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 Joy Reid Model for Democratic Communication

Like many activist Democrats, I’m chronically dissatisfied with the messaging of the Biden administration, the Democratic National Committee, and the lib/left media more generally. Much of the communication reads like public service announcements, there’s not enough anti-GOP partisanship, what partisanship exists (“And no Republicans voted for this”) has little bite, and none of the more effective messages get amplified.

Both the Biden administration and the DNC have improved over the last month but recent tweeting by MSNBC broadcaster Joy Reid provides an excellent model for what official Democratic communication should look like:

@JoyAnnReid, twitter

1. An Aggressive Attack. My guess is that Joy Reid did not mean this as “Democratic messaging” but it’s excellent Democratic messaging all the same. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida used three black kids as props for his most recent anti-CRT announcement and Reid aggressively called him out for child abuse barely qualifying the statement as “tantamount to child abuse.” The anti-CRT announcement was another high point of DeSantis going after teachers and corporate training but Reid saw an element of racial abuse in the staging of the event and called him out.

2. Creates Controversy. When I accessed twitter this morning, Joy Reid was trending and there was an article about Reid’s accusation on the Fox News web site. As has often been the case with controversies pushed by Trump and the GOP, the Fox News headline served to spread Reid’s message:

MSNBC’s Joy Reid calls photos of Black kids at DeSantis event as ‘child abuse’

Yeah, the headline was that big!

In other words, Reid’s attack on DeSantis “made news.” One could say that Reid’s tweet would be even more effective if the “controversy” was reported by the New York Times and Washington Post or taken up by CNN, other MSNBC shows, and network news.

But one of the benchmarks for Democratic communication should be that it needs to “make news.”

3. Forcing A Response. Another benchmark for successful Democratic messaging is forcing a defensive response from the propagandists of the right and this is another area where Joy Reid’s attack was successful. In answer to Reid, DeSantis flak and superstar homophobic bigot Christina Pushaw tweeted:

“I was working at this event and helped with the set up. My colleague talked to all the kids beforehand & told them what the issue was & what bills @GovRonDeSantis was signing. Hundreds of people attended this event; those ~50 who ended up on stage freely chose to stand on stage,” Pushaw wrote.

4. Follow-up. Because the mainstream media views the right-wing as having a monopoly on controversy, the Democrats have a hard time getting their message amplified, such a hard time that the Biden White House needs to focus much more of their time on amplifying Democratic messages. It will be interesting to see if Joy Reid will address the controversy on The ReidOut tonight. But she did follow up with another post in the thread:

Joy-Ann (Pro-Democracy) Reid, @JoyAnnReid

That sure looks like T. Willard Fair in the background. But I’ve been told by a trusted source that these were not Miami Urban League kids, standing there looking like they were at the dentist. Any Florida journalists have insight into this?

That prompted more discussion in the thread which brought out more facts.

4. Audiences. This kind of messaging doesn’t just serve to attack the Republicans. It gets Democratic messages to independent and moderate voters and also provides encouragement and support for Democrats. Democratic elites often get hung up on the idea of identity politics and campaign against the idea of politics as “teams.” But white conservative identity is the main thing driving GOP support for Trump, ideas of violent insurrection, opposition to Covid relief measures, etc. The Democrats need more identity politics, not less.