A modest plea for precision, Part Two


In these pages, I recently set out some basic ideas concerning terms and phrases used without precision by politicians and the media. They say or write them, but give them vague or unintelligible meanings. Those I addressed were “Black Lives Matter,” “Marxist,” “socialist,” and “fascist,” and I suggested there were many others to clarify.

Take, for example, “white privilege.” This phrase does not mean that a person who is white possesses wealth. As Princeton Professor Emeritus Cornell West put it in 1993, it means that “race matters.” Used properly, “white privilege” denotes the advantages that people with white skin have over people of color.

Those advocating for greater equality in American society often address concerns about white privilege with the hope that one day people of all races and colors will be equal and treated with dignity and respect. Conservative columnist Max Boot of the Washington Post argues this very point. Writing in Foreign Policy, he says, “Whether I realize it or not, I have benefited from my skin color and my gender — and those of a different gender or sexuality or skin color have suffered because of it. This sounds obvious, but it wasn’t clear to me until recently. I have had my consciousness raised. Seriously.”

“White privilege” should not be equated with “radicalism,” another misused term. It is derived from the Latin “radicalis,” meaning “root” (from “radix”): as if we are trying to get to the root of a problem. Radical could in political and sociological terms mean transformational change, or for some, extreme alterations. In 19th century Britain, for example, it was radical to promote universal suffrage. In 20th century America, FDR endorsed a wholesale renewal of the American economy to end the Great Depression with such policies as Social Security and public employment.

Radicals today may call for more fundamental changes, but as long as we have a constitutional democracy, it usually takes actions by Congress and the signature of the president to undertake them. For some, the contemporary key to radicalism today comes down to a single word, “antifa.”

Leaders in Washington speak of antifa as “a domestic terrorist organization” that wreaks havoc, conducts violence, hurts people opposed to them, and undermines the American way of life. Credible news organizations, however, describe the demonstrations in such cities as Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Washington, and Kenosha, Wis., as generally being peaceful, especially during the day. At night, violence and the destruction of property have taken place, fights have broken out, and some people have been killed.

But antifa is not an organization. It is a loose-knit, amorphous string of people with different ideas, united only by their opposition to “fascism,” which they never define (I wrote about fascism on Sept. 3). Is antifa responsible for all the violence we see on our television screens? Probably some, but not the vast majority, and here’s why.

In August, the Department of Homeland Security prepared a draft report, concluding that the recent unrest did not result from actions by a formless antifa, but by white supremacists: “We judge that white supremacist extremists (WSEs) will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland through 2021.” Without once mentioning antifa, the draft states that in 2019, “among DVE [domestic violent extremist] actors, WSEs conducted half of all lethal attacks (8 of 16), resulting in the majority of deaths (39 of 48).”

For some people angered over stories of law enforcement officers mistreating, even injuring or killing, people of color, we have heard demands to “defund the police.” That too is a radical idea. Perhaps some advocates would argue that we ought to close our police departments, just as there have been calls to close the prisons. But the phrase “defund the police” which is not a very precise term, addresses reform, not termination; a rethinking, not radicalism.

Defund the police means reordering priorities so that police officers can do their job more efficiently and professionally. It means that others competent in psychological and sociological interventions could act appropriately, rather than require the involvement of law enforcement officers. A mother in Salt Lake City recently called police when she had trouble controlling her 13-year-old autistic son. She said he required “a crisis intervention team” because she did not know how to control his behavior. In other words, a psychologist or social worker, not the police.

After the police officers arrived. he ran away and was shot. He had no weapon. “Defund the police” means that more resources require alternative ways to calm a situation like this one, which should never have ended with police shooting a child, who reportedly has injuries to his shoulder, ankles, intestines, and bladder.

These are just a few words and phrases that need additional precision in our use of language. They are not all of them, especially in these days of such extreme partisanship and inflexibility.


Jack Fruchtman, a resident of Aquinnah, taught constitutional law and politics for over 40 years.