Blue lies matter


One of the most formative books in my education on American politics was The Authoritarians, by Bob Altemeyer. (I might do a deeper dive into the book at a later date, but it’s also available for free here. Check it out!) Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bob Altemeyer is a foreigner (Canadian, to be exact), and I think he approaches American politics with a refreshing perspective unencumbered by the usual American chauvinism and defensiveness.

I read the book during my undergraduate years, when I, like Bob, was horrified not just by the Bush administration, but also by the resilience and strength of support among his base. In 2004, 50% of the country voted for Bush, knowing full well that we had entered a war based on false pretenses. In 2006 – even after Hurricane Katrina, Terry Schiavo, the warrantless wiretapping scandal, our reversal of fortune in Iraq, etc. – 40% of the electorate continued to approve of Bush’s job performance. Apparently what I considered to be appalling scandals failed to make a dent in Bush’s image among most of his followers. (If any of that sounds topical, give yourself a pat on the back.)

Altemeyer’s key innovation was defining a psychological scale that seemed to correlate with partisan attitudes. To be explicit, what he was attempting to measure was “Right-Wing Authoritarianism” (RWA), as embodied by three separate but related personality traits:

1) a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society; 2) high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities; and 3) a high level of conventionalism

Most of the questions on Altemeyer’s RWA test struck me at the time as absurdly written (almost deliberately so) with an obviously correct answer. (It’s worth noting that each question is answered on a scale of -4 (very strongly disagree) to +4 (very strongly agree), not on a binary (yes/no) scale.)

For instance:

2. Women should have to promise to obey their husbands when they get married.

3. Our country desperately needs a mighty leader who will do what has to be done to destroy the radical new ways and sinfulness that are ruining us.

7. The only way our country can get through the crisis ahead is to get back to our traditional values, put some tough leaders in power, and silence the troublemakers spreading bad ideas.

22. This country would work a lot better if certain groups of troublemakers would just shut up and accept their group’s traditional place in society.

I’d expect any reasonable person to respond with -4 or -3 for those questions, and to submit equally polarized answers for the questions framed oppositely (e.g., “You have to admire those who challenged the law and the majority’s view by protesting for women’s abortion rights, for animal rights, or to abolish school prayer.”). What’s truly disconcerting are the scores you get from administering the test to a representative sample of North Americans:

The lowest total possible would be 20, and the highest, 180, but real scores are almost never that extreme. Introductory psychology students at my Canadian university average about 75. Their parents average about 90. Both scores are below the mid-point of the scale, which is 100, so most people in these groups are not authoritarian followers in absolute terms. Neither are most Americans, it seems. Mick McWilliams and Jeremy Keil administered the RWA scale to a reasonably representative sample of 1000 Americans in 2005 for the Libertarian Party and discovered an average score of 90…

If you want to understand what’s wrong with America, it’s exactly this: there are only slightly fewer people who side with patently hyperbolic authoritarian rhetoric as those who don’t.

Particular professions certainly (self-)select for right-wing authoritarianism as a personality trait. And equally certain is that one of these professions is the police. In this post, I want to focus on how the trinity of RWA traits, and in particular trait #2 (“high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities”) manifests itself in policing.

There was an extremely disturbing article about police lying published earlier this year in Buzzfeed, entitled “Blue Lies Matter”. (Yes, dear reader, I wasn’t clever enough to come up with the blog post title on my own, so I stole it.) The article—which is excellent and thorough, and therefore also depressing—makes two important points. First, it is only because of the technological revolution—the ease with which police (mis)conduct can be photographed and videotaped—that we now have indisputable evidence that the police do indeed lie. Previously, it was the cop’s word against the defendant’s, and we all know whom the jury would side with. Second, while the police often defend themselves by claiming that “Ninety-nine percent of officers are really good” (that’s a direct quote from a retired Albuquerque police sergeant), the rot appears to be far more systemic. Here’s an example:

A rotten culture of policing is perhaps the only way to explain what happened in a case Chicago defense attorney Steve Goldman worked in 2014.

During a surveillance operation sparked by a tip from an informant, police officers pulled over his client, Joseph Sperling, and found a duffel bag filled with weed in his car.

Goldman obtained the dashcam footage from a police cruiser at the scene. When the officers testified about the arrest during a pretrial hearing, Goldman realized, “Oh my god, they have no idea we have this video.”

Five officers took the stand and “started saying the exact same thing like it was scripted.”

Every cop testified that at least four minutes passed from the time Sperling was pulled over until he was arrested. Each one testified that officer William Pruente smelled weed while standing at the driver’s side window, searched the car after Sperling admitted to having weed, and handcuffed him after he found the duffel bag.

“I mean it’s not like officer Pruente just walked up and got my client out of the car, right?” Goldman asked one of the cops, Vince Morgan, in court.

“That’s correct,” Morgan replied.

“And when my client exited the vehicle, he wasn’t immediately handcuffed, was he?”


When the fifth and final officer took the stand, Goldman played the video. It showed Pruente walking up to Sperling’s car and, without questioning him or taking his license, immediately opening his door, getting him out, putting on handcuffs, and sitting him in the back of a police cruiser — and only then searching his car and finding the bag.

“Obviously this is very outrageous conduct,” Judge Catherine Haberkorn said in court. “All officers lied on the stand today. … Many many many many times they all lied.”

Asked how so many officers could give the exact same false story, one cop testified that they had gathered with a prosecutor to go over the questions they would be asked in court and hear the answers their colleagues were giving. To get their stories straight, it seems.

According to the author of the article, there are two types of police lies:

The first is to keep themselves out of trouble, to avoid criminal charges or losing their job after a shooting or a beatdown or a questionable arrest. This is the one we most often hear about, in the aftermath of high-profile police abuse, when Sandra Bland is found dead in jail or Eric Garner suffocates on the pavement….The other reason cops lie is to lock up a suspect who they know — or think they know — is guilty even though they have insufficient evidence to make a legal arrest.

I think these ideas—particularly the second one—mesh quite well with what Altemeyer says about RWAs and their tolerance for law-breaking:

Authoritarian followers seem to have a “Daddy and mommy know best” attitude toward the government. They do not see laws as social standards that apply to all. Instead, they appear to think that authorities are above the law, and can decide which laws apply to them and which do not–just as parents can when one is young. But in a democracy no one is supposed to be above the law. Still, authoritarians quite easily put that aside. They also believe that only criminals and terrorists would object to having their phones tapped, their mail opened, and their lives put under surveillance.

RWAs have a Manichaean view of the world: people can be divided cleanly into two groups, the bad guys and the good guys. The rules, whether moral or legal, exist to punish the bad guys. They do not exist to constrain the good guys. The result is a two-tiered system of justice, where those without power are humiliated and punished for the most minor of infractions, and where those with power act with impunity. In short, an ethical framework where goodness is ascribed to the person, rather than to the action, is one in which abuse can and will happen. Michael Brown deserved to be killed because he was “no angel”. Roy Moore deserves to be elected because he’s a good man (and therefore, by the train of perverse logic that these arguments often follow, his accusers are bad women, spurred to lie by the liberal media). Eric Garner’s death, according to Rep. Peter King, was his own fault: “If he had not been obese, if he had not had diabetes, if he had not asthma, this probably would not have have happened.” (King also explained that Garner “had become a problem in the neighborhood.”) The officer who choked him to death, Daniel Pantaleo, was instead described by union chief Patrick Lynch as an “Eagle Scout”, “a professional”, “college educated”, and a “mature, mature police officer”. (Lynch could have saved himself some time by simply saying that Pantaleo was white and lives in the suburbs.) This all despite the fact that Pantaleo had an extensive history of abusing his power.

The willingness of right-wing authoritarian police officers to use “high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities” reached disturbing heights (depths?) recently, in a story that was perhaps drowned out in the torrent of other awful news.

A group of NYPD cops showed up at the hospital where an 18-year-old woman was seeking treatment after allegedly being raped by two Brooklyn detectives, in a bid to bully her out of bringing sex assault charges, her lawyer claims.

“They came with nine cops to intimidate her and her mom, to discourage them from coming forward and reporting the rape and sex assault,” Michael David, who represents the accuser, Anna Chambers, told The Post.

One officer in particular questioned Chambers’ story at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, where she had gone with her mom for a rape kit on Sept. 15 around 10:45 p.m., hours after the alleged rape and sexual assault, the lawyer said.

“He kept saying to Anna and her mom, ‘How do you know they were real cops?’ ” David said.

“Didn’t you make complaints about cops before?” the cop allegedly asked.

It’s almost too disturbing to think about. A group of nine bullies, wanting to protect their own, intimidated a woman in her most vulnerable state. They almost certainly lied about the rape, about her history of complaints, and about the idea that what the men who assaulted her weren’t “real cops”. If you, like me, grew up in an area where cops were the friendly people who prevented parties from getting out of hand and provided security at football games, you might find the lying—its depth, its frequency, and most of all its brazenness—shocking. And you might also find it shocking that so many Americans seem to care so little, and make so many excuses, even after it has happened, incontrovertibly, again and again and again. You might be as shocked as I was to find out that the lying about the Iraq War—about the WMDs, about the idea that it would pay for itself, about the idea that they would greet us as liberators—didn’t seem to matter.

And to all of that I would say: think long and hard about the questions on the right-wing authoritarianism test. And think in particular about question #5: “It is always better to trust the judgment of the proper authorities in government and religion than to listen to the noisy rabble-rousers in our society who are trying to create doubt in people’s minds”. Roy Moore, George Bush, Patrick Lynch, Daniel Pantaleo, those Brooklyn cops – they are the proper authorities. Eric Garner, Anna Chambers, you and I – we are the rabble-rousers.


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