If you come up with a lot of wrong ideas and pay a price for it, you are forced to think about it and change your ways or else be eliminated. But there is no such test. The only test for most intellectuals is whether other intellectuals go along with them. And if they all have a wrong idea, then it becomes invincible.
On Sunday night I walked restlessly through the streets of Berkeley while news helicopters circled overhead and sirens wailed. For the second night in a row I saw lines of militarized police. Texting with a friend who had participated in the protests the night before about how he was assaulted by the cops, I walked down Shattuck counting smashed shop windows. I discovered a smoldering dumpster. According to Bernt Wahl, who I bumped into outside of a shattered RadioShack storefront, there had been several fires started around the city; he was wielding a fire extinguisher, advising people to walk the streets to prevent further looting.
The dramatic events around me and the sincere urgings of many deeply respected friends that I join the public outcry against racial injustice made me realize that I could no longer withhold judgment on the Brown and Garner cases and the responses to them. I have reserved my judgment, unwilling to follow the flow of events as told play-by-play by journalists because, frankly, I don’t trust them. As I was discussing this morning with somebody in my lab, real journalism takes time. You have to interview people, assemble facts. That’s not how things are being done around these highly sensitive and contentious issues. In The Democratic Surround, Fred Turner writes about how in the history of the United States, psychologists and social scientists once thought the principal mechanism by which fascism spread was through the mass media’s skillful manipulation of their audience’s emotions. Out of their concern for mobilizing the American people to fight World War II, the state sponsored a new kind of domestic media strategy that aimed to give its audience the grounds to come to its own rational conclusions. That media strategy sustained what we now call “the greatest generation.” These principles seem to be lacking in journalism today.
I am a social scientist, so when I started to investigate the killings thoroughly, the first thing I wanted to see was numbers. Specifically, I wanted to know the comparative rates of police killings broken down by race so I could understand the size of the problem. The first article I found on this subject was Jack Kelly’s article in Real Clear Politics, which I do not recommend you read. It is not a sensitively written piece and some of the sources and arguments he uses signal, to me, a conservative bias.
What I do highly recommend you read are two of Kelly’s sources, which he doesn’t link to but which are both in my view excellent. One is Pro Publica’s research into the data about police violence and the killings of young men. It gave me a sense of proportion I needed to understand the problems at hand.
The other is this article on Michael Brown published last Saturday by Thomas Sowell, who has just skyrocketed to the top of my list of highly respected people. Sowell is far more accomplished than I will ever be and of much humbler origins. He is a military veteran and apparently a courageous scholar. He is now Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Though I am at UC Berkeley and say this very grudgingly, as I write this blog post I am slowly coming to understand that Stanford might be a place of deep and sincere intellectual inquiry, not just the preprofessional school spitting out entrepreneurial drones whose caricature I had come to believe.
Sowell’s claim is that the grand jury has determined that Brown was guilty of assaulting the officer who shot him, that this judgment was based on the testimony of several black witnesses. He notes the tragedy of the riots related to the event and accuses the media of misrepresenting the facts.
So far I have no reason to doubt Sowell’s sober analysis of the Brown case. From what I’ve heard, the Garner case is more horrific and I have not yet had the stomach to work my way through its complexities. Instead I’ve looked more into Sowell’s scholarly work. I recommend watching this YouTube video of him discussing his book Intellectuals and Race in full.
I don’t agree with everything in this video, and not just because much of what Sowell says is the sort of thing I “can’t say”. I find the interviewer too eager in his guiding questions. I think Sowell does not give enough credence to the prison industrial complex and ignores the recent empirical work on the value of diversity–I’m thinking of Scott Page’s work in particular. But Sowell makes serious and sincere arguments about race and racism with a rare historical awareness. In particular, he is critical of the role of intellectuals in making race relations in the U.S. worse. As an intellectual myself, I think it’s important to pay attention to this criticism.