We are a primitive people: Intellectually, we are a primitive people.
Just consider the chaos which reigned on cable TV last night. This chaos concerned the Supreme Court’s decision on the Arizona immigration law.
This famous state law, SB-1070, has been center stage in the national discourse for more than two years. Four provisions of that state law were under review by the Court.
Four is not a large number. And yet, when three provisions were struck down and one provision was upheld, chaos reigned in the land of cable. (This morning’s newspapers aren’t much clearer.) All night long, multimillionaire TV stars struggled to explain what had happened. The greatest joke of them all came into play, the joke called “Goldberg’s Law:”
The man with one watch always knows the time. The man with two watches is never quite sure.
If you watched two cable shows last night, you may have been thrown into high confusion. In some cases, you may have been thrown into high confusion if you watched just one cable show, so eager were some of the hosts to recite conflicting narratives.
But one basic point was clear: Given two years to examine this law, the folk who play journalists on TV had a very hard time explaining what had happened. We are a primitive people.
If you watched The One True Liberal Channel, your evening began in a lachrymose way. As soon as his program began, Chris Matthews played tape of Harry Reid on the floor of the senate.
Reid described the part of the law the court did not strike down:
MATTHEWS (6/25/12): Gentlemen, I want you to look at this bit now. It’s a quote from Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader. He had strong words about the provision the court left standing today. Let's listen to the leader.For us pseudo-liberals, that felt very good. But what in the world was Reid talking about? Most people in Arizona (or in Reid’s own state of Nevada) can’t “carry their immigration papers with them every place they go.” Being American citizens, they don’t have “immigration papers.”
REID (videotape): I just say to you, Mr. President, and to anyone within the sound of my voice, someone with my skin color or yours, I don’t think you’re going to be carrying your immigration papers with you every place you go. But if you’re in Arizona and you speak with a little bit of an accent or your skin color’s brown, you better have your papers with you. That’s unfortunate.
That’s true for citizens with Reid’s “skin color” and for those whose “skin color’s brown.” That’s true for the person to whom Reid was speaking, the senate’s presiding officer. (We don’t know who that was.)
On its face, Reid’s lachrymose statement doesn’t parse real well. But it drives a favorite narrative, the “papers please” narrative in which our tribe has taken so much delight. The rules controlling use of this narrative are known by all:
You must never use Hitler allusions. Unless you’re discussing SB-1070, in which you must utter phrases from Hollywood Nazi movies.
What exactly did Reid mean in making that lachrymose statement? Because newspapers have done a very poor job explaining the workings of SB-1070, we would guess that very few people could work their way through his statement. Under terms of SB-1070, what sorts of “papers” must citizens carry? How about non-citizens who are in the country legally? Under terms of SB-1070, what sorts of “papers” must they carry? And is there any normal sense in which you’d refer to those “papers” as papers?
We think we know how to answer those questions. But we can’t say we’re entirely sure.
You see, our major news orgs are very bad at explaining things. They’re even bad at explaining topics which have been center stage for two solid years. And in the midst of all the confusion, people like Reid issue murky statements designed to spread loathing and fear.
Back to what we learned on cable last night:
At 8 PM, Big Ed came on. Within the first few minutes of his show, he seemed to make contradictory assessments of the day’s events. Governor Brewer’s law had been left for dead. And the Nazis were in control:
SCHULTZ (6/25/12): Right-wingers can no longer hide behind states’ rights when it comes to creating radical immigration laws. A ruling from the highest court in the land proves states can only go so far. The Supreme Court ruled 5-3 in favor of striking down most of the provisions in Arizona’s controversial immigration law, Senate Bill 1070...But the ruling also keeps intact the most controversial part of the law, the “papers please” provision, allowing law enforcement to check the immigration status of people they detain.“Right-wingers can no longer hide behind states’ rights when it comes to creating radical immigration laws,” Big Ed triumphantly said. And not only that! The ruling by the Court “says racial profiling is going to happen and it doesn’t do anything to curb that!”
Republican Governor Jan Brewer jumped into face-saving mode late this afternoon. The law she champions basically got smoked by the Supreme Court. She put on a happy face today… I mean, Jan Brewer is the Baghdad Bob of right-wing immigration laws. I mean, she says the court upheld the heart of Senate Bill 1070, but it only upheld the right for the law enforcement to ask for documentation. Brewer is proud of one key achievement, the ability to racially profile suspected undocumented immigrants.
I want to start with the Arizona law and this ruling by the Supreme Court. It still says racial profiling is going to happen and it doesn’t do anything to curb that. Are you troubled by that?
Why was Big Eddie so unclear? You had to sympathize with the big lug! Last night, hosts on the One True Channel were in the grip of competing narratives, all of which they wanted to shout to the heavens:
They wanted to slam the Roberts court as being hopelessly politicized. But the Roberts court had just struck down three out of the four provisions.
They wanted to say the provision which wasn’t struck down reminds them of Hollywood Nazi films. But that provision had been upheld by a unanimous vote.
They wanted to say that Brewer was nuts for claiming success—a genuine Baghdad Bob. But they also wanted to say that her “racial profiling” stands.
We thought Big Eddie was hard to follow. But good lord! By the end of the evening on this channel, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell were authoring these assertions:
MADDOW: The Supreme Court ruling on that case today, on Arizona's SB-1070 is described in the Beltway press like a mixed bag or a compromise ruling, both sides getting something. Despite spin to that effect from the right, that is not at all what this ruling was...This was not a mixed bag of a ruling. This was a ruling striking down the Arizona “papers please” law.Say what? And did Goldberg just check his third watch?
O’DONNELL: The provision that is on thin legal ice is not the so-called "show me your papers" provision...The most egregious of the provisions, the "show me your papers" provision was, indeed, struck down completely by the Supreme Court today.
Four provisions were under review—and four is not a large number. But by the end of the evening, this channel’s hosts couldn’t even agree on which of the four provisions was the “papers please” clause!
At 8 PM, Big Eddie said the “papers please provision” had been left intact. At 9 PM, Maddow said the court had struck down “the papers please law.”
At 10 PM, Lawrence said the provision which was upheld wasn’t the “show me your papers provision.” That provision had been struck down, he loudly said.
So it goes when your “press corps” takes two years to study a topic—to study an extremely high-profile law in which only four parts were at issue.
We are a very primitive people. We know how to posture and pose and shout slogans. In our degraded current state, we know how to do little else.
Tomorrow: On Fox, “The Five” are confused. Also, this morning’s newspapers