False Equivalencies and the Distortion of History

June 18, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

If you want a good example of false equivalency, look no further than Ross Douthat’s column today (here).

The turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s generated segregationist terrorism on the right and a revolutionary underground on the left, but it did not produce much partisan terrorism, violence inspired simply by fear and hatred of the opposition party.


From the balancing of right and left in this sentence, you would never know that level of segregationist violence was several orders of magnitude greater than what the “revolutionary underground” committed. 

Douthat’s claim that segregationist terrorism was not “partisan” is also a bit of a stretch. Douthat’s main point is that until last week’s “attempted massacre of Republicans on a baseball field,” assassinations in the US have not been partisan. The killers may have acted on a political ideology, but they were not affiliated with a party or even a real movement. 

That may be true of a handful of assassinations and attempts directed at prominent elected officials – JFK, Reagan, RFK, and others. The shooters were lone wolves, and saw their targets as individuals rather than as representatives of a political party .

But much political violence, including killings, has been more organized and systematic. In the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, the people who were doing the beating were often agents of the government. Those who committed murder, torture, arson, and other forms of terrorism knew that law enforcement was on their side and would do little to prevent or punish them. And their terrorism had a clear political purpose: to preserve White supremacy.

Douthat says that segregationist terror was not “inspired by fear and hatred of the opposition party.” This statement is true only in the very technical sense that there was no opposition party. The  fear and hatred were directed at people who were trying to create an anti-segregationist party or to eventually bend one of the major parties away from White supremacy policies.

The killers of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Viola Liuzzo, and other people who were working for civil rights; the people who burned churches; the sheriffs, the Klansmen, and the others – they were part of a political establishment, some as officials, others as constituents. If Douthat thinks that they are barely worth remembering, he is distorting history. If he thinks that they were were political oddballs and isolates on the order of Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley, and Squeaky Fromme, he is drawing an egregiously false equivalency.

2 comments:

Prof. Z said...

Now that I'm retired I have time to read your thoughtful blog posts. Mainly I digest what you say and agree with your formulations but I feel the need to comment on this one. I recently read James Douglass' JFK and the Unspeakable. If you read this book (and The Devil's Chessboard) and still think that JFK was assassinated by a lone killer I'll eat my retirement commendation.
Keep up the terrific blogging!

Gil

Jay Livingston said...

Hi Gil. I'll have to check out these sources if I ever get time.
Thanks for reading, and writing.