Privilege By Gaslight


Our would-be masters divide and conquer.

If you didn't know better, recent news might have you thinking that anyone with a Hispanic accent is an alien; that activists protesting police violence are cop killers; and that a government official's religious freedom entitles her to impose her beliefs on an entire county.

Enough of these brazen falsehoods could drive a person crazy. This is called "gaslighting" after Charles Boyer's efforts in the 1944 movie Gaslight to make Ingrid Bergman think she is losing her mind so he can get her out of the way and steal her aunt's jewels.

When Univision news anchor Jorge Ramos challenged Donald Trump's promise to deport eleven million undocumented workers, he was treated like an undocumented worker himself. Trump has slandered Mexicans and used one murder to support a media narrative about criminal hordes flooding America that is entirely at odds with the facts. Undocumented immigrants in fact have a lower crime rate. Trump subsequently described Ramos as "raving like a madman." This is like describing women who assert themselves as hysterical. When Trump contemptuously ordered Ramos removed, the other reporters should have walked out. If tough questions are off-limits, we have a celebrity media availability, not a press conference.

These crude tactics appeal to the Trumpen Proletariat (a term coined by conservative writer Jonah Goldberg): the sort of people who vehemently opposed Obamacare but now favor single payer just because Trump is for it. Goodbye, coherent politics. Hello, fearless leader defended by a mob.

On the marriage equality front, we learned last week that County Clerk Kim Davis in Rowan County, Kentucky, jailed for contempt after citing God's authority in refusing to issue marriage licenses, has divorced three times. While married to her first husband she conceived twins by her third, which were adopted by her second. You could get whiplash keeping track of her adulteries, but somehow gay couples are the ones destroying the family. Encouragingly, groups seeking to cash in on her alleged martyrdom have encountered a roadblock, as GoFundMe prohibits campaigns for anyone "facing formal charges or claims of serious violations of the law." And Jesus never said, "Blessed are the grifters."

Next we turn to public safety. James Madison warned in 1787, "The means of defense against foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home." Radley Balko observes in Rise of the Warrior Cop that today's police "are driving tanks and armored personnel carriers on American streets, breaking into homes and killing dogs over pot. They're subjecting homes and businesses to commando raids for white-collar and even regulatory offenses." Thus the problem goes beyond police killings of unarmed black men.

Police are held immune from punishment for actions that would land ordinary citizens in prison. The offending officers may be a minority, but police culture condones and covers up the abuse. Dismissing legitimate reform proposals by crying "All Lives Matter" or "Blue Lives Matter" amounts to telling the abused to shut up and take it, or denying that disparate treatment occurs, or condoning it. Killings of police officers are actually lower than in previous decades. A spike in murders in a few cities does not constitute a national crime wave, much less excuse brutality and lawlessness by public safety officers.

Paramilitary policing and over-policing undermine community trust, harming police effectiveness. Change will not occur without public pressure, whether the victims are white families terrorized in midnight drug raids or black motorists dying in police custody after missing a lane-change signal. If we take the bait when Fox News and Ted Cruz blame Black Lives Matter activists for an officer's murder without evidence, opponents of accountability will divide and conquer, infringing both our safety and our freedom.

Allowing ourselves to be gaslighted undermines everything from the evaluation of candidates to the functions of a county clerk to the safety of the public. We are at our best when we refuse to be stampeded into defending the privileged or scorning journalistic scrutiny or devaluing civil liberties.

Treating members of a particular class or profession as a rule unto themselves undermines social cohesion and respect for the law. Those who stand up to them remind us that preserving our freedoms requires self-respecting resistance to official misconduct.

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Blade and Bay Windows.