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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Lynching (p. 212)

From chapter "Seeing Things"

Far better scholars and theoreticians than I have articulated the dangers of pornography, as it helps men to objectify women. I’m not sure that we—men—need that help. I just know that pornography is abstract. It has less to do with our actual bodies than it does representations: We’re substituting imaginary experiences with the images of things for experiences with the things themselves, having already substituted the experience of things for the possibility of relationship with other beings. Danger aside, it also seems just plain silly and self-defeating.

This valuing of the abstract over the physical has many dangerous (as well as silly and self-defeating) consequences. Just today I saw an article from the British newspaper The Independent describing our culture’s feeble response to global warming. The article states that according to the best estimates of the insurance industry (not exactly a hotbed of environmental extremism) within fifty years “the economic cost of global warming stands to surpass the value of the total world economic output.” Note that this is economic cost, and does not speak to the disappearance of ice caps, oceans, forests, rivers, coastlines, cultures, or any other parts of reality to which our culture is insensate. The author of the article, Andrew Sims, recognizes this, stating, for example, that a “basic misunderstanding of our global governors in the IMF, World Trade Organisation and other still-emerging institutions, is to believe that abstract economic theory is more important than the real world.”

This is a fundamental flaw of our culture, and is central to everything I’ve been writing about in this book. As I read through account after account of lynchings, I see again and again descriptions of the murders of human beings not as particular people, but as members of a class: This is, I suppose, what lynching is all about. “Lynch the Wrong Negro in Texas: Little Mistake Made by a Mob in Madison County…. He was accused of riding his horse over a little white girl. Inflicting serious injuries on her. Later developments go to show the mob got hold of the wrong negro.” Or, “A mob willfully and knowingly hanged and burned an innocent man, as well as another who was probably innocent….” (This was after one mob had already tortured one of them in an attempt to extract a confession, and finally determined he was innocent: Another mob, or maybe the same mob the next day, decided to go ahead and kill both him and another anyway.) A headline: “Two Blacks Strung Up; Grave Doubt of Their Guilt.” Another: “Tennessee Colored Woman Lynched: Negro Charged With Theft Escaped From Mob, Which Wreaked Vengeance On His Sister.” More text from another lynching: “The coroner is of the opinion that the wrong man was killed.” And again: “It is possible that in the search for Richard Young, the negro wanted for the murder of Dower Fountain… a negro now unknown has been caught by a posse and burned in error.”

Today the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle carried an article titled “Two Rookies Kill Fellow Cop Making Arrest.” Evidently, the two police officers shot someone—a black man—whom they did not know was a cop. It is unclear what they thought, other than the obvious, that he was a black man in Oakland. The paper reported that the “uniformed officers were overcome with grief when they realized what they had done.” And what they had done was not to kill a black man, but a cop. Evidently, there’s a difference. A huge one. Of course.