Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Dissecting an apologist

Avram Grumer from Making Light has written about yet another abuse of power by sad, angry little Hitlers. The details aren't terribly unexpected: young people meet at the Jefferson Memorial to celebrate Jefferson's birthday; humourless cops overstep their authority by ordering them to disperse for no reason; one young woman asks why; the cops rough her up and arrest her.

Grumer observes that "the primary mission of authority is to preserve authority", and notes that "knowing that almost anyone could be holding a video camera and their actions could wind up on YouTube, cops will still bully and assault people for refusing to instantly defer to arbitrary authority". But what's really interesting is Grumer's dissection of the apologist mindset:

[Megan McArdle's] comments section quickly fills with forelock-tuggers and knee-benders justifying the actions of the Park Police, even if they have to make up facts to do it. It’s practically a catalog of dishonest argumentation and propaganda. In fact, I think it’s useful to dissect the examples so that we can recognize them when we see similar arguments on the nation’s editorial pages. [...]

For example, a commenter named Jeff asks “If the Memorial is closed and people refuse to leave, why NOT arrest them for disorderly conduct?” — not aware that the memorial is open 24/7, too lazy to spend ten seconds on a Google search to check his facts, too lazy even to read the earlier comments where this had already been pointed out. When his mistake is rubbed in his face, Jeff adopts a faux-polite writing style and moves his goalposts. He argues first that the memorial is closed to certain kinds of events, of which group dancing might be one. (It might not, but hey, he doesn’t know, it might.) He later argues that since DC is a high-crime city, the Park Police have a legitimate concern, and even though it isn’t immediately clear, we need to grant them the benefit of the doubt. Of course, that’s totally ignoring the actual facts of the case — that the police didn’t arrest all the dancers, but merely the one who questioned their orders, and that the police offered no explanation for their actions. In Jeff’s mind, it’s only the authorities who get the benefit of the doubt. Ordinary citizens just have to obey orders.

Then we’ve got MarkG, who blames the dancers for appearing “odd”, and claims that “the police have to make a snap judgment about what to do”. Why exactly the police should need to make snap judgments in cases where no violence is occurring and no weapons or threat to life or limb are evident, that’s beyond me. Apparently, the fact that authorities sometimes unfortunately need to make snap judgments to preserve the lives of themselves or others means, in MarkG’s mind, that all judgments made by cops should be granted this same life-or-death importance.

There's a lot more:

  • The argument that if you're relying on society to provide you with safety, you shouldn't complain when it fails to do so.

  • The "they found you in contempt of cop -- no reprieve" argument.

  • The "only in this country" argument:

  • Only in this country can one march in the streets of the capital obnoxiously protesting “the oppression inherent in the system” without fear of retribution.

Grumer says:

I want to admire that paragraph. One sentence of not even thirty words, and it packs at least three propagandistic payloads. Let’s unpack them:
All of these tactics — the use of your ideals to overturn your trust in facts, the assertion of nebulous threats that justify arbitrary authority, the portrayal of protesters as lunatics, the claim that an all-encompassing bureaucracy has legitimate authority over our every breath and step, that you’ll be fine as long as you don’t “make trouble” — these tactics can be seen and heard every day wherever political discussion takes place. They’re the words with which once-free people talk themselves into tyranny.

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