Trayvon, Morsi and B.S.

In his precious little essay "On B.S." (actually, he doesn't use abbreviations), Princeton's Harry Frankfurt exposes the real aim of self-serving double-speak. Whereas liars know the truth and simply want to conceal it, a B.S.-er is "neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false ... except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says." In other words, B.S.-ers will say or support anything they deem serviceable to the promotion of their personal or group interests, truth (and whatever else) be damned.

Recently, some (e.g., David Brooks) have suggested that the "coupvolution" in Egypt that ousted democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi was justified by the fact that substance must take precedence over process. Freedom, justice, pluralism and equality, in other words, must never be sacrificed to any mechanical commitment to the procedural cosmetics of democracy. After all, the democratic process only exists for the purpose of promoting democracy's substantive values. As such, Egyptians, including the army, were well within their right to scuttle the democratic process in favor of the real point of democracy.

One wonders, though, given this commitment to substance, how those who support this view will respond to the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case. Will angry, bruised and dejected blacks who see justice, freedom and equality mocked and sacrificed at the altar of the American legal process be goaded on in their righteous indignation? Will they, too, be applauded for taking to the streets and raising hell until this verdict is reversed or some equally countervailing action taken? Will flabbergasted (and embarrassed) whites whose jaws are still dropped since hearing this verdict be supported in their refusal to be dragged back into a mindset of normalized discrimination and domination from which they fought so hard to free themselves? Or will they all be told that we have a system of justice in this country the sanctity of which must be guarded at all cost, whatever substantive outcomes it might produce?

The reason the ousting of Morsi was said to be justified was not that the Muslim Brotherhood was opposed to democracy; it was that their particular commitment to democracy threatened to undermine democracy's fundamental aim. Okay. But one would think that among the highest priorities of a system of justice would be the protection of human life -- and not just innocent human life. How can this interest be served by completely exonerating a man who, compelled by little more than a personal animus against a particular class of "assholes," shoots an unarmed teenager to death? Would not the same logic that supported the ousting of Morsi compel us to condemn the verdict in this case? And are not those who support the former but do not condemn the latter guilty of B.S. in the first degree?

Let's be clear about something. Privilege is not really privilege until it is normalized as such among those over whom it is exercised. The whole point of providing reasons to justify privilege is to raise it beyond critique, take it out of the realm of politics and place it in the realm of nature, where it can be seen as normal, "nobody's fault," as natural as morning dew or death. In a global context, Americans would prefer to be seen as acting "naturally" as opposed to acting politically, as pursuing not interests but the plain dictates of disinterested reason. Domestically, the same applies to the privileged group. It wants to maintain a feeling of innocence wrapped in an image of justice and propriety, even in the face of the most obvious wrongs. Young black males die violent deaths. And when those who kill them are non-black, their death may go unpunished. It's no one's fault. It's just the way things are. The new Egyptian cabinet, I understand, has no Islamists. This is neither secular exclusionism nor a mockery of democracy. It's just a return to the natural order of things.

But the world is changing. And even if the wealth and power that produced domestic and international privilege endures, the reasons deployed to raise these beyond critique will not. As these reasons' shelf life expires, B.S. will be turned to as a reliable placeholder, until new reasons can be devised. But this is risky business, like a blind man answering the call to nature facing a crowd of people and thinking that they can't see what he exposes because he can't. If privileged Americans and Egyptians are not careful, they could very well end up internally indicted as promoters of B.S. societies, with all that that entails, as Hannah Arendt warned, in the way of the potential for political violence. Internationally, we could be looking at the equally troubling solidification of the image, especially in the Muslim world, of America as a "B.S. super-power"!