Terrell Owens, Karen, and Infinite Lying

While I was waiting out the last hours of my pre-colonoscopy fast on Friday, Twitter’s Chris Evans (not to be confused with the actor) posted a video of an incident between former NFL great Terrell Owens and a white woman who first harassed him and then called the police.

Much of the focus has been on the “white woman tears” from “Kate” that come out at 1:59 and continue to the end of that section of the video. The recent history of “Karen” incidents, the Emmet Till lynching in 1955, and the history of white racial violence testify to the destructiveness of “white woman tears” when deployed as an accusation against black men. And it hasn’t stopped either. In “White Fragility,” white author Robin DiAngelo devotes an entire chapter to the issue of “white woman tears” in her experience as a corporate diversity and anti-racism trainer. White woman tears has long been a leading weapon for everyday racist aggression.

But before “Kate” started crying, she unleashed a cascade of lies against Owens–accusing him first of “harassment (0:13), then driving in the middle of the road (O.22), and saying that he “almost hit me” (0:24). After “Kate” made a number of accusations against Owens (0:49) that would have required previous online research, she then lied and said “I don’t give a shit” (0.53) for which Owens called her out. And finally, “Kate” accused Owens of running a stop sign (1:09) that apparently wasn’t even there. In some ways, getting out such a long string of lies in such a short period of time was an impressive accomplishment and is a good indication of the power of “Kate’s” racism as a source of motivation.

Indeed “Kate” seemed eager to lie about all of the reference points of her encounter with Owens. In ordinary conversation about lying, we usually measure lies against “the truth” rather than discuss lying as a system itself, an element of other systems, and the potentials of lying in various contexts. In fact, “Kate” could have made up an infinite number of lies about the details of her encounter with Terrell Owens and the only thing limiting her capacity for lying were petty empirical details like the cop’s attention span, other obligations in her life, and the need to sleep. Of course, “Kate” could have expanded the universe of her lying by also making up new reference points such as Owens having an AR-15, being a member of the Black Panthers, or in league with the police. But “Kate” could have continued lying until the end of time about the reference points she had before her. In my opinion, the determination of white people like “Kate” to engage in infinite lying about black people is at least as much a part of the white supremacist history as “white women’s tears” and is part of the mechanism through which the white population enforced the slavery and segregation systems.

But infinite lying about race requires a great deal of support. It requires white kinship networks, public opinion, police apparatus, and judicial systems that are both willing to believe anything a white person says about a black person and are eager to act violently on those lies. For infinite lying to thrive, the word of a white person needs to have so much support within the system that it carries a credible threat of instant death. Such support existed through the whole history of the U.S. as a “White Patriarchal Republic” from the drafting of the Constitution in 1787 to 1954 and “Brown v Board” and “Kate” was counting on a version of that support when she precipitated her confrontation with Owens. Her underlying expectation was the same as Central Park “Karen” Amy Cooper, that unflinching support from white opinion and the police would put Terrell Owens in mortal danger and that she would be protected from any adverse consequences.  

But since Brown v Board, the situation has changed to the disadvantage of Karens like “Kate” and the advantage of black men like Terrell Owens. The nearly seven decades between Brown v Board and the incident between “Kate” and Terrel Owens saw the rise of “Multicultural, Liberal Democracy” into a heavily contested but still pre-eminent position in American society. The Supreme Court decisions like Miranda v Arizona, the Civil Rights movement, and campaigns for feminism, gay rights, and immigrant rights have evolved into popular culture, corporate culture, Democratic Party politics, and the operation of government at all levels. In this context, Kate’s exercise in infinite lying was done from a position of disadvantage. Much of the reason “Kate” resorted to “white woman tears” is that her lies were discounted and ignored by the police officer, her husband didn’t support her, and a neighbor intervened to contradict her. Far from “Kate” being able to appeal to the public, it was Terrell Owens and his camera that were primed for public appeal. Infinite lying also requires a caste system in which the target has little recourse and is usually cowed by the threat of violence. But that wasn’t the case for “Kate” either. In fact, Terrell Owens is a famous man from his Hall of Fame NFL playing days who has enough wealth to own two houses. It was the loquacious Owens who had the status and his word seemed to have at least as much credibility with the police officer as Kate’s. Indeed, the incident was more a threat to “Kate’s” status than it was to Owens.

The White Patriarchal Republic is far from dead but white Karen’s like “Kate” are like conspiracy theorists, the religious right, urban cops, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in operating much less as agents of the dominant social order and much more in terms of counter-revolution and dissent. As conservatives often admit, they are agents of the “world they have lost” and that world remained lost in the dispute between “Kate” and Terrel Owens.

The Mainstream Cultural Revolution Of Our Time

Bret Stephens is typical for a conservative journalist—not much of a writing style, even less in the way of discernible ideas outside his distaste for Democrats, and no reason for his plum op-ed position at the New York Times other than the media’s white male affirmative action program and white conservative tokenism. Stephens couldn’t get fired at the New York Times any more than Jeffrey Toobin could get fired at CNN.

Responding to a New York Times assignment for a column about something he was wrong about, Stephens chose “Trump Voters” and began his argument by quoting that famous anti-elitist Peggy Noonan (sarcasm voice) on the distinction between people like Stephens himself (“The Protected”) and Trump voters (“The Unprotected”). Sticking close to the stereotypes, Stephens ignored the fact that the average 2016 Trump primary voter made $71k and Trump’s strongest 2020 constituency was the $100k and over category.

For what it’s worth, I grew up in rural and declining Upstate NY and have lived for the last 32 years in Bible Belt Eastern Kentucky where the poverty is industrial strength, regional economies have yet to recover from the Great Recession of 2008, and the best and brightest migrate to urban centers as soon as they’re out of high school or college. What I saw and what was confirmed in the searching articles on Trump voters was that working/middle class white men no longer inherited or maintained their inheritance in farms, factory jobs, small businesses or teaching positions but were unwilling to compete with women, black people, or immigrants. Pile that resentment on top of the racist explosion following the election of the first black president and traditional anti-abortion, pro-gun, and small government conservatism and that got Trump to a +60 margin in my Congressional district (KY-5).

But my focus is on the comments Stephens made on the Great American Cultural Revolution of our times.

Oh, and then came the great American cultural revolution of the 2010s, in which traditional practices and beliefs — regarding same-sex marriage, sex-segregated bathrooms, personal pronouns, meritocratic ideals, race-blind rules, reverence for patriotic symbols, the rules of romance, the presumption of innocence and the distinction between equality of opportunity and outcome — became, more and more, not just passé, but taboo.

Stephens is so intellectually lazy he can just list a bunch of stuff and call it a “cultural revolution.” But mainstream America has in fact gone through a cultural sea change which coalesced during the Obama years. IMHO, the outcome of the transformation was a multicultural, socially liberal culture which both became dominant during the Obama years and developed an orientation toward progressive economic reform since then. The relevant events were the election and defense of Obama as the first black president, the legalization of gay marriage, the campaigns against rape, and climate activism. In the course of these developments and others, a cultural consensus developed around “diversity” as a core common value and diversity became a guiding orientation in education, corporate advertising, pop culture, and internet discourse. The history of civil rights became the dominant sense of a common American history and intersectionality with its stress on identity politics gained ground on neo-neoliberalism as a pre-eminent intellectual framework. The political implication was that the U.S. was shedding its past as a patriarchal white Republic and making a transition to multiracial democracy.

Putting the Stephens list in context, a sense of disgust did develop for much that had been accepted in the post-feminist, post-civil rights conservatism of the 80’s and 90’s. As I moved around during the late 1970’s and 1980’s, there was a sense that racism, homophobia, woman-hating, and other bigotries were “sort of okay” if they weren’t “too egregious.” When I started teaching at Morehead State during the early 1990’s, students in my government classes brought in new forms of such “soft bigotry” every semester. By 2015 or so, such expressions were under a severe bigotry taboo and using these expressions was presumptive evidence that people did not “share the values” needed for many areas of corporate employment, education, and government. “Color-blind ideology” became “color-blind racism;” date rape became rape, and wife-beating became criminal abuse. Contrary to Stephens’ thought on “meritocratic ideals,” the meritocracy was strengthened by diversity but as more corporate and government positions were now being filled by women, black people, Hispanics, and immigrants, the achievements of white men like Stephens were met with a more skeptical eye.

The coalescing of a multicultural, socially liberal mainstream culture is one of the most promising developments in the United States since the Civil Rights Era of the 1960’s, but has gone unnoticed as well as uncelebrated in cultural and political commentary. Such has not been the case for the revanchist counter-culture that’s developed simultaneously and could be seen early in Obama’s impolitic but wholly accurate statements about rural voters: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Given that the New York Times leads the nation in obsessive coverage of Trump and Trump voters, little can be expected from the “Gray Lady.” But somebody in the media needs to take up the cause of understanding the mainstream cultural revolution of our times as well as its recent history.

Grand Canyon America

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A few remarks on the deeper divide in American life.  The conventional wisdom is that the denizens of Trump World view themselves as real Americans and white liberals, Black people, Hispanics, Muslims, Jews, Asian-Americans, LGBT folks, and disabled people as the “others” of not really real America. Certainly, Rep. Jim Jordan (Trump-OH) provided an example of that yesterday when he tweeted that “Real America is done with #COVID19. God Bless” after seeing last weekends packed football stadiums.

But the conventional wisdom on Trumpism doesn’t cover much of the complexity over who is or is not a “Real American.” I think an underlying question for both Trumpers and the multi-racial socially liberal constituencies associated with mainstream American culture is whether white conservatives are still “really” a part of American society themselves and there’s a big “NO” coalescing on both sides of the divide. The Reagan conservatism of small government, social conservatism, and national defense is barely serving as a polite mask for the Republican Party as the GOP core re-orients around a culture of conspiracy theorizing, the religious right, and gun culture.

For Missouri Republican Josh Hawley conservatives are already separate and opposed to the larger society. Hawley claimed in the New York Post that “for some time, conservatives, recognizing that we’re now the counterculture, indulged in the delusion that we could opt out of all this.” And Hawley is right. Conservatives have not been an integral part of mainstream American culture “for some time” and began to array themselves against the dominant culture as the mainstream became more multicultural and socially liberal. Birtherism was perhaps the first big example of right-wing counter-cultural opposition followed up by Trump’s 2016 campaign, anti-trans activism and the growth of an internet conspiracy network. All this built on the existing conservative culture of Fox News, evangelical churches, and anti-abortion activism to transform conservative “counter-culture” into oppositional activism and insurrection against the dominant American culture.

Mainstream American culture has also been changing dramatically. With Black Lives Matter, Me- Too, and anti-Trump activism built up from popular culture, public educational institutions, and the sciences, mainstream American culture has internalized civil rights tradition, normalized climate activism, and brought much more black, LGBT, Native, and immigrant influence into the workings of the Democratic Party, mainstream media, and popular culture. While white supremacy is far from finished in mainstream culture, the dominant idea of American citizenship is now identified with a rejection of racism, woman-hating, nativism, Christian conservatism, and the other strands of culture and politics identified with conservatism. Likewise, Trump’s election focused mainstream America to focus much more on partisan warfare with conservatives and the Trump administration, and that partisan warfare has continued into the current conflicts over conservative vaccine refusal, police murders, and everyday bigotry involving conservatives.

Real questions about whether conservatives are part of society and thus citizens in the full sense of the word, have popped up on twitter. For Prof. Elizabeth Cohen of Princeton writing on twitter under “Dr. Elizabeth Sacha Baroness Cohen,” conservative vaccine refusal calls into question their commitment both as human beings who “can’t be bothered to keep their own neighbors out of the ICU” and their status as people who don’t think of themselves as “part of a society.” Cohen portrays vaccine refusal in terms of a rejection of any society, but it is white conservatives who refuse to be part of their own society or concern themselves with their own children, parents, and extended family as well as teachers, the children at public schools, etc. One question that comes up here is the extent to which conservatives are willing to sacrifice their own loved ones to support their principled rejection of “American society” and the cultural mainstream.

Mainstream Americans also raise questions concerning the societal status of conservatives in relation to social bigotry. For “Michael Mc,” this is the key issue in relation to a video of “Jill’s” bigoted behavior toward Mexican restaurant workers at a Mexican restaurant in Parksburg, West Virginia.

After showing the video of Jill’s behavior, Michael Mc slowly intones that “we have no place for you in our society.” In pronouncing this anathema on “Jill” of Parksburg, Michael Mc is asserting that the U.S. is a multiracial, socially liberal society in which the bigotry of Jill has no place. My own politics are much the same as Michael Mc’s but it would now be best to see the United States in larger terms as a society that encompasses a mile-wide division between a dominant multiracial, socially liberal majority and a white conservative minority which has dramatically different institutions, principles, and values, and opposes the larger society at every point—i.e. “Grand Canyon America”