In Which Your Intrepid Blogger Concedes a Conservative Argument

Although both currently call the Republican Party home, authoritarians and conservatives are different. As mentioned in a much earlier post, authoritarians readily submit to chosen leaders; express high levels of aggression in the name of their leaders; expect everyone else to live by their standards; and limit their compassion to groups favored by their leaders.

Conservatives value law and custom over leaders who come and go. They see tradition as wisdom derived from experience. Thus they resist calls for change, especially rapid change, whereas authoritarians embrace drastic change if their leaders tell them to.

I don’t respect authoritarian politics. But I do respect conservative politics, because for the most part conservatives rely on rational argument to advance their case and are open to rational persuasion themselves — neither of which can be said for authoritarians. There are a number of contemporary conservative political writers I admire, among them David Frum, Conor Friedersdorf, Jennifer Rubin, and Andrew Sullivan.

I particularly like Sullivan. An Oxford-educated gay Englishman, he has lived in the US since the 1980s and recently became a citizen. He was an early and fecund blogger, but collapsed under the pressure of making a living from the internet. He has since settled into publishing once or twice a week on someone else’s site, usually New York Magazine’s.

On September 29, he wrote about black athletes kneeling during the national anthem, reacting to these words by San Francisco 49er Eric Reid in a September 25 New York Times op-ed: “In early 2016, I began paying attention to reports about the incredible number of unarmed black people being killed by the police. The posts on social media deeply disturbed me, but one in particular brought me to tears: the killing of Alton Sterling in my hometown Baton Rouge, La. This could have happened to any of my family members who still live in the area.”

Without in any way belittling Reid’s concerns, Sullivan demolishes the assumption that there is an “incredible number of unarmed black people being killed by the police.”

He uses data from the Washington Post’s Fatal Force project, which is documenting police killings. The project started in 2015, and is showing that the number of police killings hovers around a thousand per year.

But not every victim is an unarmed black person. Most of the time the police kill armed suspects. According to Sullivan, the Washington Post has found only 27 police killings of unarmed people in 2017, and just seven of those were African-Americans.

“There are 22 million black men in America. If an African-American man is not armed, the chance that he will be killed by the police in any recent year is 0.00006 percent,” Sullivan concludes.

Again, he’s not being dismissive: “One [police killing of an unarmed black man] is too many.” He’s just performing a clear-eyed risk assessment: “It seems to me important to get the scale of this right. Our perceptions are not reality.”

Then he addresses people like me (and probably like you too). “In other policy areas, left-liberals tend to agree with me on this general logic. They usually insist on not confusing an anecdote for solid data. They point out, for example, the infinitesimal chance that you will be killed by a terrorist in order to puncture the compelling and emotional narrative that we are a nation under siege by jihadists.”

He’s totally got me there. I used that exact argument in yet another earlier post.

So with the standard caveats — among them that one study is not necessarily definitive — I have to concede Sullivan’s argument. That doesn’t negate the larger argument that racism is alive and well. If you were to ask white people whether they’d prefer to live their same existence as a black person, ninety percent would say no, and the other ten percent would be lying. Colin Kaepernick got that. His reason for kneeling during the national anthem was “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” But a couple of sentences later he justified his reasoning by alluding to police violence against blacks.

If the national anthem protests are indeed about police misconduct, they’re not only feeding the rage of authoritarian “patriots.” They’re also wrong.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.