The Real Risks of Fake Outrage
My friend G. lives on Martha’s Vineyard, an island with a complex social order. During the winter it is among the poorest districts in Massachusetts, but in the summer it vies for position as one of the richest. The year-round population is largely working-class; the summer folk are well-off, and their numbers include more than a few celebrities.
In the last week of August, G. took the ferry to the mainland to stock up on supplies at Walmart; on her return, she took a taxi home from the boat landing. Unlike in New York, the local cab companies are small businesses run by individuals who work other jobs to make ends meet. Four or five rusty vans wait at the ferry dock, and you share a van with anyone else going in your direction.
On this particular trip, G. shared her cab with an elderly couple dressed in full nautical regalia. The woman wore a red blazer and navy trousers; the gentleman sported an ivory-tipped cane, bow tie and a seersucker suit. A man carrying a shoulder-mounted camera with a long telephoto lens was filming the cab as G. boarded—and she assumed that one or the other was a famous novelist, a great diplomat or some long-retired Nobel laureate. As it turned out, however, it was the cab itself that was the main attraction: the cameraman was a Republican tracker for Scott Brown, Elizabeth Warren’s opponent in the Senate race. “He’s been following us for days,” the driver said wearily.
“Us” was Martha’s Vineyard Taxi, an enterprise owned by Morgan Reitzas, a struggling musician and part-time fisherman. Reitzas was hired by the Warren campaign to drive her to fundraisers and for sightseeing on the island. Reitzas was caring for his 4-year-old daughter, whom he’d brought along for the ride. When the tracker tried to film the inside of the van, where Reitzas’s daughter was seated, Reitzas ordered him to back away and put his hand over the lens. The resulting footage shows the confrontation, as well as the clattering spin as the camera hits the ground.
A great deal more than the camera went into spin mode. The video was posted online, where it quickly got more than 100,000 views on YouTube. Within hours, the executive director of the Massachusetts Republican Party had denounced Reitzas as a violent “campaign aide” to Warren and falsely asserted that Warren had passively witnessed the entire encounter. In response, her campaign issued a statement: “The person featured in the video was not a member of the Elizabeth Warren for Massachusetts staff. He is a cab driver. Elizabeth did not see what happened.”
The blogosphere greeted this with snide innuendo. “Consider the subtext behind ‘He is a cab driver,’” wrote a blogger at American Thinker. “The impression given is that the cab driver, as would be expected of a little person who was not a Harvard professor, was unknown to Ms. Warren.” The Brown campaign—which in April got police to remove a Democratic tracker from an event—sent an unctuous letter to the local board of selectmen urging them not to revoke Reitzas’s license and expressing concern about “how he would support his family…. He seems like a regular guy who’s just trying to get by like everyone else.”
Reitzas’s Facebook page was scoured for signs of villainous connections and a photo of him surfaced, with what hostile commentators described as “his arms around” Warren and her husband, while standing in front of an old lighthouse. It was taken during a sightseeing stop (“I’ve been photographed with many celebrities over the years, driving the cab,” Reitzas moaned) but became proof that he was lying, lying, lying and that Warren was more than just a good customer. Ultimately, his time in the spotlight exposed him to so much harassment that Reitzas took down his Facebook page, hired two lawyers and held a press conference at which he issued an apology for his aggression, denied (again) any political connection to Warren, revealed himself as an unregistered voter with no affiliation and explained (again) that he was trying to protect his daughter.
That this passes as a “political” story at all is troubling. Yet there are a thousand similar nonstories across the country during this election season. Their manufacture and magnification represent a crisis of public discourse, and we are distracted by them at our peril.
Here’s a story that matters: The balance of power in the Senate is at stake, and Warren’s campaign has been battered by huge investments in negative advertising funded by ALEC, the Koch brothers and big banks. After all, Warren designed the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; she predicted the financial collapse well before most and fought against the 2005 Bush-era law that drastically constrained the ability of ordinary people to declare bankruptcy in the face of that collapse; she has devoted her career to reforming fraudulent lending practices, women’s wage inequalities and unfair credit schemes. It is no slight to Scott Brown—a mild-mannered moderate Republican whose political identity is configured around the amiability of his pickup truck—to say that Elizabeth Warren has more to offer in a time of economic tremulousness.
Socrates said rhetoric is the art of persuasion. He also said that persuasion in the absence of fact is mere flattery of one’s audience; and flattery unsustained by truth is neither art nor rhetoric but purest demagogy. Like the nonstory of Morgan Reitzas, too much of our political discourse is degraded by hyperbolized trivia whose fantastical properties deliver us only and exactly what we want to hear. Apparently all we want to hear about is sex, car crashes and the bleed that leads. Lacking that, the random folly of a cab driver having a really bad day would seem to suffice. It surely is time we grew up.