Part 3—What Joe Klein wrote: Full disclosure. We used to do a comedy bit on the subject of “simple solutions.”
(One such “simple solution:” “We’re going to send it all back to the states! We’ll let the states run the government, those magnificent states!” That was one premise in that bit. You can fashion the punch-lines.)
We used to try to make people laugh at the existence of “simple solutions.” Perhaps for the reason, we were drawn to Joe Klein’s essay concerning Michael Brown’s death.
Klein’s brief essay appeared at Time. These are the headlines on the piece, headlines he may not have written:
Beyond a Simple Solution for FergusonWe’re opposed to simple solutions! Beyond that, we support “thoughtful” analyses!
Why we need to address race relations in a thoughtful, provocative way
Those headlines drew us to Klein’s essay, large chunks of which we wouldn’t have written. The essay started like this:
KLEIN (8/21/14): At first, it seemed a perfect metaphor for 400 years of oppression: a white police officer shoots an unarmed black teenager multiple times. He is shot with his hands up, it is reported, at least once in the back. The young man is a “gentle giant” with no adult criminal record. He seems guilty of nothing more than walking while black, albeit down the middle of the street. This takes place in a town that appears to have been cryogenically preserved from the 1960s, before the Voting Rights Act was passed. An estimated 67% of its citizens are African American; its government is melanin-deprived. The mayor of Ferguson, Mo., is white; 50 of the 53 police officers are white. Demonstrators come out to protest the atrocity–nobody is calling it an “apparent” atrocity yet–and the police respond in gear that makes a St. Louis suburb look like Kandahar.Can we talk? As best we can tell, no one is calling Michael Brown’s death an “apparent atrocity” even now!
We ran the phrase through Nexis; we got zero hits in the past month. Google also provides no hits, aside from Klein’s own usage.
If we had edited Klein’s piece, we would have suggested that he state that point a different way. That said, it isn’t hard to discern Klein’s larger point as he starts his piece.
As originally reported, Michael Brown’s death seemed to involve an especially heinous crime—a heinous crime straight from a Hollywood script.
In the original narration, Brown had literally been “shot in the back,” a traditional symbol of heinous conduct. He had also been shot “with his hands up,” the traditional sign of surrender.
As initially described, the shooting death of Michael Brown seemed remarkably heinous. (It may yet turn out that this was the case.) That said, does anyone really not understand what Klein meant by this statement?
“At first, it seemed a perfect metaphor for 400 years of oppression.”
In that passage, Klein seems to be saying that African-Americans have in fact experienced “400 years of oppression” in this country. (That statement is true, though not all-inclusive.) He seems to be saying that the heinous nature of the initial description made the shooting a perfect distillation of all those previous heinous acts.
It’s hard to see how anyone of the “left” could find that statement offensive. But uh-oh!
As Klein continued, he said the actual facts in this case may not be quite so clear-cut, or quite so perfectly heinous. He said the actual story isn't as simple as that initial report.
For ourselves, we wouldn’t have written most of the following passage. Still, we’d say that Klein’s point concerning “metaphoric truths” remains abundantly clear:
KLEIN (continuing directly): But the perfection of the metaphor is soon blurred by facts. The gentle giant, Michael Brown Jr.–nicknamed Bodyguard by his friends–seems pretty intimidating in a surveillance video, in which he is seen taking cigarillos from a convenience store, tossing the diminutive clerk into a snack display as if he were a bag of Doritos. The alleged robbery occurs 10 minutes before the confrontation with the cop. The inevitable Rev. Al Sharpton says the video is an attempt to “smear” the young man. Then more facts emerge, and other eyewitnesses allegedly describe a more aggressive Michael Brown–more like the fellow in the video. An autopsy, requested by Brown’s parents, shows six bullet wounds; the kill shot is into the top of the victim’s head–which raises another possibility, that the officer, Darren Wilson, fired in self-defense. And now we have a metaphor of a different, far more difficult sort: about the uncanny ability of Americans to talk past each other when it comes to race relations, and also about the struggle between facts and metaphoric truths.We’re puzzled by much of that paragraph. Personally, we wouldn’t have made the inevitable snide reference to Reverend Sharpton, especially since a lot of people have made the claim that Michael Brown was “smeared.” Nor do we understand the logic of this sentence:
“An autopsy...shows six bullet wounds; the kill shot is into the top of the victim’s head–which raises another possibility, that the officer, Darren Wilson, fired in self-defense.”
At this point, we’d say it’s still possible that Wilson fired in some form of self-defense, at least in his final shots. That said, we don’t understand how a kill shot into the top of Michael Brown’s head “raises [that] possibility,” absent some further explanation which Klein does not provide.
Given the “perfect metaphor” framework, we’re also struck by an omission. By the time Klein wrote his essay, the world had learned that Michael Brown wasn’t “shot in the back.”
As Klein noted in paragraph one, the claim that Brown was “shot in the back” helped make this a “perfect metaphor.” The perfection of the story erodes a bit when this claim turns out to be false.
Michael Brown wasn’t “shot in the back.” Still, it seems likely that Wilson shot at Brown as he fled, a form of policing we would regard as extremely shaky (and possibly illegal), absent some unusual justification. If we understand what Michael Baden has said, it may even be the case that Brown was winged in the arm by one shot as he fled, although that remains to be determined.
We’re puzzled by some of that second paragraph. That said, we agree with something else Klein says. We agree that the surveillance video from the convenience store “blurs the perfection of the metaphor.”
We know what we're supposed to say. Here's why we say that instead:
As Klein said, the metaphor was made more perfect when Brown was described as a “gentle giant.” That is to say, the story was simplified—made less complex—by the idea that Brown hadn’t done anything wrong, perhaps in his whole life.
Pleasing stories—metaphorical tales—are fashioned in such ways. That said, the surveillance tape suggests the possibility that Brown may have behaved inappropriately, even perhaps aggressively, in his initial encounter with Officer Wilson.
This makes the story less simple-minded. It complicates the original perfect tale.
Can we talk? Every good pseudo-liberal knows what to say at this point! Every well-scripted pseudo-progressive—each ditto-head of the so-called left—will rise in exquisite indignation to recite a well-rehearsed point:
Stealing from a convenience store does not involve a death penalty!
The analysts always start to cry when liberals recite this point. When they see this occur, it makes them think there is no hope for our struggling, script-ridden species.
It’s certainly true! Stealing from a convenience store is not a capital crime! It couldn’t explain, or justify, Wilson’s conduct in firing at Brown as he ran down the street, if that’s what he actually did.
It certainly couldn’t justify shooting at Brown as he tried to surrender, if that’s what Wilson did.
(Just for the record, liberals are also expected to say that Wilson didn’t know about the convenience store theft. Some liberals are still saying the theft didn’t occur, long after Brown’s friend, Dorian Johnson, has apparently said that it did.)
Stealing from a convenience store shouldn’t get somebody killed! But the aggressive conduct seen on that tape does undermine the moral perfection of the original story.
It makes it less a fairy tale and more a story drawn from real life. It suggests the possibility of aggressive conduct by Brown when he encountered Officer Wilson—a possibility that didn’t exist in the original “perfect metaphor.”
This doesn’t mean that Wilson was justified in shooting at Brown as he ran down the street, if that’s what he did. But it raises the possibility that the story will be more complex than the initial telling.
Did Brown behave aggressively at the police car? We have no way of knowing. Moments later, is it possible that Brown behaved in some aggressive way which may have led Wilson to fire those final shots, perhaps unwisely or even illegally? That possibility didn’t exist in the tale originally told, in the tale where a “gentle giant” had been “shot in the back,” full stop.
For ourselves, we don’t know why Wilson would have fired at Brown as he fled. That strikes us as reckless policing.
(Unless Wilson was firing warning shots, it means that he was trying to shoot Brown “in the back.”)
But yes—that convenience store tape introduces possibilities which were absent from the original tale. The original story featured a gentle giant. In the revised tale, that same individual seems to have menaced a much smaller person just ten minutes before.
At this point, we can’t tell you what happened when Brown encountered Wilson. Let’s return to Klein’s basic point concerning “metaphor.”
As Klein continues, he wails away at Sharpton, just as Maureen Dowd does today in her latest clown-cry column. Quite often, major pundits use Sharpton to create simplified tales of their own.
For ourselves, we would have left Sharpton out of this piece. But it’s fairly clear what Klein has in mind as he continues to talk about “metaphoric truths:”
KLEIN (continuing directly): Sharpton has made a living off metaphoric truths since the late 1980s, when he promoted a terrified young woman named Tawana Brawley, who claimed that she had been raped by six white men, including the local prosecutor. Her story was later shown in court to be false, but the metaphoric truth was undeniable: black women have been casually violated by white men in America for 400 years. The undercurrent was strong enough that few black leaders rose up to take on Sharpton. The fetishizing of black sexuality by white men (and women) was too close to the bone, an infuriating historic truth.Brawley’s original story was a “perfect metaphor” too. Isn’t it fairly clear what Klein means by that?
What does Klein mean when he says that Brawley’s story was a “metaphoric truth?” Among other things, he means that it was a thoroughly simplified story, with clear-cut heroes and clear-cut villains straight out of B-grade westerns or Hansel and Gretel.
He means that the story didn’t contain a hint of ambiguity, whether moral or factual. He means that the story was a cartoon—a story so simple that any child would read its moral dimension.
In our view, Klein’s column is somewhat clumsily written. We don’t understand a few of things he says as he continues on from this point. But he clearly makes a statement with which many current progressives will disagree:
Rather clearly, Klein says there are cultural problems in the black community—problems in the “the culture that emerged from slavery and segregation.” He says that those cultural problems won’t be solved by falling back on simple-minded stories which feature perfect villains and perfectly innocent victims.
That doesn’t tell us what the truth will turn out to be concerning the conduct of Wilson. It doesn’t tell us the truth about policing nationwide.
It says that the society’s larger problems are more complex than a simplified tale in which a gentle giant is shot in the back. It says we can’t address our problems by selling each other cartoons.
For ourselves, we wouldn’t have written large parts of Klein’s column, but we’re somehow able to grasp the gist of what’s being said. But all over Corporate Liberal Land, silly people are coming forward to sell us simplified, stupenagel stories—stories which are “perfect metaphors,” of the kind Rush Limbaugh has always sold.
Some of these simplified, stupid stories involve particular events. Some of these simplified, stupid stories involve the shape of the culture.
That said, the people who sell these simplified stories are peddling product. You shouldn’t be fooled by the lofty titles which sometimes precede their names.
They parade about on your TV screen, pretending they don’t understand Joe Klein’s horrific column. They sell our tribe barrels of indignation, just as Hannity does.
Tomorrow, we’ll review one televised reaction to Klein’s horrific column. We wouldn’t have written Klein’s column ourselves, but we’re able to read what he wrote without turning into a clown.
People, Hansel and Gretel are dead! Citizens of all descriptions ought to start spreading the word.
Tomorrow: Truly, horrible work