A light rail train in Portland. / David Wilson

Social Media Forensics

The depoliticization of violence

A light rail train in Portland. / David Wilson
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In the early morning hours of June 8, 2008, a man threw a Molotov cocktail at the governor’s mansion in Austin, Texas. The century-and-a-half-old structure was being renovated at the time, scaffolding and lumber was lying about, and the fire got going quick, becoming a four-alarm blaze that nearly destroyed the entire mansion. No one was physically harmed but the subsequent police investigation was aggressive and far-reaching. Weeks later, I remember watching a TV station in Georgia as footage of blackened beams and ruined columns rolled and anchors shuffled their papers, set them down, and looked into the camera. “Authorities remain uncertain as to the message this act was meant to send,” said one, his faux-earnestness almost painful. The other nodded, helpfully: “We all hope the perpetrator will contact the police to better explain their intentions.” The Austin arsonist has yet to call in, though frankly, the upshot of burning down Rick Perry’s mansion seems pretty damn clear. But the obvious political thrust of an act will never stop pundits from questioning if there was a personal motive, whether in an attempt to lure out an arsonist or, in a different kind of bad faith, because the askers already have their own answers in mind. 

Last week, a man on a Portland light rail train accosted a pair of young women whom he took to be Muslim, screaming racist and Islamophobic slurs at them. When several Good Samaritans attempted to intervene, he attacked them with a knife, two of whom, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche and Ricky John Best, he killed. Just prior to his rampage, reports indicate that the alleged killer shouted, “Go back to Saudi Arabia” and “Muslims must die.” 

The obscenity of what happened is obvious, as is the heroism of the men who gave their lives attempting to stop the man who killed them. The context for his bigotry and choice of target also should be obvious. For a developed nation, the United States has a remarkably high rate of violence against women. Americans have spent the past decade and a half bombing, imprisoning, and torturing various Muslims. More recently, we have elected as president a man who brags about assaulting women, whose statements on Muslims are a matter of public record, and who has spent months trying to steamroll policies targeting Muslim immigrants through our recalcitrant courts. That another American man could be so set on assaulting a pair of Muslim girls that he’s willing to kill should leave us disgusted, but hardly surprised.

Fueling the ascendance of the red-herring “alt” prefix is a bipartisan commitment to a politics that’s about individual identity in the mode of consumer preferences.

But, some people have questions—and answers, too. The killer’s actions can’t be left to speak for themselves, nor, heaven forfend, indict our culture and public discourse more collectively. Instead, they must be put to work for partisan purposes, and blame must be directed towards politically expedient ends. Given how the mind reels from contemplating traumas like events in Portland, there’s plenty of room for bad faith to capitalize on horror. “Where the fuck did this come from?” demands one widely shared Medium essay about the attacks. But such interrogations quickly reveal themselves to be so much tokenistic gesturing by people who already have answers they’re eager to hype. And so figures like journalist and erstwhile environmental activist Al Giordano and former John Edwards campaign blogger Melissa McEwan pronounce that the killer was a member of “the alt-left,” a Bernie Bro, and that this explains everything. Now, for all their talk of “horseshoe theory,” it might seem surprising that figures such as these would arrive at a more or less identical assessment as The National Review, The Daily Caller, Tucker Carlson, or the fine minds at r/The_Donald. And it might also leave you scratching your head that a member of the supposed “alt-left” would enter his first court hearing shouting, “Death to antifa.”

There is grim precedent for this kind of thing. Americans have an established protocol for making sense (and page views, and dollars) out of headline-grabbing violence. With news still coming in, we’ll take to the internet and perform all sorts of heavy-handed social media sleuthing trying to parse the supposed motivations and ideologies of cop-killers and spree shooters, with media and politicians helping us form narratives. The interpretative frames have become predictable, with the clearest example being race. If a killer is black, their act is invariably presented in terms of criminality, and often used to discredit nonviolent black activist groups or to demand accountability from “the black community” at large; a similar heuristic applies to how we parse violence carried out by Muslims. Meanwhile, if a killer is white, we’ll rapidly cycle through point-scoring attributions of party membership to talk of “lone wolves” or mental illness, or make quasi-theological and ultimately useless appeals to “senselessness.” The overarching logic is transparent and deeply cynical: identity overdetermines action. Certain kinds of violent actors are emblematic of the traits of various essentialized stereotypes—black thuggishness, Muslim barbarity—while others (white men) are more often than not given the mantle of personal tragedy or individual pathology. Meanwhile, the stark realities of how our society actually distributes violence are effaced, and the structural, quotidian violence of white supremacy and misogyny—which include mass shootings and attacks like the one in Portland as part of their spectrum—remain underexamined and tacitly ratified as the norm. And thus our body politic metabolizes headline-grabbing acts of violence while avoiding any real confrontation with the systematic, continual violence on which our miserable way of life depends.

The interpretations surrounding the attack in Portland are simply another iteration of this process. Making the violence primarily about the killer’s supposed identity as a “leftist” has clear dividends for various players. The right wants to distance itself from the Portland attacks, since it has looked the other way at extrajudicial violence against minorities and Muslims in particular. The GOP is the party, after all, that has ownership of Trump’s cartoonishly grotesque DHS program, VOICE (Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement), a program which, as the President described in his February speech before Congress, is tasked with amplifying the voices of “American victims” by propagandizing their suffering at the hands of “illegals.” And this is the same party that required extensive pressure to even acknowledge the shooting of a pair of Indian men in Kansas this past February. Meanwhile, too many mainstream Democrats are happy to join Republicans in hanging Portland around the neck of leftists, since neutering the left is imperative to their own continued party dominance, and appealing to an insipid concept like the “alt-left” as a putative mirror to the “alt-right” dovetails neatly with their narrative of American politics as fundamentally one of orientations existing in analogous degrees of distance from a “reasonable” center, a center that just so happens to be a hegemonic DNC corporate liberalism that is always ceding ground and moving ever rightward.

In proportion to how the American understanding of political activity has been impoverished, our investment of political significance into comparative trivialities has mushroomed.

But uniting both Democratic and Republican standpoints, and fueling the ascendance of the red-herring “alt” prefix itself, is something else: a bipartisan commitment to a politics that’s neither about actions nor about structures, but about individual identity in the mode of consumer preferences. The fact that both Giordano and McEwan—and so many others—hinge their arguments on tenuous social media forensics is a key tell. Theirs is yet another vision of politics where identity trumps everything else—but here the identity in question is litigated by vapid keyboard-warrior pundits parsing social media preferences as the ultimate signifier of all that really matters. What pages did the killer like? What music did he listen to? What shows did he watch? Where did he get his news? Over and against what the Portland killer did, and whom he did it to, the fixation becomes instead what he consumed, who he virtually “dragged,” on whom he threw virtual “shade.” The actual facts on the ground—three cut throats and two dead bodies—suddenly matter less than RTs and Favs. This is the same ersatz politics that sees one’s preferences in prestige TV or fondness for a classic rock band as the true litmus of who one really is, and as a definitive political litmus and cultural battleground. Identity in the most meaningless, decadent sense determines everything, even broad-daylight murder.

In direct proportion to how the American understanding of political activity has been impoverished—shrunk down to a trip to the ballot box that a pitiful fraction of Americans will make once every four years—our investment of political significance into comparative trivialities has mushroomed to the point where even an act of horrifying, self-evident violence must be “explained” or “understood” by documenting where a killer clicked “like” on Facebook. Meanwhile, a pair of women remain terrorized, and two of three bystanders who attempted to stop a hate crime are dead.

The problem isn’t whether or not people “politicize” violence like the nightmare in Portland. In a healthy society that values the lives of its members, violence always is and always should be seen as a political matter. And this should particularly be the case in American society, which is so thoroughly built on violence of so many kinds. But of course neither party wants to actually confront the full reality of American violence, and neither wants to change their politics to something beyond policing loyalty through endless and navel-gazing debates over identity as so many practices of consumption. Because that would mean actually confronting structures, and transforming our moribund partisan landscape—in other words, having actual politics.

Patrick Blanchfield is a freelance writer and academic based out of New York and Pennsylvania. He is currently a Luce Postdoctoral Fellow at the NYU Center for Religion and Media.

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