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Blue The Nation | July 23, 2014

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Will Saletan and the Moderates Are Wrong About Zimmerman, Trayvon, and Everything Else

Will Saletan and the Moderates Are Wrong About Zimmerman, Trayvon, and Everything Else
Jonathan Nathan

Are you outraged by the recent verdict in the George Zimmerman trial? Are you shocked that a jury could find him not guilty of murder or manslaughter for voluntarily following a child at night against the advice of police and then, when the child reacted, shooting the child in the chest at point-blank range? Well William Saletan thinks you just need to stop worrying your pretty little head about it. Because what you’re doing is just as bad as what George Zimmerman did.

This is the case that Saletan makes in a piece that went up yesterday on Slate entitled “You Are Not Trayvon Martin.” The subtitle reads, “His death wasn’t about race, guns, or your pet issue. It was about misjudgment and overreaction–exactly what we’re doing now to the verdict.” Oh good. Here comes some sanctimonious faux-liberal garbage.

Based on just his name and photograph, as well as a bio that boasts that he “says a lot of things that get him into trouble,” (oh that’s just precious), you can already tell what kind of guy Will Saletan is. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t own a single album more recent than Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy A Thrill. (It’s the one with “Reelin’ in the Years.”)

He’s the kind of smug, entitled, privileged white liberal man who says things like, “You have to respect everyone’s beliefs and opinions,” even if those beliefs and opinions are bugnut insane. He’s the kind of person who works hard to be a moderate–a position conservative intellectual David Frum once described as suggesting “uncertainty, drift, and lack of vision”–not because he naturally is one, but because he thinks it’s something to strive for. He’s the kind of person who is proud to never be upset or outraged by anything, because that would suggest that he has passions, which are so gauche and extreme, very beneath the cultured centrist he so wants to be. Need somebody to do some concern trolling? He is your boy. He’s the kind of person who can–and gleefully will–deliberately take a contrarian, even abhorrent, position without violating any of his core principles, because he has no core principles.

Yup. That’s the guy. Dude hasn’t smiled with both sides of his mouth since the seventh grade.

Yeah, I’m profiling. But I’m also right. I wrote that paragraph before I checked out his background. He describes himself as a “liberal Republican,” which is such a hey-look-at-me-I’m-a-moderate move it’s laughable. People who self-identify as conservative Democrats, centrist Democrats, moderate Democrats, centrist Republicans, moderate Republicans? Yes, I can believe that they’re being sincere. A self-identified liberal Republican? No. Not since the late 1980s. It reminds me of what comedian Paul F. Tompkins once said about his gay Catholic friends: “You’re just trying to make people mad.”

Everything you need to know about Will Saletan can be found in his typically sanctimonious, hand-wringing, pearl-clutching opinion piece admonishing progressives to not “lose their souls” after having “won the war” over embryonic stem cell research. Urging everyone to “remember that conflicting values are at stake,” as if nobody was aware of that, he dropped this little gem on our unworthy brains: “You have to keep the dilemma alive.” That, ladies and gentlemen, is the closest thing Will Saletan has to a consistent ethic, a moral compass, a strongly held and principled view: there is no right, there is no wrong, there is no true, there is no false, and conflict is the only good.

Saletan delightedly defended–more than once–a controversial, flawed, and thoroughly debunked study which has frequently been used to claim that LGBT people don’t make good parents. And when he was called out on it, he engaged in textbook concern trolling. The original title for the piece, reflected in its permanent URL, was “Don’t let criticism of new gay parents study become a war on science.” Come on guys, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We can all learn something from each other if we just blah blah blah blah. He’s like a cartoon character from 1982. Worse, really. I don’t recall the Super Friends ever being in favor of letting a child-killer walk free.

Pictured: People with more sincerely held beliefs than Will Saletan.

Oh, and then there was the time when he refused to discount the hypothesis that race plays a role in intelligence. When the scientific community condemned a leading psychologist for making racist claims about the intelligence of black people, Saletan denounced it as “liberal creationism.” He then  continued, in a second piece, to insist that he could “see a prima facie case for partial genetic influence.” In his third piece, he hedged his bets a little with some obligatory reminders that demonstrated that the real person behind the William Saletan persona knows damn well that this is all garbage.

But he still refused to back down, excitedly proclaiming that he knew he was “hurting people’s feelings” and “gratifying bigots,” but it didn’t matter because I Want The Truth, dammit! One imagines the entire thing was written with that same stupid smirk he’s wearing in almost every picture you find of the guy.

Finally, under obvious pressure from his editors, he finished the series with a piece entitled “Regrets,” in which he revealed what had been fairly obvious all along: he was trolling. Oh, he just wondered “whether egalitarianism could survive if this scenario…turned out to be true.” He just “thought it was important to lay out the scenario’s plausibility.” He snuck in all kinds of “caveats” like “partial,” “preliminary,” “prima facie,” and other words that start with P. He was just playing devil’s advocate, you guys! He just thought, you know, we should talk about it, right? And everybody got all sensitive! So anyway, here’s an obligatory and insincere apology.

If you’re under 30, you know this guy. Maybe you know him if you’re over 30, too. You run into this guy at every damn party. He’s the guy who points out that the Nazi economy was really strong. He’s the guy who points out that, you know, sometimes labor unions are kinda messed up, bro. The guy who wants to know why the father doesn’t get a say in abortion decisions, not because he’s an MRA but because he just likes getting under people’s skin. The guy who always, always, always needs to be the devil’s advocate.

So this guy, basically. You know this guy, right?
He was at Sarah’s party last month, remember?

So we’re clear, I assume, that Will Saletan is exactly the sort of smug, self-satisfied white liberal who always “seems to believe he’s carved out some happy middle position that can appease both sides of the debate, but in doing so he’s managed to say nothing substantive at all,” in the words of Zack Ford on ThinkProgress. The key there is “seems.” Because Saletan knows he’s carved no such position. He knows that no such position really exists. Unlike the moderates who simply can’t muster the wherewithal to establish a coherent worldview, Saletan is a member of a much more insidious breed: the ones who choose to be moderates because they have no actual point of view that they care about and can piss more people off while maintaining a supposedly unassailable high ground.

Had I known who Will Saletan was, I’d have been able to tell you exactly what he would write about the Zimmerman verdict. People of his ilk are predictable to the point of self-parody. Seriously, give me any potential future event and I’ll tell you what he’d say about it. Immigration reform doesn’t pass? “Well, let’s not forget that undocumented workers keep the price of labor down, which is good for consumers.” Rand Paul wins the Republican Presidential nomination? “Let’s not waste this golden opportunity to really examine whether the Civil War should have been fought.” America declares war on Thailand? “On the other hand, this could be an important victory in the fight against sex trafficking.” Aliens invade the planet? “Yeah, but what if the aliens are right, man?” Matter of fact, let’s just start a meme: Smug Sentrist Saletan. I’ll go first, but feel free to submit your own in the comments, on our Facebook page, or via Twitter.

Anyway, sure enough, Saletan’s thoughts on the verdict, and the reaction to it, added up to a pretty good first round of Talking To White People About the George Zimmerman Trial Bingo. In fact, as you can see below, I’m only a Facebook comment thread or two away from winning at this game, after reading Saletan’s article.

Right off the bat, Saletan lambastes anyone who disagrees with the verdict as presuming to be “vindicated in their bitter assumptions,” and haughtily, moralizingly, and completely nonsensically intones, “that’s how Martin ended up dead.” The problem, you see, is not any lingering racism in American culture. And it’s not the trigger-happy cowboy culture of heroic vigilantism constantly defended by the NRA and the rest of the gun nuts. No, rather than being about “race or guns,” Saletan explains to all us idiots, this case was about “assumption, misperception, and overreaction.” The way he goes on to define those things makes it pretty clear that the real Will Saletan–not the caricatured persona writing the article–knows damn well that the case was about racism and gun culture, but by framing it in less specific terms, he can justify writing a bunch of poncy pedantry.

Then he waxes judgmental about those who rushed to judgment with regards to George Zimmerman’s racism. He characterizes such opinions thusly: “Some of the people Zimmerman had reported as suspicious were black men…members of his family seemed racist…everybody knew he was a racist, so…he was a racist.” But that’s not really a fair summation. The reality is that Zimmerman’s 911 calls had become increasingly focused on people he considered suspicious, “almost all of whom were young black males,” according to The Daily Beast. And this isn’t even disputed by Zimmerman’s defenders! One of the people from his gated community explained to the Orlando Sentinel that Zimmerman was profiling young black men: “Young black males have been seen in, you know, burglaries here. They’ve been seen with drug dealings here and the Sanford police is well aware of everything.”

Next, Saletan claims, “The 911 dispatcher who spoke to Zimmerman on the fatal night didn’t tell him to stay in his car.” You see, since the dispatcher only said, “We don’t need you to do that,” clearly the words were “ambiguous.” Here’s the thing though: those words aren’t ambiguous. Even out of context they’re pretty clear, but specifically in the context of a neighborhood watch program, there’s not a hint of ambiguity to them.

Chris Tutko, director of the National Sheriffs’ Association’s neighborhood-watch program–and these are the folks who invented neighborhood watch–told the Beast that his organization explicitly and actively discourages volunteers from carrying weapons, “to the point of saying you just can’t do it.” Indeed, the association maintains a firm “no altercations” policy. When Wendy Dorival, the Sanford Police Department’s volunteer coordinator, gave a presentation to the community’s residents, she specifically pointed out that neighborhood watch programs are “NOT the vigilante police.”

Not pictured: A neighborhood watch volunteer. Or maybe he is one. Depends on
how you look at it. But even if he is, you’ll notice that he doesn’t carry a gun. Ever.

After a quick reminder that Trayvon Martin had done some naughty things in his life–as if this somehow means it’s less bad that he’s dead–he gets to the really offensive stuff. First, he accuses Martin of “profiling” Zimmerman, citing as evidence the fact that he told a friend on the phone that he was being followed by a “creepy-ass cracker.” The friend would later testify that the phrase meant “pervert.” So was Martin “profiling” Zimmerman? If living in the United States of America in 2013 as a minor and being disturbed by some strange adult following you around in his truck equals profiling, then sure, fine, he was profiling him.

Having established his obvious–and ludicrous–narrative that two flawed, subconsciously bigoted men were on a collision course with destiny, Saletan now delivers the piece de resistance: “If Zimmerman’s phobic misreading of Martin was the first wrong turn that led to their fatal struggle, Martin’s phobic misreading of Zimmerman may have been the second.”

You get it? See, Trayvon Martin was just as much at fault as George Zimmerman! Because he was being all bigoted against white guys who follow black kids around in pickup trucks! This notion is so offensive I struggle to find words with which to condemn it. Saletan is literally assigning half of the blame for a murder on the victim of that murder.

Pictured: A co-conspirator in the JFK assassination, by Will Saletan’s logic. I mean, Dallas, dude? You were kinda asking for it.

And come on, “phobic misreading”? Was he or was he not being followed by a strange adult in a pickup truck for no discernible reason? And said adult man, did he or did he not believe that Martin was a criminal? And did he or did he not have an obvious history of animus toward people he believed were suspicious, even if you ignore the racial element of that history? And did he or did he not eventually pull out a gun and shoot the kid in the chest? OK then. Since the answer to all of those questions is, “he did,” it wasn’t a “phobic misreading.” It was the correct reading.

Then we get some standard false equivalence between the people who are celebrating the verdict and the people who are condemning it. False equivalences are par for the course with people like Saletan. Saletan is the kind of guy who says things like “Teach the controversy,” so you just knew there would be some false equivalence in there.

He rounds it all out with some magnificent concern trolling: “If you want to prevent the next Trayvon Martin tragedy, learn from their mistakes. Don’t paint the world in black and white. Don’t declare the whole justice system racist, or blame every gun death on guns, or confuse acquittal with vindication. And the next time you see somebody who looks like a punk or a pervert, hold your fire.”

You know what, Will? I don’t think my opinion on gun violence will have anything to do with the next Trayvon Martin tragedy. I don’t think my opinions on the justice system’s race issues, or on the meaning of Zimmerman’s acquittal, will have anything to do with it either. If I decide right now that gun control is wrong, that Zimmerman’s acquittal doesn’t mean anyone agrees with what he did, or that the justice system doesn’t have a race problem, some kid is still almost certainly going to get shot tomorrow somewhere in this country.

So all you’re really saying is that if I disagree with you, if I hold the position that there are fundamental flaws in our culture, our society, and our governing bodies, if I refuse to join you in the lukewarm, watered-down, middle ground of fence-sitters and deliberate provocateurs where nobody has a passionate opinion about anything, then I’m as bad as George Zimmerman. (And Trayvon Martin, since you apparently also think he was as bad as George Zimmerman.)

I don’t know, maybe it’s not your fault, Will. You grew up wealthy and Jewish in Texas. I grew up reasonably well-off and Jewish in Kansas, so I can sympathize with that situation. I can imagine your childhood and adolescence were chock full of opportunities to please everyone that just ended up with everyone pissed off instead. I can see how that might have engendered a malevolent delight in enraging the whole world. On the other hand, like I said, I grew up in a similar context. And I didn’t turn out to be a raging prick who talks down to people for thinking a guy should go to prison for killing a child, so maybe it’s just you, Will.

  • DPatrick

    Thanks. The nausea I felt reading Saletan, and then his racist defenders, is gradually passing. This helped.

  • Kevmo

    Saletan has always fit the Slate.com mold of positing imbecilic questions in the headline as clickbait, propping up a half-assed, flimsy rationale in the article, then behaving as if something is wrong with the vast majority of readers for calling him out.

    The guy’s pulled so many tail-between-the-legs 180′s that I’ve lost count. He really is about as worthless a columnist as you can get, on-par with your average HuffPo Conservative concern troll.