Like little stars.
Ever wake up thinking, maybe this is the day that I must criticize “many, many African-Americans”? After all, I didn’t criticize them yesterday. If I don’t criticize them today, I might regret waiting until tomorrow. The whole world might regret that I waited.
No? Well, apparently Bill O’Reilly did yesterday. Tuesday night, he went off on his infamous cable news show that sometimes doubles as an hour of moral instruction for black people, on the family of Ferguson, Missouri, police victim Michael Brown and their supporters who believe the cops must answer for shooting an unarmed teenager as he ran away.
I take long breaks between posts that criticize O’Reilly. I could do it every day. But the creepy paternalism of his comments about Michael Brown’s killing provides a window onto the worldview of aging authoritarian white conservatives, and it’s more than a matter of holding different political opinions from liberals. It was also fascinating to watch what happened when Dr. Ben Carson, Fox’s favorite expert on black culture, veered a tiny bit off script.
On Tuesday night’s “O’Reilly Factor,” the angry host addressed “Unrest in St. Louis.” But he didn’t merely rail against looters and rioters, as might have been expected. Instead, he took on Michael Brown’s parents for claiming their son had been wrongly killed. He showed a snippet of Don Lemon’s interview with Michael Brown Sr. and Leslie McSpadden, in which McSpadden collapses in tears and Brown says solemnly that if there is no justice for his son, there will be no peace.
In conversation with Carson, O’Reilly uncharacteristically expressed “100 percent confidence” that Attorney General Eric Holder – normally a Fox piñata — would make sure justice is done in the Brown case, and Carson agreed. O’Reilly even praised the local NAACP for condemning the looting, but blamed Rev. Al Sharpton for coming in and “agitating”; of course, Sharpton had immediately denounced the violence and asked for peaceful protest, as did Brown’s family and friends.
But it didn’t matter that Michael Brown Sr. had asked that looting and rioting stop. O’Reilly just couldn’t get over that clip of him referencing an old civil rights slogan, “No justice, no peace.” He went off:
Do we as a society — what do we do? Do we weigh in as the boy’s father — and if it were my son, I probably would have said same thing, but he’s obviously talking through an emotional prism. His son is dead. He believes, probably — I know he believes — that it was an injustice, that it was done for nothing, it was a murder. And many, many African-Americans believe that without knowing the facts. Do we criticize them, or do we remain silent?
Remaining silent is never an option for O’Reilly, so you know the answer already.
Now, there was a touch of empathy there. “If it were my son, I probably would have said the same thing.” Stay with that, Bill! Why not leave it there?
But no. Empathy is dangerous. Because Michael Brown’s father doesn’t know all “the facts.” He’s “talking through an emotional prism.” And “many, many African-Americans” agree with him. So O’Reilly and Carson must “criticize them,” or else.
Or else what, you might ask?
Or else “many, many African-Americans” will continue to believe something very different from what O’Reilly does.
But then, weirdly, Ben Carson goes off script. After blandly insisting conservatives must let the Brown family know “we feel their pain” while making clear “police are individuals too, they have feelings also,” Carson tells O’Reilly, “We must hear from this police officer.”
That’s interesting: That’s exactly what the Brown family wants too, but the Ferguson Police Department won’t even release his name, let alone allow him to face public questions. Carson went on: “You know, they are trained to shoot to kill, or shoot to stop. We need to hear why he decided to shoot to kill.”
O’Reilly literally harrumphed and cut him off. “Yes [clears throat] … well … I don’t think that’s going to happen. So you’re going to have the one side that’s suffered a terrible loss, and the other side’s not going to say anything, and that’s what we have to process.” Then he thanks Carson, who has apparently failed to help him “process” the right way, and abruptly ends the segment.
It was fascinating to watch the Fox host assume his innate moral and intellectual superiority to those “many, many African-Americans” who don’t trust authorities to do the right thing in the Michael Brown case. (Let’s remember Eric Holder wouldn’t likely be involved without the local protest.) It’s reminiscent of the good Christian leaders of the slaveholding South. These people O’Reilly is so concerned about must be instructed in the proper way to think, feel and respond to life. They obviously lack “the facts,” and implicitly they lack a lot more than the facts. They operate through an “emotional prism,” not the reason and intellect that explain the natural superiority of white people.
Now, normally Ben Carson is considered by Fox to be one of the few African-Americans with the moral and intellectual capacity to sit at the table with their grown-ups and discuss the failings of his people. I mean, discuss politics. But all of the sudden, like Michael Brown Sr., Carson had the audacity to approach the Ferguson police department with questions O’Reilly hadn’t pre-approved, so he got the hook, too. He’s probably “talking through an emotional prism” as well. I wonder if O’Reilly will have him back to talk about the case any time soon.
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."More Joan Walsh.
Like little stars.
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