By Victor D. Infante
There are any number of places to begin, but let’s start with the image of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, smiling as he informs the world that illegal immigrants would be separated from their children. “If you don’t like that,” he says, his grin widening, “then don’t smuggle children over our border.”
It’s a familiar leer, to anyone who has spent long following these sorts of things. It’s the smile of someone who genuinely enjoys hurting people weaker than themselves. It’s the toothy malice of a schoolyard bully. Sessions is a small monster, certainly – not even the worst drunk on power these days – but one who nonetheless delights in claiming dominion over other people’s lives, to play small “g” god in the service of his own bigotries.
He tells people who are escaping violence and poverty that it’s their own fault if this happens, that in order to not be bothered by the suffering of our neighbors, we are willing to be cruel. Sessions practically licks his lips in delight at the thought. It’s stomach-churning to watch. And yet, nestled in the midst of this bald evil, is a pair of arguments: 1.) That we have done it before, and 2.) these people are breaking the law.
The first argument deserves no more than a dismissive shrug, because having done wrong before doesn’t make it moral now. The second is more complicated, given the refugee status claimed by many approaching the border these days, a status protected by international law. Beyond that, though, is a fundamental conflation between what is “legal” and what is “right.”
There are many people who will insist that the former denotes the latter, and while that is certainly the societal goal, it’s one we’re a long way away from attaining. Still, there are many who will attempt to use people’s own altruism against them, to sway them into countenancing evil. For example, there are those who draw similarities between ABC/Disney canceling “Roseanne” over the actions of its titular star, and of the NFL prohibiting players from silently protesting during the National Anthem, inspired by football player-turned-activist Colin Kaepernick’s efforts to draw attention to the deaths of unarmed people of color at police hands. They will try to make each of these instances First Amendment issues, but there are fundamental distinctions.
In the first instance, Disney sought to shield itself from a liability who had a long history of racist behavior and of disseminating sometimes-libelous conspiracy theories. It was acting within its legal rights, and it happened to be the moral stance, also, although one suspects its bottom line was more the issue than any great sense of ethics, seeing as they knew whom they had hired. The NFL, on the other hand, is acting to shut down the protest of police violence against people unarmed of color. Certainly, it’s within its legal right to do so, but is it the moral move? It’s hard to see any way to make that case. Moreover, that situation is complicated by the involvement of the president, who is prone to using the sway of his office far more capriciously than any of his recent predecessors. His use of a literal bully pulpit might move the issue into being an actual First Amendment issue. The president speaking is not the same as other people speaking. His speech has the force of a nation behind it, which is why other presidents usually measured their words when wading into thorny issues.
Because there is a plain truth in any argument regarding speech: It matters who’s speaking. Comedian Samantha Bee, who got in hot water for calling first daughter Ivanka Trunk a “feckless cunt” for feigning to champion women’s issues and tweeting a mother-daughter photo while the public discourse was still dominated by anger over children being forcibly removed from their parents at the border, sometimes for months. But in the end, she’s just a comedian, and while she’s sometimes caustic, there’s really no pattern there of abusive behavior. Barr is also just a comedian, but there was a long history of racist comments behind her, and frankly, her platform is way bigger than Bee’s, which brings with it some responsibility. Still, neither are particularly free speech issues, except that one had the full force of the Oval Office demanding Bee be fired. Which, as we’ve said, makes it a free speech issue. As of this writing, Bee has apologized and plans to address the incident on her show. And if she feels she did wrong through the use of the usually sexist epithet, than apologizing is the correct stance. Because – while freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences – a sincere apology is usually enough, especially if it’s not a regular pattern of behavior. Bee bites at authority whenever possible, but there is no recurring pattern, and really, those criticizing her are not usually the ones that are quick to lambast sexism, as demonstrated by the many “Trump the Cunt” T-Shirts on display during the campaign, which were mere tiny specks on the river of misogyny that raged in Hillary Clinton’s direction. None of these people spoke up then, nor would they ever, except now it’s being aimed in their direction. Once.
And that’s the thing: Trump and his acolytes say reprehensible things all the time. They are a seemingly never-ending fountain of sexism, racism, anti-Muslim, anti-Semetic, homophobic and transphobic rhetoric that they deliver with a smile. They kick down effortlessly, and without a twinge of conscience. But errors on the other side will be dragged out and harped on for ages. We have near daily scandalous outbursts from the president, each one so maddening as to excise the last one from public discourse, and yet one can already see Fox News bringing up Samantha Bee over and over and over again, because really, they have nothing else. For each true classic Trumpism that has stuck around in discourse – “Grab ’em by the pussy,” for example – we forget literally thousands because there are so many.
What happens when we reduce the argument to “why is it OK for Bee to insult someone but not Barr,” we leave out the large number of issues that inform those two incidents: The treatment of immigrants at the border, the normalization of racism and white supremacist ideology, the fact that Ivanka Trump uses liberal sounding buzzwords and optics to present herself as a moderating force on her father, when it’s clear no such force is being exerted and that she’s only using her position for personal profit. Indeed, one can’t help but wonder if the outsized response to Bee’s sting isn’t about Barr or Trump, and not really about her excellent piece the week before where she made the case for shutting down ICE entirely as a cruel and unnecessary organization that diverts resources from organizations better suited to dealing with immigration-related issues. But that’s just supposition.
Really, tough, this all boils down to a discussion of privilege, and how many people have been able to behave abominably. They act as if they’re the victims, as if they get to dictate the terms of any punishment they receive for their crimes. Bill Cosby, when he was handed down a guilty verdict in his sexual assault trial, managed to argue his way out of being remanded into custody before his sentencing. The father of 17-year-old Texas school shooter Dimitrios Pagourtzis claims that his son murdered 10 people because he was angry over “being humiliated by a girl,” which caused the blame for the shooting to shift in the public narrative from him, the shooter, to her, the victim. Daily, the president’s attack dogs, such as Rudy Giuliani, are on TV denouncing the Mueller Russia probe – a tactic Giuliani has admitted is just a PR exercise – even though the probe has already turned up 19 indictments. Lawyer Michael Cohen is facing charges for some of the most blatant illegal access peddling in memory, but EPA director Scott Pruitt, one of the most overtly corrupt political office holders in memory, remains undisciplined. Director Roman Polanski remains a fugitive from justice, but has finally been expelled from the Motion Pictures Academy. Oliver North, a man who knows more than most about illegal weapons sales, has been rewarded for his crimes by becoming the new head of the NRA.
One hopes that things are changing, though, that the culture is slowly learning to say “no” to this sort of behavior, from the public shaming of racist, barista-bashing lawyer Aaron Schlossberg to the indictment of accused rapist Harvey Weinstein, there are reasons to hope that the culture is learning to resist this sort of behavior. That might be wishful thinking – there is still a lot of awfulness out there, awfulness that has every reason to believe it’s untouchable.
These festering cultural sores are exacerbated by the expectation that no one will stand up to them. It’s a schoolyard bully mentality, that the truly awful are allowed to say or do anything they want, while the rest of us are not allowed to fight back to protect ourselves or others. That this tactic has worked to date is both amazing and abhorrent, but it has to stop. Speaking up against injustice, against the misuse of power and authority, is absolutely necessary, even if it has consequences. Maybe especially if it has consequences. After all, it was not solely the rightness of their cause that allowed the Civil Rights leaders of the ’50s and ’60s to command a nation’s attention, but also their willingness to face sacrifice, to face jail and worse in the name of ideals. Eventually, the images of jailed activists and police brutality became unbearable, and something had to change.
It will be interesting to see which NFL players continue to protest now that their franchises will be fined each time it happens. It’s one thing to protest when there’s no real fear of retaliation – which is why it often seems so empty when celebrities jump into causes – but it’s another thing when they have to pay a price. If they feel the responsibility of their visibility outweighs the potential consequences, then that’s a sort of bravery that people react to. America has no real love of right and wrong, at least not enough for it to trump it’s irrational phobias. If it did, we would kill fewer people, countenance less violence and find more humane solutions to our immigration issues. But America also likes to watch someone else stand up against injustice. It’s cynical, but if we absolutely must continue to treat other people’s real lives as a television show, as seemingly that’s the only way we know how to relate to the world anymore, then it’s imperative to be clear who the heroes and the villains are. If we want the world to be better, then the best of us have to also be better … because clearly, the worst have no issues finding new depths.