Whether they are uttered by Trump or by respectable media pundits, false equivalencies typically come into use in order to marginalize progressive alternatives when actual counter-arguments to them would be unconvincing. Here’s the logic:
A is the moderate opinion acceptable to those in power.
B is a progressive alternative, which gatekeepers ignore.
C is a loony, right wing conspiracy theory.
Eventually, public pressure forces the gatekeepers to address B.
When they can no longer ignore B, they attack it with ineffective criticism.
When criticism proves useless, they resort to FEs, equating it with C.
Another related issue is the FE of strictly non-violent movements for racial justice with a vicious white supremacist reaction, often expressed by police murders of unarmed people of color.
In 2017, reports the conservative magazine Fortune, firearm-related killings of police officers actually declined from 2016. And police are, according to the same statistics, more likely to kill themselves than be killed by a criminal. 2017 was actually one of the safest years in decades for on-duty police officers. It also marked the third year in a row in which police killed nearly 1,000 Americans.
How then do we explain the fact that in the first two months of that same year, lawmakers in 14 states introduced 32 “Blue Lives Matter” bills proposing that police be included in hate crime protections, except by understanding the phenomena of FEs? Or that in May 2018 an overwhelming majority of the House passed the “Protect and Serve Act of 2018,” which mandates harsher penalties for people who commit violence against police than for those who hurt civilians? The Senate’s version of the bill went even further, making police a “protected class.” From whom? Black Lives Matter activists? Natasha Lennard observes the irony that now we have yet another category of victim, created by yet another FE:
The same ideological commitment to police-as-persecuted underpins FBI efforts to frame Black Lives Matter activists as potential “black identity extremists” — a designation, conjured from thin air, that claims anti-racist activism is breeding a terroristic targeting of cops…the Senate has denigrated the very notion of persecution. Treating cops as a persecuted minority equates a uniform — which you can take off — with skin color, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.
Think about that: these laws are (falsely of course) attempting to equate the degree of unchosen and natural melatonin in one’s skin with an occupation, a job, which one must decide to apply for. Now, an unarmed black teenager and a heavily armed white cop are “equally” potential victims.
And when the public impression is that white supremacists and anti-fascists are merely two faces of the same coin, it becomes easier for police to actually cooperate with the former so as to further marginalize the latter. For more on this, read here and here.
And here’s a beauty: CBS News accuses Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of being the “Sarah Palin of the Left.”
FEs have stalked the conversation about racial justice for decades. From the old distractor that “Africans enslaved each other, so therefore American slavery wasn’t so bad” to the deliberately confusing claims that “most Blacks are killed by other Blacks” to Trump’s recent crusade against “white genocide” in South Africa.
The same issues appear in international politics. For decades, media coverage of Israel and Palestine has been a litany of FEs, such as the claim that to be anti-Zionist is to be anti-Semitic. Another is the “dueling narratives” story, which laments the impossibility of any long-term solution because there has always been “violence on both sides.”
Once that is assumed, the next FE is to make the absurd argument of equivalence between the degrees of power and the levels of violence committed by the two sides. But to do that, the gatekeepers must utterly ignore the Geneva Convention definition that collective punishment – precisely what Israel regularly inflicts upon the population of Gaza – is a war crime.
The NYT has long set the tone for other media to follow:
Here, one of its columnists compares Jewish Voice for Peace with white nationalists.
Here, it allows an Israeli minister to call BDS activists “enemy soldiers” and compare them to Nazis:
Here, it marginalizes anti-Zionism by equating it with anti-Semitism:
And here, it repeatedly finds reasons to defend the ongoing war crimes in Gaza.
Partially because of the unrelenting barrage of FEs led by the Times, the FBI has relied on unvetted, right-wing blacklists to surveil and harass anti-Zionist activists, and Congress has been considering an “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act’ that would severely limit free speech.
The Israel / Palestine dispute has been a long-term issue on university campuses, and it has become another arena of FEs, since there is little coverage of the huge discrepancy in funding between the two sides, or on the fact that many academics have been fired and/or blacklisted for their pro-Palestinian – yet anti-violence – positions, Including Norman Finkelstein and Steven Salaita.
Why has there been such a long-term barrage of pro-Israel propaganda and gatekeeping? Certainly, world opinion has long favored the Palestinians. And even in the U.S., polls have shown that Democrats, especially younger voters, have begun to stray from one of the most foundational stances of the American Empire, the notion that liberals must support Israel without question. In a world where Israeli bombers destroy Palestinian children and snipers assassinate Palestinian medics inside the concentration camp known as Gaza, people are actually waking up and questioning the imperative to be PEPs (progressives except for Palestine).
Hence the perceived need for FEs. And since the media can choose what to emphasize and whom to equalize, the marginalization can also happen when they attack activists and writers for making what they determine to be FEs. Noam Chomsky, for example, receives very little attention, except for when he makes the mild observation that the U.S. as well as Russia has intervened in countless elections in other countries. And the NYT was horrified when journalist Gary Johnson dared to equate war crimes committed in Syria by both the Syrians and the U.S.
So what about the “9-11 Truthers,” (they, of course, don’t use that term, nor do people who question the vaccination orthodoxy call themselves “anti-vaxxers”), whom the gatekeepers have been equating with the looniest of Obama haters (Kenya, socialist, Muslim, etc) for years? The issue here is not about veracity, but about how the media marginalizes those who question the empire, and about how the passage of time gradually takes the energy out of the reactionary response.
In 2014 a group called Rethink911 put up large advertisements in eleven cities, including a massive billboard in New York’s Times Square. They were about Building Seven, the third high rise that fell on 9/11, the one that had not been hit by the planes, and about which many were still unaware of. It was too big an event to ignore, so Time reported it with a typical headline: “Sept. 11 ‘Truthers’ Mark Anniversary.” It would seem, however, that thirteen years after the event, it was now permissible for the actual text of the article to be surprisingly objective and free of the usual ridicule. Six months later, writes Elizabeth Woodworth,
…20 stories in major papers have covered the September-December 2013 ReThink911 campaign – including Time Magazine, the NYT, the Ottawa Citizen, and BBC News Magazine…As time passes our memories of 9/11 becomes less painful and more open to public discussion. There is increasing skepticism in both the social and corporate media about the credibility of 9/11 as the foundation for the continuing global war on terror…seven congressmen, backed by impacted 9/11 families, are calling for the release of a secret 2002 congressional study that implicates Saudi Arabia in financing the alleged hijackers…A 2011 poll shows that 42% of Canadians believe US government information about 9/11 has been intentionally hidden from the public.
And this week, four more years later, the venerable gatekeeper Newsweek, with surprising objectivity, reviewed a new book that claimed “CIA and Saudi Arabia Conspired to keep 9/11 details secret.”
Again, I’m not trying to provoke a fight about the truth of the situation, but to examine how the gatekeepers do what they do, how they grab the “moderate center” and how they convince educated people to stop thinking, or at least until the passage of time softens the import of certain events. However, for those who have always questioned the official narrative of American innocence, I’ll offer yet another bit of argumentative logic. This one is attributed to Mahatma Ghandi:
First they ignore you.
Then they laugh at you.
Then they fight you.
Then you win.