A Culture Primed For Indecency
Ever-Polarizing America: Where the Freshly Murdered Are Tribal Weapons
Of all the vices that can contribute to the collapse of civil society, a special place of honor surely needs to be reserved for mocking the newly murdered.
I don’t mean mocking the newly dead. The somewhat mawkish view that no ill should be spoken of the recently departed has always seemed rather priggish to me. It would, in fact, be absurd if we decided that in the wake of, say, Mitch McConnell’s or Noam Chomsky’s death, we couldn’t criticize their lives, careers, and beliefs. “If they’d given him an enema, they could have buried him in a matchbox” was my old friend Christopher Hitchens’ comment on the passing of Jerry Falwell. Rude, surely. Too soon, sure. But a swipe, not a gloat. And on Fox News. To Ralph Reed.
What crosses the line of what Orwell prized as “common decency” is using the occasion of someone’s untimely death to say they deserved it. “The homosexuals have declared war on nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution” was Pat Buchanan’s charming response to the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic. In the same vein today, on the other side as it were, there’s a “Herman Cain Award” subreddit with half a million members, devoted to naming and mocking vaccine skeptics who subsequently died of Covid. A giant, unified chorus of “ha-ha”s across the decades.
Social media and CCTV cameras have made the schadenfreude more visceral. This past week, a young “social justice” activist, Ryan Carson, was knifed to death on the street by a deranged 18-year-old assailant, as Carson’s girlfriend, paralyzed with shock, looked on. We might once have just heard of or read about this attack. Now we see it as it happens. Its reach might once have been limited by media gatekeepers. Now it can reach millions in a matter of hours on social media. And if you’re Elon Musk and your strategy for Twitter is to make it a more visual, visceral, sticky site, it’s gold. Within hours of Carson’s death, his last, terrifying moments were accessible to millions: a snuff video in all but name, now available to be monetized by gawkers.
And indecent gawkers. “It’s good to make fun of people who support criminals when they get murdered by criminals,” commented one on Twitter. “Ryan Carson took the phrase ‘bleeding heart liberal’ way too literally,” said another. (Carson’s actual heart was pierced by the murder weapon.) Other virtual tricoteuses went after the traumatized bystander: “Ryan Carson’s girlfriend is the Douche of the Week. 1. Showed almost no concern as her guy was murdered. 2. Expressed zero concern as he lay on the ground dying. Didn’t even bend down. 3. Refused to give police the murderer’s description. Soulless Marxist.” Another: “WHAT??? Ryan Carson's girlfriend … started a GoFundMe page to make money off his death. I would tell her to eat trash but that’s cannibalism.” Or this: “She didn’t react when he was stabbed but she sure didn’t hesitate to raise $50k on go fund me. Makes you wonder.”
Makes you wonder what exactly? Twitter reminds me of Trump: you can’t believe it can go lower — until it always does.
I should stipulate, I suppose, that I doubt I would have been one of Ryan Carson’s favorite writers. His views on crime and policing were, to my mind, hopelessly naive and deeply counter-productive for real social justice. He also once tweeted upon news of Rush Limbaugh’s death — “lmao hell yeah” — and called himself, presumably with a wink, “COO of Antifa.” But many of us have lost our moral bearings in this cold civil war. And Carson was a human being, son of a mother and father, murdered senselessly, traumatizing a whole host of others. In that context, nothing else matters but his humanity. Lambaste his views; but don’t delight in his death even as millions can see his final, deeply vulnerable moments of panic and fear.
The same should be said to the online trolls who went after Josh Kruger, a lefty Philly journalist (and Dish reader) killed in his home this week, and Pava LaPere, a BLM-touting entrepreneur in Baltimore murdered brutally the week before. (I’ll spare you the Twitter comments.) The impulse to use anything to advance a narrative: this is how far we’ve sunk into bitter, vicious tribalism.
And is it me or is Musk’s Twitter obviously making all this worse, putting out more and more videos of street crime, bar fights, robberies, and brawls, often with racial tension fueling them? In our collective psyche there is the problem of mentally ill people committing crimes on the streets, and there is also the problem of everyone constantly seeing videos of mentally ill people committing crimes on the streets. It distorts our judgment; it privileges the vivid and violent over the lucid and peaceful. It normalizes and numbs us to violence and can incentivize it. And this emotive tribal priming makes us more likely to react to the deaths of our political opponents with glee.
The distortion affects both tribes. From 2015 on, the iPhone images of bad or even terrible cop interactions — amplified by the woke MSM, supercharged by social media — gave an impression of police murderousness out of all proportion to the reality. That’s how so many “very liberal” whites came to believe that over a thousand unarmed black men were killed by cops each year, instead of around a dozen.
In a mirror image, Musk’s Twitter now pumps out as many black-crime snuff films as pink-haired trans-teacher videos. It almost doesn’t matter what they say. It’s the impressions they leave — of ubiquitous black crime and of relentless student indoctrination. Each tribe is constantly having its lizard brain primed — not by words or arguments, but by the accumulation of images that operate at a sub-rational level. That’s now Musk’s business model.
And of course this is related to our political dysfunction. The tribalization of our allegiances has led to the dehumanization of our political opponents so that, yes, decency is close to extinct. One of the more thoughtful refections on this was, oddly enough, from Tucker Carlson, who found himself watching a video in which three Trump toughs were attacking a single Antifa supporter. In a private text exchange, leaked during the Dominion trial, Carlson felt himself rooting for the Trumpists. Then he caught himself:
The Antifa creep is a human being. Much as I despise what he says and does, much as I’m sure I’d hate him personally if I knew him, I shouldn’t gloat over his suffering. I should be bothered by it.
Of course we should. It’s a bedrock civilizational value. It’s what sets us apart from barbarism. And without it, our level of political polarization is dangerously combustible. One of the first signs of looming social conflict is mutual dehumanization: see an image of your opponent suffering and revel in it. Kick someone when they’ve just been gunned down. Mock anti-vaxxers — even as they die in a hospital bed. It does not help, of course, that the man now ahead in the race to be president in 2024 has lowered the bar of personal decency so far it scarcely scrapes the floor. From mocking the wounded in battle to reveling in an activist’s murder is a short journey. The fish rots from the head down.
I mention Orwell’s notion of common decency because he believed this simple personal virtue was related to Western freedom and resistance to totalitarianism. Decency is not exclusively Christian, and many American Christianists seem to show little interest in it these days. But there is something Christian in not gloating over or mocking the sick or the weak or the victims of terrible crime. Who wants to live in a world where cruelty is cool, and where someone’s human pain is just another’s tribal propaganda?
In a rave review of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, Orwell praised Chaplin for championing an “ineradicable belief in the decency that exists in the hearts of ordinary people, at any rate in the West.” He went on: “We live in a period in which democracy is everywhere in retreat … liberty explained away by sleek professors, Jew-baiting defended by pacifists. And everywhere, under the surface, the common man sticks obstinately to the beliefs that he derives from Christian culture.”
We live in a similar time today. Democracy once again is in retreat. But, in this era of Trump, Fox, MSNBC and social media, I no longer have the confidence in the common man that Orwell did. Do you?
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: my convo with Ian Buruma on conmen and collaborators; listener emails on last week’s episode on gender-dysphoric kids; reader dissents on wokeness and Ukraine; nine notable quotes from the week in news; 20 Substack pieces we recommend on a variety of topics; a Cool Ad Watch of major boobage; a Mental Health Break of the late great Isaac Hayes; an historic window from Philly; and, of course, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
From a new subscriber:
For a few months now I’ve been on the fence, but your episode with Leor Sapir on transing gender-dysphoric kids was too valuable to not join your network. This issue is soooooo important, and Leor (and you) are so thoughtful and reasonable.
Another fan of the pod:
I’m just getting caught up on episodes. Putting aside the fantastic weekly write-ups, if all I ever got for my $50 subscription re-up was the chance to listen to your “Politics and the English Language”-inspired takedown of Sohrab Ahmari, it would still have been well worth it. Thanks to you and Chris for all your hard work.
New On The Dishcast: Ian Buruma
Ian is a historian, a journalist, and an old friend. He’s currently the Paul Williams Professor of Human Rights and Journalism at Bard College, and he served as foreign editor of The Spectator and the editor of The New York Review of Books. He has written many books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance, Theater of Cruelty, and The Churchill Complex. His new book is The Collaborators: Three Stories of Deception and Survival in World War II.
Listen to the episode here. There you can find two clips of our convo — on Trump’s redeeming qualities, and on the massage therapist for Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler. That link also takes you to commentary on last week’s super-popular pod with Leor Sapir on gender-dysphoric kids, along with continued dissent over the war in Ukraine.
Browse the Dishcast archive for another convo you might enjoy (the first 102 episodes are free in their entirety — subscribe to get everything else). Coming up: Martha Nussbaum on her book Justice For Animals, Spencer Klavan on How to Save the West: Ancient Wisdom for 5 Modern Crises, and Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft. Also, two NYT columnists: David Brooks and Pamela Paul. Please send any guest recs, pod dissent and other comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dissents Of The Week: A Vast, Neo-Marxist Conspiracy?
A reader counters my column on the origins of wokeness:
I take your point that Kamala Harris was picked by Joe Biden because of her skin color and sex. But Biden himself was also picked because of HIS skin color, sex and age. Picking a vice president has always come with balancing, and nobody cared when it was the old white dude who was picked to “balance” the young black man. (This decision, by the way, was made by Barack Obama.)
I also completely dissent from your characterization that Biden’s administration is somehow comparable to Trump’s and is “committed to this neo-Marxism all the way down.” I mean come on, Andrew. I dislike woke language as much as you do, but when given the opportunity to sign an executive order on trans people in sports, Biden clearly fell well short of the maximalism of the woke base. His commitment to making his cabinet look like America is not a neo-Marxist conspiracy, but pandering to the many constituencies that make up the Democratic Party. One can disagree with an administration without committing hyperbole.
Read my response to that reader, along with responses to four others, here. Ukraine dissent is over on the pod page. Follow more Dish discussion on the Notes site here (or the “Notes” tab in the Substack app).
Cool Ad Watch
While gawking at a bunch of bra adverts, Copyranter captions the one below: “I doubt this ‘installation’ stayed up long, though it did help keep riders safer, I guess”:
In The ‘Stacks
This is a feature in the paid version of the Dish spotlighting about 20 of our favorite pieces from other Substackers every week. This week’s selection covers subjects such as the McCarthy collapse, independent candidates’ threats to Biden and Trump, and the Tory conference. Below are a few examples, followed by a few new substacks:
How scared should Republicans be of Gavin Newsom and his “relish of political combat”?
Rob Henderson looks at the “luxury beliefs” of woke elites insulated from the ill effects of their preferred policies.
You can also browse all the substacks we follow and read on a regular basis here — a combination of our favorite writers and new ones we’re checking out. It’s a blogroll of sorts. If you have any recommendations for “In the ‘Stacks,” especially ones from emerging writers, please let us know: email@example.com.
The View From Your Window Contest
Where do you think it’s located? (The cartoon beagle is obscuring a clue.) Email your guess to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The deadline for entries is Wednesday night at midnight (PST). The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a free month subscription if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!
The results for this week’s window are coming in a separate email to paid subscribers later today. Below is a sneak-peek from two readers. The first calls himself the “mediocre super-sleuth in NYC”:
The range of your sleuths’ knowledge continues to amaze me. Between the runaway brides, the Estonian shawl, the dive-bombing Kingfisher, the rich history of Narva, the usual mixologist and cinematic suspects, and the incredible Arvo Pärt, I feel that last week’s contest was one of your best ever.
This week we have Spanish tile roofs, “Auditorio Esportes” over the entrada, EU license plates, and air conditioner units that proliferate in Spain. As Eliza Doolittle and Professor Henry Higgin’s sang in My Fair Lady: “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.” But where in Spain? I couldn’t find the right plain.
From a long-time sleuth who makes a custom cocktail every week inspired by the location:
Perusing the VFYW archives, I discovered this is the second time the contest has been in Estonia — the first being way back in 2012, for contest #12, in the capital city of Tallinn. That was well before my time with the contest — my first correct guess was in 2013 for contest #171 in Fayetteville, AR — though I played a few contests before then.
When I went back to read that Fayetteville entry, I was struck by how much more detailed and interesting the results posts are these days. It’s a testament to the hard work that Chris puts in every week collecting entries, editing, gathering photos and putting together an engaging narrative that’s a joy to read. It’s also a testament to your dedicated sleuths who provide fun facts and amazing information about local culture, cuisine and animal life and give you the voluminous content to work with.
See you next Friday.