By Joe Nalven
Throughout history we find deceptions that have lulled us into thinking they were true. All that is required is a Pied Piper with a fanciful narrative and gullible listeners.
Here are several deceptions over the past century.
The Soviet Potemkin Villages were constructed in the early 1930s to put a false face on the famine of Ukrainians. The New York Times reporter, Walter Duranty, won a Pulitzer Prize for buying into the Soviet deception. The New York Times offered an apology in 2003.
The Nazis misled the International Red Cross in beautifying the Terezin concentration camp (Theresienstadt Ghetto) in 1944. Once the Red Cross observers left this mirage, the Germans returned to deportations to Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Treblinka.
Rigoberta Menchú, a Quiche Guatemalan, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for advocating for the rights of the indigenous. When her “facts” about the conflicts she described proved to be significantly inaccurate, the Nobel Prize committee, nevertheless, declined to void the prize. After all, she was a human rights activist waging the war for social justice. Those in her defense argued that the narrative of oppression was more important than the facts of oppression.
And perhaps the most pernicious of all, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” This fabrication by Russian state police in the 1890s served as a catalyst for antisemitism. The London Times exposed The Protocols in 1921 as plagiarizing a French political satire, “Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu.” The original 1864 satire never mentioned Jews, but the Russian deception persuaded the gullible for many decades, joining a series of long-lived anti-semitic tropes.
And now, the movie “What Killed Michael Brown?” explores a deception hypnotizing many who protest. This deception takes race relations in America in the wrong direction. That deception is “hands up, don’t shoot.” The Washington Post gave it four Pinocchios in its fact-checking.
We know that it is a deception because President Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder investigated the shooting of Michael Brown and declined to bring any civil rights charges against Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown: “Michael Brown’s death, though a tragedy, did not involve prosecutable conduct on the part of Officer Wilson.”
Credible witnesses and forensic analysis led to the conclusion that Brown was not shot in the back; that Brown charged at the officer; that Brown’s DNA was on the officer’s collar. Holder concurred with his office’s decision as representing “the sound, considered and independent judgment of the expert career prosecutors.”
The movie, “What Killed Michael Brown,” recounts the facts and the myths that surround Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014. Shelby Steele, steeped in the history of social change for blacks in America, wrote and narrated the film. His son, Eli Steele, directed the movie.
Shelby Steele explains how those who advocate for social justice with “hands up, don’t shoot” seek a poetic truth — one that is not grounded in evidence, but a deception that demands us to conflate the present with past persecution. Those who wave the flag of poetic truth appear to be interested more in power rather than actually working on the community’s social issues.
Still, the fact is that many believe this deception. Poetic truth offers an attractive delusion. But instead of taking us into palpable change for blacks in America, it has, instead, deepened the divide on race relations and made it difficult to find a path to reforming current and past injustices.
That’s where Eli and Shelby Steele’s powerful movie enters the discussion.
Anyone who pretends to want to repair race relations in America, anyone who pretends to repair the world, anyone who wants justice needs to see this movie.
Why this movie? The killing of a black man is not a new event. Shelby Steele himself filmed an earlier movie, “Seven Days in Bensonhurst” — about the murder of Yusuf Hawkins. Yusuf was ambushed and killed in 1989 by white youths. They were tried and went to jail.
But is the killing of Michael Brown a repeat of Yusuf Hawkins? Or are we seeing something different? Do we rely on a persistent narrative of whites killing blacks or do we need to look at the facts of each event? Do we need to explore the history and context of Michael Brown to find out what else is responsible for killing him?
The Steeles present a multi-layered examination of blacks in America from the decade before the War on Poverty. The movie steers the viewer away from power and exploitation of Brown’s killing to the underlying factors driving the gullibility of those who feel required to believe the deception.
The movie takes us to East Saint Louis about 12 miles from Ferguson. Shelby Steele had worked there in a War on Poverty program. Wasn’t this the justice work that needed to be done — to repair poverty? But looking around, one area of the black community was demolished to make way for an imagined penthouse for the poor — the Pruitt-Igoe projects. Built in the 1950s as a liberal promise to poverty, but then demolished in the 1970s as having failed that promise.
This imagined solution to poverty, arising from liberal aspirations, destroyed a community where blacks owned a majority of the housing. This was what outsiders saw — a snapshot of poverty. They had good intentions.
Mayor Joseph Darst said in 1951, “We must rebuild, open up and clean up the hearts of our cities. The fact that slums were created with all the intrinsic evils was everybody’s fault. Now it is everybody’s responsibility to repair the damage.”
The reality was otherwise to the community that had been destroyed.
We return to Ferguson. The whites who lived there resisted white flight; they stayed and embraced social change away from racism. But they were caught off-guard by the explosion of violence that followed Michael Brown’s killing. So, too, were the Pakistani owners of the Ferguson Market where Michael Brown was caught on video and alerted the police. The owners offered to comply with the demands of protesters to help but were then asked to turn over their market. They were told they didn’t belong.
They were Pakistanis ─ they were immigrants. The movie tracks the craziness they emerged from Brown’s killing. Yes, the grief was notable, but the ‘solutions’ were misguided.
The puzzle seems overwhelming. How does one move forward from this kaleidoscope of racial, immigrant, class, residents and outside agitators? The Steeles turn to individual transformation — both by way of local clergy and individual responsibility. The individuals need to own their own future and not rely on liberals, especially guilt-ridden whites, to do the heavy lifting. The social entitlement programs such as Pruitt-Igoe projects, affirmative action and diversity programs give whites the illusion of moral legitimacy, a feeling of racial innocence, but fail to help the black underclass.
Why? Shelby Steele zeros in on that part of the solution often lacking among the media, elected officials and social commentators. Black individuals are robbed of agency, of being able to find solutions tailored to their situation, and instead forever dependent on whites to solve whatever problem for them. Shelby Steele sees liberals reliant on an ideology of white innocence (read: I’m not a racist, let me help), and requiring blacks to be blacks and not just human beings.
From Steele’s perspective, racism is not America’s original sin; it is used as a means to power. The original civil rights movement was one of good-faith, of wanting to become part of America; some of the current protests are a bad faith movement, wanting to destroy America, wanting to destroy the nuclear family, wanting to destroy capitalism.
The move is available on https://whatkilledmichaelbrown.com/. Go see it. Test yourself with the Steele’s adventure into American history, the deceptions and the facts, and a possible path forward.
But I wonder how many of us are among the gullible. I wondered if Eli Steele had a different audience in mind than the readers of this movie review. I asked Eli, and I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been: “Great question. We made this movie with black teens in mind. They need to know their history in its full complexity. That allows for a solid foundation to move forward.”
Joe Nalven is a former associate director of the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias at San Diego State University.