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Getting Consistent on Collective Blame

(Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

“The Left cannot get enough of sociological explanations for all sorts of violence. It is never about individual responsibility; it is always about social structures.”

Here we go again. Another mass shooting, major outrage, talk about gun control reform, and all the rest. After a couple of weeks, the hype tones down, everything goes back to normal, nobody does anything, and then, a new shooter shows up, thus starting the cycle all over again. The most recent instance of this regrettable dynamic was a young man killing 19 victims at an El Paso Wal-Mart.

And then, we know the drill: gun-loving lobbyists immediately jump to repeat the pathetic cliché: “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” President Donald Trump refuses to look at the problem in the eye and goes for the cheap excuse that this is just a mental health issue but never dares to mention that there is a gun problem in the United States.

Of late, there is an additional element that President Trump also refuses fully to come to terms with: increasingly, some portion of these shooters are white nationalists. Is President Trump’s subtle love affair with white nationalism to blame? I would say that this is pushing the argument a bit. It is doubtful that the inclinations of a single politician, no matter how powerful he may be, ultimately account for criminal behavior in a slice of the population. Blaming presidential rhetoric for mass shootings is not too dissimilar from blaming Hip Hop for African American overrepresentation in prisons.

Having said that, President Trump needs to step up and call a spade by its name. White nationalism is a problem in the United States, and it does have strong connections with mass shootings. To remain silent is to be complicit.

Naturally enough, some people notice the hypocrisy. In a tweet that has gone viral, Shermichael Singleton says: “If it’s done by a black man, he’s a thug. If it’s an Arab, then he must be a terrorist. If Hispanic, let’s build a wall. But if he’s white, he’s a troubled young man with mental illness, perhaps it’s video games?” 

To which I reply: it depends on whom you ask. Yes, Singleton is accurate in ridiculing President Trump’s hypocritical approach to violence. But there is hypocrisy on the other side of the aisle, and progressives fail to come to terms with it. Visit any university, or for that matter, any stronghold of political correctness (say, a place like Portland), and you will encounter explanations that go something like this: “If it’s done by a black man, it’s because of slavery. If it’s an Arab, then it was because of the Crusades. If Hispanic, we know that the gringos stole Texas. But if he’s white, then he is a racist, and that is pure evil.”

The Left cannot get enough of sociological explanations for all sorts of violence. It is never about individual responsibility; it is always about social structures. That is not necessarily incorrect. Take African American incarceration rates. Yes, there is racism in the judicial system, but this is not enough to explain how 13% of the American population can be 40% of the prison population. Are slavery and Jim Crowe to blame for this? They are undoubtedly causal factors. For, even if we acknowledge that there are serious problems in African American culture, they ultimately go back to the traumatic black historical experience in the United States. That does not imply that the way to recovery is someone else’s responsibility. If you are injured in a car accident by a drunk driver, and now you need physiotherapy, surely the drunk driver is to blame. But whether or not you recover is now entirely your responsibility because you decide how hard you will work in physiotherapy. Yet, you did not bring this accident on yourself.  

What about Jihadism? Is Islam as a religion itself to blame? Sam Harris likes to think so. Just compare Palestinian Christians and Palestinian Muslims. They both live in the same space; they both have the same history; they both go through the same humiliations. Yet, who are the ones exploding bombs? It seems like a reasonable point. But, in fact, Jihadism is a more complex phenomenon. Perhaps we needn’t go back to the Crusades (which, after all, were a response to prior Muslim expansionism itself). But we could go back to the more recent Sykes-Picot agreement (a major betrayal to the Arab world by European colonial powers after World War I), or more importantly, to the alienation and racism that Muslim populations do deal with in many European cities. That easily pushes alienated Muslim youth into the arms of ISIS.

As for Hispanics, again, more structural explanations can also be invoked. In fact, there is a long history of this approach in Latin America. Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America is a long description of how American imperialism has brought misery to its own backyard. Galeano’s rant was surely exaggerated, but he did have a point in saying that Latin resentment against gringos can at least be understood. Latino gangs in Los Angeles are made up of second-generation immigrants whose parents had to flee Mexico and Central American countries; there are many reasons to account for those nations’ failures, but aggressive American imperialism in the region is indeed one of them.

So, progressives are not wrong in taking a deeper look in each of these cases. Yet, their hypocrisy is at play when they refuse to do the same with white nationalists. In their narrative, white nationalism is pure evil, and no historical reasons can be invoked to at least try to understand it, as opposed to the case of African American crime, Jihadism or Latino gangs. Needless to say, they are wrong.

They are folks who struggle to make a living in the era of automation and layoffs, yet still have to listen to patronizing progressives preach to them about “white privilege” and how they somehow are oppressors of multimillionaires like Oprah or Michael Jordan, solely on the basis of skin color.

As much as we may hate the Ku Klux Klan, we must understand that it did not come out of a vacuum. The North committed numerous atrocities in the Civil War (most infamously, Sherman’s March to the Sea). Carpetbaggers profited from a devastated South. Ex-Confederates were not given full voting rights. Some amount of sociological insight will suffice to begin to understand where white nationalist hate comes from.

But that is only the tip of the iceberg. White nationalists are not likely to be the privileged spoiled brats that the Left imagines them to be. They are certainly not the aristocratic white family of Gone with the Wind. They are rather the toothless hillbillies, mercilessly portrayed as sub-humans in films such as Deliverance. They are unlikely to be descendants of slave owners. As Jim Goad recurrently explains, they are actually more likely to be descendants of 18th and 19th Century European serfs and indentured servants, who had living conditions only slightly better than African slaves. They are folks who struggle to make a living in the era of automation and layoffs, yet still have to listen to patronizing progressives preach to them about “white privilege” and how they somehow are oppressors of multimillionaires like Oprah or Michael Jordan, solely on the basis of skin color. They are the alienated youth who see all ethnic groups enjoy their slice of the identitarian pie, yet are the only ones who are forbidden from having their own game of identity politics. 

Yes, Donald Trump needs to call a spade, and in no ambiguous terms he must condemn white nationalism. But, social justice warriors need to be more consistent. They either stop invoking historical reasons when approaching acts of violence committed by African Americans, Muslims, Hispanics, and so on; or they also include white nationalism in their it’s-more-complicated-than-it-seems narrative. Given my previous arguments, I certainly prefer the latter option. In fact, understanding why a collective hates so much is the first step towards mitigating their violence.

Dr. Gabriel Andrade teaches ethics and behavioral science at St. Matthew’s University School of Medicine. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post.

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