henry did in Cambodia — the fruits of his genius for statesmanship — and you will never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at The Hague next to Milošević.”

John Yoo authored a set of memoranda known as the “Torture Memos” presenting an argument for the permissibility of the euphemistically named “enhanced interrogation techniques” (mental and physical torment, including waterboarding and sleep deprivation). He now enjoys a position at UC Berkeley’s law school, though numerous courts and legal experts have argued he should be indicted for war crimes. There is something very peculiar about a society where war crimes do not keep you from six-figure teaching positions (in 2015, John Yoo made $406,385.00) but a felony conviction for marijuana possession could keep you from getting a minimum-wage job (depending on the state in which you live). This society is OK with the rich and the educated doing terrible things to other people, if they do it in abstractions. It is permissible here to torture and to kill so long as you do it with the stroke of a pen.

Mr. Kissinger or Mr. Yoo can speak at conferences and hobnob with billionaires who disagree with them. Later some reporter will write glowingly about how beautiful it is that people can have friendships despite their differences, that a figure so polarizing can actually get along with everyone! 

In our fetishization of everyone getting along we have forgotten that the “everyone” in DC or any hall of power does not reflect the “everyone” outside. Wealthy and credentialed people are able to get along with each other regardless of whatever odious policy they might have enacted because they are removed from the most marginalized in our society. Would you demand that someone attend dinner parties with, and send Christmas cards to, someone who regularly spat in his sister’s face? Probably not. But we do not expect our public figures to see the huddled masses as their brethren.

I hope that no human is completely irredeemable, so my personal wish is for the president’s illness to be a scientific and moral education for him; maybe having COVID-19 will make him more willing to listen to experts and more empathetic to the families of the 200,000 dead. But I’d hardly admonish (especially given his apparent lack of personal growth thus far) those who have expressed more colorful desires.

Kanye West shocked some Americans in 2005 when he said, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.” I wonder if we could have more productive governance, ultimately, if everyone was more willing to level with our past and present without the niceties. George Bush told Matt Lauer later, “ ‘He called me a racist. And I didn’t appreciate it then. I don’t appreciate it now. It’s one thing to say, ‘I don’t appreciate the way he’s handled his business.’ It’s another thing to say, ‘This man’s a racist.’ I resent it, it’s not true.” This response shows a misreading of West’s statement. West spoke in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, so he was hardly making a statement about Bush’s interpersonal relationships with Black people, or saying that Bush necessarily had an explicit desire to cause them harm. Instead, the statement gestured at the evidence of New Orleans, the wreckage in predominantly Black neighborhoods and police officers and National Guard who seemed more concerned with preventing “looting” than allowing people to survive. George Bush implied a distinction between someone who is racist (i.e., discriminates against Black people in face-to-face encounters) and someone who “handles his business” in a way that exacerbates racial disparities. It is that luxury of absolution via distance — killing is okay if by the stroke of a pen — that we only afford to the powerful.

I don’t think the left needs to speak in hushed voices about these wrongs. I love Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, AOC and the Squad, and many others precisely because they are angry about injustice and they don’t hide it. I used to be very frightened about coming across as “angry.” (I am still polite, even when I volunteer to text voters in North Carolina and get a Trump fan who tells me I am an “idiot CLOWN” with twenty clown emojis 🤡, but I don’t think this makes me a good person.) Trump’s temperament is especially grotesque, so I understand the desire to return to some semblance of “normalcy” in which people treat each other graciously regardless of political alignment. But it is important to remember that the greatest scandal of our body politic is not the temperament of individuals. It’s the dispossession of the masses. Children go hungry in the richest country on earth. Solving that, I believe, takes truth dispensed without apology.


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