The above is a refrain I’ve seen countless times on social media in relation to the appearance of some political figure on a show like Meet the Press or Anderson Cooper 360°. Usually, the official is Kellyanne Conway or someone else for whom the commentator has little regard in the way of truth-telling or giving a straight answer. Deflect, pivot, or lie outright. I’m sure you can think of a few such examples.
In an era in which consolidation among media outlets or talk thereof is all but constant, and in which the desire for media output is such that traditional purveyors of the news must find new ways of competing with alternative sources, there seemingly has never been a greater need for scrutiny of the media’s stewardship of the day’s breaking stories. Who will watch the watchers?
An unfortunate byproduct of this state of affairs is the effort to appeal to “both sides” on a given topic. As it is with other forms of reporting (e.g. sports pregame shows), this lends itself to rather bloated collections of panelists. On-screen discussions begin to look less like conversations and more like the opening theme to The Brady Bunch. This is problematic for no other reason that, in a political climate already predisposed to name-calling and shouting matches, there is all kinds of cross-talk and people unable to get a word in edgewise. If at first you don’t succeed, just yell louder or cut off others while they’re speaking.
More importantly, though, the desire of news outlets to appear free of bias creates situations in which “experts” with diametrically opposed views “debate” matters in such a way that the dialog is less substantive discourse on relevant issues and more a manner of ceding a platform to individuals with objectionable policy stances based on false statistics and misleading narratives.
Journalist/columnist Lauren Duca recently penned an opinion piece about how defending oneself as presenting “both sides” doesn’t (or shouldn’t) apply when someone is a vehicle for hate speech. Duca, in particular, references Tucker Carlson—with whom Duca memorably debated back in December 2016 on his show, calling him a “partisan hack”—amid expressing her viewpoints, labeling him a “full caricature of white supremacy.”
Duca’s Exhibit A in a long list of evidence in her charge against Carlson is a recent segment on his show when he denigrated Central American migrants and those who support their lawful entry into the United States, averring that letting them in “makes our own country poorer and dirtier and more divided.” So much for those tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free, eh, Tucker? In response, Tucker Carlson Tonight lost over a dozen sponsors—and rightly so. The only downside is it took these companies so long to distance themselves from Carlson and his show.
As Duca explains, Carlson protests that his right to free speech is being disregarded, and while he’s right that he’s being “silenced” by boycotters who exert pressure on companies not to advertise on his show, this is not inherently unfair. Or as she puts it, “I keep Command-F-ing the Constitution, and can’t seem to find the place where our founding fathers guaranteed that a bigotry variety hour be sponsored by IHOP.”
Other critics advocating on behalf of Carlson—or specifically, against any boycotts—suggest there is danger in allowing customer protests to dictate advertisers’ decision-making. We might see corporate sponsors shying away from the political arena altogether unless to support a pro-corporate message. Or commentators who are also members of vulnerable minority groups might be attacked with strategic boycotts based on some vague conservative “moral” objection. Cue the slippery slope imagery.
It’s worth noting at this point that sponsors jumping ship is not censorship. This is not to say that the abstract idea of companies as arbiters of content is necessarily A-OK either; while we might revel in Carlson losing advertisers, we have seen what companies like Facebook have done in their negation of content that veers toward either political extreme and away from the corporatist mainstream vanguard.
Still, it’s not as if the long arm of the federal government is holding Tucker down. If businesses don’t wish to align themselves with your brand, that’s their decision. We might disagree if we feel their standards are being applied unevenly—or not at all. In any case, the free speech defense rings a bit hollow with FOX News’s boy wonder here.
Even if we frame the argument for or against Tucker Carlson in terms of constitutional liberties, though, the point Duca makes is that defending him on the basis of a “both sides” argument assumes he is a legitimate journalist with legitimate opinions. But he’s not, and his hate speech as deemed acceptable by corporate sponsors isn’t guaranteed by the First Amendment. Furthermore, it’s not as if his opinions are merely bad ones. They’re intentionally designed to dehumanize their subjects.
What makes this so troublesome is that views like Carlson’s are not based on facts. There is no preponderance of data which supports them. Duca similarly assails a Yahoo! News ad as part of the company’s “see all sides” campaign in which the statement “immigrants enrich us” is juxtaposed with “immigrants endanger us.” The implication is that the two ideas are on a par with one another, but the latter is, as one Twitter user put it, “racist garbage.” Immigrants are no more likely than native citizens—and are, according to multiple studies, statistically less likely—to commit dangerous crimes. It’s a false equivalency.
Duca closes with these thoughts on the immigration “debate” as it involves Carlson:
According to Carlson and those condemning the boycotts of his show, the right to empower white supremacy relies on the idea that all views deserve unbridled expression regardless of public will or their relative harm. This creates a perverted juxtaposition in which personhood is set on a level playing field with bigotry. The idea that a group who is being targeted has no right to self-defense is a patently absurd. You could fault Carlson’s line of thinking as a person with a soul, or just as someone who comprehends the basic principles of logic. If nothing else, we can thank Carlson for the egregiousness of this example, which reveals the fatal flaw at the core of “both sides” nonsense with stunning clarity. Carlson insists that his dehumanization of immigrants be heard based on the ignorance at the core of “both sides-ism” and the “free speech” hysteria that often surrounds it. Beneath his whiny white supremacy lies the ugly fallacy that somehow all opinions are equal, but all people aren’t.
There’s no context in which Carlson’s commentary is acceptable or correct, and therefore no use in “debating” him on the merits of his arguments. Boycotting his program is the most direct way of telling him that he and his rhetoric have limits—even if his employer doesn’t enforce any. To insist otherwise is to make it that much more likely his hate has a place in everyday conversations.
For many conscientious objectors to the way the Trump administration is handling enforcement of immigration law and its messaging on the need for border security, irrespective of what we think about illegal immigration or the efficacy of any wall/slatted steel barrier, what is striking is the heartlessness inherent in their attitudes and speech, as well as those espoused views of their supporters. If the parents didn’t want to be separated from their children, they shouldn’t have crossed illegally. If they want to apply for asylum, they should do it at a port of entry. I mean, only two children died in federal custody. Um, that’s not that bad, right?
It shouldn’t be surprising that fundamental misunderstanding of how asylum/immigration works and what exactly families from Mexico and Central America are leaving behind accompanies this spirit of overall callousness. The insistence on applying for asylum at ports of entry doesn’t account for the delays in processing applications and the refusal of customs officers to even entertain asylum-seekers, as well as President Trump’s and Jeff Sessions’s modifications—attempted or otherwise—to make asylum or other lawful entry more difficult for those who would entreat it. Nor does it appreciate the seriousness of the threat of violence in the region related to the drug trade, a situation we have helped fuel.
As for the whole kids dying in federal custody thing, I’m not sure how this can really be deemed acceptable, but there are people who will defend it along the lines of my sample remark above. Kevin McAleenan, head of Customs and Border Protection, has claimed that federal agents did “everything they could” to avoid the deaths of two children age seven or younger while defending the administration’s agenda. So, what—we just chalk these up as “oopsies,” shrug our shoulders, and move on?
McAleenan also sought to defend not telling Congress about the death of the seven-year-old when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, so his judgment is already somewhat suspect. Either way, children shouldn’t just mysteriously up and die. And DHS chief Kirstjen Nielsen should really have made more of an effort to know how many children had died in federal custody before her own testimony—not to mention not waiting until a second child died to visit the U.S.-Mexico border.
On the subject of separation of families and putting mothers and their children in cages, meanwhile, Donald Trump’s defenders will point to their trusty rebuttal of “Obama did it first.” As it bears constant reminding, however, while Barack Obama and his administration were not above reproach in their numbers of deportations and of prosecuting people who entered the United States illegally, the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy stepped it up and then some.
Under Obama, at least initially, asylum-seekers and parents were only targeted in extreme circumstances (e.g. the father was carrying drugs). By contrast, under Trump, they were detained and separated as part of standard operating procedure, and with increased vigor. In Obama’s case, too, the administration was responding to a surge in unaccompanied minors crossing the border and a lack of resources leading to struggles in accommodating these numbers. That it sought to deter asylum-seekers by detaining and deporting them expeditiously was bad policy, but eventually, Obama put an emphasis on removing those who committed felonies or were otherwise considered dangerous. Besides, the courts checked him on the use of detention as a means of deterrence for more than 20 days, citing Flores v. Reno as precedent.
With Trump, on the other hand, his administration has aggressively sought to overturn the Flores settlement and to separate families, aiming to hold them indefinitely and longer than 20 days as well as take children away from their parents and treat them as “unaccompanied minors.” Trump has also bandied about the notion of ending birthright citizenship, whether or not he can actually achieve it. What’s more, even if this were Obama’s legacy—which it isn’t, noting the shift in us-versus-them rhetoric and the indiscriminate persecution of immigrants—that was then and this is now. Donald Trump clearly hasn’t learned any lessons from his predecessor—not that he really wanted to in the first place.
Coming from a man who began his presidential campaign with labeling Mexicans as rapists and other criminals with a broad brush, and who refuses to take one scintilla of responsibility for anything that happens during his tenure, it should surprise no one that an agenda predicated on fear and hate would be devoid of empathy. That it would resonate with those who voted for him and those who continue to stand by him is what continues to confound many of us not among them. It sounds almost silly, but we simply can’t wrap our minds around this sort of indifference to human suffering.
And yet, as Adam Serwen wrote about in a piece for The Atlantic from October of last year, the cruelty of it all “is the point.” Beginning with allusions to 20th century lynchings and other state-sponsored murders of blacks with the photographs of white men grinning alongside their bodies, Serwen makes the connection between the present-day cruelty of the Trump administration, a cruelty which includes the “ethnic cleansing” of the president’s anti-immigrant stances but also extends to the male-dominated laughter at Christine Blasey Ford’s expense (and that of all other survivors of sexual violence).
In all cases, there is a communion based on the shared enjoyment of others’ suffering, a perverse joy that, much as we might be loath to accept it, is part of the human condition. Worse yet, it is a communion built on hypocrisy. Only President Trump, his family, his inner circle, his supporters, and those people he himself supports deserve “the rights and protections of the law, and if necessary, immunity from it.” All others merit scorn, if not outright abuse.
Serwen concludes his article with these thoughts that echo Lauren Duca’s take-down of Tucker Carlson:
Trump’s only true skill is the con; his only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men, and his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty. It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear: immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright. The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united. And as long as he makes them feel that way, they will let him get away with anything, no matter what it costs them.
To hear Serwen talk about Donald Trump in this way provides at least some comfort to those of us who oppose everything he represents. I personally have bristled at the notion Trump deserves credit for anything, even when it is pulling one grand confidence trick, because appealing to people’s baser instincts is generally not something I’d hold in any esteem. That Serwen would limit Trump’s talents to this questionable skill, though, reinforces the idea that Trump is not nearly as skilled as some would make him out to be save for his ability to connect with those of a like mindset.
It is through this lens that we can view Tucker Carlson’s hate speech and the futility of debate on its merits. When the narrative has no merit because it is built on the negation of the other’s humanity and on distortions of reality, what utility is there in trying to expose or rationalize this line of thinking away? Along these lines, when cruelty is the driving force behind a shared vision of America, what is the use of amplifying the voices that would coalesce this mentality?
For this reason and more, discussion of boycotting Carlson’s show and the Trump family’s business enterprises is well appropriate. As far as the mainstream is concerned, their message of division must not be normalized. While we should stop short of violence to achieve this purpose, coming out in support of marginalized groups and standing up to each white supremacist rally with vastly greater numbers where it may arise is essential. You can’t debate cruelty and hate with those that choose to make them their modus operandi, but you can show that they have no place among what can be deemed generally acceptable.