The ‘arc of the moral universe’ and the undefeated South

I’ve previously commented on what I see as the irreconcilable differences in the United States—in fact, that such differences exist is the premise behind the domain name,, that I publish this blog on—most recently in the wake of a rather thorough drubbing suffered by the Democratic Party. Our electoral contests, I have argued, now amount to struggles for power by each side seeking to impose its values and views on the other.[1] That people on the left, at least, don’t take this seriously enough is brought home to me by an article I found in a Daily Caller newsletter today. Consider the following photograph (figure 1) that was included at the top of the page:

Apparently a photograph of a breathing exercise from Getty Images, via the Daily Caller, February 24, 2015. Fair use.
Fig. 1. Apparently a photograph of a breathing exercise from Getty Images, via the Daily Caller, February 24, 2015. Fair use.

I look at this photograph (figure 1) and see a young woman in a stereotypical pose of a kind of receptive meditation. But while meditation doesn’t work for me, I’m aware that it is part of a long spiritual tradition that apparently satisfies a great many people. It isn’t so completely ‘new-agey’ that I feel any particular need to criticize it.

For many authoritarian populists, in their present guise, the Tea Party, and the Daily Caller‘s intended audience, matters are different. This (figure 1), for them, is an image to be scorned. The article is about a retraining effort conducted by the New York City Police Department in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter protests that apparently seeks to encourage officers to better manage their anger, and the photograph helps to associate the “smart policing” training program with a “woo woo” ethos.[2] I’m going to quote from the opening paragraphs of the article at length:

The New York City Police Department’s new “retraining” program has instructed cops to “take a deep breath” and close their eyes when interacting with people who are mad.

The new-age lesson is part of a special, three-day “smart policing” training dreamed up by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, the New York Post reports.

Part of the extensive, $35 million seminar on policing included breathing exercises wherein seasoned cops who keep watch over America’s most populous city learned that they should breathe deeply and relax when posed with angry people in volatile situations.

That part of the training was particularly “not realistic” and “pretty silly,” according to NYPD cops who sat through it.

“They said if you find yourself in a situation that’s getting heated, take a step back, close your eyes and take a deep breath,” one cop told the Post.

“That’s pretty funny — that I would close my eyes in a tense situation,” the amused officer added.

“They want you to stop and think about everything before you do anything, but a lot of times cops have to make a split-second decision, and they don’t have the luxury of stopping and thinking,” another officer forced to sit through the lengthy retraining briefing told the newspaper.

The training was a huge flop overall, according to officers. There was apparently some plan to fight crime with breath mints, explains the Post. It was also “boring.” Several cops were spotted snoozing. Eight out of 10 of New York’s men and women in blue gave it negative reviews.[3]

There are a couple messages here. First, cops quoted by the New York Post thought that the training was ridiculous. Second, the Daily Caller expects that its audience will share these cops’ view.

Yes, I’ll agree that this is a pretty juvenile view. Human lives are supposed to matter and cops have recently been entirely and unjustifiably too hasty in taking them. As I’ve previously argued, I don’t accept the perceived need for a “split-second decision” as anything like sufficient justification.[4] Any mature adult should agree that cops need to better balance their need for self-protection with the need to protect human lives. But the article continues (and I’m intentionally leaving in the teasers for ‘related’ articles):

The “smart policing” training comes in the wake of the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who police say was illegally selling cigarettes. Garner died following a struggle in which a police officer put him in a chokehold. The officer involved was not indicted, but the incident did lead to this set of days-long retraining for Big Apple cops. (RELATED: NYPD Officers Put To Sleep By Eric Garner Inspired Training)

The training also comes less than two months after the execution-style murders of New York City police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu.

Ramos, 40, and Wenjian Liu, 32, were shot execution-style in their cop car on Dec. 20 by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, a black man allegedly seeking revenge for the deaths of Garner and Michael Brown. (RELATED: Hundreds Of Police Officers Turned Against De Blasio At Slain NYPD Officer’s Funeral)[5]

Notice that the article juxtaposes the case of Eric Garner alone against the murder of two police officers, not mentioning that Garner’s death is far from isolated, not mentioning that many Blacks in the United States feel under siege, and not mentioning the mass protests that followed a number of killings of Black men.[6] The effect is to minimize the importance of this “smart policing” program.

I’m poorly placed to evaluate the program. I haven’t witnessed it, read much about it, or studied how police officers should behave in these situations. And one shouldn’t need to: Even some conservatives have acknowledged that police killings have gotten out of hand.[7] Too many people are dying under circumstances where even the use of force—let alone lethal force—seems dubious. The reasonable reaction is a gut reaction: This is wrong. And that is the very reaction that this article seeks to suppress.

And that cops are adopting such a juvenile attitude is, as I have previously argued, a serious problem.[8]

But it is also foolish to imagine that condemning the Daily Caller’s attitude, authoritarian populists’ attitudes, or cops’ attitudes will in any way solve the problem. Authoritarian populists have been with us throughout U.S. history,[9] and when Colin Woodard writes of the region he calls “Greater Appalachia,” whose people “came from the war-torn borderlands of northern Britain” in the early 18th Century, prior to the revolution that separated the U.S. from Britain,[10] I see not only people such as my grandmother, whose marriage to a “Midlander” of German descent seemed locked in eternal struggle, but authoritarian populists whose perpetual uprising is a thread in the entirety of U.S. history.

When I see people on the left assuming they can overcome authoritarian populists, through demographic change, through persuasion, or anything else, I see them as delusional as any authoritarian populist ever. Authoritarian populists might be juvenile, they might be stupid, and they might be racist. But when my “liberal” friends satisfy themselves with a snippet like “[t]he arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,”[11] they ignore the neoconservative backlash of the last forty to fifty years,[12] they ignore the longstanding resistance to “oppression” that marks authoritarian populism from its origins in Britain,[13] and they ignore that apart from the military victory of the North, the Confederacy was never really defeated.[14]

  1. [1]David Benfell, “Bound together in a criminal country,” Not Housebroken, November 5, 2014,
  2. [2]Eric Owens, “De Blasio Retrains NYPD: ‘CLOSE YOUR EYES And Take A Deep Breath’ In Response To Anger,” Daily Caller, February 24, 2015,
  3. [3]Eric Owens, “De Blasio Retrains NYPD: ‘CLOSE YOUR EYES And Take A Deep Breath’ In Response To Anger,” Daily Caller, February 24, 2015,
  4. [4]David Benfell, “Itchy trigger fingers,” Not Housebroken, December 25, 2014,
  5. [5]Eric Owens, “De Blasio Retrains NYPD: ‘CLOSE YOUR EYES And Take A Deep Breath’ In Response To Anger,” Daily Caller, February 24, 2015,
  6. [6]Dell Cameron, “Undercover cop draws gun on photographer during Black Lives Matter protest,” Daily Dot, December 11, 2014,; Jay Driskell, “America just doesn’t get it: Why police killings demand more than a “respectable” response,” Salon, December 13, 2014,; Vivian Ho, “Undercover CHP officer pulls gun at Oakland protest after outing,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 11, 2014,; Sputnik, “Mass Protests Against Police Brutality Sweep New York, Nation,” December 13, 2014,
  7. [7]Jim Geraghty to National Review Morning Jolt list, “Every Once in a While, the Cop Isn’t the Good Guy in the Story,” December 4, 2014,; Jack Hunter, “The Right’s Race Deafness,” American Conservative, December 31, 2014,; Bonnie Kristian, “Seven Reasons Police Brutality Is Systemic, Not Anecdotal,” American Conservative, July 2, 2014,
  8. [8]David Benfell, “Time to take the guns away,” Not Housebroken, January 6, 2015,
  9. [9]Chip Berlet, “Taking Tea Parties Seriously: Corporate Globalization, Populism, and Resentment,” Perspectives on Global Development and Technology 10 (2011): 11-29, doi: 10.1163/156914911X555071
  10. [10]Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (New York: Penguin, 2011), 101.
  11. [11]This quotation may originate with Theodore Parker. See Garson O’Toole, “The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long But It Bends Toward Justice,” Quote Investigator, November 15, 2012,
  12. [12]George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, 30th anniversary ed. (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006).
  13. [13]Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (New York: Penguin, 2011).
  14. [14]Thom Bassett, “The South, the War and ‘Christian Slavery’,” New York Times, April 27, 2012,; Daily Take, “Let the Dysfunctional Plantation-Based Red-states Secede,” Truthout, October 21, 2013,; Ian Haney-López, “How the GOP became the ‘White Man’s Party’,” Salon, December 22, 2013,; Chris Hedges, “White Power to the Rescue,” Truthdig, January 28, 2013,; Tony Horwitz, “150 Years of Misunderstanding the Civil War,” Atlantic, June 19, 2013,; Glenn W. LaFantasie, “How the South rationalizes secession,” Salon, December 19, 2010,; Michael Lind, “Slave states vs. free states,” Salon, October 10, 2012,; Kim Messick, “Modern GOP is still the party of Dixie,” Salon, October 12, 2013,; Andrew O’Hehir, “Welcome to the new Civil War,” Salon, January 5, 2013,; Stephan Richter, “Shutdown shows the Civil War never ended,” Salon, October 7, 2013,; Paul Rosenberg, “Christian right secession fantasy: Spooky neo-Confederate talk grows louder at the fringes,” Salon, July 1, 2014,; Chuck Thompson, “Just secede already: The obstructionists aren’t going anywhere. Maybe we should,” Salon, October 20, 2013,; Tracy Thompson, “The South still lies about the Civil War ,” Salon, March 16, 2013,

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