The recent spate of shocking news—rioting in Minneapolis and cities across the country, 100,000-plus COVID-19 deaths, unprecedented tension with China and President Trump’s escalated ranting and bizarre-o battle with Twitter—may seem disparate and complex.
And yet underlying all of this is a single, simple thread. It is an obstruction of truth by those with a personal or political agenda. In a way then, all this news is really one story. It’s about how we’re being distracted from facts and real underlying issues. This clouding is what makes our complicated world that much more difficult to sort out and so too staking a middle ground.
Duh, you say. It’s always been that way.
No, in fact, it hasn’t.
As Americans we yearn for the truth. It’s our nation’s ambition. And yet we are failing in ways we haven’t before. As often happens in situations like this, we’ve slipped into the mire incrementally, making it seem like we haven’t sunk that much.
But we have, in terms of finding common ground and national beliefs, as well as in civil discourse. Now it’s come to a head. There is serious stuff happening in America. And summer is coming.
Three hundred twenty-eight years ago, in the winter of 1692/1693, the colony of Massachusetts hung 19 citizens (14 were women) in the town of Salem for being witches. Those people were murdered. Today that sounds as horrible as it does preposterous. Confronting a historical stain like that, we take comfort in our societal evolution. But truthfully, while we’ve changed in many ways, in some we haven’t.
The murdering of unarmed black Americans in this country, yes by police officers, is a national disgrace. And the worst thing about these killings is that they just keep going on and on, with no end in sight.
Any reasonable person has to be outraged. Brian Kemp, Republican governor of Georgia, said the murder of the unarmed jogger Ahmaud Arbery was “absolutely horrific and Georgians deserve answers.”
That is the truth, governor.
The killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, major flashpoints this past week, are inexcusable. I know that being a police officer is an extremely difficult job with huge amounts of danger and split-second decision-making. I can only imagine what it is like and I have deep respect. But the police are called law officers. They are there to protect us. All of us. The default is not to kill.
In explaining these killings, extenuating circumstances are often raised: “We thought he had a gun. He appeared dangerous. He was threatening me.” In each case, maybe. But how, truthfully, to explain the numbers in total?
On Friday afternoon, fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was arrested and charged with Floyd’s murder. Shortly thereafter, U.S. Attorney General Barr issued a statement saying the video images of Floyd’s death “were harrowing to watch and deeply disturbing” and that “justice will be served.” And by Friday evening President Trump was tweeting his respects to George Floyd’s family. That’s all great, but truth is, it would have been greater had it not come four days later—and after nights of violence that continued as I filed this story.
(Speaking of things being connected, the Mall of America, the nation’s biggest, located just outside of Minneapolis, which was closed because of the coronavirus, has delayed its planned reopening on Monday because of the rioting. Fact.)
You may be asking, what business does a business writer have weighing in on this? If national disgrace isn’t reason enough, it’s also important to note that these killings undermine our economy, our system and our way of life. And more than that—the truth is—I don’t believe human beings should be killed for no apparent reason.
As for COVID-19, sure it was an act of God. No one’s fault. But our national response—and heaven knows preparing for it—is on us. Historian Niall Ferguson told me recently that our problems with coronavirus are the result of “a massive policy screwup” and “failure of the bureaucracy.” Yes this was not the CDC’s finest hour, as the New York Times and others reported. But President Trump’s insistence on downplaying the danger, his deferring to the states when it comes to testing and his encouragement to those who engage in potential dangerous behavior have been wrongheaded. Or as Ferguson, an iconoclastic conservative, said to me about Trump, “I don’t think he’s covered himself in glory, to put it mildly.”
The president says he has done all this to protect our freedom. I would suggest it’s about getting himself re-elected. Isn’t that what all politicians do, you ask? Not with a situation like this, and not to the degree that President Trump does. Truth is, matters of degree matter.
‘He finds a way to separate us and divide us’
On Friday afternoon, the president announced the U.S. would leave the World Health Organization after he said “China has total control over the World Health Organization.” Yes WHO could have been more firm with the Chinese about allowing inspectors in the country and yes WHO was wrong for taking China at its word about no human-to-human transmission back in January. But total control is not accurate. The president is trying to wrap WHO and China together into a single bogeyman to distract Americans from the 104,357 COVID deaths, as of my deadline. (And by the way, with the U.S. out of WHO, now China actually does have more influence over the organization.)
Speaking of China as an election bogeyman, the president also savaged Beijing on Friday, saying he would end Hong Kong’s special status in terms of extradition, trade, travel and customs as retaliation for China passing a law that reduces Hong Kong’s autonomy.
That of course punishes the people of Hong Kong and not so much the Chinese, who incidentally played right into Trump’s hands here. Soon after Trump’s announcement, Republican strategist Karl Rove seemed to distance himself from the president, saying on Fox that China is “not our enemy, but our adversary and rival.”
Of course the best way to track all this Trump news is by becoming one of his 80.7 million followers on Twitter. And what a week of tweeting he had. The president got in the soup for tweeting out lies about TV host Joe Scarborough. Then he was censured by Twitter first for tweeting falsehoods about voter fraud with mailed-in ballots, and then for what Twitter said was glorifying violence when the president said that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” regarding the violence in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
This is the president of the United States mind you. (Remember that point about incrementalism I made earlier.)
Trump responded by issuing an executive order that would strip Twitter and other social media companies like Facebook and YouTube of protection under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which, unlike legacy media companies, absolves them of most responsibility for content posted on their platforms.
The order will be challenged in court. So, for now that means Twitter et al can still say, “Hey man, we’re a platform, we can’t control what anyone says.” (Except for the times when they do control it.)
This is all head spinning stuff, particularly since it’s about a highly symbiotic relationship. Trump is addicted to Twitter—he often tweets dozens of times every day—and vice versa. The president complains that social media companies are biased against him, yet he plays them like a fiddle and in turn, they make billions of dollars off him and his followers’ traffic.
The president says he wants to regulate these companies to prevent them from allowing lies, half truths and innuendo on their platforms, but what he really wants to do is beat them up for putting even the smallest limits on what he can say. And by the way liberals actually do want to regulate Twitter, Facebook and Google, but Nancy Pelosi disavowed Trump’s call for regulation calling it “a distraction.” And also by the way, and for the millionth time, Twitter, Facebook and Google are in fact media companies. They create, gather and organize content. They publish and distribute that content. And they sell ads against it. That quacks like a media company to me. True that.
Meanwhile Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said this week that private companies shouldn’t be arbiters of the truth. Except they are all the time Mark, and have been for centuries. The truth here? The truth is Zuck runs a company that has made over $200 billion in revenue, in good measure by not having that responsibility. And he wants it to stay that way. Last fall I visited Facebook’s campus to speak with its top executives about monitoring content on their platform. Smart people, smart arguments, but I disagree with the conclusions.
I discussed the issue the other day with former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and he shook his head and sighed. He knows all about fighting the government. Could all this be fixed I asked him?
“This is a wild thing, I think it’s easier than people think,” Ballmer said to me. “Why do I say that? If there can be some kind of negotiation between the industry and the government, the industry can explain what’s possible and the government can push the industry to innovate. This is not going to go away overnight. There is innovation right now in the pharma industry and it is all targeted clearly on coronavirus. That helps focus innovation. And if there were clear priorities in terms of privacy and appropriate expression, I think the social media companies will innovate in a way that will really improve the situation quickly.”
Even that kind of public/private partnership won’t cure everything on Twitter. The lack of civility on Twitter—particularly by the anonymous trolls (get rid of them Jack Dorsey!)—and beyond, is appalling. Here too President Trump bears a huge responsibility. Music producer Scooter Braun talked to me about this recently.
“I don’t think like many people in Los Angeles, everything [Trump] says is awful. I think the problem is even when he does something good, he finds a way to ruin it with his rhetoric,” Braun said. “He finds a way to separate us and divide us. I also have a problem that if I’m going to put my five-year-old in front of the television, I shouldn’t have to worry that he might come back and say something to me where I have to teach him a lesson on morality, because the president has taught him the wrong lesson.”
During a low point this week I thought of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” an essay Joan Dideon wrote about the dark side of California and America in 1967, (which itself was a riff off a darker poem, “The Second Coming,” written by William Butler Yeats in the aftermath of World War One.)
“The center was not holding,” Dideon writes. “It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled.”
Turns out the center did hold, for a time. But now we are being pulled apart again. And we will splinter completely unless we can find some universal truths. And that universal truth must not be the current social media credo of, ‘we agree that we can’t judge anything.’ It has to be an acknowledgement that there are fundamental rights and wrongs. That at our core we agree on certain core concepts, deeper than baseball, apple pie and Chevrolets. More like veracity, honesty and truth.
A hopeful sign this week came from a most unlikely source: a birdwatcher in New York City. Christian Cooper filmed a woman calling 911 about an African American male (him) threatening her life (not true) after he asked her to follow the law and put her dog on a leash. The (white) woman, Amy Cooper (no relation) as you may know was fired from her job as an executive at Franklin Templeton, publicly shamed and had to give up her dog. All sadly predictable stuff. Except for this: “I’m not excusing the racism,” Christian Cooper told the New York Times. “But I don’t know if her life needed to be torn apart.”
Christian Cooper, you are officially the biggest man in America.
And it made me think of another transformative American literary work—this one by Norman Maclean, who wrote: “The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.” And of course: “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”
In the best of America, our truth and collective experience must combine into one. And that would be our single story.
This article was featured in a Saturday edition of the Morning Brief on May 30, 2020. Get the Morning Brief sent directly to your inbox every Monday to Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe
Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer.