TUESDAY, MAY 25, 2021
Where do tribalized novels come from?: Talmon Joseph Smith is an Opinion staff editor at the New York Times.
He's just completing his fifth year out of college (Tufts, class of 2016). He grew up in New Orleans.
Smith wrote one of the essays in Sunday's special collection commemorating the killing of George Floyd. He started with an account of a time he got pulled over while driving his parents' car. His essay started like this:
SMITH (5/23/21): On a humid, windless night several years ago, I was driving my parents’ S.U.V. through the oak-covered back streets of my hometown with four teenage friends. At an empty intersection, I reflexively began turning left before spotting the no-left-turn sign on the traffic light above. I jerked the wheel right, crossed the intersection and headed for the U-turn lane.
Before my friend riding shotgun could even finish joking about my driving, we were surrounded by two blaring cop cars that had been waiting in the shadows nearby. Two officers, their hands placed near the weapons on their right hips, ordered me to lower my window. I did so in a numb state of shock, knowing I was Black, we were underage and there were unopened beers and a bud or two of leftover marijuana in the vehicle.
Stating the obvious, there is no way to verify the accuracy of this lightly novelized account.
What does it mean when Smith says the police cars were "blaring?" Just how close to their weapons had the officers placed their hands?
Had they placed their hands there in a menacing way, or was that just where their hands went? When Smith says he and his friends were "underage," does he mean underage for drinking?
Smith is telling a somewhat scary story, but none of us were there. His recollection continued as shown. In this passage, Smith lays the foundation for a bit of targeted mind-reading in which he'll engage later on:
SMITH (continuing directly): But within moments the officers noticed the back seat passengers, my good friends, two young, well-dressed blonde girls. The officers lowered their hands and furrowed their brows. “Who’s your daddy?” the lead officer asked me with a grimace. “What’s he do?”
I nervously told him: a lawyer. Then, he asked us where we went to school. We told him: Ben Franklin, a “good” magnet school. With that, he asked me and my guy friend to step out of the car. He cuffed us, patted us down, then shrugged: “You’re not worth the paperwork.”
They took the weed morsels, the Budweiser, released us, gave us a ticket and told us to go home.
Did the officers see that the girls were well-dressed? People, we're just asking!
All in all, is that the way this actually happened? As far as we know, yes it is. Then too, we weren't actually there.
As Smith continued, he drew a comparison between his reported experience and a different recent event. At this late date in our societal breakdown, we regard what's shown below as a highly familiar though unintentional case of tribalized political porn.
Tomorrow, we'll tell you why:
SMITH (continuing directly): Last month, a police officer shot and killed a 20-year-old Black man, Daunte Wright, during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minn.—not far from where George Floyd was killed by police 11 months earlier, after being arrested on suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill.
The fatal shooting of Mr. Wright was a personal reminder of how my own traffic stop by the police might have gone much differently, but for those seconds when my friends’ whiteness and then my own class privilege were revealed; how unfairness is both arbitrary and tiered.
His death was also a harsh reminder for millions of people of how police violence persists unabated, despite the supposed “summer of racial reckoning” last year following Mr. Floyd’s death. There are so many people who now question whether there was a true reckoning that, in certain circles, the term itself is used with half-joking disdain.
The mind-reading turns up there.
We regard that passage as a sadly familiar case of tribal political porn. Because we think the topics involved in this essay are so important, we think it's unfortunate that the New York Times chose to publish this essay, in this form, in Sunday's special section.
To be clear, we aren't saying that Smith intended to offer propaganda or political porn. We would assume that what he wrote was written in full good faith.
It's also true that some of the things he wrote are plainly accurate:
It's plainly true that his own traffic stop "might have gone quite differently." We know that because that's true of every event which has ever taken place in all of recorded time.
It's also true that a police officer recently shot and killed Daunte Wright, age 20, during a traffic stop. Having said that, we note that Smith is somewhat sparing when it comes to the details of that particular traffic stop and of that particular fatal shooting.
We note that he doesn't state the basis on which Wright was being arrested. (At that point, he switches to the basis on which George Floyd was being arrested.)
We note that he omits the circumstance which immediately preceded the fatal shooting. (By now, these sorts of omission are virtually required by hard tribal law. We'll note another place in one of these essays where an omission of this type occurs.)
We note that Smith doesn't mention one apparent peculiar circumstance of this particular shooting—a deeply tragic, deeply unfortunate apparent twist of fate.
Could Smith's traffic stop have gone differently in New Orleans that night? Yes, it certainly could have, though it's also true that it didn't.
Tomorrow, we'll start at this point as we start to review (a few parts of) the New York Times' special section. For today, we'll only add this:
Disconsolate experts say this kind of work may be bad for the American project and for living things.
The modern-day New York Times lives on work of this type. So, of course, does our failing tribe. We'll suggest the possibility that this pattern and practice isn't especially helpful.