Saturday, September 6, 2014
Burn him! Burn him! He's a witch!!!
Radley Balko may be a respected critic of police abuse, but let's face it -- at bottom, is he a hardworking journalist, or just a disreputable bald guy?
On Thursday, Slate, an online publication I often read, published an article by some creature named Ben Mathis-Lilley. For your convenience, I've boldfaced the part that makes Mr. Mathis-Lilley seem like an ignorant asshole. Here is the first few sentences of the piece:
Yesterday the Washington Post published an epic investigation of the municipal-fine system in outlying St. Louis County cities and towns like Ferguson. If that sounds boring—and I admit, as the person who wrote the preceding sentence, that it sounds boring—try this: In appalling detail, reporter Radley Balko makes a case that St. Louis County is home to a large-scale state-enforced shakedown racket that extorts black residents by using unjust imprisonment as a weapon.
Balko is a civil liberties advocate who's written for the libertarian publication Reason, so if you're inclined you can take his framing of the issues with a grain of salt. But the most stunning parts of his piece aren't anecdotes or rhetoric; they’re facts about a system that raises money for itself by deluging a largely-black population with fines and tickets for minor civic infractions, then punishes them again and again with arrests and imprisonment for not being able to navigate a convoluted judicial system.
If you suspect you are about to get a rant along the lines of "the map is not a territory," you are correct. And notice that I don't seem that Mathis-Lilley "is" an ignorant asshole; I just write that his article makes him "seem" like one.
What if Mr. Mathis-Lilley had written, "Balko is a civil liberties advocate who's a bald guy, so if you're inclined you can take his framing of the issues with a grain of salt." Or, "Balko is a civil liberties advocate who's an Indianpolis Colts fan, so if you're inclined you can take his framing of the issues with a grain of salt."
In all three cases, I would argue that hanging a label on Balko has little do with the merits of any piece he's written. It's either well-written or it's not. It either follows reasonable standards of evidence, or it does not.
Reason magazine was founded in 1968, so it's probably run quite a few pieces by now, by a variety of writers. I'm not sure what it's supposed to prove that it has published Balko. Mathis-Lilley could have emphasized, by the way, that Balko's piece was published by the Washington Post.
Yesterday, I linked to a writer I admire, and whose death I mourn, Alexander Cockburn. I guess since I self-identify as a classical liberal, by Mathis-Lilley's reasoning, I really should have written, "Cockburn was a Marxist who's written for the Nation, so if you're inclined you can take his framing of the issues with a grain of salt."