The other day on Twitter I found myself in a debate about the ghost of Christopher Hitchens. The proposition was whether the once-famous, now-dead iconoclast could get his work published in 2021. On one side, a writer insisted that, given Hitchens’ catholic list of targets (his favorites included Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton, Princess Diana, God, and the Iraqi people), he would “likely be run out of town.” “Not sure one could get away with his combination of positions now,” the writer explained. “They are very much out of fashion.”
I disagreed. Hitchens was, above all, a contrarian. (He both used and, cutely, rejected the term.) And contrarianism is all about keeping up with fashion. This is not just seen in any professional gadfly’s choice of popular topics. It is also seen in the successful contrarian’s choice of positions. Sure, their takes are always a bit edgy, a bit haute couture, but ultimately they reify what a substantial portion of the market and those in power are primed to believe. Just as with any other kind of fashion, the easiest sell is to refurbish and repackage what was popular a few years, if not decades, before. (In Hitchens’ case, when it came to Iraq: good old-fashioned imperialism.)
This was still on my mind a few days later when another pair of contrarians popped into my feed. The topic was, as it often is these days, an act of racism: the May 2020 incident in New York’s Central Park. A white woman named Amy Cooper—caught in a dispute with a Black birdwatcher over her refusal to leash her dog—threatened to call the cops and tell them “there is an African-American man threatening my life.” Then she did. The video was recorded by the man, coincidentally named Christian Cooper, who can be heard asking her to keep her distance. When she finally clips the leash to her dog’s collar, he says “thank you” and leaves.
The video immediately went viral, thanks largely to its timing (it happened the same day as the police murder of George Floyd). Cooper received a torrent of virulent criticism, including death threats. She was charged with a misdemeanor count of falsely reporting an incident. Prosecutors asked for the charge to be dropped after Cooper completed a plea deal, undergoing five therapy sessions that included education on the effects of racial bias.
It was a seemingly clear-cut case of racism—an object lesson in disparate policing and the unequal relationship between white people, Black people, and the state. In other words, it was catnip for today’s contrarians.
A minute-long cell phone video is by definition in want of context. For millions of people who saw it, the social context was clear. The initial reporting further uncovered nothing to justify Cooper having provoked what easily could have turned into another fatal encounter between an unarmed Black man and the police. But, the contrarian asks, what if there was some other context—some further evidence that would put a non-racist spin on Cooper’s actions, and thus mollify an audience eager to pay money to assuage their feelings of racial guilt and weaken the forces pushing for broader social change?
The answer, having sat through an eighty-minute podcast on the topic by two of the day’s most highly remunerated contrarians is: there isn’t any. (I’m not going to do the hosts’ publicity for them: suffice it to say that one is a former New York Times columnist who tried unsuccessfully to get “canceled,” then quit. The other is a telecom consultant who has found fame as Black man who caters to the anti-anti-racist crowd; he, pace Hitchens, refused the contrarian label during the podcast as well.)
The failure to find exculpation is not for lack of effort. The podcast is a highly produced, faux-exhaustive affair. (Its aesthetic leans heavily on The Daily, the more mainstream, equally performatively thoughtful audio blog produced by the ex-columnist’s former place of employment.) Built around an “exclusive” interview with Amy Cooper, it offers details about her life: her hopes and dreams in moving to New York City, her history of having survived sexual assault as a teenager. The most genuinely heart-rending moments come as she details her torment as she and her family were bombarded with hate calls and death threats in the wake of the video’s release. Cooper says she has moved to another country out of fear for her safety. She also talks openly about having contemplated suicide.
These details are meant to elicit sympathy from the listener, and speaking for myself, they do: She did not deserve to be subjected to such abuse, especially after she apologized. Indeed, even Christian Cooper, the man she targeted, said as much, telling the Times the day after the incident: “It’s a little bit of a frenzy, and I am uncomfortable with that … If our goal is to change the underlying factors, I am not sure that this young woman having her life completely torn apart serves that goal.”
But none of the details the contrarians unearthed challenge the core facts: that a white woman, in the heat of an argument with a Black man, threatened to call the police—specifically and pointedly promising to highlight his race—and then did just that:
Most of the podcast is spent building the case that Amy Cooper did in fact feel threatened. Much is made of the apparently bitter rivalry between birdwatchers and dog-walkers in that part of Central Park, as well as Christian’s prior run-ins with the same crowd (he has said he has been physically assaulted twice). The hosts also continuously repeat the fact that Christian was holding a bike helmet, which they repeatedly imply he may have intended to use as a weapon of some kind. They finally, and contradictorily, argue that it is impossible to know what was going through Amy Cooper’s mind when she made the life-altering threat and 911 call.
This is the ground that apologists for racism prefer to fight on these days: inside the unknowable minds of the individual, rather than on the scale of a society, where patterns become more obvious. But in this case, what happened is already abundantly clear. The hosts only have to listen to their own interview: When Cooper is asked why she invoked her interlocutor’s race in the context of calling the police, she says: “You know, I was—I was in a situation, I was a woman, I was alone in a park, I had been threatened multiple times at this point, my dog was trying to be lured away from me.”
In other words, her fear isn’t exculpatory. It was the reason she made her race-based threat. And this is clear in the video: It is only after Christian remains unbowed by her initial threat to call the police (“please call the cops,” he replies, knowing her failure to leash her dog was against city law) that she ups the ante: saying, with a little head waggle, “I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.” She then stares directly at him, eyebrows raised.
As Cooper surely learned in her prosecution-mandated therapy sessions, white women’s fears—often deeply felt—have been used to justify violence against Black men for centuries. The fear that Carolyn Byrant, the white woman whose accusations got Emmett Till lynched in 1955, felt after hearing the Black boy’s whistle was made a central issue in the trial that acquitted his killers. But in reality it was beside the point. That the “case went a long way toward ruining [Bryant’s] life,” as Timothy B. Tyson, the author of The Blood of Emmett Till, has written, is also unfortunate—though not nearly as unfortunate as what happened to Till, nor to the thousands of other people who have been lynched in American history by mobs and police, nor to the millions who were terrified into acquiescing to white-supremacist rule as a result.
The contrarians know that too. They aren’t primarily selling their products to people who think of themselves as white supremacists, or even white supremacist apologists. Their marks are those desperate for plausible deniability—for some imagined context that will show their ideological enemies to be liars, and make the world they live in justifiable as it is. There is always a longer cut of a video, an imperfect victim, or an extra biographical detail that can be trotted out as obfuscation. There is always some excuse that can be made as the podcast host strokes her chin and says: “The simple, accepted narrative that we all seemed to go along with—that was just all too clean and too simple.” And as long as there is someone willing to pay for that sort of thing, anyone willing to disrupt the debates of the present with the pieties of the past will be able to find good, if not entirely honest, paying work.
Jonathan Myerson Katz is the author of the upcoming Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, The Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire. On Twitter @KatzOnEarth.