On February 28, 2017, America’s new president gave a speech before Congress. In it, he restated his campaign formula to “make America great” through trade restrictions, a wall on the Mexican border, and military action against foreigners.
The press apparently expected more of the broken sentences and Twitter English that were still astounding people in those early days before our current numbness set in.
Instead, the president surprised everyone with mostly complete sentences, good grammar, optimism, and surprising formal presentation skills.
The press fawned over his performance.
NBC News called it a “bold agenda with a softer tone” by a president “at his most presidential.”
A Fox News headline declared that the president “…stuns media detractors with ‘extraordinary’ speech…”.
According to CNN, the president “adopted a statesmanlike cadence, hitting notes of inspiration. For once, this most unorthodox of politicians struck a conventional presidential posture…”
What exactly were these “presidential” “notes of inspiration”? Nestled between the casual promises to “break the cycle of poverty” and put “American footprints on distant worlds” may have been a promise to produce anti-immigrant propaganda.
“…I have ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create an office to serve American victims. The office is called VOICE – Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement. We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests.”
The president then pointed to three people placed in the audience whose family members had been murdered by undocumented immigrants, as if to make real the supposed emergency of immigrant crime.
Certainly these three carefully-selected individuals have suffered due to crimes by immigrants, but how many millions of people could be found whose relatives died at the hands of a US citizen?
The president claimed in no uncertain terms that there is a crisis of criminality among undocumented immigrants. Does this claim stand up to scrutiny? Actually, no. Sociologist Bianca Bersani and criminologist Alex Piquero write,
“Research dating back more than a century documents a pattern whereby the foreign-born are involved in crime at significantly lower rates than their peers.”
Furthermore, the data indicate that foreign-born individuals are less likely to end up in prison, and are less likely to offend in general. First-generation immigrants commit crimes at far lower rates than native U.S. citizens, a trend that persists throughout the young-adult lifespan:
Overall, the U.S. has experienced a decrease in crime over the past quarter-century, particularly in places with high immigration.
Of course, it would be naïve to think such facts matter. This obsession with American citizens victimized by undocumented foreigners is part of a political narrative that justifies the president’s agenda.
According to this political narrative, the stagnation of middle-class wages is not at all related to the dissolution of labor unions, the automation of manufacturing, information technology, or the shift to service industry employment.
According to the narrative, our dissatisfactions are the fault of illegal immigrants. If the government would simply eliminate or otherwise harm those antagonists, life would return to the halcyon days referred to by the slogan “make America great again.”
The president’s narrative makes little sense to anyone who takes accountability for their own life, or seeks to avoid the disabling habits of finger-pointing and excuse-making. Thus, politicians and pundits manufacture their own evidence, employing the anecdotal fallacy in an attempt to obtain plausibility.
The far-right’s data analysis methodology goes like this:
Stories consistent with the political narrative are selected from across the nation, or fabricated, and presented en masse to create an impression of a general situation. The individual anecdotes are either true or unverifiable, and can sometimes be linked to legitimate news sources.
By presenting dozens of crime stories about, say, members of a certain ethnic or religious minority, far-right propagandists create the illusion of a dataset in the minds of their audiences. Who can argue statistics against hundreds of cherry-picked, emotive anecdotes? Of course, this curated list ignores the much larger list of crimes committed by people not in the targeted demographic.
Recall that Breibart.com, the life work of presidential chief strategist and campaign manager Steve Bannon, has a section for “black crime” which cherry-picks or simply fabricates stories about brown-skinned people attacking tan-skinned people. Breibart doesn’t have to openly state its racist conclusions. What other conclusions could be drawn from such an intentional gathering of anecdotes?
Also recall the president’s multi-tweet rant during the campaign in reaction to a story of an undocumented immigrant allegedly shooting a woman. Why bring this particular murder to the media spotlight? Why this story, out of the 15,000 or so murders that occur in the U.S. each year?
He was cherry-picking support for his June 16, 2015 statement:
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
Start with a conclusion, and an anecdote can be found.
None of this is new.
White supremacists used this method throughout history. Lynch mobs in the Deep South murdered thousands of brown-skinned people based on often-fabricated accounts of crime. Then, of course, there was Der Sturmer, the Nazi-era propaganda newspaper devoted to anecdotal and fabricated accounts of crime and conspiracy by Jews.
The new VOICE office is ostensibly about advocacy for crime victims. However, a bureaucratic call center in Washington D.C. seems an odd way to help crime victims. Wouldn’t local assistance be more efficient? If helping crime victims is a good idea, why limit the program to victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants? Why the concern about victims of immigrant-committed crimes being “ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests”?
Is the real point of VOICE to gather or generate more anecdotes? Will the White House soon begin publishing Der Trumpstermer, a new racist listing of cherry-picked anecdotes?