Stray thoughts 8/26

You Are Not Forgotten, John McNaughton (2017)

Last week on a Fox News show called Outnumbered, one of the co-hosts, a woman named Melissa Francis, started crying in the middle of a discussion about racism and Donald Trump’s proclamation that there were “very fine people” among the white nationalists who marched through the streets of Charlottesville recently.

“I know what’s in my heart and I know that I don’t think anyone is different, better or worse based on the color of their skin,” said Francis, who is white. “But I feel like there is nothing any of us can say right now without being judged.”

In 2005, Joe Arpaio made 700 inmates, nearly all of them hispanic, march through the streets of Maricopa County in pink underwear and flip-flops.

In purely anthropological terms, Francis’s appeal to viewers of what is ostensibly a news program is fascinating: She is a Harvard-educated financial journalist who moved to Roger Ailes’ media organization in 2012, saying two years later she had been “silenced” by superiors at CNBC who objected to prophetic on-air criticism of the Affordable Care Act while it was being debated in 2009 (Francis didn’t cover policy at CNBC: she covered oil for the most part. I couldn’t find the statements for which she said she’d been reprimanded).

Once, Joe Arpaio’s prison guards wouldn’t take a pregnant hispanic woman to the hospital, causing her baby to die from what turned out to be a placental abruption. Another conservative sheriff, popular on TV and a welcome supporter of Donald Trump’s, named David Clarke, also allowed a baby to die in his prison.

Francis also played Cassandra Cooper Ingalls on NBC’s Little House on the Prairie, a notably pure expression of white Americana extremely popular among conservative Christians and produced by 1980’s Christian icon Michael Landon—Little Joe, from Bonanza. Little House is a good show, produced in the late 1970’s and early ’80’s, based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s vivid, fictionalized remembrances of life in a family of pioneers in the late 19th century.

Many other people—more than 160—died in Arpaio’s prisons; one in four deaths was from suicide, a much higher rate than in other prisons. In addition to the suicides, for half of the deaths on Arpaio’s watch, there is simply no cause reported.

Little House on the Prairie is set in the unspecified Midwest, in a central part of the country that is supposed to contain fewer big cities and cultural keystones than the coasts. This is a source of consternation, as the president might have it, on many sides; the cities condescend and the regions stew in anger. For all the many foolish and cruel things Trump has done, he still knows how to stoke populist ire; as soon as he pardoned Arpaio, he set about emphasizing the importance of Hurricane Harvey, exactly the kind of natural disaster that the news media ignores unless it happens in New York City or San Francisco.

Trump is not much of a political strategist but he knows what plays on TV: Would the libtards care more about sending an 85-year-old man to jail than about a hurricane that seems primed to devastate the Republican stronghold of Houston, Texas?

I don’t really feel like I am in the right position or frame of mind to comment on the pardon of Joe Arpaio but that’s never stopped me before, so here we go: Joe Arpaio obviously did not deserve to be pardoned.

He is a vile, sadistic racist who tortured people for looking like they might be undocumented immigrants, which is to say, brown. Very few people deserve to be in prison; Joe Arpaio is one of them. He refused to investigate 400 sex crimes, including crimes against children, when the victim was Hispanic. He warehoused mentally ill prisoners by themselves away from the general population in what the ACLU called “punitive housing units” where they were systematically denied treatment and medication, causing their conditions to worsen so severely that they were sometimes declared unfit to stand trial for the crimes that had caused them to be imprisoned in the first place. When he was finally convicted it was because he was referred by a federal judge appointed by George W Bush for criminal contempt on the charge of racial profiling; he had eventually simply decided to go around arresting people who looked Mexican. 

It’s unfashionable and impolitic to say that you feel bad for your friends under these circumstances but I have had wonderful hispanic friends, some of them extremely close, some who looked white, some who didn’t. They are all in more danger now than they have been in the past, because Arpaio is merely a symptom of the systemic racism that plagues our laws and systems of enforcement. He is a profoundly evil, even despicable symptom, but without the law, he would merely be a contemptible, violent old man, and he would probably be in prison.

Some of these friends are past the stoicism we for some reason expect of oppressed people and are simply openly terrified. Some came to this country as children and do not have their citizenship; president Trump, elected by the good white people like Melissa Francis who just want to be understood, will soon try to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act (DACA), closing the door on these people, who are trying to raise money through Kickstarters and from family members so they can remain in the United States with their families and won’t be deported to countries where they barely remember living. None of this is theoretical. It is happening now. 

White American culture is focused on rewards for good behavior – on the evidence available to white people that an honest, hard worker with a good heart can make something, even something great, of him or herself. To the extent that the culture of Little House on the Prairie and Fox News spills over into the rest of the melting pot, it constitutes something like a high-pressure sales tactic: pick our strawberries, invisibly prepare our gourmet food, build our houses, care for our children and clean up after us – then one day you or your children can be the new pioneers, living in the little house you made all by yourself, and no one, nor even the Indians, will be able to take it away from you. It’s how us white people got to be so rich, we lie. 

At some point the question of whether someone, especially a Christian, is actually a racist becomes moot and the question rebounds: Is racism a lesser evil? Can you justify racism because you favor other policies that a racist also likes? Would you be embarrassed to explain your politics to the child of a missionary whose parents have to give him up to go live in another country where he doesn’t even speak the language?

If so, it’s not my judgment you have to worry about.

Author: samthielman

Sam Thielman is a reporter and critic based in Brooklyn, New York. His blog is, his twitter handle is @samthielman, and if you can't find him you should check The Strand.

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