While most pundits have been content to brush away any talk about the extra-legal excesses of this summer of protests by noting they’re mostly peaceful, there are a few who are willing to get a bit more dug in.
Their defenses usually revolve around trying to get us to understand just how righteous the anger that fuels rioting is, or noting that property damage can’t hold a candle to human life.
Some commentators, however, really need the clicks and will straight-up defend destroying property. And I’ll admit it, I’ve clicked.
The logic, unfortunately, doesn’t quite click.
R.H. Lossin’s June 10 piece for The Nation, “In Defense of Destroying Property,” is the best of these. He argues that “pathologizing the act is tantamount to pathologizing the actor: Given the racial dimension of these protests, even apparently sympathetic explanations of theft and destruction risk of implying that people of color are reacting from feelings rather than carrying out reasoned, calculated acts with their own perfectly legitimate political logics.”
In other words, implying people of color or their non-melanated allies aren’t pursuing rational ends when they bust up a police precinct serves to both patronize and stigmatize them.
I didn’t think any piece would do a better job of summing up how desperate many on the left are to apologize for rioting — until recently, that is, when Vicky Osterweil became a subject of cultural discussion.
They say part of success is being in the right place at the right time.
The activist’s book titled “In Defense of Looting” came out in August, so Osterweil, who was born male but identifies as a woman, definitely had the right time down. The right place was NPR, where Osterweil was interviewed in a wholly uncritical fashion last week by Natalie Escobar for the “Code Switch” podcast.
“When I use the word looting, I mean the mass expropriation of property, mass shoplifting during a moment of upheaval or riot. That’s the thing I’m defending,” Osterweil said. “I’m not defending any situation in which property is stolen by force. It’s not a home invasion either. It’s about a certain kind of action that’s taken during protests and riots.
“Looting is a highly racialized word from its very inception in the English language. It’s taken from Hindi, lút, which means ‘goods’ or ‘spoils,’ and it appears in an English colonial officer’s handbook [on ‘Indian vocabulary’] in the 19th century.”
So Osterweil is not “not defending any situation in which property is stolen by force.” The author is only defending a situation where the overwhelming threat of force makes that mass expropriation of property possible.
Furthermore, Osterweil forwarded the popular idea that the stores being looted have insurance, so this is essentially a victimless crime.
“One thing about looting is it freaks people out. But in terms of potential crimes that people can commit against the state, it’s basically nonviolent,” Osterweil said. “You’re mass shoplifting. Most stores are insured; it’s just hurting insurance companies on some level. It’s just money. It’s just property. It’s not actually hurting any people.”
Clearly, the basic economic concept that a greater risk of rioting means higher insurance premiums, which in turn leads to higher prices and means making basic goods less affordable for the most vulnerable among us occurred to neither Osterweil nor Escobar.
And then there was Osterweil’s claim that looting shows “that without police and without state oppression, we can have things for free.” I’m not entirely sure whether that statement is self-parody or a self-own, or indeed whether those two are mutually exclusive.
There’s an interesting paradox here in that any revolution — and Osterweil made it clear that he is calling for nothing short of revolution in a subsequent interview with The New Yorker where the questions were far less cursory — hinges primarily on ideas.
Osterweil is certainly a fount of revolutionary ideas — none of which are particularly good or sustainable, but ideas they are.
But Osterweil’s publisher would just prefer you didn’t expropriate their author’s ideas — or “intellectual property,” to be more specific — if you please:
Very interesting text found within the book “In Defense of Looting” pic.twitter.com/ihy7FZnKmD
— Zaid Jilani (@ZaidJilani) September 2, 2020
The book is currently available for $16.89 in hardcover or $16.99 in Kindle format on Amazon.
Obviously, Osterweil doesn’t write his own copyright notices — but then again, he didn’t have to sign a book contract with Hachette. In the world of self-publishing and pay-what-you-want distribution, there were other options.
If Radiohead can do it, so can Vicky Osterweil.
And, as Zaid Jilani pointed out, other soi disant revolutionaries have handled the situation differently:
Often imitated, never duplicated pic.twitter.com/fLChZPUICl
— Zaid Jilani (@ZaidJilani) September 2, 2020
NPR Public Editor Kelly McBride apologized for the interview Thursday, saying that Osterweil deserved more critical analysis from the interviewer
McBride, in particular, singled out Osterweil’s claims that “looting is insured, that looters target businesses that aren’t rooted in the local community and that the civil rights movement only adopted non-violence to appeal to white northerners. All of those statements deserved pushback.”
“‘Code Switch’ editor Steven Drummond said that the article was fact-checked, but not enough.”
McBride would go further in condemning the interview in a newsletter, according to Fox News, saying that the interview “did not serve NPR’s audience” and had been “wrong about recent events.”
“Publishing false information leaves the audience misinformed. On top of that, news consumers are watching closely to see who is challenged and who isn’t. In this case a book author with a radical point of view far to the left was allowed to spread false information,” McBride said.
I’ve no doubt Osterweil isn’t one to mind about staid, liberal NPR throwing a fit about this.
Right place, right time and the right kind of people to get outraged about his book? The serendipity here is amazing.
Nearest I can tell from the two interviews I’ve read, Osterweil is human clickbait who just happened to have a book called “In Defense of Looting” ready to publish right as looting became a hot-button topic. Don’t loot it, though.
As for myself, I plan to pick up a version on file-sharing later to distribute to anyone I know with a passing interest in the book. I’m not going to read it, but I’m not stealing anything by force or home invasion, after all.
In fact, of all the methods of looting, this is probably the least forceful — and it’s definitely a protest.
I can’t see why Osterweil would object. I’m sure Hachette — which has made more than enough money off of this debacle, too — wouldn’t mind, either.
Surely they’d see the irony.
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