Stolen valor

Via TheDudeDiogenes, Identity Theft by Zaid Jilani:

He starts with an analogy Apple’s CEO made between Emmett Till and Jacob Blake and points out what a terrible analogy it is.

I don’t write this to justify the shooting. If it turns out [Blake] didn’t pose any imminent threat to the officers or to the kids at the time of the shooting, it wasn’t justified. But there is no universe where it is legitimate to compare what is at worst an incompetent arrest and unjustified nonlethal shooting of someone wanted for an alleged violent crime to a brutal racist killing of an innocent child.

And yet such comparisons are now commonplace. Our contemporary political debates induce us to identify ourselves and those we view as sympathetic as first and foremost members of some group that has suffered historical victimhood. Then, after you have established that you or someone else is a member of this group, you can then use this status to plead for sympathy, prestige, or even power.

And if you can’t establish that you are a member maybe you can fake it.

On some level, we all know this rhetorical technique doesn’t quite make sense. The brilliant Aaron McGruder demonstrated as much in his hit animated series, The Boondocks, back in 2005. In the episode “The Trial of R. Kelly,” the infamous rapper goes on trial for his indecent acts with a minor. In order to defend him in court, Kelly hires an uber-woke white lawyer who turns to the Black jurors and intones, “They don’t want R. Kelly to be free because they don’t want you to be free!” The implication is that Kelly was being prosecuted not for his crimes but for his race; defining him only by his race allows his defense attorney to shield him with the status of historical victimhood—even if he himself is not a victim at all, for his race or for any other reason. Eventually, series protagonist Huey Freeman, an adolescent Black nationalist, loses his cool, reminding the court room that every famous Black person who “gets arrested is not Nelson Mandela!”

Which reminded me of the OJ Simpson trial, which was another classic of this genre – in fact it’s probably the classic of all time.

Another example can be found in The Washington Post’s global opinions editor, Karen Attiah. Attiah’s social media presence consistently features claims of victimization or underprivilege. In one tweet where she complains about the “white patriarchy,” Attiah notes that “Black women in particular find themselves pushed out of workplaces due to sexism and racism. They start their own ventures and rely on social media and branding to—*gasp* Self promote. Because we have to. To survive.”

The “we” is doing a fair bit of work here. Attiah holds a prestigious and secure position at one of the nation’s premier newspapers at a time when the industry is contracting and good reporters and editors are being laid off left and right. Yet by invoking her membership in the group “Black women,” she can situate herself in the same status as say, a housekeeper at a motel who lives a precarious existence.

Which, I think, is not entirely bogus, because even successful black people are still subject to racism, just as even successful women are still subject to sexism. It’s not entirely bogus but there are times when it may seem like a reach.

This sense of victimhood even drew her to tweet in June about the “lies and tears of white women” producing the “1921 Tulsa massacre,” the aforementioned murder of Till, and the election of Donald Trump. “White women are lucky that we are calling them Karens,” she warned. “And not calling for revenge.” Although Attiah later deleted the tweet, it’s instructive that she felt comfortable she could walk right up to the line of implying racial violence would be justified—such is the power of this rhetorical tactic.

And that sexism is ok if it’s against women who can be called Karens.

This very last example is illustrative of why I do my best to never play this rhetorical game. Because it’s a game that involves stealing valor.

The term “stolen valor” is used to describe military impostors—typically, people who exaggerated or lied about their military records. In 1998, investigative journalist Glenna Whitley and Vietnam veteran B.G. Burkett published a book by the same name, chronicling the stories of individuals who wore Vietnam War medals and ribbons who had not earned them. The pair used Freedom of Information Act requests to search the records of a host of individuals, finding that they often exaggerated the terms of their military service in their public statements. 

Certainly a good term for what Jessica Krug did.

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