They Are Lying To You. Don't Forget It.


January, 2019 is already telling us what kind of year it’s going to be, and when a year tells you who it is, you should believe it. As I type this, the federal government is currently embroiled in the longest government shutdown in American history. The reasons for this shutdown are straightforward, and the sequence of events is easy to understand.

  • In late December, Senate Republicans advanced a stopgap bill to fund the federal government through February 8th. Senate Democrats supported the bill. It passed with overwhelming majorities in both chambers of the Senate.

  • Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham and others blasted Donald Trump as having been insufficiently focused on including “wall” funding in federal government funding for the following year.

  • Mark Meadows (leader of the House Freedom Caucus) encouraged Donald Trump to take up a fight with Congress to include “wall” funding in the budget, and House Republicans defeated the funding bill in the House. Everyone, at this point, knew that House Democrats - taking the majority in January - would vote to approve the exact same bill.

  • Mitch McConnell then abandoned his own bill, and insists, now, that he will not introduce any bill to the Senate that does not include Donald Trump’s $5B for “wall” funding.

That’s where we stand. The Republican Party has made a choice to prolong a federal government shutdown, leaving hundreds of thousands of Americans working without pay, or not-working without pay, because the President of the United States was unable to tolerate criticism from the most aggressive wing of his base. Don’t let anyone try to tell you otherwise; that’s the story of how we got here.

This shutdown timeline isn’t the purpose for this post. It’s a reminder, because if you watch cable news, or if you get your information primarily from social media - and, in many cases, even from “traditional” sources like the New York Times or the Washington Post - the endless discussion of this makes the issue seem more complicated than it is. It isn’t complicated. There are lots of other tangential issues you can discuss in conjunction with the shutdown. whether or not Democrats should accept a temporary extension of DACA, which Trump tried to end, unilaterally, but has been held up in the courts. Trump’s “compromise” proposal for Democrats is to give something back - on a temporary basis - that he, himself, tried to end. That’s where we’re at, right now, but if you get your news from the internet, or from cable, or even from traditional media, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s more complicated than it is.

Professional Doubt Merchants

Over the weekend, in Washington, DC, the March for Life Education and Defense Fund held their yearly March for Life protest on the National Mall. The March for Life Education and Defense Fund claims to be a non-partisan group working to end abortion, though, it’s difficult to claim that you’re a non-partisan actor when your guest speakers are almost universally partisan figures, up-to-and-including the Republican Party President and Vice-President. Each year, groups of pro-life supporters and protestors from all over the country come to participate in the demonstration. This year’s group included a group of high school attendees from a private Catholic school called Covington Catholic High School, who, after the March for Life concluded on the National Mall, made their way to the Lincoln Memorial.

Then, this happened:

It’s important for you to stop here, and ask yourself what it is that you’re seeing. When I watch this, I see a smug, threatening white teenager, wearing a Make America Great Again hat, attempting to intimidate an elderly Native American man, surrounded by a group of similarly dressed white teenage boys doing the same.

Most of Twitter, Facebook, social media, and national media see the same thing. If you’re reading this, you probably see something similar.

But by Sunday morning, right-wing commenters - particularly conservative Catholics - were trying to tell a different story. There’s a longer video of the sequence of events that led to this moment. Prominent conservative Catholics like Rod Dreher wrote an impassioned defense in a post hyperbolic titled ‘The Catholic Bonfire At the Stake’, concluding:

“Similarly, in this case, the white Catholic boys in their MAGA hats appearing to intimidate a Native American elder serves as a useful club with which to beat the entire March For Life, as well as conservative Christianity in general. I’m not saying that it wasn’t news, or shouldn’t have been reported. But tell the whole story. Tell how Phillips instigated this thing, and how the boys appear not to have understood what was happening. Tell how Phillips’s companion cursed them and hurled a racial slander at them. Talk about the Black Hebrews.”

Before setting aside the title, let’s stipulate here that no one has been burned at the stake in this incident. No one has been physically harmed at all, actually. Prominent American politicians are not calling for anyone involved in this incident to face serious legal consequences. Framing this as being “burned at the stake” profoundly overstates the consequences of being captured, on tape, committing acts of bigotry, in the social media age. Some of these boys may, in fact, upon investigation, end up being expelled from their exclusive private high school, for violating codes of conduct that they, themselves, agreed to uphold whether on school property or not, and that they may have violated while on a school-sponsored trip to a protest on a national political issue.

If I were the type of person who Rod Dreher would engage with, I would ask him if he believes that private Catholic high schools should have the power to hold students accountable for observing and acting in accordance with codes of conduct. As it stands, we do know that Dreher supports religious observation and teaching within private religious schools, and isn’t in favor of atheists being allowed to teach in these institutions. We can draw a fair conclusion that he believes Catholic schools are obligated to require staff at these schools observe conservative Catholic interpretations about same-sex marriage, abortion, and other issues.

It doesn’t seem like a stretch to imagine that Rod Dreher does believe that private Catholic high schools are within their rights to require students to uphold a code of conduct, and require that students face consequences for failing to adhere to that code of conduct.

These two positions - that students can and should be required to observe codes of conduct and standards of behavior as set forth by their private, religious school, but that the national conversation criticizing those boys for their behavior is a rhetorical burning at the stake - are completely at odds with one another. The latter is an attempt to minimize and excuse the former. Dreher’s sole concession (that these boys may have behaved badly) in a more than 1,000-word piece is here:

To be clear, it is POSSIBLE that these boys really did make fun of this old Native American man. If that’s what happened, they should apologize.

That’s it. “It’s possible they made fun of the guy, and if so, they should apologize”. This is a false concession that’s going to be familiar to anyone who has ever been gaslight about anything (which is everyone). “It’s possible this bad thing happened, and if it did, that’s obviously bad, but…” It’s a distraction crafted to short-circuit your thinking about what actually happened in order to make you think “if this happened”, rather than “this happened”. That’s the only opening you need if you’re trying to convince someone that what they saw wasn’t what they saw. Rod Dreher - a prominent, conservative, religious columnist is intentionally attempting to sew doubt about what you see, in order to deflect blame in every other direction but the direction it should be directed.

To return to Dreher’s quote; It is more than possible. It’s obvious. Even in the long-form version of the video, this is clear. Whooping and hand chopping and surrounding the man, Nathan Phillips, is obvious. It is clear to anyone who watches it. But by caveating his piece in this “well, if that’s what happened, then that’s bad, BUT HERE’S WHAT’S REALLY BAD” framing, he’s demonstrating to you that he doesn’t really care about the boys’ behavior. He’s not interested in what they were doing, because there were “justifiable” reasons for them to behave badly. It’s not their fault, they were made to do it.

What Actually Happened? Exactly What You See

What are the “reasons”, you ask? A very small group of black radicals were on the Lincoln Memorial demonstrating for their own causes, doing so in a way that, over the course of an hour (as shown in the full video), grew increasingly heated, and was met with mutual antagonism from a very large group of white teenagers in MAGA hats and shirts, which is, itself, a clear form of signaling, more than two years after it was used as a campaign slogan.

As the intensity between the two groups kept growing, Nathan Phillips, a longtime activist and demonstrator, chose to intervene by walking through the group, while performing a traditional song with a drum. Trying to distract and defuse opposing groups when the tension between the two of them is building is a very standard de-escalation tactic known to anyone who has ever been involved in non-violent protest. One of the members of Phillips’ cohort gets into a heated argument with one of the MAGA teenagers. Dreher appears to take great umbrage with the use of profanity, which, as we all know, is something teenage boys are uncomfortable and unfamiliar with. But otherwise, there’s no conflict between the narrative told in the short version of the clip, and the longer one.

Believe Your Eyes

The long version of the video doesn’t tell us anything we couldn’t discern from the short video. One very small group of demonstrators was involved in an increasingly-tense disagreement with another much larger group of protestors, and a third, unrelated group of protestors intervened and was surrounded and harassed by the larger group. The outcome was displayed in the short clip, which no one reputable claims has been edited or otherwise manipulated. It’s straightforward, uncomplicated, and easy to understand. But because of columns like Dreher’s, conservatives on Twitter and elsewhere are already engaged in a full-tilt effort to shift blame, accountability and responsibility:

This is how disinformation works. The goal of disinformation isn’t to convince you of a specific interpretation of events, in most cases. The goal of disinformation is to seed doubt into your own viewpoint, in order to give bad actors plausible deniability (in some cases), to build sympathy and support for those bad actors (in some cases), or just to downplay the severity of something or to obfuscate the facts about it in order to make you think “well, I just don’t know what to think”.

But you do know. There’s no conflict between the idea that there were events that led up to that short clip and what you actually see in the short clip. Dreher - and many, many others on the conservative right - are trying to make you choose between one interpretation or the other. They’re trying to make you believe that, because there was a sequence of events that led to this, the outcome that you see - a large group of white, teenage boys in MAGA hats and t-shirts intimidating a small, elderly Native American - is explainable. It’s understandable. Boys will be boys. There’s more to the story. Etc., etc., forever.

This Will Get Worse

All things considered, this will probably be a blip in the national news media. By next week, there will be some other outrage, a national emergency, or another Trumpian distraction to keep national discussion unfocused and in disarray.

I hope you remember this one.

This problem is going to get much worse as we continue in 2019, and will be epidemic in 2020. Prominent commentators who, ostensibly, are reasonable, honest actors will try to convince you that you aren’t seeing what you’re actually seeing. That Donald Trump isn’t really a racist, if you look at what he says in context. That the Republican Party can’t be held accountable for the whims of Donald Trump. That your own eyes are lying to you, and that you, a reasonable, intelligent person should not be suckered in by simple narratives and should understand the greater context.

All of this is true, but I would be very, very attuned to where these admonitions come from. Bad faith actors - and I will absolutely place Rod Dreher in that category - know that you’re a reasonable person. They know that you’re an intelligent person. They’re counting on it, and they will use it against you, in order to minimize bad actions. They will insist that understanding the larger picture will make you come to a different conclusion than your initial ones, and in some cases, that will absolutely be true.

But most of the time, these people are going to be lying to you, and you should never, ever forget it.

andrew disney