In the wake of the Department of Justice’s Ferguson report, The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf asked, “Where’s the Conservative Outcry on Ferguson Police Abuses?”
National Review‘s Jason Lee Steorts and Red State’s Leon Wolf actually did write columns blasting the Ferguson police department and city government, detailing just how unjust and abusive Ferguson’s government has been, something Friedersdorf acknowledged and appreciated.
But despite those columns, Friedersdorf still has a point. Where is the popular outcry from conservatives over this gross display of big government? Why hasn’t this subject become a right-wing staple, similar to Obamacare or Benghazi? Why hasn’t it dominated talk radio? Why hasn’t it been all over Fox News in ways that are sympathetic to the citizens of Ferguson?
Wolf suggests, “Conservatives… have become highly resistant to assimilating information that strongly suggests that the Ferguson PD—as with many other municipal police departments in the country—truly is out of control, in that it recklessly violates the constitutional rights of the citizens of Ferguson and does so in a manner that has a clearly disproportionate impact on minorities.” Wolf is correct. But again… why the blanket one-sidedness from the right even when presented with solid evidence of abuse?
Because many have already made up their minds. The citizens of Ferguson are bad people.
During the Ferguson riots in August, Mad Men actor and St. Louis native Jon Hamm said, “That’s my neighborhood, and I know there’s a lot more good people in those neighborhoods than there are bad people.” Judging by their rhetoric and reaction (or lack thereof) to the DOJ report, it’s not hard to conclude that many conservatives believe the opposite of Hamm’s statement—that although there are some good people in Ferguson most of them are probably bad.
Conservatives certainly agreed that black entrepreneurs whose businesses were destroyed during the riots were good people. They agreed that the black citizens who used their 2nd Amendment rights to protect private property from looting were good as well. But far more often than these positive narratives, we saw right-wing media portray the black citizens of Ferguson as “thugs,” “animals,” “savages,” and worse.
At that gut, emotional level, there was an underlying sense among many conservatives that whatever injustice the people of Ferguson may have suffered, they probably deserved it. Some might attribute this to racism, intentional or not, and I agree, but it also something more than that. It’s about how we as human beings, particularly partisans, have a tendency to lump people together and indict the whole lot.
Conservative attitudes toward the people of Ferguson are not entirely dissimilar to how liberals reacted to the Internal Revenue Service targeting conservative groups. For most conservatives, it was clear that the IRS abused its power. A judge eventually ruled in favor of the IRS, but Tea Party groups still feel like they were abused. And they were.
Still, many on the left didn’t mind that abuse (or pretended there was no abuse, similar to how conservatives perceive Ferguson police behavior). Why? Because the Tea Party are bad people who probably deserved it. Conservatives love to cite black crime to dismiss injustices like those in Ferguson. Liberals have noted that the Tea Party gets out of line too, so naturally they’re just asking for trouble.
This sort of collective guilt-think is not dissimilar to how some right-wing hawks
view the Arab world. Neoconservative Washington Free Beacon founder Michael Goldfarb explained the recent popularity of über-hawk Tom Cotton by saying, “At the end of the day, the Republican base is for bombing bad people.”
But does the U.S. just bomb “bad people?” Do police only abuse bad people? Does the IRS only target the wicked? Or do individual liberties, rights, and lives still matter to people of good conscience?
What if many of the “bad people” people the U.S. has killed with bombs or drone strikes have actually been innocent? Many conservatives don’t want to believe this and often exhibit an attitude that Muslims probably deserve what they get. All Muslims.
Tom Cotton himself displayed this attitude that when he said that “we should be proud for the way we treated these savages at Guantanamo Bay,” and that “every last one of them can rot in Hell.” But many and perhaps a majority of Gitmo detainees may have been innocent and the Bush administration even knew this.
Still, they are all bad people.
Cotton defends his position by posing the question, “How many detainees in Guantanamo Bay are engaging in terrorism or anti-American excitement?”
I bet some have engaged in “anti-American excitement.” Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai said to President Obama in October that U.S. “drone attacks” in her country “are fueling terrorism.” “Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people,” she said.
That resentment is probably anti-American. Some might even get excited about that resentment, in ways that Cotton cites as justification for holding people—even if they aren’t directly involved in terrorism—in Gitmo for years without trial.
Tea Partiers have certainly engaged in anti-government “excitement,” and any good liberal knows they are bad people. Many in Ferguson have no doubt engaged in anti-police “excitement.” The Ferguson DOJ report certainly gives the people of that city many reasons to despise their local government and the police. In the 1950s and ’60s, some constantly criticized civil rights protesters as “agitators” who were engaged in anti-American “excitement.” You see, rabble rousing is what bad people do.
When you collectively indict a group of people as bad, some will justify any extremes to punish them. Look at how some black Americans who distrust the police have even justified murdering cops. Police lives matter.
So does black life in the United States. Wolf wrote at Red State, “Anyone who can read the actual report itself and be comfortable with the fact that citizens of an American city live under such a regime is frankly not someone who is ideologically aligned with me in any meaningful way.”
Wolf is correct that anyone who actually read it and dismissed it doesn’t deserve to be called a small-government conservative, but this isn’t at all about ideology. It’s emotion. It’s anger. It’s rage. It is what passes for much of our political discourse today.
And for too many conservatives, bitter feelings are directed far more at black people in Ferguson than the police and local government, any evidence to the contrary be damned.
The venomous anti-Tea Party liberal is really not much different from the conservative who seethes at images of black protesters on his television screen. They know who the bad people are and don’t intend to show them any mercy. There is no moral complexity they feel compelled to consider.
There’s a reason why conservatives will harp incessantly on the fact that “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” didn’t actually happen but will completely ignore the abusive environment as evidenced in the Ferguson report that made it so easy for African Americans to believe it did happen.
George Washington never chopped down a cherry tree—but for generations the symbolic fable was worth it for the lesson.
For many conservatives, there are no lessons to be learned from the Ferguson report, except that bad people sometimes get what they deserve.
Jack Hunter is the editor of Rare.us and the former new media director for Sen. Rand Paul.