Where the people fear the government you have tyranny. Where the government fears the people you have liberty.I have waited until now to reflect on the recent police shootings, the retribution in Dallas, and the ongoing protests out of a desire to allow the grieving families the opportunity to bury their loved ones before diving into the inescapably political debate. What I'll say here will likely be controversial, but at some point certain topics have to be broached, and it is better if we as conservatives start by looking in the mirror before addressing the shortcomings of others. The pastor of the church I grew up in was fond of saying: "Whenever you point a finger, your other three fingers are pointing back at you."
Politics Before Community is Tearing Us Apart
If you have not read Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky, I strongly recommend it. Not because I agree with what he says, but because once you read it you will understand exactly how we got where we are today. By the time Alinsky wrote (1971), big government had metastasized into a Byzantine labyrinth of bureaucracies. If you sought to have a problem in your community addressed, you got the 'run around' with various forms of "you get that at the other window." Alinksky organized communities around unaddressed grievances, taught them to "freeze" the issue with a particular bureaucracy, "personalize" the issue, and "polarize" the options. He also taught that ridicule was the most potent weapon in the arsenal of a community organizer. And that was before social media, YouTube and cable television.
And so here we are: We have an entire industry of non-profit organizations merchandising our grievances. They herd us into narrow political corners where we live vicariously through political media personalities. Make no mistake - "makers and takers" is just as much a grievance meme as "the war on women."
Then, having herded us into these narrow corners, they train us to out-ridicule each other on social media. Alinsky claimed there was no way to defend against this tactic. Interestingly enough, Donald Trump has shown that their is - he simply doesn't care. This, more than anything else, helps explain his appeal. He is immune to the social media ridicule machine.
And once they have us on social media working overtime to out-ridicule each other, the fundraising letters come out. It is then that we should begin to awaken to what is really going on here. There is no way to live any semblance of a life as a community and not have grievances arise. Politics is supposed to provide a mechanism for the 'redress of grievance'. This goes to the very heart of the Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution after it. But instead of working toward 'redress' of grievances, we have given government and politics over to those who merely want to monetize them.
And as conservatives the most we have been able to come up with is how to turn the tactics of Alinsky against the Left. Instead we ought to be doubling down on our community engagement, working to wrest grievances away from distant bureaucracies so we can actually get to work solving the underlying problems. We suffer from what philosophers call the 'tragedy of the commons': When something is broken and nobody owns it, fixing it is always someone else's job. Instead of taking a problem and freezing it, personalizing it, and polarizing it, we ought to simply be owning it. And once the problem-solving work at hand is done and the beer has been poured, then we can debate the bigger political questions of the day.
Or more simply: We should put our community ahead of our politics, and then let our political debates emerge from that context.
The Relationship Between Law Enforcement and the Community has Changed
In the light of the Baton Rouge and St. Paul shootings, the first inclination from those of us who are troubled by the breakdown of relationships between police and their communities is to say "let's wait for the facts to be discovered." The problem is 'facts' do not stop bullets. We also race to trot out the latest statistics about black-on-black crime, the ratio of black people killed by police vice whites, etc. The same applies: 'statistics' do not stop bullets. They will neither bring back to life the two black men killed by police officers nor the five white officers killed by a black man,
Advances in technology have, in far too many instances, proved black men innocent after serving decades in prison for a crime they did not commit. This seems to be - in the eyes of our black neighbors - what the 'system' produces in their communities. This is the same system we expect them to trust to 'finds the facts', Each life wasted in jail for a crime not committed is a bell which cannot be un-rung; it is the source of a deficiency in trust which we as conservatives seek to repair. But we cannot even begin that work until we are engaged with our local communities in a way that convinces black (and other minority) communities that our politics actually can be a viable way to seek redress for grievances. Our deployment of statistics to gain the upper hand in the social media ridicule game is completely at odds with the political life we otherwise say we seek.
Because of these advances in technology, along with social media and today's smart phones, law enforcement needs to change as well. On the broader subject of race, we often hear past incidents of racial abuse by police explained away by saying that police departments are a reflection of the community in its time and today's police officers should not be judged by the actions of officers in past generations. At best, this is foolish. At worst, it deepens the deficiency in trust because it simply fails to listen. We just saw on social media an encouraging clip of 'Black Lives Matter' protesters joining a counter-protest and building relationships. This shows us that we are writing new stories - which is good. But we fool ourselves if we think our new stories overwrite the old ones like empty space on a computer disk. When a police officer puts on the uniform, he or she puts on the history - the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. We need a willingness on the part of law enforcement today to own the misconduct of the past, call it for the evil it was and is, and reject it outright. The last of those three, by itself, is simply not good enough.
We Deserve Better from Our Colleges and Universities
I have an academic background, and to a great extent my thinking on race has been enriched by some excellent professors. But if asked to find a 'grievance merchant', my first stop would nonetheless be the faculty lounge. Hiding behind tenure and dressing up sophistry in the garb of academic freedom, our kids are fed a diet of circular thinking on race by our colleges and universities.
We are told that racism is 'prejudice plus power'. We are told (and on this I agree) that 'prejudice' is simply the natural tendency to generalize about people who are different based on a necessarily limited set of experiences. But because - the claim goes - white people (males in particular) have historically wielded political power, this prejudice plus power creates racism. Therefore if you are white, you are - by definition - racist.
In order to arrive at this kind of conclusion people have to be seen and judged as members of a race instead of as individuals. The faculty lounge will say this is necessary to address the history of racism - defined, of course, as prejudice plus power. The reasoning for their definition presumes the validity of their definition.
What makes matters worse - and this goes directly to the call for dialogue put out by the trauma surgeon who treated those injured in the Dallas shooting - this definition is the intellectual price of admission to the conversation, led as it is by 'academics'. Today's college and university campuses - with their cultural speech codes, 'micro-aggressions' and overall de-legitimizing of dissent - foment dangerous mutual suspicion rather than equipping our communities for the dialogue we so badly need.
The Task Ahead
I have family in law enforcement and I do not want them or any other police officer to have to patrol in fear for their lives. But it bears repeating: "Where the people fear the government you have tyranny. Where the government fears the people you have liberty." The police are the most immediate agent of government most of us will interact with.
Our black neighbors have an inalienable right given to them by their Creator to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - without fear of what the next interaction with a police officer might bring. The fear felt among law enforcement should provoke a willingness to 'wear' the history of the uniform - again, good and bad, beautiful and ugly. An end needs to be put to attempting to explain away the evil of past misconduct and replace that with a commitment to redeem the evil of the past with the good police work of today. Our communities are willing and eager to draw upon memories of past good police work as our part in this redemption. More than anything else, this is what a new and honest look at the culture of law enforcement requires.
We have a lot of work to do. We as conservatives are heirs to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and to the ideas of human freedom which our Founding Fathers fought to establish. We will only live up to this history and this moment if we challenge ourselves before we square off politically against those with different views.