The Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman tragedy has become one of those transcendent events that dominates the national discourse and throws light on dimly lit aspects of our society. Obviously, the case touches most closely on issues of race relations, media culture, and the politicization of the justice system. It also reveals how preconceived emotional commitments to a narrative can consistently trump demonstrable facts. These tendencies are also present in the polarized discussion about the persistent weakness of the U.S. economy. In both cases, the majority of observers have chosen to believe an emotionally comfortable narrative while ignoring a far more likely, ambiguous, and unsatisfying reality.
When the Trayvon Martin case first caught national attention, it confirmed the worst fears that many had about America. A sweet young African-American teenager (12 or 13 by the looks of the pictures we were presented) returning home from a convenience store with Skittles and ice tea is gunned down in cold blood by a racist white man who profiled him as a criminal simply because he was a black kid in a hooded sweatshirt. The fact that the killer had not been arrested by local authorities, simply reinforced the suspicions that the South (which apparently includes central Florida) remains locked in a Jim Crow era of institutionalized white supremacy. The gears of the media and the political establishment quickly fell in line to support this narrative. This resulted in the appointment of a special prosecutor and a murder trial for George Zimmerman.
But then demonstrable facts started coming in that clashed significantly with this narrative. But the unwanted information was thoroughly ignored. The media and the public had become so invested in the story that no contrary facts could be tolerated. Rather than reconsidering initial assumptions, everyone just dug in their heels and stood firm.
As it turns out Trayvon himself was not the little boy that the pictures suggested. The most recent images of him as a 17-year old revealed a much more mature, masculine, and imposing figure. His behavior at home and in school objectively suggests a youth veering towards violence. He had gotten into trouble for fighting, had been suspended from school three times, once after having been caught with drugs and women’s jewelry that may well have been stolen. His tweets and e-mails are replete with boasts of violence, drug use, and even suggestions of firearm procurement. In fact, the reason he was living in the housing community in which he was killed was that his mother sent him 200 miles north to live with his father after determining that she could no longer control her troubled son. (None of these facts were presented to the jury.)
For his part, George Zimmerman did not fit the mold that had been prepared for him either. First off, he wasn’t really white, but half Hispanic (English being his second language). And while he certainly had a few marital, personal and psychological skeletons in his closet, nothing in his background suggested that he had ever displayed racist tendencies towards blacks. In fact, he had many black friends, had once championed the cause of a black homeless person beaten by the son of a white policeman, mentored black children, and had even taken a black woman to his high school prom. In addition, he had no affiliation with any fringe groups with known racist tendencies. In fact he was a registered and politically active democrat — one of the “good guys” when it comes to racial equality and social justice.
The details of the encounter also failed to correspond to the narrative. The only thing that is known definitively is that Zimmerman referred to Martin as a “punk” expressed frustration that “they always get away” and that a 911 dispatcher suggested that he need not follow Martin. Despite these facts there is no solid evidence that Zimmerman actually sought a confrontation.
While some of Zimmerman’s actions may have shown poor judgment, such behavior is not criminal, or even actionable. The evidence that does exist, the broken nose and other injuries sustained by Zimmerman and the small abrasion on Martin’s hand, suggests that Martin was the aggressor in the physical encounter and that Zimmerman had cause to fear continued bodily harm when he decided to use deadly force. This physical evidence corresponds to the consistent story told by Zimmerman and is corroborated by the only other eyewitness testimony. Certainly this provides sufficient evidence to suggest that Zimmerman was acting in self- defense according to the legal definition of the term. One need have no sympathy for Zimmerman to conclude that the facts, as they exist, could not support a conviction on the charges he faced.
After what any objective observer would determine to be a fair and exhaustive trial (if not one overly skewed to the prosecution), a jury returned a verdict of “not guilty,” even to the lesser included manslaughter charge that had been thrown in at the last minute.
But this outcome has not succeeded in changing the dominant and predetermined narrative one bit. As far as the media is concerned, as well as those on the left side of the political spectrum, George Zimmerman has gotten away with the cold-blooded murder of an innocent child whose only crime was being black and wearing a hoodie. None of the facts presented in or out of trial have mattered in the slightest.
Those whose interests support a continuation of this controversy, allege bias in the system, even while failing to point to any overt errors in the proceedings. In the end, they conclude that the prosecution was simply incompetent and that the injustice must be in the minds of the racist, all female jury. As a result, they are seeking new Federal and civil venues to raise the same questions, which they will continue to ask until they get the answer they expect.
Much of the same closed-mindedness is on display in our discussion about the economy. The vast majority of observers continue to subscribe to the dominant narrative that our economy is improving, the Fed’s Quantitative Easing programs are responsible, and that the debt we are currently accumulating is not a long-term problem. The current administration, the media, Wall Street, and the Fed itself, are particularly committed to this narrative. After all, we have been pursuing these policies for more than five years, and many of these parties have a particular emotional and pecuniary investment in a positive outcome. It would be difficult for them now to admit that their preferred cures have not only been ineffective, but harmful. As a result, they will continue to advocate for the current policies until they get the answers they expect.
Not only do their underlying assumptions defy economic law and objective rationality, but they are also at odds with the evidence that continues to arrive. The data makes it clear that while asset prices (stocks, bonds, and real estate), are currently being inflated by an activist monetary policy, the real economy continues to stagnate. What supports do exist are based solely on government intervention. Yet they nevertheless discuss a potential Fed exit strategy as if the economy were in a position to make such a transition without bringing on an even more severe recession than the last. In this light, the failure of QEI to produce a real recovery led directly to QEII, and so on to QE Infinity. We are unwilling to challenge our initial assumptions about what is really wrong with our economy and how to fix it.
To get a sense of justice and emotional clarity over the death of Trayvon Martin, many cling to the image of a saintly youth and ignore the more difficult reality of a troubled teen picking a fight with an inept neighborhood watchman. Accepting this reality does not lead to a conclusion that Trayvon deserved to die, but it denies the self-justifying conclusions that keep race relations dysfunctional. It also allows us to ignore more troubling and far more common tragedies like the one that befell 18 year old Jett Higham, another African American youth who lost his life in a nighttime run to a local convenience store. The media decided that this tragedy was a non-story, as his killers were also African Americans teens.
Similarly, we prefer to believe that the dynamic, entrepreneurial, 4% to 5% GDP growth economy that existed in the past is poised to return after a few more months of QE. To reach this conclusion one must ignore the ugly reality of what we have become. The staggering growth in government debt, the persistence of high unemployment, the stifling effects of new rounds of anti-business regulations, the existence of dangerous asset bubbles, and our dependence on zero percent interest rates and continuous Federal Reserve purchases of treasury and mortgage debt qualify our current economy as a walking zombie.
We will never arrive at greater civic harmony until we are prepared to drop the addictive illusions supplied by the race baiters. Similarly, we will never abandon the current economic failures if we don’t have the courage to look the brutal reality squarely in the face.