Category: Alexander Riley

A Half-Century of Adolescent Agitators



The foul-mouthed children trying to run the national gun control debate have a fifty-year-old precedent.



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The Equilibrium Prejudice and Free Expression


There is a deep inclination in a certain segment of the punditry class to want to make overly simple equations on any number of complicated social problems.  Sure, the refrain of these simplifiers goes, Those of ideology X are doing something unpleasant, but what about those of the opposed ideology Y, who are doing the exact same thing?  Let’s be even-handed in our criticism and in our proffered solutions, because there’s always plenty (i.e., an equal amount) of blame to be spread around uniformly on all sides.  I call this “the equilibrium prejudice.”  No problem, no matter the empirical details, can ever be seen from this perspective as something uniquely or disproportionately concentrated on one side or another.  Everything is always reduced to the rule: “They’re doing it, yes, but look, so are they!”  It is a kind of mania for balance that undoubtedly provides something productive to some discussions but can in other cases produce an astonishing blindness to reality.

John McWhorter’s December 30 CNN opinion piece is an example of the equilibrium prejudice.  It focuses on the case of George Ciccariello-Maher (pictured, right), a Drexel University professor who is voluntarily resigning his position due to the “grave … threats” of a “white-hot [emphasis on the ‘white,’ presumably] mob.”  McWhorter bemoans Ciccariello-Maher’s situation, presenting him as a purveyor of relatively anodyne satire.  The CNN clip linked to McWhorter’s article shows Ciccariello-Maher allowing a wide-eyed reporter to hear anonymous callers tell the professor, “You’re [f——] dead, kid – watch out!” and other similar things.  How could this horrific fate have befallen such an obviously mild-mannered, soft-spoken figure as Ciccariello-Maher?  McWhorter has no answer.  He is horrified and outraged, and he insinuates that we should be as well.

His inability to understand has at least something to do with the fact that he completely misrepresents the tenor of Ciccariello-Maher’s comments.  If McWhorter had done a little research, he would have found numerous examples on the professor’s Twitter feed of clear exhortation to physical violence by the far left, including a retweet of the video of Alt-Right figure Richard Spencer being gratuitously punched in the head, with the professor expressing the unsavory belief that “[a]cademia is fake[;] you can only trust your fists.”  (If Ciccariello-Maher sincerely believes this, one can only imagine how relieved he must be to be leaving his effete university post for purer, more pugilistic endeavors outside the academy.)  He also expresses political beliefs that can be characterized as hostile to white Americans – e.g., his comment on the Alabama election returns that “[m]aybe only black people should vote.”  (Imagine a professor writing on his Twitter account this comment with “white” substituted for “black.”)  And I leave aside his endless cheerleading for the most long-lived and humanly destructive form of totalitarianism in history – e.g., “democracy is meaningless without communism.”

McWhorter apparently has not read any of this.  He writes: “Their [those leaving messages on Ciccariello-Maher’s voicemail] forcing someone into hiding for just writing some stuff is unforgivable.”  “Unforgivable” is an odd term about reactions to political speech and the legal and constitutional boundaries of that speech.  John McWhorter’s “unforgivable” is certain to be at least slightly different from my “unforgivable,” and this is why it is a good thing that whether someone defines some form of speech as “unforgivable” is irrelevant to legal discussion of the limits of speech.  The relevant questions are these: is the government attacking Ciccariello-Maher for his speech?  Is his employer taking punitive action against him?  The answer to both is “no.”  What’s happening in this case, exactly?  A man who can be accurately described as a professorial troll has said a large number of exceedingly incendiary and violence-encouraging things online, and people have responded in kind, which is what predictably happens in such situations.  Does McWhorter think there is a political response to this that is not inconsistent with the wide purview for free expression he supports?  None is offered in his piece.

How has Ciccariello-Maher been “forc[ed] into hiding”?  Anyone who has spent any time reading the comments sections on political videos on YouTube knows that the kind of things Ciccariello-Maher has been hearing is the height of agonistic online banality.  Is the insinuation that some of the threats of violence being left on Ciccariello-Maher’s voicemail are credible?  There is no mention of that in any of the news accounts.  If so, Ciccariello-Maher has legal recourse and should get the police involved.  Determining that the threats made are legally actionable requires some level of intent to carry them out, as the Supreme Court ruled in Elonis v. United States, and this is a fairly high bar for such prosecutions.  The chances are much greater that these are simply unserious loudmouths online saying stupid things wholly unconnected with any likely actions in the real world – kind of like the guy to whom they are responding.  As much as some people might find this disconcerting, there is ultimately no way to stop it.  Science has yet to adequately address this hard problem.

For McWhorter (pictured, left) to insinuate, in the tradition of the equilibrium prejudice, that Ciccariello-Maher’s entirely self-created situation constitutes “the shoe on the other foot” with respect to leftist disruption and attack on speech on campus is ludicrous.  How does the left respond to speech it does not like on college campuses?  Does it record toothless threats on voicemail?  No, it bans that speech, when it can get away with it legally, or otherwise finds ways to codify it, however inaccurately and dishonestly, in such a way as to legitimate treating it differently from how provocative speech with which it agrees is treated.  When it cannot legally ban speech, it sometimes forms violent mobs and physically prevents people from speaking, occasionally beating them up in the process.  So, in the case of Heather Mac Donald, which McWhorter mentions, a perfectly reasonable speaker who challenges the Black Lives Matter narrative on policing and race is violently prevented from delivering her talk by students, who are defended in their action by some faculty and who are only mildly reprimanded for their violence by the university administration.  In the case of Ciccariello-Maher, not a single administrator, faculty member, or student was involved in any way in preventing him from saying the foolish things he says, and he leaves the university not because the institution is forcing him to do so, but of his own choice.  A few anonymous individuals, spurred by his own incitements to violence, have responded to him with his own violent rhetoric, and the brave revolutionary Ciccariello-Maher cannot stand the heat of the fire he started.

If Ciccariello-Maher wants the messages to stop, I suggest a more or less certain way to accomplish that goal.  He could just stop cheerleading on social media the kind of violence he likes.  This would entail no restriction of his academic freedoms (as these tweets are not part of his work as a professor), nor indeed of his First Amendment rights (as no state action against him is implied if he refuses to self-censor).  It would just require some mature and self-motivated adherence on his part to behave himself like a civilized person online.  Were he to take this up, in time, he would certainly fall off the media map, and the fools who want to waste time leaving unrealistic threats on voicemail would move on.

But Ciccariello-Maher does not want to do this.  He says as much in his letter of resignation, posted on Twitter.  This adherence to informal codes of courteous social interaction would get in the way of his radical “speaking and organizing,” which he clearly sees as more important than teaching or publishing merely scholarly works.  If these are his priorities and his plan of action, fine.  Get on with it.  Deal with the consequences, though.  How depressingly predictable it is that the supposedly hard-nosed revolutionary, whose fans approvingly call him a “gangster” online because he is so scandalous as to use bad words when talking with reporters, wants to be able to push at the core values of the system he opposes, but then he’s shocked that some others will push back.

The reality is that no one is forcing him to do anything, and McWhorter wholly misrepresents his situation and its similarity to left-wing policing of speech on campuses.  Ciccariello-Maher has decided that he is not up to facing the stress created by his own actions, and neither is he willing to stop engaging in the stress-producing action, likely because the self-professed communist enjoys the notoriety and the increased book sales and speaker fees that provides him.

Whatever one thinks of his sordid situation, it has nothing in common with cases like that of Heather Mac Donald.

McWhorter tells us he is “eternally stunned that it is within the norms of sane human behavior to regularly send vicious messages of this kind on a whim to people who have rubbed you the wrong way.”  But it’s not clear what he means by “within the norms of sane human behavior.”  It is likely that none of the people sending nasty messages to Ciccariello-Maher is clinically insane, but it is certain that most people would not see this kind of trollish activity as normatively acceptable, either.  The point again is that there is simply not anything that can be done about it without draconian measures regarding free expression, which we should oppose, or without some effort by people such as Ciccariello-Maher to learn to behave themselves as adults online.  On the latter, the evidence suggests that we should not be overly optimistic. 

There is a deep inclination in a certain segment of the punditry class to want to make overly simple equations on any number of complicated social problems.  Sure, the refrain of these simplifiers goes, Those of ideology X are doing something unpleasant, but what about those of the opposed ideology Y, who are doing the exact same thing?  Let’s be even-handed in our criticism and in our proffered solutions, because there’s always plenty (i.e., an equal amount) of blame to be spread around uniformly on all sides.  I call this “the equilibrium prejudice.”  No problem, no matter the empirical details, can ever be seen from this perspective as something uniquely or disproportionately concentrated on one side or another.  Everything is always reduced to the rule: “They’re doing it, yes, but look, so are they!”  It is a kind of mania for balance that undoubtedly provides something productive to some discussions but can in other cases produce an astonishing blindness to reality.

John McWhorter’s December 30 CNN opinion piece is an example of the equilibrium prejudice.  It focuses on the case of George Ciccariello-Maher (pictured, right), a Drexel University professor who is voluntarily resigning his position due to the “grave … threats” of a “white-hot [emphasis on the ‘white,’ presumably] mob.”  McWhorter bemoans Ciccariello-Maher’s situation, presenting him as a purveyor of relatively anodyne satire.  The CNN clip linked to McWhorter’s article shows Ciccariello-Maher allowing a wide-eyed reporter to hear anonymous callers tell the professor, “You’re [f——] dead, kid – watch out!” and other similar things.  How could this horrific fate have befallen such an obviously mild-mannered, soft-spoken figure as Ciccariello-Maher?  McWhorter has no answer.  He is horrified and outraged, and he insinuates that we should be as well.

His inability to understand has at least something to do with the fact that he completely misrepresents the tenor of Ciccariello-Maher’s comments.  If McWhorter had done a little research, he would have found numerous examples on the professor’s Twitter feed of clear exhortation to physical violence by the far left, including a retweet of the video of Alt-Right figure Richard Spencer being gratuitously punched in the head, with the professor expressing the unsavory belief that “[a]cademia is fake[;] you can only trust your fists.”  (If Ciccariello-Maher sincerely believes this, one can only imagine how relieved he must be to be leaving his effete university post for purer, more pugilistic endeavors outside the academy.)  He also expresses political beliefs that can be characterized as hostile to white Americans – e.g., his comment on the Alabama election returns that “[m]aybe only black people should vote.”  (Imagine a professor writing on his Twitter account this comment with “white” substituted for “black.”)  And I leave aside his endless cheerleading for the most long-lived and humanly destructive form of totalitarianism in history – e.g., “democracy is meaningless without communism.”

McWhorter apparently has not read any of this.  He writes: “Their [those leaving messages on Ciccariello-Maher’s voicemail] forcing someone into hiding for just writing some stuff is unforgivable.”  “Unforgivable” is an odd term about reactions to political speech and the legal and constitutional boundaries of that speech.  John McWhorter’s “unforgivable” is certain to be at least slightly different from my “unforgivable,” and this is why it is a good thing that whether someone defines some form of speech as “unforgivable” is irrelevant to legal discussion of the limits of speech.  The relevant questions are these: is the government attacking Ciccariello-Maher for his speech?  Is his employer taking punitive action against him?  The answer to both is “no.”  What’s happening in this case, exactly?  A man who can be accurately described as a professorial troll has said a large number of exceedingly incendiary and violence-encouraging things online, and people have responded in kind, which is what predictably happens in such situations.  Does McWhorter think there is a political response to this that is not inconsistent with the wide purview for free expression he supports?  None is offered in his piece.

How has Ciccariello-Maher been “forc[ed] into hiding”?  Anyone who has spent any time reading the comments sections on political videos on YouTube knows that the kind of things Ciccariello-Maher has been hearing is the height of agonistic online banality.  Is the insinuation that some of the threats of violence being left on Ciccariello-Maher’s voicemail are credible?  There is no mention of that in any of the news accounts.  If so, Ciccariello-Maher has legal recourse and should get the police involved.  Determining that the threats made are legally actionable requires some level of intent to carry them out, as the Supreme Court ruled in Elonis v. United States, and this is a fairly high bar for such prosecutions.  The chances are much greater that these are simply unserious loudmouths online saying stupid things wholly unconnected with any likely actions in the real world – kind of like the guy to whom they are responding.  As much as some people might find this disconcerting, there is ultimately no way to stop it.  Science has yet to adequately address this hard problem.

For McWhorter (pictured, left) to insinuate, in the tradition of the equilibrium prejudice, that Ciccariello-Maher’s entirely self-created situation constitutes “the shoe on the other foot” with respect to leftist disruption and attack on speech on campus is ludicrous.  How does the left respond to speech it does not like on college campuses?  Does it record toothless threats on voicemail?  No, it bans that speech, when it can get away with it legally, or otherwise finds ways to codify it, however inaccurately and dishonestly, in such a way as to legitimate treating it differently from how provocative speech with which it agrees is treated.  When it cannot legally ban speech, it sometimes forms violent mobs and physically prevents people from speaking, occasionally beating them up in the process.  So, in the case of Heather Mac Donald, which McWhorter mentions, a perfectly reasonable speaker who challenges the Black Lives Matter narrative on policing and race is violently prevented from delivering her talk by students, who are defended in their action by some faculty and who are only mildly reprimanded for their violence by the university administration.  In the case of Ciccariello-Maher, not a single administrator, faculty member, or student was involved in any way in preventing him from saying the foolish things he says, and he leaves the university not because the institution is forcing him to do so, but of his own choice.  A few anonymous individuals, spurred by his own incitements to violence, have responded to him with his own violent rhetoric, and the brave revolutionary Ciccariello-Maher cannot stand the heat of the fire he started.

If Ciccariello-Maher wants the messages to stop, I suggest a more or less certain way to accomplish that goal.  He could just stop cheerleading on social media the kind of violence he likes.  This would entail no restriction of his academic freedoms (as these tweets are not part of his work as a professor), nor indeed of his First Amendment rights (as no state action against him is implied if he refuses to self-censor).  It would just require some mature and self-motivated adherence on his part to behave himself like a civilized person online.  Were he to take this up, in time, he would certainly fall off the media map, and the fools who want to waste time leaving unrealistic threats on voicemail would move on.

But Ciccariello-Maher does not want to do this.  He says as much in his letter of resignation, posted on Twitter.  This adherence to informal codes of courteous social interaction would get in the way of his radical “speaking and organizing,” which he clearly sees as more important than teaching or publishing merely scholarly works.  If these are his priorities and his plan of action, fine.  Get on with it.  Deal with the consequences, though.  How depressingly predictable it is that the supposedly hard-nosed revolutionary, whose fans approvingly call him a “gangster” online because he is so scandalous as to use bad words when talking with reporters, wants to be able to push at the core values of the system he opposes, but then he’s shocked that some others will push back.

The reality is that no one is forcing him to do anything, and McWhorter wholly misrepresents his situation and its similarity to left-wing policing of speech on campuses.  Ciccariello-Maher has decided that he is not up to facing the stress created by his own actions, and neither is he willing to stop engaging in the stress-producing action, likely because the self-professed communist enjoys the notoriety and the increased book sales and speaker fees that provides him.

Whatever one thinks of his sordid situation, it has nothing in common with cases like that of Heather Mac Donald.

McWhorter tells us he is “eternally stunned that it is within the norms of sane human behavior to regularly send vicious messages of this kind on a whim to people who have rubbed you the wrong way.”  But it’s not clear what he means by “within the norms of sane human behavior.”  It is likely that none of the people sending nasty messages to Ciccariello-Maher is clinically insane, but it is certain that most people would not see this kind of trollish activity as normatively acceptable, either.  The point again is that there is simply not anything that can be done about it without draconian measures regarding free expression, which we should oppose, or without some effort by people such as Ciccariello-Maher to learn to behave themselves as adults online.  On the latter, the evidence suggests that we should not be overly optimistic. 



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What You're In For: That New Vietnam Documentary


The latest documentary project of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, a sprawling ten-episode, eighteen-hour film on the war in Vietnam, has provoked a fawning and predictable media response.  Reviewers uniformly opine about how admirably it documents what the country’s chattering classes have known since the 1960s: that the United States was on the wrong side in the war and morally deserved to lose.

The film’s heavy skew in the direction of the now well established antiwar narrative of the American cultural elite is evident most obviously in the jarring ideological imbalance of the Vietnam veterans chosen by the filmmakers to contribute commentary to the film.  The overwhelming majority of them are antiwar activists.  The radical “poet of Vietnam,” W.D. Ehrhart, is given ample time to present his bizarre theories regarding American military history and to viciously condemn the American command during the war in which he served.  Another celebrity soldier-writer, Tim O’Brien, lugubriously laments his youthful inability to free himself sufficiently from the shackles of the obviously vapid patriotism of his neighbors in small-town America to pursue the true path of courage: refusal of military service. 

The lone soldier presented who does not fit the model is Denton Crocker, Jr., an enthusiastic enlistee whose principled anti-communism structured his thinking about the war.  But Crocker died in combat, and so Burns and Novick deftly avoid the need to include any retrospective observations from him that would indicate even the slightest sustained support for the war.  All soldiers in Vietnam were or eventually became cynical about the war effort – that is the film’s story.  The major voice from the Crocker family presented in the film is not Denton’s, but that of his sister, an antiwar activist who is given wide latitude to discuss how misled her brother was about the conflict.

A former member of the Vietnam Veterans against the War, John Musgrave, serves as the prototype for what is insinuated would inevitably have happened to Crocker if he had survived.  Musgrave went into Vietnam with the patriotic fortitude provided by a family of military veterans, and by the end of his tour, he had become a shaggy, suicidally depressive member of the radical counterculture.

The selective spin of the filmmakers’ choices as to who represents the men who served in Vietnam is evident if one has read objective accounts of the attitudes of veterans of that war.  They are generally dissatisfied not with what they did during their service or the Cold War anti-communist philosophy that framed the conflict, but with indecisive political elites, a savagely partisan media, and a fickle and uninformed public that treated the returning veterans with vicious contempt.  If one makes the effort to talk to the overwhelming majority of Vietnam veterans who are not published and fêted writers and media celebrities, one quickly understands how poorly Ehrhart, O’Brien, and Musgrave stand in for them.  But the typical viewer of this film will almost certainly not have done this homework, and Burns and Novick know and exploit that quite well. 

The film’s handling of the Tet Offensive of early 1968 provides another neat encapsulation of its ideological thrust.  Any objective summary of Tet defines it as a massive Viet Cong-North Vietnamese defeat, and its major consequence militarily was the near elimination of the ability of the Southern insurgents to continue to fight.  How, then, did this crushing defeat of the communists, in the words of the filmmakers, “turn out to be a still greater victory” for them?  Burns and Novick studiously avoid the true answer, which is that the American media and antiwar movement relentlessly presented it as such, and the American public never came to know the reality of Tet or indeed much else that was happening militarily in the several years thereafter.  Objective accounts have consistently emphasized that the enemies’ forces were strained after Tet to the breaking point, and the Nixon administration’s efforts to press that advantage to victory were critically hampered by the work of congressional doves to defund the war.

Two venerable antiwar symbols of Tet get the lion’s share of the filmmakers’ attention: the massacre by American troops at My Lai and the summary execution of a Viet Cong prisoner by South Vietnam National Police chief Nguyen Loan, famously captured by an American photographer.  No contextualization of these events is provided.  The Loan photo became a consistent symbolic prop of the anti-war movement, with its desired reading of a morally corrupt American ally and a helpless innocent victim of their (and our) brutality.  But what had the executed man done to merit such a fate?  As the leader of a terrorist attack squad, he had just slit the throats of the wife, six children, and elderly mother of a South Vietnamese officer.  The propaganda value of this photo for the anti-war movement has always relied on a radical distortion of the moral valence of the enemy and an equally simplistic view of the stern business of successfully prosecuting a war, and Burns and Novick make no effort to bring a more complex vision to bear here. 

Similarly, My Lai is presented absent the relevant context of the terrorist insurgency that was the Tet Offensive.  The responsible American unit had reason to believe that the village was harboring a V.C. battalion that had just carried out a bloody attack, and they had taken dreadfully heavy casualties in the preceding months from mines.  None of this excuses what happened there, but it is telling that Burns and Novick linger at such length over My Lai and are so comparatively fleeting in their description of the tenfold greater level of systematic lethal violence inflicted on innocent civilians by the retreating communist forces at Huế.

The film is generally remarkably lacking any sustained substantive discussion of the ideological ruthlessness of the communists.  Even the stolidly anti-war New York Times has recognized accounts in its op-ed pages over the years that make the well founded case that the enemy was basically everything so-called “anti-communist hysteria” of the ’60s said it was and more.    

Almost despite themselves, though, due to the sheer volume of material presented, Burns and Novick cannot avoid providing some of the evidence needed to properly understand the war effort and the work by some to sabotage it.  They allow us to hear President Johnson’s excoriation of Jack Horner of the Washington Star during Tet, and a discerning listener cannot help but note how much LBJ sounds like another American president in his assessment of the political role of the mainstream press:

Your press is lying like drunken sailors every day.  First thing I wake up this morning, I was trying to figure out after … watching the networks, reading the morning papers, how can we possibly win and survive as a nation and have to fight the press’s lies? … They talk about us bombing, yet these sons of b—— come in and bomb our embassy and 19 of ’em try to raid it and all 19 get killed, and yet they blame the embassy.  I don’t understand it.  We think we’ve killed 20,000, we think we’ve lost 400 … it is a major, dramatic victory, and I think what would have happened if I’d lost 20,000 and they’d have lost 400? I ask you that.

Can there be any doubt as to the answer to the president’s question?

Alexander Riley is the author of Angel Patriots: The Crash of United Flight 93 and the Myth of America.

The latest documentary project of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, a sprawling ten-episode, eighteen-hour film on the war in Vietnam, has provoked a fawning and predictable media response.  Reviewers uniformly opine about how admirably it documents what the country’s chattering classes have known since the 1960s: that the United States was on the wrong side in the war and morally deserved to lose.

The film’s heavy skew in the direction of the now well established antiwar narrative of the American cultural elite is evident most obviously in the jarring ideological imbalance of the Vietnam veterans chosen by the filmmakers to contribute commentary to the film.  The overwhelming majority of them are antiwar activists.  The radical “poet of Vietnam,” W.D. Ehrhart, is given ample time to present his bizarre theories regarding American military history and to viciously condemn the American command during the war in which he served.  Another celebrity soldier-writer, Tim O’Brien, lugubriously laments his youthful inability to free himself sufficiently from the shackles of the obviously vapid patriotism of his neighbors in small-town America to pursue the true path of courage: refusal of military service. 

The lone soldier presented who does not fit the model is Denton Crocker, Jr., an enthusiastic enlistee whose principled anti-communism structured his thinking about the war.  But Crocker died in combat, and so Burns and Novick deftly avoid the need to include any retrospective observations from him that would indicate even the slightest sustained support for the war.  All soldiers in Vietnam were or eventually became cynical about the war effort – that is the film’s story.  The major voice from the Crocker family presented in the film is not Denton’s, but that of his sister, an antiwar activist who is given wide latitude to discuss how misled her brother was about the conflict.

A former member of the Vietnam Veterans against the War, John Musgrave, serves as the prototype for what is insinuated would inevitably have happened to Crocker if he had survived.  Musgrave went into Vietnam with the patriotic fortitude provided by a family of military veterans, and by the end of his tour, he had become a shaggy, suicidally depressive member of the radical counterculture.

The selective spin of the filmmakers’ choices as to who represents the men who served in Vietnam is evident if one has read objective accounts of the attitudes of veterans of that war.  They are generally dissatisfied not with what they did during their service or the Cold War anti-communist philosophy that framed the conflict, but with indecisive political elites, a savagely partisan media, and a fickle and uninformed public that treated the returning veterans with vicious contempt.  If one makes the effort to talk to the overwhelming majority of Vietnam veterans who are not published and fêted writers and media celebrities, one quickly understands how poorly Ehrhart, O’Brien, and Musgrave stand in for them.  But the typical viewer of this film will almost certainly not have done this homework, and Burns and Novick know and exploit that quite well. 

The film’s handling of the Tet Offensive of early 1968 provides another neat encapsulation of its ideological thrust.  Any objective summary of Tet defines it as a massive Viet Cong-North Vietnamese defeat, and its major consequence militarily was the near elimination of the ability of the Southern insurgents to continue to fight.  How, then, did this crushing defeat of the communists, in the words of the filmmakers, “turn out to be a still greater victory” for them?  Burns and Novick studiously avoid the true answer, which is that the American media and antiwar movement relentlessly presented it as such, and the American public never came to know the reality of Tet or indeed much else that was happening militarily in the several years thereafter.  Objective accounts have consistently emphasized that the enemies’ forces were strained after Tet to the breaking point, and the Nixon administration’s efforts to press that advantage to victory were critically hampered by the work of congressional doves to defund the war.

Two venerable antiwar symbols of Tet get the lion’s share of the filmmakers’ attention: the massacre by American troops at My Lai and the summary execution of a Viet Cong prisoner by South Vietnam National Police chief Nguyen Loan, famously captured by an American photographer.  No contextualization of these events is provided.  The Loan photo became a consistent symbolic prop of the anti-war movement, with its desired reading of a morally corrupt American ally and a helpless innocent victim of their (and our) brutality.  But what had the executed man done to merit such a fate?  As the leader of a terrorist attack squad, he had just slit the throats of the wife, six children, and elderly mother of a South Vietnamese officer.  The propaganda value of this photo for the anti-war movement has always relied on a radical distortion of the moral valence of the enemy and an equally simplistic view of the stern business of successfully prosecuting a war, and Burns and Novick make no effort to bring a more complex vision to bear here. 

Similarly, My Lai is presented absent the relevant context of the terrorist insurgency that was the Tet Offensive.  The responsible American unit had reason to believe that the village was harboring a V.C. battalion that had just carried out a bloody attack, and they had taken dreadfully heavy casualties in the preceding months from mines.  None of this excuses what happened there, but it is telling that Burns and Novick linger at such length over My Lai and are so comparatively fleeting in their description of the tenfold greater level of systematic lethal violence inflicted on innocent civilians by the retreating communist forces at Huế.

The film is generally remarkably lacking any sustained substantive discussion of the ideological ruthlessness of the communists.  Even the stolidly anti-war New York Times has recognized accounts in its op-ed pages over the years that make the well founded case that the enemy was basically everything so-called “anti-communist hysteria” of the ’60s said it was and more.    

Almost despite themselves, though, due to the sheer volume of material presented, Burns and Novick cannot avoid providing some of the evidence needed to properly understand the war effort and the work by some to sabotage it.  They allow us to hear President Johnson’s excoriation of Jack Horner of the Washington Star during Tet, and a discerning listener cannot help but note how much LBJ sounds like another American president in his assessment of the political role of the mainstream press:

Your press is lying like drunken sailors every day.  First thing I wake up this morning, I was trying to figure out after … watching the networks, reading the morning papers, how can we possibly win and survive as a nation and have to fight the press’s lies? … They talk about us bombing, yet these sons of b—— come in and bomb our embassy and 19 of ’em try to raid it and all 19 get killed, and yet they blame the embassy.  I don’t understand it.  We think we’ve killed 20,000, we think we’ve lost 400 … it is a major, dramatic victory, and I think what would have happened if I’d lost 20,000 and they’d have lost 400? I ask you that.

Can there be any doubt as to the answer to the president’s question?

Alexander Riley is the author of Angel Patriots: The Crash of United Flight 93 and the Myth of America.



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What the National Anthem Means


In the opening pages of Who Are We?, Samuel Huntington describes a scene indicative of the important place the national anthem plays in our national identity and of the dire situation of the country at present regarding respect for that anthem. The U.S. men’s soccer team in 1998 reached the Gold Cup final match to face Mexico before a partisan anti-American crowd who threw objects at American players and loudly booed the “Star-Spangled Banner.” The game was, amazingly, played not in Mexico, but in Los Angeles, and some significant portion of those booing were American citizens who so weakly identified with their country that such scorn for its national symbols came effortlessly to them. Huntington recalls the episode as one key illustration of the erosion of respect and veneration for American national symbolic culture.

The depressing spectacle of NFL players refusing to stand for the national anthem is further evidence of this cultural decay, and efforts to frame it as consonant with, or even especially archetypal of deep American values are themselves an indication of how poorly many Americans understand the meaning of the national anthem and how feebly they resonate with the emotional valence of that meaning.

The claim is made that those players who kneel during the anthem are merely engaging in a fundamentally American form of protest to draw attention to imperfections in the country, with the goal of, as Colin Kaepernick put it, hastening the coming of the day when American symbols “represent what [they’re] supposed to represent.”  Radical, perhaps, but ultimately reformative rather than revolutionary and comfortably situated in the mainstream civil rights tradition of the country. Yet these players uniformly indicate their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.  Although an astounding proportion of the media figures writing about this movement cannot bring themselves to actually read what that movement’s leaders have described as its ideology and goals, they are not hard to find online. The Black Lives Matter view of American society is fundamentally hostile. The country is, in their account, “systematically and intentionally” dedicated to the genocidal “demise” of “Black lives.” Among the proclaimed goals of the movement is the “disrupt[ion]” of the “nuclear family” in favor of “black villages” that will apparently replace families in the role of child-rearing and socialization. Whatever one thinks of these ideas, they are undeniably and frankly oppositional to basic beliefs and institutions of American culture. 

So much for the idea that this is just about good old-fashioned American reform of American society.  The message should be clear:  in refusing to stand for the anthem, these players, all of them millionaires celebrated beyond the wildest dreams of nearly all humankind because they happen to play a schoolyard game well in a country where entertainers are unduly deified and paid kingly sums for running and jumping, indicate their sneering refusal of any sense of identity, gratitude, and responsibility to this society that makes it possible for them to be so richly rewarded for frivolous play.

The football players have innumerable allies in the media, at least some of whom pretend to be interested in history. But the same instinctive disdain for American history and culture of the Kaepernickites is palpable in these efforts to defend them. Francis Scott Key is dishonestly caricatured as a virulent and murderous racist, the War of 1812 is perversely spun as yet another episode of American imperialism and, still more counterfactually, a war of American slaveholders against freed slaves, and the entire meaning of the Banner is made to rest on one verse, never sung in performances, the interpretation of which is contested by serious historians. As with the Kaepernickites, the rhetoric of fairmindedness and respectability is paper-thin, and the final product is fairly straightforward derisive animus for American history, principles, and identity.

What is the national anthem for, then? Simply put, it is an aural flag. It is a series of linguistic signs composed and melodically organized with the express purpose of causing us to gaze, lyrically and imaginatively, on the actual visual symbol that is the representation of the nation. It is literally a song about the American flag as an object of national veneration. And what is an American flag for, then? Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle, in Blood Sacrifice and the Nation, a brilliant book that should be read by every American, show that it most fundamentally, if necessarily secretly, symbolizes the body of the American patriot fallen in combat to defend the nation. This is why the bodies of soldiers are draped in the flag. They are the flag. In standing reverently before the flag, as the national anthem about that flag is performed, Americans worship the replenishing, saving totem of our tribe. It is that basic. It is that deep. 

This is all, of course, too much for many in the American cultural elite, who have gorged themselves on the same rotten bread proffered by Black Lives Matter, the NFL Kaepernickites, and their allies, but the truth of the symbolism is evident in the visceral reaction of the typical American to the sight of a professional athlete who kneels during the singing of this majestic hymn to national identity. These ordinary Americans, still uninfected by the toxin of multiculturalist relativism that is epidemic among the chattering classes, hear those words, invoke that image, feel that collective bond and shared identity, and therefore do not easily tolerate the contempt for all that contained in the thoughtless gesture of egotistical millionaires in football pads. 

The NFL will perhaps soon learn the perils of embracing and promoting mockery of such profoundly felt symbolic truths.

In the opening pages of Who Are We?, Samuel Huntington describes a scene indicative of the important place the national anthem plays in our national identity and of the dire situation of the country at present regarding respect for that anthem. The U.S. men’s soccer team in 1998 reached the Gold Cup final match to face Mexico before a partisan anti-American crowd who threw objects at American players and loudly booed the “Star-Spangled Banner.” The game was, amazingly, played not in Mexico, but in Los Angeles, and some significant portion of those booing were American citizens who so weakly identified with their country that such scorn for its national symbols came effortlessly to them. Huntington recalls the episode as one key illustration of the erosion of respect and veneration for American national symbolic culture.

The depressing spectacle of NFL players refusing to stand for the national anthem is further evidence of this cultural decay, and efforts to frame it as consonant with, or even especially archetypal of deep American values are themselves an indication of how poorly many Americans understand the meaning of the national anthem and how feebly they resonate with the emotional valence of that meaning.

The claim is made that those players who kneel during the anthem are merely engaging in a fundamentally American form of protest to draw attention to imperfections in the country, with the goal of, as Colin Kaepernick put it, hastening the coming of the day when American symbols “represent what [they’re] supposed to represent.”  Radical, perhaps, but ultimately reformative rather than revolutionary and comfortably situated in the mainstream civil rights tradition of the country. Yet these players uniformly indicate their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.  Although an astounding proportion of the media figures writing about this movement cannot bring themselves to actually read what that movement’s leaders have described as its ideology and goals, they are not hard to find online. The Black Lives Matter view of American society is fundamentally hostile. The country is, in their account, “systematically and intentionally” dedicated to the genocidal “demise” of “Black lives.” Among the proclaimed goals of the movement is the “disrupt[ion]” of the “nuclear family” in favor of “black villages” that will apparently replace families in the role of child-rearing and socialization. Whatever one thinks of these ideas, they are undeniably and frankly oppositional to basic beliefs and institutions of American culture. 

So much for the idea that this is just about good old-fashioned American reform of American society.  The message should be clear:  in refusing to stand for the anthem, these players, all of them millionaires celebrated beyond the wildest dreams of nearly all humankind because they happen to play a schoolyard game well in a country where entertainers are unduly deified and paid kingly sums for running and jumping, indicate their sneering refusal of any sense of identity, gratitude, and responsibility to this society that makes it possible for them to be so richly rewarded for frivolous play.

The football players have innumerable allies in the media, at least some of whom pretend to be interested in history. But the same instinctive disdain for American history and culture of the Kaepernickites is palpable in these efforts to defend them. Francis Scott Key is dishonestly caricatured as a virulent and murderous racist, the War of 1812 is perversely spun as yet another episode of American imperialism and, still more counterfactually, a war of American slaveholders against freed slaves, and the entire meaning of the Banner is made to rest on one verse, never sung in performances, the interpretation of which is contested by serious historians. As with the Kaepernickites, the rhetoric of fairmindedness and respectability is paper-thin, and the final product is fairly straightforward derisive animus for American history, principles, and identity.

What is the national anthem for, then? Simply put, it is an aural flag. It is a series of linguistic signs composed and melodically organized with the express purpose of causing us to gaze, lyrically and imaginatively, on the actual visual symbol that is the representation of the nation. It is literally a song about the American flag as an object of national veneration. And what is an American flag for, then? Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle, in Blood Sacrifice and the Nation, a brilliant book that should be read by every American, show that it most fundamentally, if necessarily secretly, symbolizes the body of the American patriot fallen in combat to defend the nation. This is why the bodies of soldiers are draped in the flag. They are the flag. In standing reverently before the flag, as the national anthem about that flag is performed, Americans worship the replenishing, saving totem of our tribe. It is that basic. It is that deep. 

This is all, of course, too much for many in the American cultural elite, who have gorged themselves on the same rotten bread proffered by Black Lives Matter, the NFL Kaepernickites, and their allies, but the truth of the symbolism is evident in the visceral reaction of the typical American to the sight of a professional athlete who kneels during the singing of this majestic hymn to national identity. These ordinary Americans, still uninfected by the toxin of multiculturalist relativism that is epidemic among the chattering classes, hear those words, invoke that image, feel that collective bond and shared identity, and therefore do not easily tolerate the contempt for all that contained in the thoughtless gesture of egotistical millionaires in football pads. 

The NFL will perhaps soon learn the perils of embracing and promoting mockery of such profoundly felt symbolic truths.



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