In “‘Lynch Mob:’ Misuse of Language” Mr. Blow says neither partisans nor protesters should be equated with killers. In “Nobody Said That” Prof. Krugman says that in the age of unacknowledged error, soul-searching and apologies about faulty predictions are conspicuously missing. Here’s Mr. Blow:
Last week, the Baltimore police union president, Gene Ryan, compared those protesting the death of Freddie Gray to a “lynch mob.”
Freddie Gray was the 25-year-old Baltimore man who died of grave, mysterious injuries after being taken into police custody. Gray’s family, citizens of Baltimore and indeed those of the nation have questions. And yes, there is a palpable frustration and fatigue that yet another young person of color has died after an encounter with police officers.
So, there have been protests. But protests are not the same as a lynch mob, and to conflate the two diminishes the painful history of this country and unfairly slanders the citizens who have taken to the streets. Maybe Mr. Ryan is unaware not only of the history of lynching and lynch mobs in America overall, but also in Maryland itself.
For instance, according to the Maryland Historical Society Library: “Mary Denston, the elderly wife of a Somerset County farmer, was returning to her home in Princess Anne on the morning of October 17, 1933 when she was attacked by an assailant. A manhunt quickly began for the alleged perpetrator, 22-year-old African-American George Armwood. He was soon arrested and charged with felonious assault. By 5:00 pm, an angry mob of local white residents had gathered outside the Salisbury jail where the suspect had been taken. In order to protect Armwood from the increasingly hostile crowd, state police transferred him to Baltimore. But just as quickly he was returned to Somerset County. After assuring Maryland Governor Albert Ritchie that Armwood’s safety would be guaranteed, Somerset County officials transferred Armwood to the jail house in Princess Anne, with tragic consequences.”
The report continued: “Sources are conflicting regarding many of the details of the assault on Denston and the subsequent murder of George Armwood, but what is certain is that on the evening of October 18 a mob of a thousand or more people stormed into the Princess Anne jail house and hauled Armwood from his cell down to the street below. Before he was hung from a tree some distance away, Armwood was dragged through the streets, beaten, stabbed, and had one ear hacked off. Armwood’s lifeless body was then paraded through the town, finally ending up near the town’s courthouse, where the mob doused the corpse with gasoline and set it on fire.”
As Baltimore’s Afro-American newspaper reported at the time, in addition to Armwood’s blackened skin, mutilated face and missing ear, his tongue was “clenched between his teeth,” giving “evidence of his great agony before death.” It continued: “There is no adequate description of the mute evidence of gloating on the part of whites who gathered to watch the effect upon our people.”
Additionally, according to the historical society, there were 32 lynchings in Maryland between 1882 and 1931.
Perhaps Mr. Ryan had never heard the haunting rendition of “Strange Fruit” recorded in 1939 by Billie Holiday, with its plaintive lyrics shining light on the depravity of lynchings:
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees.”
Maybe Mr. Ryan does not appreciate the irony that it was not the officers’ bodies that video showed being dragged limp and screaming through the street, but that of Mr. Gray. Maybe Mr. Ryan does not register coincidence that actual lynching often damages or cuts the spinal cord, and according to a statement by the Gray family’s attorney, Gray’s spine was “80 percent severed at his neck.”
And this is not the first protest of the killing of people of color where “lynch mobs” have been invoked.
Fox News’s Howard Kurtz accused “some liberal outlets” of “creating almost a lynch mob mentality” in Ferguson.”
In 2013, after almost completely peaceful protests the weekend after George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, Newt Gingrich said that protesters were “prepared, basically, to be a lynch mob.”
These “lynch mob” invocations are an incredible misuse of language, in which the lexicon of slaughter, subjugation and suffering are reduced to mere colloquialism, and therefore bleached of the blood in which it was originally written and used against the people who were historically victims of the atrocities.
“Lynch mob” is the same ghastly rhetorical overreach that is often bandied about in political discussions — including in this column I wrote seven years ago. It was a too-extreme comparison then, and it’s a too-extreme comparison now.
Nothing that political partisans or protesters have done — nothing! — comes remotely close to the barbarism executed by the lynch mobs that stain this country’s history.
Now here’s Prof. Krugman:
Imagine yourself as a regular commentator on public affairs — maybe a paid pundit, maybe an supposed expert in some area, maybe just an opinionated billionaire. You weigh in on a major policy initiative that’s about to happen, making strong predictions of disaster. The Obama stimulus, you declare, will cause soaring interest rates; the Fed’s bond purchases will “debase the dollar” and cause high inflation; the Affordable Care Act will collapse in a vicious circle of declining enrollment and surging costs.
But nothing you predicted actually comes to pass. What do you do?
You might admit that you were wrong, and try to figure out why. But almost nobody does that; we live in an age of unacknowledged error.
Alternatively, you might insist that sinister forces are covering up the grim reality. Quite a few well-known pundits are, or at some point were,“inflation truthers,” claiming that the government is lying about the pace of price increases. There have also been many prominent Obamacare truthersdeclaring that the White House is cooking the books, that the policies are worthless, and so on.
Finally, there’s a third option: You can pretend that you didn’t make the predictions you did. I see that a lot when it comes to people who issued dire warnings about interest rates and inflation, and now claim that they did no such thing. Where I’m seeing it most, however, is on the health care front. Obamacare is working better than even its supporters expected — but its enemies say that the good news proves nothing, because nobody predicted anything different.
Go back to 2013, before reform went fully into effect, or early 2014, before the numbers on first-year enrollment came in. What were Obamacare’s opponents predicting?The answer is, utter disaster. Americans, declared a May 2013 report from a House committee, were about to face a devastating “rate shock,” with premiums almost doubling on average.
And it would only get worse: At the beginning of 2014 the right’s favored experts — or maybe that should be “experts” — were warning about a“death spiral” in which only the sickest citizens would sign up, causing premiums to soar even higher and many people to drop out of the program.
What about the overall effect on insurance coverage? Several months into 2014 many leading Republicans — including John Boehner, the speaker of the House — were predicting that more people would lose coverage than gain it. And everyone on the right was predicting that the law would cost far more than projected, adding hundreds of billions if not trillions to budget deficits.
What actually happened? There was no rate shock: average premiums in 2014 were about 16 percent lower than projected. There is no death spiral: On average, premiums for 2015 are between 2 and 4 percent higher than in 2014, which is a much slower rate of increase than the historical norm. The number of Americans without health insurance has fallen by around 15 million, and would have fallen substantially more if so many Republican-controlled states weren’t blocking the expansion of Medicaid. And the overall cost of the program is coming in well below expectations.
One more thing: You sometimes hear complaints about the alleged poor quality of the policies offered to newly insured families. But a new surveyby J. D. Power, the market research company, finds that the newly enrolled are very satisfied with their coverage — more satisfied than the average person with conventional, non-Obamacare insurance.
This is what policy success looks like, and it should have the critics engaged in soul-searching about why they got it so wrong. But no.
Instead, the new line — exemplified by, but not unique to, a recent op-ed article by the hedge-fund manager Cliff Asness — is that there’s nothing to see here: “That more people would be insured was never in dispute.” Never, I guess, except in everything ever said by anyone in a position of influence on the American right. Oh, and all the good news on costs is just a coincidence.
It’s both easy and entirely appropriate to ridicule this kind of thing. But there are some serious stakes here, and they go beyond the issue of health reform, important as it is.
You see, in a polarized political environment, policy debates always involve more than just the specific issue on the table. They are also clashes of world views. Predictions of debt disaster, a debased dollar, and Obama death spirals reflect the same ideology, and the utter failure of these predictions should inspire major doubts about that ideology.
And there’s also a moral issue involved. Refusing to accept responsibility for past errors is a serious character flaw in one’s private life. It rises to the level of real wrongdoing when policies that affect millions of lives are at stake.