Part 3—Talk like a South Ossetian: On Monday morning, Salon’s Brian Beutler broke our hearts again.
His piece appeared beneath a set of Salonistic headlines. You can’t fully blame Beutler for this. But prepare to be scared, really scared:
Paul Ryan’s race flap even worse than it looksWhat makes those headlines Salonistic? Easy:
The notion that Ryan was dog-whistling to racists is actually the best-case scenario. Here’s the scary alternative.
According to Hard Salon Tribal Law, every “flap” involving race has to be “even worse than it looks.” Also, people from the other tribe have to end up seeming “scary.”
It can’t just be that they’re wrong.
Presumably, Beutler didn’t compose those headlines. That said, we were struck by the way he started his piece:
BEUTLER (3/17/14): I spent a depressing amount of time this weekend trying to think up a scenario in which someone might say the following without being motivated, to at least some degree, by malign intent.Lucky Beutler! It hurt so good!
“We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.”
What I came up with was strained and unlikely, but troubling if true.
Over the weekend, Beutler tried to imagine someone saying what Ryan had said without malign intent. He could barely imagine such a thing. The struggle left him depressed.
Luckily, we could imagine the scenario Beutler sought. Who could say what Ryan said without a degree of malign intent? Easy:
Someone who actually believes that “we have this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work,” such that “there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.”
That isn’t our own basic view of this matter—although, for perfectly obvious reasons, there’s a lot of defeat and despair in our nation’s poverty zones, white as well as black.
The view expressed in the quoted statement isn’t our principal view of this matter. But Beutler said he couldn’t imagine how anyone could say such a thing.
Miraculously, we could! We just had to imagine a world in which everyone doesn’t see the world exactly the same way we do.
Does Ryan believe the views he expressed? We can’t answer that question, nor does that principally matter.
What principally matters are the proposals Ryan makes, proposals which typically don’t make huge sense to us. That said, Ryan’s statement on that radio show produced the standard tribal reaction.
By now, all good career pseudo-liberals know how to react to such remarks. Here are a few of the standard ways our screeching presented last week:
First step: In his comments to Hugh Hewitt, Ryan cited the work of two well-known authors—Charles Murray and Robert Putnam. Since Putnam isn’t a man of the right, he was instantly disappeared from our tribal reaction.
Second step: By rule of law, Ryan had to be thinking of Murray’s 1994 book, The Bell Curve. By rule of law, he couldn’t have been referring to Murray’s most recent book from 2012, in which Murray said the white working class is displaying that “tailspin of culture” too.
Which book did Ryan have in mind when he spoke to Hewitt? Like Beutler, we have no idea. But the words Ryan actually spoke fit the theme of the newer book, in which Murray argued that our wider society is now experiencing that “tailspin of culture,” not just blacks or the black poverty class.
For ourselves, we don’t see the problems of low-income people as a “tailspin of culture.” On the other hand, we aren’t inclined to stage hysterical tribal breakdowns every time someone says something we ourselves wouldn’t say.
We admit, it’s a great way to talk to ourselves. And indeed, at Salon, and in other quarters, the hysterical tribal reaction is now completely required. This brings us back to Jonathan Capehart’s labors this Sunday.
Yesterday, we reviewed one part of Capehart’s stint as guest-host for Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC. In that segment, he introduced a UCLA professor who has published a study about the way black youths are treated by police and about the way black youths are perceived by several groups.
Capehart made virtually no attempt to examine what the study claims to have found. After a cursory chat with its author, he pivoted to a four-member panel—a panel selected to produce standard reactions to the way such studies sound.
In this way, a bunch of corporate suits are creating our latest well-scripted tribe. But good lord! In his next segment, Capehart discussed what Ryan said—and one of his guests wandered briefly off message.
As the segment started in earnest, Capehart played tape of Ryan’s remarks. He then read this further statement by Ryan:
“After reading the transcript of yesterday morning’s interview, it is clear that I was inarticulate about the point I was trying to make. I was not implicating the culture of one community but of society as a whole.”
A lot of familiar clatter ensued. Some of it was perfectly sensible, some perhaps a bit less so. In one pleasing moment, we were told that Ryan is “otherizing a certain community, which feeds on that implicit bias we already have in our society.”
But uh-oh! Before long, an Obama hand from the Center for American Progress wandered into a bit of a swamp.
Her host didn’t seem to notice. To watch the full segment, click here:
MOODIE-MILLS (3/16/14): But my question would be, if Paul Ryan is so concerned about these African-American men in the inner city, how involved is he with the My Brother’s Keeper initiative that the White House just released? What is he doing with that?Uh-oh! In theory, it’s good to say that Obama is right (and morally good) while Ryan is wrong (and morally bad). But in a heroic gesture, the Schomburg Center’s Khalil Gibran Muhammad raised a slightly uncomfortable point:
CAPEHART: Yeah, a couple of weeks ago. And that’s a good question.
MUHAMMAD (continuing directly): Well, on this point, I actually think that that program actually, if you heard the president, if you heard the interviews with Bill O`Reilly where Bill O’Reilly says we should have a culture of shame because of the breakdown of the family because that’s the number one cause, there’s this House Budget Committee report that looks at the war on poverty— There’s actually amazing convergence on the idea that there is a cultural problem. And it’s even implicit in My Brother’s Keeper.Oops. As Muhammad noted, Obama’s program also implies the possibility of a “cultural problem” in parts of the black community. To see Ta-Nehisi Coates make this point more forcefully, just click here.
I actually reject those ideas, because I actually do think that it is a structural problem that interacts with individuals who operate from a set of limited choices, which is to say then that we can’t entirely call what Paul Ryan said “racist” necessarily because it is in the ether, and it affects all of us in terms of the air and the ideas that we communicate.
Coates’ piece appears beneath these headlines. Toto, we’re a long way from Salon's headlines now:
The Secret Lives of Inner-City Black MalesWe can answer Coates’ question. Why did Ryan’s statement make (some) liberals so angry?
Paul Ryan's explanation for urban poverty isn't much different from Barack Obama's. Why did it make liberals so angry?
Simple—because it’s in the script! It’s required by Hard Tribal Law.
For ourselves, we admired Muhammad for wandering off-message. A real discussion could have ensued, but Capehart quickly changed the subject, after making a silly remark about how no one was saying that Ryan is racist.
Regarding Muhammad, we would say this: He shouldn’t feel that he has to choose between “cultural problem” and “structural problem.” (In our view, the structural problem is the primary, much greater force.)
But please note where Muhammad’s thought process led him:
According to Muhammad, we maybe shouldn’t call Ryan “racist.” According to Muhammad, many people say the types of things Ryan said.
Barack Obama talks that way, Coates observes in his piece. Bill Cosby has talked that way for years. Talk like that is quite widespread, Coates says. But at Salon, Hard Tribal Law means that you have to ignore that.
You have to say that you can’t imagine anyone talking like that. Beyond that, you have to say you can’t imagine why people from Obama down would say such things.
(Why has Cosby been saying those things? Could it be that he thinks they’re true?)
This morning, in the New York Times, we read about Russia’s move into South Ossetia in 2008. In the passage below, we thought we saw a strong human impulse described.
All over the world, people long to share true belief with a tribe. Until we learn to rein it in, we’re all inclined this way:
VARTANYAN AND BARRY (3/19/14): Separatists here had spent two decades locked in conflict with the Georgian authorities, and had little economy to speak of…Georgian forces had shelled Tskhinvali, forcing many residents to cower for days in basements, and when Russia formally recognized South Ossetia, it meant a guarantee of protection.“Shame, Georgian bootlicker!”
“Finally, finally, Russia has acknowledged that we exist, and that we have suffered,” one Ossetian militiaman exulted that day. “Ossetia thanks its defenders,” read graffiti on one building, and another read, “Shame, Georgian bootlicker!”
All over the world, separatists long to yell such insults at The Others. They may love the outrage they feel.
They may tend towards words like “malign.” Does this impulse possibly keep us from persuading others?
Tomorrow: What’s the matter with outreach?