This Easter weekend I’ve been reflecting on one of Jesus’s best known soundbites: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” [King James Version] Here it is with more context and a modern tongue; Matthew 7:1-5, New American Standard Bible:
“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
We all know that we are living in a divided nation and you are probably sick of hearing about it but nothing is going to get any better if we don’t face this reality head on and ask, “What am I doing to fan the flames or allow them to burn brighter? Am I self-righteously obsessed with other people’s stumbles while failing to see that I am lying flat on my face?”
It was a small news story this past last week that got me thinking about our current judgmental divide and how fitting Jesus’s words still are. The partisan bomb throws on both sides are fundamentally the same. Both value allegiance to their own team far more than they care about honestly pursuing the truth and both condemn us all to a never-ending game of insults, gotcha moments, and hyperbolic overreach. Yet both are convinced that it is, “the other guy,” with the speck in his eye, who is the problem.
On April 11, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions made a speech along the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona where he went after MS-13 and other drug smuggling, human trafficking, extremely violent cartels. A copy of his prepared remarks was released beforehand which include this passage:
“Let’s stop here for a minute. When we talk about MS-13 and other cartels, what do we mean? We mean criminal organizations that turn cities and suburbs into warzones, that rape and kill innocent citizens and who profit by smuggling poison and other human beings across our borders. Depravity and violence are their calling cards, including brutal machete attacks and beheadings.”
“It is here, on this sliver of land, where we first take our stand against this filth.”
Personally, and I’m sure I’m not alone on this, I don’t have a problem with extremely violent criminals such as these being referred to as, “filth,” but I can see where someone of Latin American heritage might ask the reasonable question, “Does Sessions refer to all organized crime figures as filth or just ones from south of the border?” Some people, however, went much further than this and assumed that Sessions was talking about immigrants in general. Professor of International Politics and book Author Daniel Drezner, who also writes for the Washington Post, tweeted:
Such a foul mouthed, kneejerk reaction from a presumably serious professional only serves to promote more extremism in others. Here’s one brief exchange out of the hundreds of comments under Drezner’s post:
Presumably, the very unclassy, OAF, agrees that calling illegal immigrants filth (if that had happened) would be wrong. Yet s/he is fine passing the same blanket misjudgement on the majority of Republicans. Not to be outdone by this left wing idiocy, presumed right winger Alexis Pace goes into the standard, idiotic line, that all left-leaning Americans are in league with the enemies of America. But I only came across these remarks later, when I put some time into researching this story.
My first exposure to this matter was from a post on my LinkedIn newsfeed, which brought me to an article on the Yellowhammer website, written by Jacob Bunn. It was published on April 12 and titled, “Reporters are cleaning the egg off of their faces after pushing a FALSE accusation about Jeff Sessions.” I hadn’t heard of Yellowhammer before that but if this piece is any indication of the overall product, they are part of the reactionary right and very bias-driven. For starters, consider the title again. Is it necessary to put “FALSE” in capital letters, or to describe the reporters in question as, “pushing,” this falsehood? The impression readers are meant to form, even before they know anything about the facts, is that someone deliberately lied about Sessions and failed to get away with it.
Bunn begins his piece by asking, “Are accuracy and context not taught at journalism schools today?” and then goes on to be inaccurate, with questionable context. He complains that, “Drezner falsely accused Attorney General Jeff Sessions of calling illegal immigrants “filth.” And, Vox writer Matthew Yglesias tweeted that Sessions was talking about Latin-American immigrants.” I’m not sure what exactly Yglesias’ tweet said, since he seems to have later deleted it, but the overall speech was about criminal immigration from Latin-America (The Justice Department transcrip is titled, “Attorney General Jeff Sessions Delivers Remarks Announcing the Department of Justice’s Renewed Commitment to Criminal Immigration Enforcement”) so Yglesias may not have been completely off the mark to note, “that Sessions was talking about Latin-American immigrants,” in the speech.
Bunn invites his readers to look at “the actual transcript of the remarks prepared for Sessions,” but if you follow his, “actual,” link (preserved in the previous quote), you will end up at another tweeter exchange where people were debating what Sessions said and what he meant by it, in the overall context of immigration. Then Bunn makes the extraordinary claim that, “Nowhere in those prepared remarks does Sessions call immigrants or anyone else “filth.” How dare he actually want to put an end to all of those horrible, criminal activities?” Anyone familiar with proper English knows that criminal activities are not, “filth.” Murder is not filth. Rape is not filth. A murder is filth. A rapist is filth. The only way to reasonably interpret Sessions’ prepared remarks is to admit that criminals are being called filth; not crimes. Like his counterparts on the other side, who want to see racism in anything Sessions might say, Bunn wants to deny logic so he can pretend that the people he is critiquing are opposed to fighting crime.
As it turns out, Sessions chose not to deliver the “filth” line, which makes me think that he too understood it could be questionably interpreted. Bunn, however doesn’t see it that way. Instead, he says, “To add insult to injury for some overeager journos, the line that was so bothersome was in his prepared remarks but not actually spoken by Sessions, according to Buzzfeed’s Adrian Carrasquillo.” How does this, “add insult to injury?” How does it help Bunn’s case that Session chose to skip this bothersome line? I really don’t understand.
At the very end of the piece Bunn finally gets to the metaphorical, “egg,” that reports are presumed to be cleaning off their faces, noting that, “Drezner did return to apologize for having too quick of a trigger, so kudos to him, even though the damage has already been done. Still no apology or correction from Yglesias. Better luck next time, lamestreams.” Wow. Just, Wow. Drezner’s follow-up tweet was posted just under an hour and a half after he first made his mistaken claim. I don’t see how Bunn has proved that any level of damage was already done, nor has he proved that Drezner was actively pushing something he knew to be, “FALSE.”
As for Yglesias, he too made a follow-up tweet the next day, right around the same time that Bunn posted his article:
Why Bunn could not find this tweet or update his own article since then to discuss it in anyway is debatable but I suspect that he wanted to paint Yglesias as unapologetic and thoughtless, so why bother to put any thought into it? I would even go so far as to conjecture that Bunn’s main objective in writing his misleading article was simply to use that childish closing line, taunting the, “lamestream,” media. Because this is the kind of red meat that his audience is hungry for. A fact reflected in the comments on Bunn’s piece:
Lest I be accused of spending too much time focused on the overreaching right, let us return to the contorted left, where Gabe Ortiz wrote a piece entitled, “‘We take our stand against this filth:’ Sessions speech goes full-on white nationalist,” for the Daily Kos. That’s full-on demagoguery.
“Our side is good, just, noble, and true, while those people are enemies of America, no matter what the facts are.” This is the unspoken mantra I see playing out daily on the right and the left; thousands, tens of thousands, millions of times, over and over again. Judge, judge, judge the presumed guilty so that we might imagine we are innocent. Will we never learn?