Sep 16, 2022

Seeing Ghosts

America's psyche appears to be disintegrating.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.” Today's newsletter is a special Friday edition.

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One of my favorite expressions in sports is when an athlete is described as "seeing ghosts."

You hear commentators say this after someone has made a mistake, and that mistake provokes panic, and the panic compounds into more mistakes. "He's seeing ghosts out there," an announcer may say about a quarterback who has just thrown his third interception in a row.

I like this expression because it resonates with me deeply. I know the feeling of seeing ghosts — of being spooked to the point your imagination fills in the blanks in the most negative and horrifying ways possible. We've all heard a creak in the floorboards of our house, only to then see a movement out of the corner of our eye, leading to a full scan of the property, just to realize our head was playing tricks on us.

I also like it because it's a great way to explain the current state of America's discourse, where it seems as if so many of us are seeing ghosts so incessantly.

One of the most talked about examples of this recently happened at a Brigham Young University volleyball game.

In case you missed it, here is the rough summary of the story: A Duke women's volleyball player named Rachel Richardson recently played in front of a BYU home crowd. Richardson is Black. After the game, she told reporters she was "racially heckled," and her godmother, an attorney who did not attend the game, took to Twitter to claim that a fan had shouted the n-word at her “every time she served” for an entire game. Additionally, a white male allegedly threatened her – suggesting she watch her back on the way to the team bus.

Basically every major news organization ran with the story immediately. It was on the front page of ESPN and got in-depth (and deeply flawed) coverage from The New York Times. Apologies were written. Student protests snapped into action. South Carolina’s women’s basketball team canceled a two-game series it had scheduled with BYU on account of the incident. And BYU itself banned a fan over the story.

Naturally, the narrative was something most of the sports world and the country were ready to hear. Few things evoke whiteness like the letters "BYU." Few things evoke the image of rowdy debauchery like "college sports." And few of us would doubt that a Black female athlete playing college sports in a decidedly white part of the country might encounter racist heckling.

But then something weird happened.

It started to look like the story wasn't true.

BYU and Duke playing in women's volleyball is a high profile Division I sporting event — the kind of thing that is filmed and live streamed from multiple angles and attended by hundreds, if not thousands, of fans. There are commentators, camera crews, radio broadcasts… the whole nine yards. So BYU investigated, as did its student newspaper, poring over hours of footage and audio from the event, as well as interviewing more than 50 people, including student athletes and staff from both Duke and BYU.

And they found that no such heckling — none of the kind that, if heard from the court, would undoubtedly have been picked up by cameras or heard by others — ever happened. Not a single teammate of the player in question could confirm the story, not a single witness came forward, and Duke is now offering vague statements about the pride it has in its student athletes. What the investigation did find was a fan who police believed had special needs. Some believe the fan, who was banned (but has since been reinstated), was repeatedly misheard while yelling "COUGARS!" throughout the game (the BYU mascot).

As the evidence mounted against the initial narrative, many conservatives started calling it a "hoax," invoking the likes of Jussie Smollet and other race-baiters who have made headlines on trumped-up charges. But as sportswriter Ethan Strauss put it, that isn't quite right. This wasn't a "hoax." Richardson probably isn't guilty of anything except mishearing a cheer or heckle and assuming the worst — and then being aided by a media apparatus and college administrators who lacked any curiosity or skepticism. She didn't intentionally create a lie out of thin air, but she saw a ghost, and everyone else confirmed she saw it too, without even looking.

In explaining what happened, Richardson also lent credence to the notion she was primed to see the ghost in the first place.

"My team and I were fortunate enough to go through 'A Long Talk,' which is an educational series on the roots of racism and how to be an activist in not just dealing with racism, but preventing it and ending it," she said on Twitter. "This helped to equip us to deal with the situation in a mature manner rather than to react in a retaliatory manner."

That a college student was taught to look out for racism all around her and then conjured an instance of overt, unbridled racism might be a coincidence. Or it might be a part of a larger story of us teaching ourselves to find the evil in our midst.

Everyone’s experiences are going to be unique, and I certainly can’t say I know what it feels like to be a Black person in America. But abstractly, I can try to relate. And I know what it’s like to be looking for ghosts.

I’m a millennial Jew. Every generation that has preceded mine has been sure to remind me of the anti-Semitism lurking around every corner. My grandmother’s default barometer of a person's character was how they treated the Jews (Henry Ford, she once reminded me, “was a bastard”). When you have grandparents who escaped the Nazis, and parents who grew up in segregated schools — where Jews were considered non-white — it's hard to blame them. You might see anti-Semitism everywhere, too: in criticisms of Israel, in ignorant questions about your faith, in harmless jokes about the inferiority of Hanukkah (it is, for the record, worse than Christmas – even though there are eight nights).

I remember once, in my early 20s, a few years into my college experience at the University of Pittsburgh, a new friend inquired about Judaism. "Why does it seem like Jews are so successful?" they asked me. In my mind then, a generation of warnings sparked an internal line of questioning.

Why is this person asking me about Jews as if we're a mystery to be unwound? Do they think we control the world? Do they have some kind of inferiority complex? Do they envy us? Do they hate us? I bet they hate us.

Today I recognize the question for what it was: A person sincerely seeing a moment to better understand a corner of the world they were utterly unfamiliar with, and offering a weirdly delivered compliment of “my people” as an attempted icebreaker. Why ask your mom or friend or professor or Google about Jews when you could ask the Jew sitting right in front of you?

My Jewish brethren are particularly good at seeing ghosts. Again, not that anyone should blame them. Like Black Americans who carry the inter-generational trauma of slavery and the Jim Crow era, American Jews carry the ancestral trauma of the Holocaust. Add to that having to witness targeted mass shootings or daily bigotry, and the unending media coverage around such events, and it’d be a wonder if any racial, ethnic, or religious minority didn’t assume the worst of the people around them.

Just this week, an extremely well-reported piece in the New York Times on the failings of the Hasidic (ultra-orthodox Jewish) school systems was framed by Tablet, one of my favorite Jewish magazines, as a "plot" to take down Jewish education before it was even published. Of course, what would really be anti-Semitic is not writing about the failings of private Jewish schools with a tone of shock, but to see a hyper-conservative Jewish movement that’s failing its students as acceptable because it is a Jewish movement. And it would be to no one’s benefit if the fear of being seen as “anti-Semitic” prevented the Times from doing any critical reporting of Hasidic schools whatsoever.

It's hard to emphasize enough how infuriatingly backward the whole thing is.

On Monday, in our "quick hits" section of the newsletter, I wrote the following sentence: "An elected official in Nevada was arrested and charged for the killing of a local Las Vegas reporter who had published stories critical of him."

To my chagrin, I received several emails from enraged conservative readers informing me that the "elected official" was a Democrat, and complaining that they were disappointed to learn that I was part of a mainstream media conglomerate who refuses to speak ill of the Democratic party. Surely, they insisted, if it were a Republican who had been accused of killing a journalist, I would have said so.

The real reason for the omission — that including the party affiliation of a Clark County Public Administrator seems irrelevant in a national politics newsletter — is hardly worth mentioning. But it was informative to see how easily three years of freely criticizing the Democratic party went up in smoke, not for something I wrote in "my take," or for a disparaging item on Republicans, but for an innocuous one-word omission in a section delivering one-sentence, quick hit news items.

Conservatives, of course, are also great at seeing ghosts. The victim mentality of today's political partisans leaves conservatives comparing their vaccination status to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, or a homosexual during the AIDS epidemic. It allows them to see punishment for flagrant violations of a social media platform's rules as "censorship" or encourages them to cry that the government is taking away their guns as they gleefully and freely buy up more than one firearm for every adult and hundreds of millions more than any other country on earth. Athletes kneeling during the national anthem are seen as threatening the fabric of the nation. LGBTQ teachers talking about their partners are “indoctrinating” kids into being gay.

Liberals have long been adept at seeing ghosts, too. Not just the race essentialism of every narrative, but the insistence that potential allies are mortal enemies. For years now, progressives have been demonizing moderate allies who don't conform to their language use or subscribe wholly to their ideologies. Politicians who sign off on the largest climate change bill in American history can still be opponents. An interested ally posting a black box on social media to show support for Black Lives Matter is being performative and disingenuous. Meltdowns at progressive advocacy organizations, where people literally work to address the same political issue but spend all their time fighting with each other, are now so common there are entire articles about them. Rather than unifying activists, the ghosts of progressives are tearing them apart at the seams.

Some ghosts are being sought and have yet to be found. On Twitter recently, a tweet popped up in my feed from an ultra-progressive user suggesting that the use of alphabetical ordering was a form of psychological harm, and that they were so tired of being last. Further, they noted, was that they knew — in their soul — that alphabetical ordering was a form of racism. The hunt for proof was on.

All American identity groups, however, are now primed to think this way. Kmele Foster, one of my favorite Libertarian voices, has a thought-provoking way of framing it. Foster is Black. And one analogy I've heard him use is the hypothetical scenario of him walking into a jewelry store.

In scenario A, Foster says, one of the jewelers subtly follows him around the store as he peruses the selection, an action he has been told is indicative of racism. Clearly, the employee is worried that a Black man in their store may try to pick a nice diamond bracelet off the rack and slip it into his coat pocket.

In scenario B, he says, the employees look up as Foster walks in, take stock of him, and then ignore him as he peruses the store. This, too, is indicative of their racism. Clearly, the employees see a Black man in a fine jewelry store and assume he can't afford anything on the rack.

For Foster, the ghosts are inescapable. So long as you believe all the things society tells you about how Black people are viewed — which, for the record, Foster does not — it doesn’t matter what the employees in the jewelry store do. In the end, however they act will be easy to see as a form of racism.

Racial discourse, in particular, is really tough to navigate. Making a person's race a central part of how we view them in all circumstances — the idea of “race essentialism” — leads to the situation Foster describes. Not talking about race at all, however, risks turning a blind eye to the issues of our past and how they pervade the present. Add to this balance the dynamic of being a white person writing for an audience of all races, and it's hard to know how to be honest about my perspective without seeming like I'm lecturing about experiences I don't have. But the moment I start thinking about how my words could be interpreted as offensive, I realize I’m starting to see the ghosts.

It's hard to overstate the pervasiveness of this phenomenon.

Victimhood, grievance politics, microaggressions, race-essentialism — these things are not unique to Democrats or white conservatives or Jews or racial minorities. They are becoming essential to everyone. Every group, every tribe. They are political fodder, social capital, core ideologies, truths, deep states, lived experiences, driving narratives that shape not just our internal monologues about the world around us — but define each and every person we interact with.

We are all seeing ghosts.

The result, naturally, is that we are regularly surrounded by perceived enemies, threatened by neighbors, divorced from fellow countrymen, disappointed by friends, and in perpetual fear of each other.

I could tell you that this fear isn't justified. I could present polling and social science and historical records to argue, say, that America is the most tolerant place on earth or that we all actually agree on dozens of major issues or that people are generally selfish, sure, but also inherently good, and kind, and not particularly prone to violence or interested in harming each other. And that’s all true — but it isn’t the whole truth.

There are racists in the United States. Yes. Sure. We are tribal and afraid. Of course. Conservatives are censored on social media and media bias is real. Anti-Semitism is out there and — it seems — getting more common and more violent. These things are all real.

But is it likely that a fan in the stands of a televised collegiate volleyball game incessantly yelled the "n-word" at the lone Black player on the floor for two hours straight without a single teacher, fan, administrator, athlete or parent stepping in? Without a single camera or microphone catching it?

And if it isn’t likely, why do we believe it so easily?

Is it likely that a newsroom full of Jewish writers in the most Jew-friendly city in America would publish an anti-Semitic screed attempting to take down a Jewish educational institution in their community rather than, say, trying to shed some light on how it’s failing its children?

Is it plausible, maybe, that overzealous public health officials and a terrified and unprepared federal government are several degrees of separation away from Nazi Germany? Or that being gay during the AIDS epidemic was actually a lot worse than being intentionally unvaccinated in 2020?

Is it more likely that you violated a rule of a social media platform, or that the invisible hand of a billion-dollar company is spending its valuable time targeting your political tweet, that all of 20 people saw?

Why are we so devoted to these stories?

Mostly, I think, it’s because we're being told the ghosts are real. We're being told they are everywhere, omnipresent, sending creaks through the house as they climb the stairs, glinting in the corners of our eyes, observable and yet impossible to prove or trap or, say, catch on camera.

Perhaps as a society we might start considering that the ghosts aren't always there, that they actually show up quite irregularly, even rarely, which is really the thing that makes them so astonishing in the first place.

Maybe, then, we'll be pleased to see how many of them fall from our view.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.