Manipulating Context to Bring ‘Jim Crow’ to Bear

April 9, 2021 Updated: April 9, 2021


Most people will know of the truism among sportsmen in all contact sports that it’s always the guy who hits back who gets penalized by the refs—because, unlike an aggressor who can pick his time to strike, he’s the one they’re most likely to see.

But this is really just a part of the much larger problem of context. A dishonest person who is in a position to manipulate contexts—that is, the part of the whole picture of an event or an idea which people are in a position to see—is also in a position to manipulate, almost at will, what they think about it.

By the same token, an honest person will always show that he is honest by taking into account contextual considerations that run counter to his own view of the matter and therefore must be acknowledged, either to be explained away or to be admitted as reasons for doubting himself.

It will come as no news to most readers that, in the media environment as we know it today, the numbers of such honest persons are vanishingly small. On the contrary, the manipulation of context to advance their own political agenda is increasingly the media’s stock-in-trade.

Consider this headline, to an article by Marianna Sotomayor and Todd C. Frankel, in Tuesday’s Washington Post: “Republicans ramp up attacks on corporations over Georgia voting law, threaten ‘consequences’.”

No one is likely to suppose that this representation of “Republicans” as the bullies who are attacking helpless corporations and threatening them with “consequences” is accidental, but anyone with the slightest knowledge of the context of these “attacks” will instantly recognize it disingenuous to the point of outright falsehood.

But then “Republicans defend themselves against corporate attacks” just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?

Not much better is the CNN headline from a couple of days earlier: “As restrictive voting bills multiply, GOP signals it won’t bow to corporate pressure.” This is more subtle, but the manipulation of context is still going on.

Republicans here, that is, are allowed to be the ones being subjected to “pressure,” but in that context, of the multiplying “restrictive voting bills,” the “pressure” may be presumed to be more legitimate than the GOP’s resistance to it.

The Republican law-makers may not be seen as the aggressors, as the Post suggests they are, but they are seen, by implication, as unreasonably obstinate in refusing to “bow” to the moral correction of supposedly disinterested corporations.

The most blatant example of the manipulation of context with respect to the Georgia voting law is the now ubiquitous comparison of it to the Jim Crow laws of the old, segregated South between the end of Reconstruction and the Civil Rights law of 1964, about which I wrote last week (see “Talk of ‘Jim Crow’ Stokes Fires of Outrage” in the Epoch Times of April 1, 2021).

By going back more than half a century to find the context in which they prefer to see the new law, the media must not only ignore the quite different context of the present—which is allegations by both sides of irregularities (to put it euphemistically) in recent Georgia elections—but they imply that the Georgia of the Jim Crow era is no different from the Georgia of today.

In Tuesday’s New York Times online the opinion columnist Jamelle Bouie wrote a piece headed: “If It’s Not Jim Crow, What Is It?” in which he acknowledges that the Jim Crow comparison “overstates similarities and greatly understates key differences—chief among them the violence that undergirded the Jim Crow racial order.”

All the same, he goes on, the Republican denial of the comparison cannot be accepted because it “asks us to ignore context and extend good faith to lawmakers who overhauled their state’s election laws because their party lost an election.”

The context supposedly being ignored here is that of the “lost” election. But since the Jim Crow laws were also enacted to prevent the people who enacted them from losing elections, the new law must be supposed to be “Jim Crow-adjacent”—as two other Times-men put it.

In other words, the Jim Crow context is relevant after all—because the one proposed by the Republicans themselves cannot be believed.

This is a further refinement of the argument from context which most of those who invoke the name of Jim Crow merely assume to be valid, but it makes some assumptions of its own. In particular it assumes that the election was not only “lost” but lost fairly and without any fraud or attempt at fraud on the part of the winners.

This, as we know, is an article of faith on Jamelle Bouie’s side of the argument, though it is always treated as he treats it: as a simple matter of fact. That, in turn, allows him to deny to his opponents the presumption of good faith when they say that they are trying to prevent fraud and corruption, not suppress the black vote.

No, no, no, says Mr. Bouie. Since the context of voter fraud may be presumed not to exist, the context of Jim Crow, however diluted of some of its lethality, may also be presumed to remain valid.

It will be observed that the argument from context is being cynically used here only to deny the right of those whom the author disagrees with to say anything in their own defense, since anything they say is assumed to be a mere pretext for more sinister motivations, left over from Jim Crow days, still lurking beneath the slick Republican surface.

Once again we can see that, in democratic debate, the denial by one side to the other of the presumption of good faith—that they really mean what they say and not something else—can only produce reciprocation by the other side.

It is the nuclear option that brings all debate to an end in the rhetorical devastation of Mutually Assured Destruction of all credibility.

But the Democrats and the media have for so long seen politics as nothing but the exercise of raw power that I sometimes wonder that there should be anyone left on their side of the aisle anymore who, like Mr. Bouie, even bothers to go through the motions of assigning context by rational argument.

Perhaps they have a bad conscience about it.

James Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. The author of “Honor: A History,” he is a movie critic for The American Spectator and the media critic for the New Criterion.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.