Over the years, Salon columnist Heather "Digby" Parton has written repeatedly about GOP/conservative hissy fits, most notably in her 2007 classic, 'The Art of the Hissy Fit,' where she noted that, "the right's successful use of phony sanctimony and faux outrage…often succeeded in changing the dialogue and titillating the media into a frenzy of breathless tabloid coverage." It first caught her attention in the late '90s, when top GOP adulterers Newt Gingrich and Bob Livingston "pretended to be offended at the president's extramarital affair" as well as being outraged that Democrats raised campaign money just like they did.
It worked so well, she observed, "that they now rely on it as their first choice to control the political dialogue when it becomes uncomfortable and put the Democrats on the defensive whenever they are winning the day." Which is why "hissy fit" is by far the best way to describe the ginned-up outrage recently mounted against New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder for their nonexistent roles in the execution killings of Brooklyn NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu—outrage the conservative media sustains by hiding what de Blasio and Obama have actually said, while burying them in false accusations.
The political dialogue over police wantonly killing unarmed and toy-armed black men has become much more than merely uncomfortable for conservatives recently—the longevity of the Black Lives Matter protests is showing signs of constituting a genuine rebirth of the civil rights movement. So how better to change the subject completely than to blame these officers’ deaths on protesters and sympathetic politicians? But the faux nature of the outrage was plainly visible. As Media Matters noted, Fox News led the right-wing media in casting blame on Democratic officeholders, in marked contrast to how it had downplayed, ignored and depoliticized a whole host of past incidents of right-wing cop killings in recent years. And now all that outrage appears to have fallen flat, with New Yorkers overwhelmingly opposed to police turning their backs on de Blasio, NYPD police union president Pat Lynch backing down on his calls for a de Blasio apology, and news reports that Lynch faces an internal revolt, and might not survive an upcoming election. Still, the storm of outrage was frighteningly intense, and could well erupt again, given the profound conflict of forces involved. We'd do well to understand what was going on.
The conservative establishment’s need to plunge into full hissy fit mode had been clear for weeks beforehand, as public outrage mounted, demonstrations spread across the country and political leaders like Bill de Blasio, President Obama and others struck a tone combining a sense of moral urgency with one of procedural restraint. It was the very reasonableness of both their message and their tone that conservatives found most threatening, and therefore sought to first deny and to replace with their own paranoid fantasy version, and then to render irrelevant by promoting a manufactured hissy fit political agenda to replace and remarginalize the issue of wanton police violence against black America.
Perhaps most troubling about all this is the degree to which it echoes the very same sorts of attacks made against the civil rights movement 50 years ago, as well as against those politicians who finally began responding to it. The National Review online today is just as mendacious in blaming nonviolent protesters and those who support them as the National Review itself was back then. And police union leaders display the same sort of gut-level ugliness in their perverted invocations of law and order as was modeled by Bull Connor and J. Edgar Hoover back then as well.
Before proceeding, we should dig a little deeper into what Digby said about hissy fits, not least because it reveals that their basic logic of social exclusion is exactly the opposite of the civil rights movement. “[I]t's about more than simple political distraction or savvy public relations. It's actually a very well developed form of social control called Ritual Defamation (or Ritual Humiliation)” Digby wrote, linking to this explanatory article, and quoting the following passage:
Defamation is the destruction or attempted destruction of the reputation, status, character or standing in the community of a person or group of persons by unfair, wrongful, or malicious speech or publication. For the purposes of this essay, the central element is defamation in retaliation for the real or imagined attitudes, opinions or beliefs of the victim, with the intention of silencing or neutralizing his or her influence, and/or making an example of them so as to discourage similar independence and "insensitivity" or non-observance of taboos. It is different in nature and degree from simple criticism or disagreement in that it is aggressive, organized and skillfully applied, often by an organization or representative of a special interest group, and in that it consists of several characteristic elements.
As Digby also noted, the article laid out a set of defining characteristics, such as "the method of attack in a ritual defamation is to assail the character of the victim, and never to offer more than a perfunctory challenge to the particular attitudes, opinions or beliefs expressed or implied. Character assassination is its primary tool." She also called attention to this:
The power of ritual defamation lies entirely in its capacity to intimidate and terrorize. It embraces some elements of primitive superstitious belief, as in a "curse" or "hex." It plays into the subconscious fear most people have of being abandoned or rejected by the tribe or by society and being cut off from social and psychological support systems.
It is, in short, an existential threat—or at least it strives to become one. Another point the article makes is that "to be successful, a ritual defamation must bring pressure and humiliation on the victim from every quarter, including family and friends." This further underscores that it is a social process, not a fact-based one.
Two things in particular stand out from this description. The first is that this is a process of anything but reason. The second is that it is rooted in fear. I’ve written before about mythos as a mode of meaning-making quite distinct from logos, the empirical grasping of how things work in the world. Ritual defamation exemplifies the darkest side of mythos—expelling the individual from the social ground of shared meaning and purpose in life. Ritually expelling an individual from society entails discounting everything about them, so of course it doesn’t matter what they say. Any facts they may offer in their defense are just excuses, we don’t even have to bother considering if they might be true. And if anyone else raises some fact in their defense, then no doubt that person should be ritually expelled as well. Put their name on the list.
Since the civil rights movement itself was nothing less than a mass reversal of this kind of process, drawing millions of African-Americans into the shared community of meaning defined by citizenship, it’s not surprising that opposition to it often involved ritual defamation, whether focused on black leaders, sympathetic ("race traitor" ) whites, "outside agitators" or federal officials. The same logic underlay the practice of lynching, which helped establish and maintain segregation in the first place. It drew added power both from its utterly arbitrary character, and from the fact it could target whites as well who stood on the wrong side. We see the same sort of shotgun-blast approach today, trying to ritually humiliate anyone who would speak out against the epidemic of police murders of black victims. This helps explain, for example, how police unions have reacted to athletes showing solidarity with the movement in both St. Louis and Cleveland, not only condemning the athletes, but demanding apologies from the football teams as well, and calling for the players to be disciplined—thus bringing pressure to bear "from every quarter."
In St. Louis, before a game on Nov. 30, five Rams players ran onto the field with their hands raised in the "hands up, don't shoot" gesture in a show of support for Ferguson protesters. In response, the St. Louis Police Officers Association condemned the players and demanded an apology, in a statement riddled with half-truths, outright falsehoods and paranoia. Consistent with parameters of ritual humiliation, the facts alleged were entirely secondary to the officers' feelings of outrage. Most notably, the SLPOA statement said that “The [“Hands up”] gesture has become synonymous with assertions that Michael Brown was innocent of any wrongdoing and attempting to surrender peacefully when Wilson, according to some now-discredited witnesses, gunned him down in cold blood.”
But that's merely the SLPOA's interpretation of what the gesture meant. In fact, the players had a far more levelheaded view of things. “"I just think there has to be a change," Rams tight end Jared Cook said. "No matter what happened on that day, no matter how the whole situation went down, there has to be a change."
As for the claim about “now-discredited witnesses,” it's nothing short of appalling that a police officer would make such a claim. The fact that some witnesses contradicted other witnesses doesn't mean that either of them were “discredited”; that's a huge leap of logic—even if the contradicting witness were not guilty of perjury, as is now clearly the case. That's just one aspect of what's wrong with such a sweeping claim—and the SLPOA statement is chock-full of such sweeping, unsubstantiated claims.
In Cleveland, it was even worse, because millions of people have seen the videotapes that prove the police union claims there were lies. On Dec. 14, Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins came onto the field for pre-game warmups wearing a shirt that read "Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford." Rice, 12, was shot and killed by Cleveland police while carrying a pellet gun, two seconds after they drove up next to him, as captured on survelleince video. Crawford, 22, was shot and killed without warning in a Wal-Mart while talking casually on his cellphone, carrying an air rifle in a state where it was perfectly legal for him to be carrying an actual gun.
The Cleveland police union president, Jeff Follmer, called the shirt "pathetic," said it was disrespectful and demanded an apology from the Browns. "He's an athlete. He's someone with no facts of the case whatsoever," Follmer said. "He's disrespecting the police on a job that we had to do and make a split-second decision." But that's just the point. In both cases, the videotape—seen by millions of people—clearly shows that there was no need for a split-second decision. Acting precipitously was completely uncalled for. Neither man was posing any sort of threat whatsoever, both were well within the law, and neither was even given the opportunity to peacefully surrender. It was only police recklessness and disregard for black life that created the “need” for a split-second decision in the first place.
Fortunately the Browns had exactly the sort of balanced, big-picture perspective one would hope that police officers are trained to have. They responded to the request for an apology saying, "We have great respect for the Cleveland Police Department and the work that they do to protect and serve our city," adding, "We also respect our players' rights to project their support and bring awareness to issues that are important to them if done so in a responsible manner."
As for Hawkins, Deadspin subsequently reported that he had an exquisite grasp of the issues involved—not just about the criminal law, but about citizenship, justice and earned respect as well:
"I was taught that justice is a right that every American should have. Also justice should be the goal of every American. I think that's what makes this country. To me, justice means the innocent should be found innocent. It means that those who do wrong should get their due punishment. Ultimately, it means fair treatment. So a call for justice shouldn't offend or disrespect anybody. A call for justice shouldn't warrant an apology.
Then he continued:
"To clarify, I utterly respect and appreciate every police officer that protects and serves all of us with honesty, integrity and the right way. And I don't think those kind of officers should be offended by what I did. My mom taught me my entire life to respect law enforcement. I have family, close friends that are incredible police officers and I tell them all the time how they are much braver than me for it. So my wearing a T-shirt wasn't a stance against every police officer or every police department. My wearing the T-shirt was a stance against wrong individuals doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons to innocent people.
It couldn't have been clearer that Fulmer was the ignorant one, exhibiting a know-it-all attitude that no good police officer can afford to indulge. Hawkins, in sharp contrast, understood the situation perfectly, and in depth. The attempt to ritually humiliate him totally and utterly failed.
Such were the broader patterns of attempted ritual humiliation across the land in the weeks before Ramos and Liu were murdered, and there were similar signs in New York as well. On Dec. 3, after a Staten Island grand jury refused to indict Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke to the people of New York in very personal terms about the need for nonviolent change, epitomizing the best of how some Democratic political leaders have responded. Nothing of what de Blasio actually said came remotely close to the right’s prefabricated narrative of him promoting anti-police hatred and violence. To the contrary, de Blasio spoke out clearly against violence, beginning from a place of deep empathy with Eric Garner’s father, who had lost a son:
[T]hings will never be whole again for Mr. Garner. And even in the midst of his pain, one of the things he stopped and said so squarely was, there can’t be violence. He said Eric would not have wanted violence, violence won’t get us anywhere. He was so sharp and clear in his desire, despite his pain. I found it noble. I could only imagine what it took for him to summon that.
It would have been difficult for de Blasio to be any clearer in his call for nonviolence—a call the conservative hissy fit squad necessarily had to deny outright. But he returned to it once again toward the conclusion of his remarks:
[I]f you really want a dignified life of Eric Garner, you will do so through peaceful protest. You will work relentlessly for change. You will not sully his name with violence or vandalism. That doesn't bring us closer to a better community. The only thing that has ever worked is peaceful protest. Non-violent social activism is the only thing that has ever worked.
Right on cue, the very next day, Pat Lynch, head of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, ignored everything de Blasio had actually said, and blasted him in classic, fact-free hissy fit style. “What police officers felt last night after that press conference is that they were thrown under the bus,” Lynch said. He never said exactly what was so offensive in de Blasio's remarks, and remarkably, more than one month later, Paul Waldman was still waiting for some reporter to ask Lynch to clarify what exactly was so offensive.
Lynch went on to delusionally describe Pantaleo as “the model of what we want a police officer to be,” a claim diametrically at odds with Pantaleo’s disgraceful record of reckless misconduct, which has so far resulted in three misconduct lawsuits involving black male defendants, one of which had already been settled for $30,000. Given that most NYPD officers have significantly fewer misconduct complaints against them than Pantaleo has lawsuits (40 percent have none, 20 percent have one), that record makes Pantaleo a model of what not to be. It places him among a small minority of problem officers who make matters much more difficult for the far more professional majority of officers, who work hard every day to do their jobs in a trust-building manner, strengthening the bonds between police and the community. Yet Lynch praised this obvious screwup as a "model" cop.
Lynch’s actions make a lot more sense in light of the long history of his union’s bullying city hall, summarized recently by David Firestone. They’ve battled against civil oversight at least since 1966, when John Lindsay was mayor, but they’ve also battled fiercely against their so-called friends, like Ed Koch, and even Rudy Guiliani, who was first elected thanks to his strong identification with the police, but then “he lost the union’s favor within a few years by refusing to agree to demands for a police contract far more generous than the ones reached with other municipal unions,” Firestone noted. “By 1997, union members distributed a flier demanding that Giuliani be excluded from their funerals because his attendance "would only bring disgrace to my memory." That’s almost exactly the same language now being used by PBA members against de Blasio, who is also threatened with exclusion from their funerals.” There’s clearly a dynamic logic in play—the more a mayor gives the PBA, the more they expect, and the less it takes for them to go ballistic on him. The same kind of dynamic logic applies to problem officers, but in the opposite direction: The more problematic they are, the more effusively they will be praised. The logic in both cases is rooted in tribal self-interest, and descriptions of the world are adjusted accordingly. Reality has nothing to do with it.
Having stoked police officers' worst tribal instincts from that moment forward, it was inevitable that Lynch would try to blame de Blasio when a deranged gunman from Baltimore shot and killed Ramos and Liu weeks later, on Dec. 20. It was also inevitable that Lynch would not be alone, from New York’s GOP establishment and friends to a chorus of right-wing media voices, cited by Media Matters. But true to the formula for ritual humiliation, none of the accusations hurled at de Blasio or Obama had a scintilla of truth to them.
Consider just a few of the actual statements that both men made. On Dec. 17, just three days before the two officers were killed, de Blasio said, “You cannot talk about social change and then commit an act of violence against a police officer. It makes no sense. It denigrates the cause. It undermines the legitimacy. It’s illegal, it’s wrong, it’s immoral.” Two days later, in a press conference after a meeting with community activist group Justice League NYC, who had co-sponsored a demonstration at which two policemen had been injured, de Blasio said much the same thing once again: “I made very clear that we cannot accept any violence against our police officers or against anyone. And they were very quick to affirm that they were appalled equally by the events on Saturday night. They find it unacceptable and they will work with the police to identify anyone who seeks to harm the police or harm anyone and undermine their non-violent peaceful progressive movement.”
That's what de Blasio actually said. That's what Pat Lynch wants police officers to turn their backs on.
Obama’s record is equally clear and unambivalent. In a statement immediately after the St. Louis County grand jury refused to indict Michael Brown’s killer, Obama said, “I join Michael’s parents in asking anyone who protests this decision to do so peacefully. Let me repeat Michael’s father’s words: 'Hurting others or destroying property is not the answer.'” The next day, after violence did erupt, Obama condemned it, saying, "Burning buildings, torching cars, destroying property, putting people at risk. That's destructive and there's no excuse for it. Those are criminal acts."
So, surprise! The conservative hissy fit crowd is lying through its teeth. News flash: It’s what they do for a living. But to put these particular examples into proper historical perspective, we need to return to a key period during the peak of the civil rights movement, when years of movement organizing, both through the courts and in the streets, finally drew the nation to a point where national attention and action could no longer be avoided. The year was 1963, which began with George Wallace, in his inaugural address, pledging to uphold "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," and it ended, as historian Taylor Branch noted 50 years later, with Wallace disowning segregation almost as if he’d never even heard of it:
By the end of 1963, with segregation losing its stable respectability, he [Wallace] dropped the word altogether from a fresh stump speech denouncing “big government” by “pointy-headed bureaucrats,” tyrannical judges, and “tax, tax, spend, spend” legislators. He spurned racial discourse, calling it favoritism, and insisted with aplomb that he had never denigrated any person or group in his fight for local control.
Of course, Wallace wasn’t giving up on racism, he was merely embracing it in a new "colorblind" form. Still, his swift abandonment of segregation so soon after proclaiming it "forever" marked a stunning transformation for the nation as well as for him.
The peak event that helped accomplish this remarkable transformation was Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington (a march that William F. Buckley opposed), but that speech and that march were in turn dependent on what preceded them, most significantly, the Birmingham Campaign, which brought Birmingham’s brutally enforced system of segregation sharply into focus at the center of worldwide—not just nationwide—attention, making its legal demise a virtual certainty. This reached its peak on May 3, when Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor turned dogs and firehoses on waves of student demonstrators, some still in grade school. A hurried settlement was signed before the month was out. At the center of that campaign was a commitment to creative nonviolence, which its enemies repeatedly held up as responsible for lawlessness and violence, and at the center of the push-back against that slander was King’s most famous written missive, his "Letter From Birmingham Jail," written in mid-April, which we’ll return to in a moment.
But the Birmingham campaign was not the only thing happening in Alabama that year. On June 11, 1963, Wallace took his infamous "stand in the schoolhouse door," attempting to block the integration of the university of Alabama in the form of two black students trying to register, Vivian Malone and James Hood. Subsequently, President Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard (he did not bring in outside troops, as some like Connor would allege) to ensure that Malone and Hood would be registered as students, and that night he gave his televised "Report to the American People on Civil Rights" explaining his action, and declaring a national commitment to civil rights, including what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In response to Kennedy's actions, Bull Connor gave a fantastical press statement that is eerily similar to Frank Lynch's pronouncements in its detachment from reality, as well as its all-knowing, blame-shifting, victimhood-embracing tone:
Police Chief GEORGE “BULL” CONNOR: Ladies and gentlemen, for 42 days now the city of Birmingham has been under siege from outside agitators led by Martin Luther King. Now, the President has seen fit to move some 3,000 federal troops into this state for possible use in Birmingham. These troops deployed for use in a city that does not need them. The Birmingham police, assisted by law enforcement agencies from the county and surrounding areas, and backed up by the Alabama highway patrol have the situation here under control and are working around the clock to maintain law and order.
If there is any one in this nation who understands what is going on here, it is me. I know that we have sufficient manpower, enough trained officers to keep the peace in Birmingham, without any outside help from the federal government. If the president is really sincere about wanting peace in Birmingham why doesn’t he use his great influence and ask Martin Luther King and his bunch of agitators to leave our city.
This bunch has done what they wanted to do, stir up trouble among whites and negro citizens, collected money, and have attempted to give this city a black eye to the rest of the nation. No sir, we don’t need federal troops here. What we need is for the president to show sincerity in wanting peace in Birmingham and get the outside agitators to leave us alone, and let us work out our problems locally. We will use the same tactics that we have used before.
Reporter: We will use the hoses and dogs?
Police Chief CONNOR: We will use the dogs if they start throwing knives again and throwing rocks. We will use the hose if it becomes necessary to stop the mob.
Bull Connor’s press conference threw as much light on what was happening in the nation then as Pat Lynch’s press conferences do today—which is to say, less than zero—but it did illuminate his twisted logic. In reality, the Birmingham campaign had already achieved its primary objective, and Connor was flailing hopelessly, trying to close the barn door long after the horse had fled the county. Furthermore, Kennedy’s action had nothing at all to do with Birmingham, but Kennedy did have much bigger fish to fry. And it’s his narrative of events delivered that night, not Connor’s, that resonates to this day:
One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.
We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes?
Now the time has come for this Nation to fulfill its promise. The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or State or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them….
I am, therefore, asking the Congress to enact legislation giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public--hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments.
Bull Connor, with mind-set remarkably similar to Pat Lynch’s, looked at Kennedy’s actions to integrate the University of Alabama, and interpreted them entirely in terms of his own lost battle to preserve segregation with police violence in Birmingham. His delusional narrative has been almost entirely forgotten. Kennedy’s narrative, in contrast, marked a decisive break with his own past equivocating. The Birmingham campaign had transformed the world. It had made the unthinkable thinkable for politicians, and Kennedy is today remembered for what he became in response to that transformation, not for his equivocation before it.
But there’s an even more striking narrative pairing available, which brings us to the core of what made that transformation happen in the first place. Echoing Bull Connor’s calm assurance that local powers had everything under control, and had no need for outsiders stirring things up, a surprisingly diverse group of leading Birmingham clergymen wrote a purported open letter to Martin Luther King, which actually ignored him entirely, and urged Birmingham’s black community to do the same, casting King and his fellow "outsiders" as impediments both to existing peace and to future progress, and attempting to ritually humiliate them. "We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely," they wrote. And they offered their own twisted version of "balanced" advice, as good as anything the D.C. press corps might come up with today:
We urge the public to continue to show restraint should the demonstrations continue, and the law enforcement officials to remain calm and continue to protect our city from violence.
We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham.
The only reason anyone remembers that letter today is because of King’s magisterial response, his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." Yet, ironically, the essence of King’s message in that letter seems lost on many today, while the forgotten words of those who accused and dismissed him are echoed across the land. Perhaps that’s why Josh Kruger wrote a column for PhillyNow, "What would MLK say about the protests? He’s already spoken," quoting copiously from King’s letter. Kruger highlighted King’s responses to many of the right-wing talking points circulating today, and is well worth reading in its entirety. But two in particular are worth singling out here [italics are Kruger’s]:
On critics of protestors “creating” tension: “I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth…we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”
On white Americans who criticize protests as creating tension: “I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress…we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
Creating constructive, nonviolent tension that energizes and inspires was the very essence of what King was about in his movement-building, alongside bringing hidden tensions into the sunlight, where they could be healed. The Black Lives Matter movement builders today are doing the exact same thing that King and his movement were doing back then. It is no accident that their enemies now are raising the exact same kinds of bogus arguments that King’s enemies used against him back then, or that they’re trying to use ritual humiliation to isolate and crush their movement, trying to turn anyone who speaks out for justice into a social pariah. There’s nothing surprising in anything they say or do. You’ve seen one hissy fit, you’ve seen them all.
But there is one final question that America's police must ask themselves—after taking a good, long, hard look in the mirror. Why is their leadership today so committed to following in the footsteps of Bull Connor and those who aligned with and defended him? Why do they allow themselves to be rallied around the worst in their ranks, instead of the best? Why do they tolerate leadership so vehemently committed to the failed politics of the past? Do leaders like these really serve anyone, including their own rank and file, by doing that?
The vast majority of NYPD officers did not turn their backs on Mayor de Blasio. Nor have they turned their backs on the people of New York. They are better than those who would lead them astray. It's time for them to speak up, and put themselves entirely on the right side of history this time. The most recent signs have been encouraging. Let's hope they prove true. Let's hope our lessons have finally been learned by one and all.