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The Kyle Rittenhouse furor is a fascinating illustration of how US politics has become mired in self-consuming tribalism. It shows how non-conversations, non-thinking now posture as serious political and social engagement. And it demonstrates once again the success of a practice beloved of elites the world over: offer bread and circuses to keep the masses from seeing the big picture and rising up.
Let me preface this post by pointing out that I have very little interest in what is being treated as the substance of the Rittenhouse story. It seems glaringly obvious that 17-year-olds – or anyone else, for that matter – should not be wandering around with big guns, or small ones, whether in moments of calm or during highly charged confrontations. That is simply insanity.
But that is not, apparently, the consensus in the United States, where for historical reasons guns are invested with a strange moral and legal sanctity for much of the population.
The descendants of the armed settler colonists who went to the Americas to steal the resources of the native people feel compelled to continue the tradition of bearing arms, long after the surviving natives were locked away in reservations.
The descendants of the new “Americans” who rebelled against their mother country, shaking off the yoke of British imperialism through force of arms, cherish their weapons in case they are needed once more to face down the tyranny of an elected government or their fellow citizens.
And the descendants of the white founders of the country, many of them slave owners who needed arms to keep their black chattel enslaved, demand the right to continue carrying guns to avert any threat from the descendants of those slaves.
This is America’s version of sanity. This is America the brave.
So why are so many exercised – either for or against – by Rittenhouse’s acquittal last week of charges relating to the shooting dead of two men and the wounding of a third during a night of unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin on August 25?
Why are so many focused on the fact that Rittenhouse was carrying a semi-automatic rifle during protests and looting in a small city where part of his family lived? Was Rittenhouse the only one who was not supposed to be armed that night – and if so, was that because being angry and armed is a right that should be restricted to those aged 18 and over?
And why is the issue of colour so clearly the context for judging Rittenhouse when all those involved – Rittenhouse and the three men he shot – were white? He was not involved in the lethal shooting two days earlier of a black man, Jacob Blake, by a white police officer that served as the trigger for the unrest in Kenosha.
Rittenhouse claimed self-defence – and the jury found in his favour. That was because the videos they saw, taken from all sorts of angles, show that, in a night of mayhem and a special kind of American madness, Rittenhouse did indeed give every appearance of defending himself. They show that, had he not had a gun that night, one of the three men he shot might well have ended up in the dock accused of murdering him.
But none of that is apparently relevant in the rage-filled polemicising about Rittenhouse – polemics that already miss the bigger picture of what is going on in the US.
For each tribe, Rittenhouse is guilty or not, irrespective of the evidence. The legal matter the jury needed to resolve was whether he genuinely feared for his life each time he pulled the trigger. And the video evidence suggests he did. He was repeatedly chased. By a man with mental health problems shouting out that he would cut out Rittenhouse’s heart, backed by the sound of gunfire, who lunged at him to take his rifle. As Rittenhouse fled that shooting, he was knocked down and hit across the shoulder by a man with a skateboard who also tried to seize his rifle. And finally, he was leapt on by someone pointing a handgun at him. However we look at it, the jury had more than enough reasonable doubt to work with.
So why the continuing furore at his acquittal?
Because the Rittenhouse case has nothing to do with the law or the facts. Like so much else in the US nowadays, it was and is about emotion. It is about history. It is about identity. It is about a widening tribal divide.
It is, in other words, a continuation of the spring and summer of unrest, of riots, of Black Lives Matter protests – but relocated from the street into a courtroom. The unfocused, unresolved political tensions in the US in the wake of those protests have been invested in the prosecution of a 17-year-old. One who owned a big rifle.
Even in writing this piece, because it does not simply denounce Rittenhouse, I find myself trapped inside this manufactured tribal divide, forced to take a side when each side is spouting empty slogans meant only to further alienate and antagonise the other side.
Rittenhouse’s crime – or his triumph, depending on which tribe you belong to – was not shooting three white men that night. It was the crime of being seen to be a Trump supporter. It was the crime of being seen to be on the wrong side of the Black Lives Matter protests. It was the crime of being acquitted in a law enforcement system that systematically discriminates against people of colour.
Rittenhouse has been made into a symbol of white supremacy. He is a hero or a punching bag – depending on whether you are with the Jets or the Sharks. And you must be a Jet or a Shark. There is no opting out.
It may be true that, had Rittenhouse been black, he would not have hurried towards police lines, seeking protection. And had he chosen to approach those lines, it is also true that, were he black, he might well have been shot by police officers. And it is possible too that, had he made it out of Kenosha alive, his trial would not have led to an acquittal, especially if a black Rittenhouse had shot three white men. The video evidence might well have been ignored in favour of a narrative of that night that tapped in to white fears of the entitled, armed black man.
All that is true. But it has nothing to do with the real human being – not the abstraction – called Kyle Rittenhouse. He is not personally to blame for the political, social, economic and moral mire that is the modern United States, even if he is suspected of being a Trump supporter.
Our expectation should not be that Rittenhouse is treated by the police and the legal system the same way as a black man. It is that black men, and women, should be treated like a white Rittenhouse; that police forces should treat the black and white population alike; that legal facts should count whatever your skin colour.
If we call for vengeance against Rittenhouse – of the physical or verbal variety – then the truth is we are no better than the person we presume Rittenhouse to be. He is not the problem. And to think he is is to make ourselves the problem.
Profit from outrage
The intensifying tribalism that has beset the US – that the polarised reactions to the Rittenhouse case exemplify – is not accidental. It is deeply tied to the turbo-charged system of capitalism that seeks to extract profit from every last seam of our internal and external worlds. Just like an oil industry desperate to squeeze tar out of sand or frack oil out of rocks, the corporate media needs to suck our attention ever more keenly into conflict, into hatred, into blaming and shaming.
In our soundbite-driven, attention-deficit present – one where the stop-motion, clay creatures of Ray Harryhausen’s imagination in the 1960s have been replaced by the immersive CGI effects of technicians employed by mammoth corporations – our appetite for greater drama, greater sensation, greater pay-offs knows no bounds. We are too busy, too consumed, too triggered to pause, to stand back, to doubt, to think.
Matt Taibbi wrote a book, Hate Inc, on how the modern corporate media has monetised hatred, growing addicted to the profits the outrage industry generates. [https://www.orbooks.com/catalog/hate-inc/ ] Trump was the ultimate product of that trend, elevated by a modern, corporate media that mostly despised him. He was the president the bulk of the media loved to hate, and needed us to do the same, so we kept tuning in, we kept watching, we kept resisting or we kept cheerleading.
That hatred meant more eyeballing by viewers and more money from advertisers. The drama of the unpredictable provided endless work for pundits and analysts as they tried to make sense of the madness. The confrontation meant heightened emotion and greater personal investment in the news. The pro-Trump media and the anti-Trump media were not on our side. They were both on the side of milking profit from our rage.
Fires of hatred
But the power-elite does more than simply make money from our hate. It gains in important, ideological ways. Because the more we hate, the less able we are to discriminate, to think clearly, to strategise, to see who are our real enemies.
And this is where the Rittenhouses prove useful.
Trump is gone, for the time being at least, but the fires of tribalism and hatred still need to be stoked to keep the population divided, distracted and demoralised. There are reliable external enemies like China and Russia, but when you are a lone, global superpower like the US – outspending all your enemies combined many times over – there is only so much external fear you can credibly marshal.
Enemies within – supposedly working hand in glove with those external enemies – are a much more plausible bogeyman. You don’t need evidence that Russia is planning to invade the US mainland when it is running the president, or infiltrating social media and poisoning our children’s minds, or rigging the elections, or destabilising democracy. And China doesn’t need to invade either, when it owns the US economy and seeks to control its communications systems.
The maintenance of that heightened paranoia by the corporate media is good both for business and for fomenting division. It is not Russia and China destabilising the US. It is the fabulously wealthy US power-elites – and their media – destabilising the US public to keep everyone feuding over the latest domestic outrage, the latest Rittenhouse.
Nothing can change without solidarity. The unsustainable, planet-destroying, donor-captured and corrupted system we call US democracy survives because the vast majority are too busy hyperventilating over whoever is deemed to be today’s Rittenhouse. Should he be jailed because he is white? Should he walk free because he is a patriot? Facts be damned either way.
Rittenhouse is a mirage, a manufactured repository for our outrage, our self-righteousness, our fear and our guilt. He is a phantasm conjured up by the corporate media to feed its bottom line and feed our egos. While we play along with this charade, compassion withers a little more, the planet expires a little quicker, and our species moves a little closer to the cliff edge.
Time to let the phantasmal Rittenhouse go. Think of the real 17-year-old, remember that he too is as much a product of a corrupt and corrupting system of power as you and me. We cannot defeat it without him. And time is not on our side.
Feature photo | Kyle Rittenhouse enters the courtroom to hear the verdicts in his trial at the Kenosha County Courthouse in Kenosha, Wis., on, Nov. 19, 2021. Sean Krajacic | The Kenosha News via AP
Jonathan Cook is a MintPress contributor. Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). His website is www.jonathan-cook.net.
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