Why Brits should keep out of the Kyle Rittenhouse case
Where America’s issues with guns and race are concerned, we have no idea what we’re talking about.
As a Brit, there are few things less edifying, nor more unintentionally hilarious, than an American newspaper reporting on any very English scandal. A breach of some obscure royal protocol, perhaps, or an aspect of parliamentary procedure, often involving Black Rod, which despite the capital B, the Washington Post will have to explain, is not a racial epithet, or an ill-advised tribute act.
A personal favourite is when a provincial dietary preference has caught the New York Times’ eye, having unexpectedly ‘caught on’ nationwide. It is an innocent enough pleasure, watching Americans trying to distinguish black pudding from haggis, or indeed gravy from ‘chippy sauce’. Like watching the Dutch discuss the morality of bullfighting, or Korea debate a proposed rule change in top flight Buzkashi.
Yet put the sneaker on the other foot and watch British commentators angrily contend the moral and legal thrust of a case in which an American is on trial for using lethal force with a firearm, and we suffer something very like Gell-Mann Amnesia by proxy. We forget how important a little local knowledge might be, and our seasoned, tolerant, bemused respect for tradition and culture and specialist knowledge are gone within moments. Watching the Kyle Rittenhouse case approach a verdict, British commentators are a-froth with indignation at the palpable miscarriages of justice seemingly running unchecked only five short hours away across the globe. My God, he had a gun! What more is there to say? And – do I have this right? – he crossed state lines! The man’s a monster.
Not since the proroguing of parliament two years ago have so many people become acquainted so quickly with something so arcane as the crossing of state lines with intent to do mischief. Putting aside the fact that the weapon itself did not cross this fabled demarcation, what is striking is the evident lack of enthusiasm for certain other state lines, such as the one somewhat further to America’s south, or indeed the one etched around the British Isles, that currently seem to get crossed on a pretty frequent basis, with who knows what intent? Drawing attention to those lines is clearly racist.
It was GB Shaw who first made the observation that GB’s shores were separated from the US’s by an ocean of incomprehension, concealed by our sharing a common language.
But with the advent of every new thing since the Fifties at least, from Elvis to rap, from Friends to The Simpsons and now, especially, Twitter, that linguistic gap narrows, and in America’s favour. Little by little, they are reeling us in. Successive generations have watched aghast as their children speak with the ‘Yeah, right on, Daddy-O’, through the ‘could-they-be-any-more-like-Chandler?’ years, and now the Big Tech and TikTok rhythms and cadences of American cultural export.
On top of which, they, like, literally use words the way American teenagers do, right? Rather than with any respect for what they mean?
Whether or not this is really awesome, or something else, it will not stop. My generation got their playground capital from mastering Minder’s language, but Cockney rhyming slang is now a museum piece, fast going the way of the American variant’s earlier victims, Cherokee, Navajo and Sioux.
Our continued separation over what it means to be armed, however, remains, and grows apace. Notions such as open carry vs concealed carry, let alone bump stocks, will never sink into the British mind. And every new outrage in the land of the Second Amendment strikes us afresh as symptomatic of an unbridgeable divide.
We understand so little of the legal or mechanical detail, let alone the deeper meaning, of what half the country – the red half – feel about their weapons. We hear only the arguments of the left – and they strike us, living as we do in a largely gun-free society, as manifestly sane. The right to bear arms seems as absurd to many Brits as the right to bare faces seems… well, to very much the same people, in fact.
So, we don’t get the full spectrum argument. Instead, we gratefully share the apparent horror and shame of the coastal elite, with their tertiary education and their teeth that meet in the middle, when confronted with their inland, inbred in-laws. We deplore the multi-decade epidemic of what seems, if you read the Washington Post and the NYT, to be the largely white, Wild West assassination culture that 2A concedes. Bullets sprayed around schools. Shopping malls, synagogues and mosques running with blood. A death toll out of all control. Murder, cold-blooded and cruel – and largely in the service of a bigotry, as often as not a racial bigotry, as old as the Appalachians hills.
This is, to put it as mildly as one can without choking, not quite the whole story. Do your own due diligence, it isn’t hard. The editors of the NYT can’t stop you acquainting yourself with the FBI crime statistics, and they put some of the more notorious outbreaks of flying lead into useful perspective.
But generally, we instead swallow like sugary cough syrup (believing it good for us, no matter how delicious it also is) the narrative that guns are largely in the hands and lovingly tended racks of homicidal white supremacists, paranoid death-spiral redneck survivalists, and a police force that is barely superior in discipline, racial enlightenment or legitimacy to a rounded-up posse of ad hoc lynch-happy vigilantes.
It’s largely bollocks, frankly. And if the police do, institutionally, have any black blood on their hands, it is far more plausibly that of the innumerable victims of the gang violence that has escalated since the police withdrew their presence after the protests and riots of last summer.
And so, into this pre-existing frame, heavy and gilt and inflexible as any to be found hanging on the walls of the Met, wanders young Kyle Rittenhouse, carrying an AR-15 and hoping, so he claims, only to protect his workplace neighbourhood.
The facts, to quote my favourite opening remark in any significant ratio decidendi, are simple, and not in dispute. Here’s Wikipedia, trustworthy on this much:‘On August 25 2020, amid the unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old from Antioch, Illinois, shot and killed two men and wounded another during confrontations at two locations in Kenosha. He was armed with an AR-15 style rifle, while one individual wounded by Rittenhouse was armed with a handgun. Rittenhouse said he was in Kenosha to protect a car dealership from being vandalised and to provide medical aid.’
I’m not going to argue the rights and wrongs of the case here. If you want to read up on them, the case and its twists and turns do make for fascinating drama. But my whole point is that, without adequate space to do it justice, let alone the years necessary for the thing to steep, one should very much stay in one’s lane.
What is curious to me, and what I think is drifting like fog across the Atlantic now, is the degree to which the approved narrative net is routinely superimposed on a case like this, and the facts then shuffled around until they poke through their approved apertures. This arrangement is then dispersed, via the WaPo/NYT-to-Guardian-and-BBC pipeline, and arrives so decontextualised in the UK that millions are unaware that there might even be another perspective.
The agitation apparent in the flock if one dares to even suggest that this is even going on is palpable.
Example. Noticing the frequency with which it was being asserted that what was actually on trial here was white supremacy, rather than a young man who shot two others dead while lying on his back in the midst of a riot – I posted a little Twitter poll asking people, in as neutral terms as possible, whether they were under the impression that Kyle’s victims were white or black? The correct answer is that they were all three white. Arguably, this wasn’t even their most problematic characteristic, one of them being a convicted paedophile and another a brutal and sadistic domestic abuser. But it was not my intention to shift blame on to the victims merely by suggesting that they are no great loss. That would be despicable.
Anyway, fully a third of the 1,500 who responded got even this entry-level fact wrong. Which, given this is the most high-profile murder case since Derek Chauvin’s, and is being widely reported as the sequel to that Chau-Trial, was pretty remarkable. Most people who follow a murder case have a rough idea of what the victims look like, surely? And this is from a self-selecting audience of unusually alert and well-informed readers — namely my followers.
But again, yet more interesting than that were the immediate insinuations as to what the purpose of even asking the question might be. One correspondent warned me against ‘going in to bat’ for the defendant, and by implication, for white supremacy. I don’t know whether this was meant as a baseball or cricket metaphor – or possibly a Gotham crime-fighting one – but it was pretty clear that he regarded the challenging of the ‘white supremacy’ filter as tantamount to a bad-faith muddying of the waters of due process. And likely to do my own reputation damage when the inevitable verdict was correctly reached.
Putting aside the implication that if people only realised that Rittenhouse had taken only white lives, rather than black ones, the ones that famously matter, he would somehow be more likely to be acquitted, this seems to me pretty troubling.
I am not going to try to defend Rittenhouse here – nor anywhere else, for that matter. It’s not my skill set. I have my gut feelings, of course. But then, watching a tennis match between two players previously unknown to me, I have usually decided by the end of the first set who I want to win. I’d struggle to say why. And I doubt my opinions on Rittenhouse’s guilt or innocence are much more coherent or valuable.
But the coverage of the story, both here and in much of the American mass media, has struck wiser heads than mine as almost surreal. Compared to traditional court reporting it has had more in common with the famous tongue-in-cheek TV listing for The Wizard of Oz: ‘Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets, then teams up with three strangers to kill again.’
CBS actually used the term ‘murdered’ in a tweet, which is begging the question to a degree that makes Tommy Robinson look like a sober legal correspondent of unimpeachable balance and restraint.
Increasingly media-sceptical commentator Andrew Sullivan wrote this week that the litany of things papers like his old employer, the New York Times, have got wrong lately unwinds on to the floor like the king’s endless comedy scroll in Shrek. ‘2016 election. Rittenhouse. Covington. Russian collusion. Vaccines. Bounties on US soldiers. Lab-leak theory. Jussie Smollett. The Pulse shooting. The Atlanta shootings. Hunter Biden laptop. Inflation. Steele Dossier…’
And as he said, these are not random errors. They are all lined up in the same direction, tugged as surely towards ‘social justice’ as iron filings might be by a CERN-scale magnet of moral conviction. The conviction, specifically, that no matter which is the right side of this story, the right side of history has been determined, and that is what matters.
It is becoming harder and harder to avoid the sense of gaslighting – a useful phrase reanimated from an old movie, and used to define the dynamics of an abusive relationship in which the abuser makes his or her victim doubt their own sanity. The morality of the thing aside, it is to put it mildly a huge gamble for the media to try this trick. Once broken, and broken in such a cynical way, trust will be broken for good.
So, this trial matters, out of all proportion to the lives lost, in a country where the murder rate in Chicago alone dwarves the toll every weekend. The verdict is going to be seen as a proxy for a great deal that has happened since the canonisation of George Floyd made his killer’s trial a foregone conclusion. And distorting the facts, as they are being presented to the jury, is a very dangerous game indeed. It will make one of the possible, perhaps even probable, verdicts seem like a fix. And only one side in these cases is predisposed to limit their reactions to tutting.
The increasingly essential Babylon Bee has been very funny about the whole affair. Though its writers have struggled to outdo many serious, or rather earnest, contributions from the left. But I have to admit, I am not inclined to laugh. This is a serious sickness.
I do not like guns. I do not mourn for the loss of our shooting ranges in the aftermath of Dunblane, I am very grateful that lethal force remains a rare resort for both criminals and law enforcement in this country, and, frankly, if I could see a way through to a gun-free society for America I would strongly advise them to take it.
But seeing the facts for what they are, the ones that I do know at least, and that many seem not to want to know, I think we have to accept that this scenario is the one famously allegorised by the Devonshire farmer’s advice to the lost motorist: ‘Well, now, you see – I wouldn’t start from here.’
Yet it’s impossible not to watch – or at least, despite myself, I find it so. All I can do is remind myself at least that I do not fully understand, and unless I have the time to really dig, I cannot trust what I am told.
And more broadly, while we cannot help importing the slang we should, yet again, be very, very wary of importing a single drop more of the racial politics of America than is absolutely unavoidable. We have our own problems, after all. Just ask Black Rod.
Simon Evans is a spiked columnist and stand-up comedian. He is currently on tour with his show, Work of the Devil. You can buy tickets here.
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