Part 3—Why did he state it so strangely: Shortly after the Boston bombing, David Sirota wrote a column at Salon with a slightly peculiar headline:
“Let's hope the Boston Marathon bomber is a white American,” that slightly odd headline said.
Sirota’s piece is still being mocked on Fox. But in its essence, his column was built around an obvious and simple idea—an idea which is easy to state.
It’s easy to express the concern which lay at the heart of Sirota’s column. In today’s Washington Post, E. J. Dionne describes a basic concern he felt when he learned that the two Boston bombers were Muslims:
DIONNE (4/25/13): My faith in a tolerant, pluralistic America made me worry that hundreds of thousands of law-abiding Muslim citizens could become the victims of our anger—much as Italian Americans were stereotyped in the days of Sacco and Vanzetti.Dionne’s logic is a bit garbled. Why would his “faith” is a tolerant country make him worry that his country wouldn’t behave in a tolerant way?
Whatever! In this case, it's abundantly clear what he means! Dionne was worried that innocent Muslim citizens might be blamed for the misconduct of the two lost souls who conducted the Boston bombings. Dionne was worried that thousands of innocent people “could become the victims of our anger.”
(Why would that be “our” anger? Let’s set that point to the side.)
In that passage, Dionne expresses a deeply sensible concern—and despite a few minor wrinkles, he showed that the point can be easily stated. Indeed, in yesterday’s Washington Post, Kathleen Parker stated the same basic idea, again in a clear, direct way.
“[I]t isn’t possible to characterize an entire religious group by the actions of two individuals who claim to belong to a certain religion,” Parker correctly wrote. It doesn’t make sense to punish whole groups for the actions of a few people!
This is a very basic idea. We’re lucky enough to live in a society where the vast majority of people now understand this basic idea—an idea which is easily stated.
You shouldn’t blame whole groups of people for the bad actions of a few! By now, almost everyone understands this idea. Dionne and Parker showed how easily this basic idea can be expressed.
This is the basic idea which lay at the heart of Sirota’s column. But when Sirota discussed this idea, he did so in a clumsy, confusing way.
Read literally, many of his basic statements don’t seem to make a lot of sense. Almost surely, his formulations would have seemed strange to many non-tribal readers.
“No more hurting people,” a 7-year-old boy once wrote, in a way which was brilliantly clear. Dionne and Parker expressed a different idea in a clear, understandable way.
But this is the start of Sirota’s column—and much of this doesn’t exactly make sense. What kept Sirota from stating his basic idea in a simple, coherent way?
SIROTA (4/16/13): Let’s hope the Boston Marathon bomber is a white AmericanEven using Sirota’s language, it’s easy to state the basic idea which lay at the heart of this column. We shouldn’t “collectively denigrate or target” whole groups of people because of “the unlawful actions of individuals.”
As we now move into the official Political Aftermath period of the Boston bombing—the period that will determine the long-term legislative fallout of the atrocity—the dynamics of privilege will undoubtedly influence the nation’s collective reaction to the attacks. That’s because privilege tends to determine: 1) which groups are—and are not—collectively denigrated or targeted for the unlawful actions of individuals; and 2) how big and politically game-changing the overall reaction ends up being.
This has been most obvious in the context of recent mass shootings. In those awful episodes, a religious or ethnic minority group lacking such privilege would likely be collectively slandered and/or targeted with surveillance or profiling (or worse) if some of its individuals comprised most of the mass shooters. However, white male privilege means white men are not collectively denigrated/targeted for those shootings—even though most come at the hands of white dudes.
As Dionne and Parker show, it’s easy to state this idea in a simple way. And yet, Sirota’s column is frequently quite hard to follow—and its logic is instantly fractured, in the following way:
According to Sirota, “the dynamics of privilege” will influence the nation’s collective reaction to the attacks. We certainly wouldn’t say that’s wrong—though the phrase we’ve put in quotation marks will seem unfamiliar to many readers.
The larger problem lies in the puzzling logic this preferred phrase seems to impose on the writer of this piece.
Look at what Sirota says in just his second paragraph. At that point, he seems to be talking about the “recent mass shootings” conducted by white males like Loughner, Holmes and Lanza.
According to Sirota, “white male privilege” means that white men “are not collectively denigrated/targeted for those shootings, even though most come at the hands of white dudes.”
The basic claim there is true, of course. No one has blamed Joseph Biden or Justin Bieber for the murderous actions of Adam Lanza. But when Sirota attributes this fact to “white privilege,” he takes us to a strange place.
Is it really a form of “privilege” when Justin Bieber isn’t blamed for Adam Lanza’s actions? On its face, that’s a very strange way to put it. It almost sounds like Sirota is saying that Bieber should have been blamed, but somehow wriggled off the hook due to his “white male privilege.”
Sirota’s a perfectly sensible person. Obviously, he doesn’t think Bieber should be blamed for Adam Lanza’s conduct.
But as he continues, again and again, that is the way his logic may sound. As this puzzling logic persists, readers who aren’t adepts within the blue tribe will tend to fall away:
SIROTA (continuing directly): Likewise, in the context of terrorist attacks, such privilege means white non-Islamic terrorists are typically portrayed not as representative of whole groups or ideologies, but as “lone wolf” threats to be dealt with as isolated law enforcement matters. Meanwhile, non-white or developing-world terrorism suspects are often reflexively portrayed as representative of larger conspiracies, ideologies and religions that must be dealt with as systemic threats—the kind potentially requiring everything from law enforcement action to military operations to civil liberties legislation to foreign policy shifts.Should white non-Islamic terrorists be “portrayed as representative of whole groups?” It’s unclear what Sirota actually means when he talks about “groups” at this point.
“White privilege is knowing that even if the bomber turns out to be white, no one will call for your group to be profiled as terrorists as a result, subjected to special screening or threatened with deportation,” writes author Tim Wise. “White privilege is knowing that if this bomber turns out to be white, the United States government will not bomb whatever corn field or mountain town or stale suburb from which said bomber came, just to ensure that others like him or her don’t get any ideas. And if he turns out to be a member of the Irish Republican Army we won’t bomb Dublin. And if he’s an Italian-American Catholic we won’t bomb the Vatican.”
But by the time Sirota is quoting Wise, Wise is saying it’s a form of “privilege” when the Vatican isn’t bombed in the aftermath of a crime by an Italian-American Catholic. He describes it as a form of “white privilege” when the United States government doesn’t bomb the “stale suburb” from which Lanza hailed.
All through his column, Sirota’s prose tends to be unclear. But in this passage, Sirota keeps making it sound like whites actually should be collectively blamed for the heinous crimes of a few. Or something—it’s hard to be sure.
Sirota writes very unclearly, as people often do when speaking to the choir. Sadly, when tribal leaders speak in such ways to the tribe, they tend to lose everyone else. Everyone else is puzzled by their language and their logic.
That said, it’s certainly true! Had it turned out that the Boston bombings were committed by an Italian-American Catholic, the United States government wouldn’t have bombed the Vatican! And when it turned out that the Newtown killings were conducted by a white male, the United States government didn’t decide to bomb the his neighborhood.
But why would someone choose to describe these failures-to-bomb as forms of “privilege,” since the failures-to-bomb represent the most obvious common sense?
A true believer can explain the jumbled logic driving these passages. But many others will be baffled by these strained constructions.
To be honest, Sirota’s piece is hard to follow from its beginning to its end, partly due to his frequent failure to specify what he is talking about. But for us, his peculiar, strained logic stands out throughout. Eventually, he takes us here:
SIROTA: 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 isn’t exactly “wrong,” but its logic is very strange. According to Sirota, had the bomber turned out to be a white anti-government extremist, white privilege would have “insulate[d] whites from collective blame!”
The basic claim there isn’t false, of course.But it’s a very strange way to describe a much simpler state of affairs. It’s likely to leave non-tribal readers feeling puzzled and excluded from our tribe's curious logic.
No more hurting people, a clear-minded child once said. Dionne and Parker expressed a different idea. But each was able to state that idea in a simple, clear, direct way.
Sirota didn’t do that! Instead, he employed a peculiar logic, a logic which will only seem clear to those who live within his bright blue tribe.
Tomorrow, we’ll wonder why Sirota did that. We’ll see what happened when Salon’s Joan Walsh stepped into this fray.
That said, tribes have always behaved like tribes! Unless you want to live in tribes, it’s a very dumb and very unproductive way to play.
Tomorrow: Tribal leader instantly nut-picks