8:46 to Portland: How Trump’s Brutal Western Ends
Chaos, cancel culture and secret police. The protesters arrive just in time.
“The world suffers a lot. Not because the violence of bad people. But because of the silence of the good people.” From Napoleon of all people, a stunning testament to the destructive power of silence. In our revolutionary times, “silence is violence” is once again a rallying cry for change.
But silence isn’t mere complicity, it’s often compelled. Silence through obfuscation and conformity. Moments of silence. Codes of silence. Silent majorities. Silent screams. Silence inhabits all our inexplicit drives and motivations. It possesses our emotions, our institutions, and our culture. We’ll need more placards.
Yet silence, in all its forms, is utterly incompatible with a civil society. Movements may be summoned in silence, catalyzed through quiet displays of solidarity. But silence cannot sustain us. It cannot explain and so it cannot persuade other people to change.
The pandemic has made these things painfully clear. Despite the dangers of mass gatherings, George Floyd’s senseless murder kindled a worldwide movement. The Trump administration continues its dangerous descent into authoritarianism and grotesque political theater. Calls for the end of silence have stoked debates about the ideas and voices that should fill the vacuum. Defenders of free speech are raising alarms as cancel culture becomes a pervasive feature of intellectual life.
As it sweeps across America, the pandemic pulls these opposing ideological positions apart at the seams. Like equal and opposite forces of nature, the silence of complicity meets the silence of conformity. It lays bare not only the ugly underbelly of civil society, but also the mechanisms of progress and what it demands of reasonable people.
The end of silence isn’t harmonious, it’s cacophonous and effortful. The alternative is unthinkable.
The moment of silence
We thought this natural disaster would unify us against a common foe, much like nations unite during war. The pandemic exacerbates the plight of our most vulnerable, exposing the deepest cracks in our societies. But it wasn’t sufficient. Unity needed a unifying moment.
The world found it in a horrific 8 minutes and 46 seconds. The videos of George Floyd’s ruthless murder sparked international outrage. Protests against racism spread to over 750 cities and towns in all 50 states, and in at least 50 other countries around the world. They united the world at an unprecedented scale, a massive and diverse coalition of people demanding change.
President Trump is demonstrably unfit for this moment. Incapable of unity, he tried to divide. He called for the authorities to “dominate” the streets. In one of the most pivotal episodes of this crisis, he orchestrated some “law and order.” Protesters were forcibly cleared from Lafayette Square. Shortly thereafter, Trump led a small procession through the street to St. John’s Episcopal Church. The moment staged, Trump held a bible and posed for a photo op.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked to comment on Trump’s call for military action against American protesters. His response was pitch perfect. For 21 awkward excruciating seconds, Trudeau stood silent. He flinched. He stifled a groan. He opened his mouth and closed it again.
Finally Trudeau began to speak: “We all watch in horror and consternation what’s going on in the United States.”
Trump’s allies remained largely silent about the incident. But silence is too heavy a burden for some to bear. Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, praising the stinging condemnation of General James Mattis, told reporters, “When I saw General Mattis’ comments yesterday I felt like perhaps we are getting to a point where we can be more honest with the concerns that we might hold internally and have the courage of our own convictions to speak up.”
Perhaps? Complicity isn’t even the worst of it.
The deafening silence
Silence isn’t merely the absence of signal, it’s the presence of noise. It’s obfuscation, silence through chaos.
Trump continues to dispatch his rationalizations, conspiracy theories and various contortions of speech. The noise is relentless and exhausting. He argues the unfathomable, that the pandemic is under control. “I think we are in a good place,” he asserted as the death toll exceeded 130,000. He labelled overwhelmingly peaceful protestors as “terrorists, Antifa and the radical left.” He suggested a 75 year-old victim of police violence could be an “Antifa provocateur.”
In one remarkable misdirection, Trump invoked the memory of George Floyd to tout economic numbers. “This is a great day for him, it’s a great day for everybody,” Trump said. “This is a great, great day in terms of equality.” When pressed by reporters with this simple question, How would a better economy have protected George Floyd?, Trump replied with his characteristic disgust: “You are something,” he said.
His distractions are often characterized as a sleight of hand. But they’re not. They’re purposeful. Many support Trump because they support his policies. Trump says the quiet parts out loud and his supporters value his bluntness.
As he frequently reminds us, Trump’s audience is a “silent” majority. Seth Blumenthal explained, the silent majority is neither silent nor a majority. But they find in Trump a champion. “The idea of the silent majority is something that conservative voters, who feel their values are under siege, have long been able to rally around.” Blumenthal continued, “Most important, perhaps, these voters feel muzzled.”
Most important, they feel muzzled. So how should reasonable people respond when their opponents feel muzzled? Here’s a radical idea: Stop muzzling them.
The silence of conformity
A conformity of speech is as tyrannical as a coercion of silence. At a time when information is needed the most, muzzling is a persistent and troubling theme of this pandemic. The Trump administration has repeatedly tried to silence public health experts and defang their guidelines, culminating in a decision to bypass the CDC’s data gathering activities entirely. Other governments exhibited similar bad behavior, hiding everything from the models to the experts to the bodies.
But the impulse is not merely a trapping of power. It’s a pervasive human instinct. “Authoritarianism has a lure for all of us,” said the journalist and historian Anne Applebaum. “Democracy bothers some people: the cacophony, the argument, the constant debate.”
It seems to bother everyone eventually. Consider the fallout following an op-ed from Republican Senator Tom Cotton, advocating for the use of the military to “restore order” and quell urban rioting. Cotton isn’t some soapbox preacher unworthy of the platform. He’s a sitting US Senator, expressing an opinion shared by millions of other Americans. However flawed his argument, a slight majority of all Americans supported Cotton’s basic proposition that the US military should intervene where there are violent protests. Yet many censured the New York Times, the “newspaper of record,” for publishing the piece.
It’s as though we’ve finally flushed these wounded ideas out of the bushes and into the light. But rather than kill off bad explanations with good arguments, we allow them to scurry back to safety. In fact, we insist!
Damon Linker highlighted the deeply illiberal ideas lurking beneath the calls for silence. He wrote, “It is now quite common among journalists to think of opinions not as arguments to be advanced, engaged with, and potentially refuted, but as a kind of viral propaganda with the power to convert readers to new holistic outlooks, much like the spread of a religious fervor during a revival.” Columnists such as Bari Weiss and Andrew Sullivan characterized their recent exits from mainstream publications as reactions to cancel culture.
Some would claim on the basis of their facts or values that they’re justified in silencing their opponents. In his criticism of the Cotton op-ed, David Roberts called these “baseline small-l liberal values.” He argued this model is roughly composed of certain “shared values and rules”, values like respect for “shared facts.” He included rules that directly contradict the stated values of many Republicans. And provided his opponents agree to these terms, Roberts proclaims “The more speech the better; let the best speech win.”
These aren’t the grounds for a liberal society. They’re the rules for a grade school public speaking competition.
Back in the real world, protesters are demonstrating what liberal values really entail.
This is how it begins
“Something terrible, something dangerous — and, yes, something unconstitutional — is happening in Portland, Ore. It must be stopped,” Ruth Marcus warned.
Federal agents in military fatigues with no identifying insignia other than “Police” pulled protesters into unmarked vans. Governor Kate Brown and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler implored the Department of Homeland Security forces to leave. As Trump threatens to expand his “law and order” campaign, more than a dozen mayors in other cities joined Portland in their request to withdraw federal forces.
“This is how it begins,” warned the constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe. “The dictatorial hunger for power is insatiable. If ever there was a time for peaceful civil disobedience, that time is upon us.” The historian Timothy Snyder was specific and foreboding. “Watch out for the paramilitaries,” he wrote back in 2016. “When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.”
Just like the Westerns of old, Trump bends reality to fit his political script, with himself cast as the gun-totin’ sheriff. But his story needs a villain and so by edict he created one. His executive order reads, “Anarchists and left-wing extremists have sought to advance a fringe ideology that paints the United States of America as fundamentally unjust and have sought to impose that ideology on Americans through violence and mob intimidation.” If this sounds familiar, it’s actually a mildly successful franchise of the Trump administration, following The Caravans of Marauding Refugees, Murderous Immigrants on ICE, and the soon-to-be-released Democrat Cities: Anarchists Revolt!
But even with hoodlums and anarchists as extras, the protests cannot be easily whitewashed. They represent broad and overwhelmingly peaceful coalitions, activists of all stripes and causes. Franklin Foer wrote, “Sectors of society that studiously avoid politics broke with their reticence. In a dark era, when it seemed beyond the moral capacities of the nation, it mustered the will to disobey.” When we look at the protests, we don’t see Trump’s caricatures of extremists, we see real people of all backgrounds, races and creeds. A wall of moms. We see a melting pot of issues and priorities. We see democracy.
This is something that Trump cannot understand. This isn’t reality TV. It isn’t even a matter of politics. It’s a matter of progress, the mechanisms that drive it and the forces that impede it. Former President George W. Bush, in his statement on the tragedy of systemic racism, wrote “Those who set out to silence those voices do not understand the meaning of America — or how it becomes a better place.”
You may doubt whether Bush really understands it either. But Karl Popper certainly did. The Open Society and Its Enemies, written during the totalitarian threats of WWII, is a masterful defense of liberal values and democracy. In it, Popper offered this motto: “I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth.”
Enemies of an open society will resist the exchange of ideas using any means necessary. Popper highlights what openness requires. He reminds us of our fallibility and the need for intellectual humility. While his emphasis was on argument, Popper’s admonishment to great effort is the bottom line. We all support free speech where we agree. To be open is to welcome a diversity of opinions and experiences, especially where we disagree.
This is what wise leaders do. They don’t act like a swaggering sheriff with a big gun. They listen with humility. They seek out diverse perspectives. They inform, they don’t coerce. Former Navy physician and British Columbia Provincial Health Officer extraordinaire Bonnie Henry said, “This is a storm that’s affecting the world. But we are not in the same boats, so we can’t make assumptions about other people. I am going to give you everything we know so you can do your best to keep afloat.”
Maybe that’s not the ending you’d script, each in our own boat weathering storm after storm. But this is where we find ourselves. And this is where we’ll always find ourselves, building coalitions of shared interests, relentlessly pursuing better problems and better explanations.
By an effort. Argument is the only thing that stands between a civil society and tyranny. Pick your poison.
This the seventh post in a series on the pandemic and its impact on progress and problem solving. In the last post, we looked at the authority of facts.
From The Explainable Startup, exploring the science and philosophy of problem solving.