Part 4—Walsh nut-picks: In 1861, it was blue versus gray.
Today, it’s increasingly red versus blue. To watch the way our own blue tribe has been inventing its own private tribal culture, you should consider David Sirota’s now-famous piece for Salon.
When the column appeared on April 16, no one knew who would emerge as the Boston bomber. Sensibly enough, Sirota was worried about what could happen “if the bomber ends up being a Muslim and/or a foreigner from the developing world.”
This was a perfectly valid concern—and the concern is easy to state. But how odd! Sirota stated his valid concern in a clumsy, turgid way.
In part for that reason, his column continues to be mocked on Fox as an example of crackpot liberal thinking. Millions of people keep hearing it mocked—and, to some substantial degree, Sirota invited the mockery.
Consider the following passage, in which a fiery leader of our blue tribe continues the process by which we invent an unhelpful and dumb tribal culture:
SIROTA (4/16/13): If recent history is any guide, if the bomber ends up being a white anti-government extremist, white privilege will likely mean the attack is portrayed as just an isolated incident—one that has no bearing on any larger policy debates. Put another way, white privilege will work to not only insulate whites from collective blame, but also to insulate the political debate from any fallout from the attack.That passage is chock-a-block full of perfectly valid concerns. It’s also full of the kinds of tribal embellishments which work to defeat progressive interests during the eras when folk like Sirota favor us with their presence. One example:
It will probably be much different if the bomber ends up being a Muslim and/or a foreigner from the developing world. As we know from our own history, when those kind of individuals break laws in such a high-profile way, America often cites them as both proof that entire demographic groups must be targeted, and that therefore a more systemic response is warranted. At that point, it’s easy to imagine conservatives citing Boston as a reason to block immigration reform defense spending cuts and the Afghan War withdrawal and to further expand surveillance and other encroachments on civil liberties.
Does “America” often cite law-breaking by Muslims and/or foreigners as proof that entire demographic groups must be targeted? Some Americans certainly do. But does “America” do that?
To Sirota’s credit, he didn’t spell Amerika with a “k”—but in a rather reflexive way, he took the bad conduct of some and extended the blame to the entire nation. But this kind of thing is fairly typical as our blue tribe re-emerges in all its fiery greatness.
Our fiery blue tribal leaders are often inclined to extend their denunciation in ways which 1) make us feel outré and daring and 2) signal to those from outside the tribe that we have large bugs up our keisters. In this way, tribal culture is created—and progressive concerns may come to seem strange to those in the wider society.
Consider also the fiery claims about “white privilege,” the slightly unfamiliar concept around which Sirota built his entire column. In this passage, Sirota says that this type of “privilege” insulates whites from collective blame when people like Lanza, Loughner and Holmes commit horrendous crimes.
It’s true that whites (and white males) don’t come in for collective blame when such people commit their crimes. But to the non-tribal ear, it will sound strange to ascribe this to “privilege,” since whites shouldn’t be slimed with collective blame. And by the way:
In 2001, Muhammad and Malvo, the Beltway snipers, committed a famous series of murders. Were black Americans victimized by “collective blame” in the wake of those illings?
We’d have to saythey were not—that the society had become smarter than that by the year 2001. Did blacks escape collective blame because of their black male privilege? Or is Sirota over-extending a favorite concept, in ways which will (correctly) seem strange to those from outside the tribe?
The term “white (skin) privilege” largely derives from so-called “critical race theory.” In some contexts, the term may even have useful applications, though it largely serves as a make-work project for hordes of useless professors whose names and claims are never heard outside a small tribal world.
In this case, why did Sirota build his column around the concepts of “white privilege” and “white male privilege?” His valid concern was easily stated in more conventional ways—conventional ways which would have made sense to a wide array of citizens.
Why did he express his valid concern in a way which would (justifiably) sound strange to many ears? Before we speculate about that, let’s consider what happened when Salon’s Joan Walsh mused about his column.
At this point, let’s introduce a theological question: If God is all-powerful and all-good, why does He or She allow Walsh to write about racial topics? An omnipotent God could stop this conduct, and yet the conduct continues.
In the current instance, Walsh swung into action with a column bearing this headline: “Are the Tsarnaev brothers white?” In her opening paragraphs, Walsh flung herself into tribal nut-picking and demonization, helping us see the unhelpful ways in which civil wars get created.
Note the way Walsh invents her tribal demons in her second paragraph:
WALSH (4/22/13): Are the Tsarnaev brothers white?By the end of her column, Walsh is discussing “the right wing’s determination to say” that the Tsarnaev brothers aren't white. But where does her sweeping claim come from?
In the wake of David Sirota’s hot-button essay last week, “Let’s Hope the Boston Marathon Bomber Is a White American,” conservatives swarmed to trash Sirota and Salon. I’m not here to defend or criticize Sirota’s piece–I get in enough trouble on these issues myself—but the storm it provoked was revealing, especially once we learned the identity of the two suspects: Tamarlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, ethnic Chechens who grew up in Russia and came legally to the U.S., who were also Muslim.
Hate mail and punditry targeting Salon and Sirota declared that Sirota was not only morally wrong in hoping the terrorists would turn out to be white—but that he was proven spectacularly incorrect, because the Tsarnaev brothers are not white. “Sorry David Sirota, looks like Boston Bombing suspects are not ‘white Americans,’” wrote the folks at Newsbusters. “Is David Sirota crying uncontrollably because the Boston bombers weren’t whites??” one conservative emailed Salon. There was a lot of other email in the same tedious vein.
But are we sure the Tsarnaevs aren’t white? They are quite literally Caucasian, as in from the Caucuses: Rebecca Eisenberg helps with this handy map. And ethnically in this country, we count Americans of Russian descent, as well as Chechens, as white. Dzhokhar was a naturalized American citizen; Tamarlan had applied for citizenship but reportedly didn’t get it because of FBI concerns about his possible ties to Islamic radicals.
So why are the Tsarnaev brothers not white, at least to right-wingers?
Obviously, the Tsarnaev brothers are white. As Walsh helpfully notes, that judgment comes straight from the Census Bureau, which officially classifies people of their ethnicity as white.
The Tsarnaev brothers were white. But by the time we reach her fourth paragraph, Walsh is saying, without qualification, that “right-wingers” think they aren’t! Her sources for this claim are presented in paragraph two. She quotes one minor blogger at Newsbusters, who she describes as “the people at Newsbusters.” She also quotes a mocking question she says she received from one conservative emailer.
Walsh then says “there was a lot of other email in the same tedious vein.” This provides the full evidence for her sweeping claim.
This is classic “nut-picking,” of the type we liberals used to denounce before we decided the practice is fun. Walsh is telling her readers about (alleged) e-mails because, just as a matter of fact, very few published conservatives have said that the brothers aren’t white.
Here’s how this nut-picking worked:
Walsh managed to find one minor blogger at Newsbusters who seemed to make the sad, stupid claim that Muslims can’t be white. (Or something. See part 2 in this series.) She transformed him into “the people at Newsbusters,” then filled out her tribal complaint by talking about a bunch of e-mails from an unknown number of unquoted, unnamed people who may or may not exist.
This is classic nut-picking. Major conservatives have said other things about this case which deserve to be challenged or criticized. But the “right wing” actually hasn’t been claiming that the Tsarnaevs aren't white.
Walsh's soft sourcing tells you that. Essentially, Walsh made her claim up.
This is dumb and very dishonest—but it helps create the exciting new war between the red and the blue. Walsh tells her tribe that the other tribe is making the most ridiculous claims. This is the way tribal warfare is formed, whether here or in the Caucasus.
Back to Sirota:
Down through the annals of time, all the way back into prehistory, we humans have always been inclined to invent and stoke tribal division. There is no aspect of human life we can’t turn into a point of tribal fury. Yesterday, the New York Times described one such conceptual system:
HERSZENHORN (4/25/13): At his mosque in Cambridge, Mass., Mr. Tsarnaev had shown a preference for a strict Salafist interpretation of Islam, objecting to a sermon that approved the celebration of Thanksgiving and saying that he would not celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. While those views seemed out of place in the university town of Cambridge, in the wind-swept villages of Dagestan they are a part of the daily discourse, and of a legacy of violence going back decades.Violent division extends for decades as warring tribes fight about such celebrations. If you want to be very sad, we strongly recommend that full New York Times report.
For whatever reason, many of us human beings enjoy stoking tribal division. So it was with Sirota’s column as our war between red and blue grew.
Sirota could have expressed his valid point in a very familiar way: Millions of Muslims shouldn’t be blamed for the violent crimes of these two brothers!
Everyone would have understood the logic of that statement. That may have been the problem.
You see, those who long for tribal war seek to heighten tribal division. They may adopt murky logic and language because the logic and language are ours. They don’t want to express an idea using the logic and language of others. A tribe will often develop their own private language. Use of that tribal language is a way to prove one's love for the tribe.
The concept of “white privilege” may be quite useful in other settings. But it wasn’t a useful way to advance Sirota’s perfectly valid concern.
So what? Sirota used that framework anyway, producing a murky column. His column featured unfamiliar, outré language and peculiar logic.
We liberals got to revel in his denunciations of “white male privilege.” That said, most Americans would (justifiably) find his piece rather strange, hard to parse, hard to follow.
Most Americans would find his piece strange. When hardheads seek to stoke tribal war, that is often the point.
Tomorrow: On Melissa Harris-Perry’s show, one upbeat progressive voice