November 3, 2010
Allegations That Don’t Stick
The Wall Street Journal just ran a column by one of its weekend regulars, Joe Queenan, entitled, “I Hear America Whining? Zip It, Pal.” The timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous. I have been in a quandary over writing this blog and couldn’t quite figure out how to tie in two seemingly disparate events but….whining, and effective whining at that, is what links them.
Queenan’s piece was prompted by the NBA‘s recent rule change that penalizes with a technical foul any player who demonstratively whines about a foul call. How nice it would be, he suggests, if “American society as a whole instituted an across-the-board no whining rule.” As he notes, the media is complicit with the epidemic of whining, “by spreading certain items on bellyaching far and wide, the media bears special responsibility for aiding and abetting this national contagion.” Indeed.
Last week, The New York Times columnist Charles Blow gave credence to the notion that governments-local and national- have supported a “war on drugs in this country that [that] has become focused on marijuana, one being waged primarily against minorities and promoted, fueled and financed primarily by Democratic politicians.”
In a hard-to-believe recitation of woe, Blow claims that young police officers are purposefully funneled by their commanders into black and Hispanic neighborhoods,
These arrests, Blow claims, have “very serious, lifelong consequences.”
The column continues with the suspect claim that there is an Obama backed anti-crime bill whose effect is to “finance a race-based arrest epidemic.” Blow favorably quotes author Michelle Alexander with the proposition that “the American justice system is being used to create a permanent ‘undercaste’-a lower caste of individuals who are permanently barred by law and custom from mainstream society” and in a coup de grace compares what’s going on to the period of Jim Crow.
Those are serious charges, especially when they appear in The New York Times.
California is a primary focus of the “data” in the Blow piece and in the study he cites for verification. That study alleges that 60,000 people were arrested in California for marijuana possession in 2008. One would assume that the pernicious effects of “marijuana arrests that….permanently bars” someone from “mainstream society” would be most reflected here.
In a recent year, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department incarcerated exactly 6 people in the central jail for marijuana possession. I wasn’t given the data for 2008, but it couldn’t have been markedly different. If that’s what takes place in LA County, all the other counties in California would have had to have been very busy to arrest the balance of the 59,994 souls who allegedly were detained for marijuana crimes.
In fact, in California, misdemeanor possession of marijuana (one ounce or less) results in a maximum punishment of $100; first and second time offenders may opt for a treatment program and arrests are expunged from the offender’s record after two years or upon completion of the treatment program. That’s not exactly Jim Crow, nor is that a one way ticket to the “undercaste.”
Even if one buys Blow’s assumptions—-that there are cadres of cynical officers who train their idle, new recruits on the backs of young blacks and Hispanics-there isn’t much pay off; the “perp” gets the equivalent of a parking ticket. Also, if Blow’s and Prof. Levine’s cynical analysis is correct—- that arrests for mere possession of marijuana were the goal of young cops—- wouldn’t the cops have done much better stationing themselves outside any of several hundred strip malls and arresting thousands for marijuana possession as they left cannabis dispensaries that were more numerous than Starbucks in the city of angels?
I suspect the Blow piece appeared in the Times, in no small measure, because a good whine is good copy; an aggrieved party claiming mistreatment and abuse that plays into conspiracy notions that few want to take on. The fact that the underlying assumptions of rank and cynical bigotry are credulity stretching in the America of 2010 gets overshadowed by the quality of the whine.
This past weekend, elements of the Jewish community opted for a good whine as well.
Over the past month I have received several invitations to a Sunday afternoon lecture sponsored by the American Freedom Alliance. The provocative title of the panel discussion was “Are Jewish Students Safe on U.C. Campuses?” The summary of the planned discussion sets a scene that’s enough to give one nightmares,
As someone who has been intimately involved in campus affairs and Jewish encounters with anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism for the past 35 years, this is hyperbolic, whiney nonsense.
There is no doubt that there are incidents, in fact reprehensible incidents, that are anti-Zionist and occasionally anti-Semitic on various UC campuses from time to time. These are, after all, university campuses that are in many respects disconnected from the real world of politics and responsibility. It has virtually always been so, and probably will always remain so. That’s how young kids learn (both the antagonists and the victims), experiment with radical ideas and then, magically, grow up.
To think that the occasional, aberrant campus incident of today comes close to the kind of activities that were much more frequent in the late 70’s and 80’s is absurd. Then there were coalitions of “Third World” students who were radicalized and made common cause with large numbers of far left radicals students and truly caused wide-spread problems, not a few disparate incidents.
In fact, today is a golden age for Jews on American campuses—-for students, for professors for administrators. To imply that UC administrators are indifferent to anti-Semitism, to Jewish students’ safety, and the other parade of horrible listed in the teaser flyer is absurd. It’s about as likely as LA police brass using young blacks and Hispanics in South LA as punching bags and intentional arrest targets.
What these two incendiary analyses share in common, beyond their whining qualities, is their facile willingness to ascribe nasty motives as the root cause of complicated societal problems which could have myriad explanations. The reflexive assumption that racism or anti-Semitism is the cause of a problem is easy, but often wrong. Cops make arrests for lots of reasons; campus administrators have numerous demands placed on them and a limited capital for serving as a “bully pulpit.” It’s far too easy to ascribe evil motives and kvetch—-but these allegations are asserted, they find an audience and, especially after they appear in The New York Times, become part of conventional wisdom.
These claims also don’t pass the “real world experience” test. Most of us know kids who are students at a University of California campus or recently graduated from one—-I suspect that if they were in jeopardy or felt ill at ease it would be the talk at countless dinner tables in LA and elsewhere and protests would be commonplace. Similarly, were the police or sheriffs in LA doing what is alleged, there would be lots of relatives of those arrested, lots of cops with scruples and conscience making sure such onerous practices were exposed and stopped.
Historically, blacks, Jews and other minorities needed extra sensitive antennae to perceive slights and indignities that might lead to worse problems if ignored; and few, besides them, were paying attention. They were rightfully quick to extrapolate from a few incidents so as to be prepared for potentially greater problems. But that was then.
Today we have leaders who are well attuned to issues of discrimination, we have countless laws on the books to protect individual and group rights, and we have polling data that constantly plumbs how and what Americans are thinking and feeling about race, religion, ethnicity and the like.
In these circumstances to draw incendiary conclusions from inaccurate or isolated incidents is wrongheaded and dangerous. I think Queenan had it right, “In all of these cases, an overarching rule applies: Get yourself a real problem.”