New whine in old bottles
The slurs are old, but social media gives them a new kick
The recall of D.A. Chesa Boudin in San Francisco and the strong showing by developer Rick Caruso in the L.A. mayoral primary are portrayed by our What-Liberal-Media friends at the New York Times as having “made vivid the depths of voter frustration over rising crime and rampant homelessness in even the most progressive corners of the country.”
As has been demonstrated over and over again, the public’s perception of city crime, particularly in this era of exceptionally low city crime, is strongly influenced by extrinsic messaging, i.e. propaganda. Police data on San Francisco’s alleged crime wave in the first five months of this year vs. the first five months of 2021, for example, shows an 11.1% rise in homicides — that is, a rise from 18 homicides to 20. In a city of 874,784, that’s a drop in the bucket. Another city commonly portrayed as descending into chaos, New York, is in truth among the safest in America.
But it’s not what stats say that counts, it’s what voters feel. The worst number among San Francisco’s stats is for larceny theft — that is, non-violent petty theft — which is up 20.4%, and large in real numbers too, from 11,151 to 13,424 incidents. These crimes range from bike stealing to pickpocketing, but the great public face of larceny theft in SF and other big cities is shoplifting, which is the subject of many viral YouTube videos, including several with commentary by rightwing ragequeens like Ben Shapiro about how this is “the reason people have been fleeing big cities for more outlying red areas” (which, by the way, isn’t true, either).
The two signal features of these videos are that the perps are usually not arrested or otherwise interfered with by store personnel — because, face it, the store writes these losses off and how is it worth the unpaid clerks’ or guard’s time to fight people in the aisles, from the perspective of the owners or the staff? — and that most of the perps are black.
Now, if you’ve been living in America for any length of time, you know there’s nothing that animates white Americans like the idea of black criminals getting away with something (aka Welfare Queen/Strapping Bucks with T-Bone Steaks Syndrome). It doesn’t matter that the bottles of Tide or boxes of Pampers being jacked are not the property of these viewers — they will be outraged on behalf of Walgreen’s (the owners of which, I repeat, could not care less) because the culprits belong to a class they have been trained over decades to regard as marauders and thus enemies of civilization — which you will clearly see if you have the nerve to visit these videos’ comments sections.
Which brings me to what I find especially interesting about this. We talk a lot here about how conservative tropes have deep roots, and the Queen/Bucks thing certainly does. But I’m old, and remember that years ago racists would just snarl at you that blacks are natural criminals, look around you, did you hear about this lady they raped, they’re all nothing but animals etc. In such cases the mode of presentation (deranged, spittle-flecked) did much to make the message repulsive and hard to take seriously.
But now, by bunching up several clips of the despised people stuffing health and beauty aids into garbage bags, they are pretty much doing the same thing — only using montage, voice-over, sometimes music, and streams of commentary by other racists, etc., rather than their own obnoxious presence. And you can’t answer that with charts and graphs — or even, if you wanted to get fancy about it, with footage of similar people not committing crimes — because that’s not how propaganda works; the rage-hits to the amygdala override everything else.
True, Fox News has been doing something like this for decades. But one has to turn on Fox News. The internet, OTOH, is always on.
I notice the campaign against trans rights is conducted similarly. Forget the toney blather from what pass as intellectuals among modern conservatives; the anti-trans argument pretty much boils down to “trans people are gross.” Which was the essential argument against gays, too, back in the day; but as more straight people saw and got to know gay people, the guys screaming about faggots found themselves losing their audience.
Lately of course you have shit like Libs of TikTok, which seems to be pretty much devoted to Eww Trans videos, othering non-binary people as hard as they can. I also notice that, on Twitter, any time a subject has even the merest trans connection, some people will drop pictures of trans people in comments that they clearly hope will rile the normies. Take for example the alleged supply chain problems at Target (in this case, they have too much inventory rather than too little, go figure). The connection is that Target offers products trans people might use, such as chest binders (or, as The Daily Signal puts it, “Target Normalizes Transgender Lifestyle”), so whether they have too little inventory or too much or just enough, the point is Target is gross because trans people are gross and vice versa, here, have some pictures of non-binaries in their underwear and someone with a beard in a dress.
People talk all the time about social media as if it’s bad for us in a uniquely new way, because of how savvy users can game its algorithms and how well it disguises the identities and motivations of its message senders. But more and more I find myself thinking that the real problem with it isn’t anything so new. It’s just that it gives the people who were trying to bamboozle us with a constant barrage of words the power to do it with a constant barrage of pictures instead. That paradigm really comes straight out of 1984 — written 74 years ago by a socialist whose work is constantly cited by rightwingers who treat his book as a user’s guide.
It’s also something to consider that truth, as such, doesn’t have anything like a natural advantage. In fact it has at least one great disadvantage, at least in this poor country: You can’t usually sell it with hate and fear, because hate and fear are more naturally the allies of the other side, fitting their hands as easily as guns fit the hands of assassins. (Remember, Bill Clinton was never more revered for his political savvy than when he was beating up the black and the poor.) The Democrats are now trying with Congressional hearings to remind people that just a year and a half ago the leadership of the opposition tried to overturn a national election to keep itself in power. Unfortunately polls suggest the voters at large are less worried about the threat to their democracy than San Francisco voters are worried about the threat to their Walgreens. I have my own ideas about how the Democrats could pitch it better, but I scan the horizon in vain for someone who could tell them so’s they’d listen. Alas, we may have to wait for events to prove the point for us.