So, about that ‘Karen’ and Birdwatcher kerfuffle…

Let me preface this post with a word or two about timing and ‘lateness’. I guess I just feel like I should lay this out explicitly, as a potentially useful standing point going forward. I’m well aware that “The Central Park Birdwatching Incident” — which is how it’s grandiosely referred to on Wikipedia, like it was some diplomatic snafu that soured relations between two countries — happened like three months ago. Do I think it’s weird that I’m just getting around to writing about it now? Negative. Not at all. Listen, I don’t consider myself shackled to recency in that way. I’m fine writing at any time about anything that happened at any time. (What a see-saw of a sentence.) If I had strong feelings about Edward the Black Prince conducting the massacre, sacking, and razing of Caen, Normandy in 1346, I’d pen that impassioned op-ed like it had just happened yesterday and the motherfucker was liable to turn on his wooden laptop tomorrow and read what I had to say aghast.

I don’t write about current affairs for some clicks-over-substance news website, so I don’t feel the need to rush out some sloppy, slapdash, ill-considered 800-word spicy-hot-take four hours after something happens. That just isn’t me. I get to things when I get to them. And I like to dwell on the subject matter for at least a little while before I put pen to paper fingers to keys. Then I end up getting even more time to stew on whatever it is as I’m articulating whatever my opinion about it is, because I’m a slow writer and, even worse, a distinctly glacial/OCD-debilitated editor of my own work.

(I tried to check out a little vial of cocaine from The Hunter S. Thompson ‘Write Faster, Dummy’ Creative-Stimulant Lending Library established as a private foundation in his will, whose services are free to sluggish writers the world over. I was hoping that it could give me a kick up the backside and improve my productivity. But the nice bespectacled lady at the front desk with the chest tattoo and the undercut and the vanished septum told me that my membership card had expired and also that she suspected I was a quote-unquote “fuckboy narc.” And when someone treats you to two different reasons why they can’t help you, you tend to get the message loud and clear. Hey, that’s fine with me. But they ain’t never getting that tupperware container full of peyote buttons back. I don’t care if the late-fees accumulate forever. Fuck ’em.)

I’m also often busy with other shit. Other pieces of writing, other creative projects, personal life stuff, et cetera. So yeah, I get to things as soon as I can, but that usually isn’t exactly soon-soon. It’s more like how that weird film ‘The New Mutants’ has repeatedly been scheduled to come out soon, we promise for the last three years straight. (I don’t know if there’s a way to bet against a film being successful, kinda like shorting a stock, but in this case that seems like it’d be a pretty sure bet. If you can find me one person who was genuinely thinking to themselves “gee, I’d love it if they made a self-contained horror-movie spin-off of the now-finished X-men franchise,” I’ll let an empty-stomach build over a few days, then grab a knife and fork and a bib and head to my nearest hat store to chow down on some millinery cuisine. I thought the last few mainline X-men films weren’t even worth watching, so I’m definitely not enticed by the prospect of a posthumous add-on now they’re done…)

I’ve just had to make my peace with my slow pace as best I can. I will say that there are two frustrating things about constantly nursing a lengthy backlog of things I want to comment about though.

The first is that if I’m going to write about something I almost always endeavour not to read or listen to anyone else’s take on it before I do. I want to make my own mind up about it and get that opinion down on the page first, because I really hate feeling like you’re unintentionally ventriloquising what someone else already said, even though you’d have independently arrived at that same conclusion yourself if you hadn’t read it. Anyhow, if I end up taking a long time to get around to something, it means a long time of avoiding podcasts and op-eds and whatnot that address it, which can be annoying.

The second is that I find myself forced to prioritise some of them over others because I know that I simply don’t pump out pieces fast enough to get them all done before some new stuff comes along and gets added to the list and pushes some stragglers off the end. With some things this isn’t so bad because although a news story may have put it in mind, the underlying topic is kind of abstract and/or perennial and I’ll most likely be given cause to come back around to it some time in the not so distant future. But in other cases it’s a very specific recent event that happened which I want to dissect, so it’s more imperative that I get to it sooner, lest I forget the particulars of it or forget what exactly I wanted to say about them.

Alright, with all that preamble out of the way, let’s turn our attention to this now notorious quarrel in Central Park.

I’m guessing you probably saw the news stories and maybe even the video itself at the time, but just in case you didn’t I’ll give you a recap. A black man, Christian Cooper, is birdwatching in a section of the park called ‘the Ramble’. (Such a charming name for a wooded area, by the way.) A white woman, Amy Cooper — no relation obviously, but, damn, what a weird coincidence — is walking her dog without a leash, even though that is specifically prohibited in this section. Upon seeing her, Christian informs her of this and asks her to leash her dog or take it for a walk elsewhere. His reason for intervening is very understandable: freely roaming dogs scare away the birds that he and his fellow birdwatchers are there to observe. She refuses.

Let me say at this early juncture that it was totally fair for him to speak up and tell her that she should be adhering to the rules, because it’s a real jerk move on her part to be so discourteous and selfish as to effectively ruin others’ ability to enjoy the park in the way they’re there to enjoy it. We’ve all had run-ins with people like this and it is indeed galling. Especially if you live in a big city, you’re given way too many opportunities to roll your eyes and mouth the words “yep, right there, that’s why we can’t have nice things.”

For the next part, I’m just going to reproduce verbatim the relevant section of the transcript that Christian posted to his Facebook, because I think it’s important that you hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. (So to speak.) Additionally, as far as I know, this account of what happened is undisputed.

ME: Look, if you’re going to do what you want, I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it.
HER: What’s that?
ME (to the dog): Come here, puppy!
HER: He won’t come to you.
ME: We’ll see about that…

I pull out the dog treats I carry for just such intransigence. I didn’t even get a chance to toss any treats to the pooch before Karen scrambled to grab the dog.


At this point, the video that he recorded and uploaded begins, but before we get into that I need to break in with some more commentary here. Because holy fuck is that a CRAZY thing for this dude to do in that situation. I’m talking off your rocker, off your meds, out of your goddamn gourd, around the bend and back again and around the bend once more.

If you are on the receiving end of someone saying that to you, by far the most plausible way to interpret it is that they are threatening your dog. Period. End of story. And anyone who would deny that is dishonest or stupid or… quite possibly… both. (One always has to be open to the possibility. I can tell you that I do daily meditation sessions to keep the embers of that suspicion forever stoked in my brain.)

First of all, you’ve got the undeniably creepy and minatory undertone of statements like “I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it” and “We’ll see about that…” I mean, it’s literally what some shuddersome bad-guy in a shitty, made-for-TV movie would say. But even beyond what he’s saying, consider what he’s actually doing. He’s conveying to her that if she doesn’t leash her dog, he will feed the dog this treat he’s just produced from his pocket. (And, remember, he isn’t even there with a dog himself, which makes this move all the more suggestive and alarming.) Just so there’s no confusion here, when someone communicates ‘if you don’t do X, I’ll do Y to you’… what is that? That’s right. A threat. This isn’t complicated. We don’t need Noam Chomsky to parachute in and perform a high-level, abstruse linguistic analysis to get to the bottom of it. It’s right there on the surface. It makes no sense to try and coerce someone to do something by letting them know it’s the only way to prevent you doing [BLANK], unless [BLANK] is somehow undesirable or unpleasant or harmful or however you wanna put it.

Christian, for his part, has attempted to frame this choice in a flagrantly nonsensical way. As far I can tell, he claims that he’s simply playing on the fact that a prideful dog-owner won’t want their pet to run over to him at his command. Kind of like “oh, you’d better leash your dog, or I’ll briefly control what it does! And, gosh, won’t that irk you!” Needless to say, this doesn’t add up any way you cut it. Why would a dog-owner care that much about someone feeding their dog a normal treat? What, are they supposed to be soooo worried about the doggie’s waistline? Maybe they have it on a strict dietary plan and any unexpected extra calories would upset that? Oh no, how is it going to strut down the catwalk — that discriminatory term is proof of a disturbing canine-exclusionary culture in the fashion world by the way — in Milan now?!

I mean, what the fuck are we doing here? This is idiotic.

The only truly, thoroughly plausible interpretation that someone is going to come to is that you’re leveraging some kind of ill-intent towards the dog to compel the owner to do as you say. And here are some of the pulse-quickening questions that would be running through their mind. First and foremost, is the treat poisoned? Or is the treat fine but he wants to lure the dog closer so he can grab it and run? Or perhaps hurt it some other way as it tries to eat out of his hand?

For reference, here’s how a normal, reasonable person in Christian Cooper’s exact position might react to this woman’s stubborn refusal to follow the rules:

“Hey, lady, could you leash your dog? Dogs gotta be on a leash around here. There are signs all over the place.”

“Screw that. Why should I?”

“There’s no need to be rude. Your dog running around is scaring away the birds that people like me come here to watch. The rule is that dogs must be leashed in this area.”

“I’m not leashing my dog. You can’t tell me what to do. Mind your own business.”

“Wow, what an asshole you are. Inconsiderate people like you ruin things for everyone else. Kindly go fuck yourself.”

And… scene.

That would have been a perfectly justifiable way to handle it. Just tell her she’s an asshole. Because at that point you’ve learned that this woman is completely obstinate and can’t be persuaded to do the right thing. So the wisest — and, really, only — thing to do would be to disengage. Frustrating as it is, and clearly-in-the-wrong as she is. I get all that, and it’s all valid. People can be such shitheads. It’s awful having to deal with them. But that’s life, unfortunately.

You know what’s a really weird and insane thing to do at this tense juncture instead?

To decide that you’re going to force the woman to leash her dog.

The other thing you should know is that this wasn’t a one-time thing for Christian Cooper. No, he had apparently become so annoyed by the frequent butting of heads between dog-walkers and birdwatchers in this area that he saw fit to appoint himself as some kind of Central Park Sheriff, someone who’s going to hold wrongdoers to account and make them change their ways. You see, he has — by his own admission in that Facebook post and elsewhere — that bag of dog treats on him every time he strolls to the park with his binoculars. And whenever a dog-walker proves themselves to be a “scofflaw” (a word he unironically uses in interviews, like a conservative running for office forty or fifty years ago might have done), he deploys the dog-treat routine to force them to do as he says. The people who know him even associate this habit with him; it has become part of his reputation. Because it’s his thing.

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. If that’s not a red flag about someone, my friend, I do not know what is. I’m talking, it’s like you’re at a crimson-obsessed vexillology convention and you’re standing in the middle of it just slowly looking all around you, wide-eyed with concern. We’re just one step away from him revealing that he also carries around a kubotan or some other mall-ninja shit, in case he needs to give someone an ‘attitude adjustment’ in the course of his mundane vigilante-lite, making-people-behave-correctly efforts.

If some white dude was known for doing what Christian does, how exactly do you think people would view it? I’m dead certain there would be a million Reddit threads and Twitter comments bellowing who the hell does this busybody fuckface think he is trying to police how other people use the park in the first place, whether something’s technically against the rules or not. And then there would be a subsequent million posts screaming about what a hair-raising creep he is, about how he should be put on a watchlist, about how there should be warning posters of his face put up nearby and maybe we should crowdfund a Private Investigator to look into whether he secretly murders neighbourhood pets in classic burgeoning-serial-killer fashion. But you know all this without me even having to say it, don’t you? Everyone knows it. Everyone knows that’s how it’d go down.

And, jesus, if he was white and the woman wasn’t, he wouldn’t just be getting pilloried online, there would be a straight-up manhunt for him. The same Redditors and Twitter users mentioned above would be raging at how his weapons-grade white privilege had led him to imperiously seek to control this poor woman’s behaviour and they would probably even be arguing that he ought to face legal consequences for having made her feel unsafe with the barely-veiled threat aimed at her dog.

You know, the other thing is that if you read Christian’s own purported transcript of the encounter, it would seem that Amy is not even responding belligerently or abusively when he first tells her to leash her dog. Obviously her tone is unknown, but if you just look at what she’s saying, it doesn’t exactly seem very congruent with someone yelling it in anger. She really just presents her reasons for not wanting to do so. (I.e. “The dog runs are closed. [My dog] needs his exercise” and “It’s too dangerous [to take him to the other suggested area].”) Now, yes, she’s absolutely in the wrong here and she should’ve leashed the dog, but my point is that it’s not like she was some unhinged person who flew off the handle as soon as someone told her that she was breaking the park’s rules. Things only escalate dramatically when Christian threatens her dog.

Let’s return to the timeline of events. After the back-and-forth I’ve been discussing finishes, that’s allegedly where the video itself begins. The longest video I can find is just the roughly one-minute one that went viral to kick this whole furore off and which has since been re-uploaded a billion times. I did my best to try and find if there’s a longer version or a different, separate chunk of it, but that was all I kept coming across so I’m assuming that’s the one and only video.

It’s not hard to see why this video got people so up in arms: it only records the very end of the encounter. In it, Amy Cooper approaches Christian, telling him to stop filming her and seemingly pointing towards his phone for emphasis. And certainly she shouldn’t be getting up close to anyone during a pandemic. Though she is at least wearing a mask. I’ve also seen her gesticulation here described as a ‘lunge’, which I have to say I think is, y’know, a bit much. Though if Christian had indeed perceived it as an aggressive move, I suppose that’s a claim that could be defended. Though it should be noted that I don’t think he’s ever claimed this. Not that I’ve seen anyway.

She informs him “I’m gonna tell [the cops] there’s an African-American man threatening my life,” placing perhaps a slight emphasis on “African-American.” To be candid, when I watched the video by myself, this didn’t stand out to me. It just seemed like a bravado thing of her trying to hold her ground and appear unshaken — though as the viewer you can easily see how shook up she actually is — by making sure he knows that she plans to call the police and describe him. Plus, if you thought someone was a threat, in the vulnerable space of time before you get through to 911, you might verbally stress the fact that you’re getting the police involved in order to deter the person from doing anything else/further. Oppositely, when my girlfriend watched the video and we were discussing it afterwards, she said that to her this seemed like the clearest indication that Amy Cooper is racist and/or trying to weaponize the race angle here. The idea being that Amy’s implying she’s well aware that calling the police on a black person can invoke a much more perilous response and so she’s intentionally taking advantage of that to either cow Christian and make him back off or simply as petty revenge. I don’t mind saying that after talking it out with my girlfriend, she brought me around to the plausibility of this reading. And although I still don’t think it’s the only way to look at it, especially given some things I’ll get into later on, I concur with her that this right here is the best evidence in support of the ‘racist hypothesis’, for lack of a better term.

Anyhow, then Amy backs away and indeed dials 911, telling them that an “African-American man” is “threatening me and my dog.” (She re-states the descriptor several times, which much has been made out of online. It seems to me that she’s just crudely summarising his appearance, including the fact that he’s wearing a bike helmet, which is the instinctive go-to in that situation and also presumably what they ask you for on a 911 call. She may even go on to volunteer more details after the video ends, because she’s still on the phone when it does.) The element here which is obviously most striking is that as the call proceeds and she repeats her claim to the 911 operator, her voice becomes hysterical with fear, as though someone was pointing a gun at her or something, even though Christian is presently just calmly videoing her and offering the odd comment. She’s also borderline strangling her little dog as she frantically tries to keep it beside her, by holding it right up by the collar and hoisting it up off the ground as she tries to get to a better position, which is sure unpleasant to watch. Though if you believed someone was trying to lure your dog over to feed it a laced treat, you’d probably do whatever you had to in order to keep that dog from getting away from you.

I’m guessing that a lot of people have probably asserted that the way Amy’s audible emotional reaction kind of suddenly ramps up to eleven as she’s trying to get the police sent out is proof that it was just a devious act meant to manipulate the person on the other end of the phone. Personally, this isn’t my reading of the video. Listen, I don’t know one way or the other, and I’m totally open to being wrong here, but it looked to me like she’s essentially trying to ‘keep it together’ as she confronts him and as she initiates the 911 call, but I imagine that saying out loud that someone is threatening you and your dog as you’re staring right at that same person would presumably be pretty jolting and affecting and just make the reality of the situation hit you like a tidal wave. Ergo, the rising hysteria in her voice. Again, I can’t say any of this for sure, but that’s just what it seemed like to me. I’m not an expert in kinesics or voice-stress analysis or whatever the fuck, you know? This is just me making my best guess based on the little there is to go on.

However, to tackle the larger question: was she right to call the cops on this guy? If she had simply said that he was threatening her dog, then I would say yes. Ab-so-fucking-lute-ly. But she didn’t do that. She did a whole lot more than that. She claimed that he was threatening her life too. This is completely different. It is obviously a much, much more serious allegation and will incite a much more heavy-handed response from the police. It’s also, most importantly, an untrue allegation. As far as we know, he never threatened her directly. (Though if someone’s willing to hurt your dog, they’re probably not going to just give you a back-rub and some friendly stock market advice afterwards. But that’s merely the world of hypotheticals, to be fair; you do not have the luxury of venturing there when talking to a 911 operator.)

So the most salient unknown is whether she was inadvertently embellishing/exaggerating in the heat of the moment or consciously lying to fuck this guy over. Once again, I would consider myself ambivalent here. I’m open to either explanation.

Given that no-one seems to be making the case for it being inadvertent and there’s a zillion vehement partisans of the other possibility who have their minds irreversibly made up, I’ll go ahead and at least lay it out. I’m not advocating for it. I’m not telling you this is what I’m convinced happened. I’m just gonna present to you the alternative way of reading this aspect of the situation and why it’s not at all implausible.

Christian is the one who gratuitously and unilaterally escalated the situation in the first place. He’s the one who went from zero to sixty. He intentionally prevented it from being just a verbal dispute which most likely would have resolved itself with, at worst, a heated shouting match and some insult-slinging and then them flipping each other off as they part ways. He let her know that he would force her compliance, by ominously threatening the dog. That’s an incredibly alarming thing to do. Especially when you’re alone with another person in a secluded wooded area. (That’s what the video appears to show anyway.) And, let’s be frank here, what’s most pertinent of all is that you’re a man and she’s a woman, which often creates a rather stark physical-threat differential in a self-defence predicament. (Even more so given that it’s infamously next-to-impossible for the average law-abiding citizen to get a handgun concealed-carry permit in NYC.) These are all factors which understandably intensify the situation and/or someone’s fight-or-flight response — anyone remotely honest would have no problem admitting that. If these weren’t also at play here, the outcome may well have been different, who knows?

(By the way, this is not just me speculating baselessly: she herself has said that the dog-threat is what made her afraid and so she “assumed we were being threatened” — note the pivotal we here — which is in turn why she called the cops. That’s in her mea culpa press statement. A statement which, as is always the case following viral-outrage dogpiles, reads like someone confessing their ‘sins’ whilst shaking like a leaf before the frenzied firing squad, in the hope that the rifle barrels might be lowered as a result of their grovelling obeisance and self-flagellation. I don’t get how anyone takes pleasure in reading these things. It really shows what a sadistic, schadenfreude culture social-media has created.)

So, taking all of this into consideration, it’s very possible that in the moment she was so incredibly freaked out that the danger seemed magnified and expanded in her mind, and thus she overstated the severity of the situation on the phone. I mean, do you think Amy Cooper is the first person to ever call 911 and do that because they’re panicking and fearing the worst and not thinking straight? And do you think it’s always ipso facto evidence of racism whenever it happens where the respective parties are white and black? ‘Cause I don’t. I really don’t. I’m not down with telepathically-divining racial animus as a first assumption. Unless there’s actual evidence to support this, it’s a bullshit conclusion to instantly jump to. It’s just lazy and simple-minded. Just because there’s a broader pattern of something happening in society — which there unquestionably is here — that doesn’t mean that every instance which could be perceived as yet another data-point in that trend actually is. This is a bare-minimum standard for anyone who claims to be a careful thinker to hold themselves to.

Look, am I here to tell you that this woman is definitely being unfairly railroaded? No, not as such. I’m just pointing out that there are two readings that can be arrived at. One more damning, one less damning. They are perhaps not equally plausible, but they are nonetheless both still at least adequately plausible. Let me emphasize that concession. I think it’s defensible to lean towards suspecting that she purposefully chose to overreact to his provocation and maliciously fabricated the extra threat against her life during the 911 call in order to retaliate against him. (Though when it comes to this spite-not-fear contention, surely if she was willing to lie on a recorded 911 call, she’d be willing to go all the way with it and stick around to repeat her claim when the police arrived. Maybe even force the issue and press charges. Neither of which happened.)

My point is simply that I don’t know and you don’t know. This isn’t one of those situations, of which there are unfortunately plenty, where you really can’t explain why someone acted like they did unless you stipulate a hidden fulcrum of racism. So, unless she comes out and confesses it or unless there was an invisible, inaudible — but nonetheless operational and activated — MRI machine enclosing Amy Cooper’s head as this all went down, and we could somehow solicit the perfected expertise of neurologists from centuries hence to read those brain-scans like an open book, we’re never going to know whether she was genuinely afraid and misspoke or was just seeking to screw this guy over out of anger. Yet, because she fits into the hated ‘Karen’ mould, she was doomed from the start: the worst was always going to be assumed about her and her intentions no matter what.

Nevertheless, let me also say this, unequivocally. Even in the most sympathetic reading, what she did was still very wrong. It’s an extremely grave thing to tell the police that someone issued a threat against your life when they didn’t. That can quite literally endanger their own life if the cops arrive with an incorrect understanding of the situation and guns drawn.

What really blew my mind was how commonplace it was for the write-up of this incident in news stories to be presented in a dishonest or incomplete way.

To take just one example, here’s how the outlet The Cut framed it. Their news story was entitled ‘A Black Man Asked a White Woman to Leash Her Dog. She Called the Cops.’ and that’s exactly how the incident is described in the article itself. The dog-treat thing isn’t even mentioned at all, in any way, shape or form. I mean, can you even imagine? That’s just utterly absurd. It would almost be hilarious if the implications weren’t so dark. That’s not just spin, that’s not just incompetence or oversight, it’s an intentional lie of omission, which is also known as appalling journalistic malpractice. Simple as that. When an incident occurs where A leads to B which leads to C, even just in a chronological sense (though in this case it’s an important causal link too), and you go out of your way to reframe the story so that B is excised and now A seemingly leads straight to C, you’re choosing to be deceptive. Straight up, that news story is just a form of propaganda. And why is a “journalist” — which should rightly have a thousand pairs of scare-quotes surrounding it, because unprincipled hacks who purposely mislead their readers don’t remotely deserve that title — acting like Christian Cooper’s PR handler, manipulating the narrative in his favour? When people talk about not trusting the so-called news media, this is why. And they’re not wrong. The ethical standards on so many (especially newer, millennial-focused) online news sites are not just low, they’re fucking subterranean. It’s just a bunch of Morlocks with ‘Communication Studies’ degrees typing out unscrupulous trash on their Macbooks. Ideally it would then just get passed around amongst themselves on whatever intranet they’ve jerry-rigged by candlelight underground, but, alas no, it ends up seeing the light of day and pops up like a boil on your RSS reader.

On several other news stories I came across, the dog-treat thing also didn’t even rate a mention. Remember, this isn’t something which required a local stringer on the scene asking tough questions to the right people to uncover, Christian Cooper freely included this detail in the original Facebook post which kicked this all off. So if a news story didn’t include it, it was a very conscious act of omission, which tells you everything you need to know about the author’s intentions and integrity. And in most of the rest of the articles I clicked on, it was just included in passing and its significance palpably downplayed as much as possible.

This is fucking bananas. It’s seriously crazy-making. You start to feel like you’re living in an alternate reality where the usual rules of reporting suddenly don’t apply because a story can be spun as having a social-justice dimension.

I would wager that a majority of people who encountered this incident in the news came away with the impression that what happened was simply, to utilise that horseshit headline once more, ‘A Black Man Asked a White Woman to Leash Her Dog. [Then] She Called the Cops [and said he threatened her life].’ Now, if you were duped by the faulty, negligent journalism at work here into having this incomplete understanding of how the altercation between these two strangers unfolded, I can easily get why you thought to yourself “my god, what a racist piece of shit!” Because, if that truncated version of events had been true, that would have been the only reasonable inference.

But it’s not true. It’s not true at all. You were misled and you should resent those who sought to mislead you. They decided that the central instigating action of this whole thing, which is indispensable to understanding it, should either be totally withheld from you or carefully reframed as a trivial, throwaway detail in order to deter you from giving it a second thought. It’s like reporting on the prelude and aftermath of, say, a car crash but resolving that talking about the collision itself isn’t important.

(And let this be yet another reminder that if you want to stay well-informed, you cannot rely on just one source — or, sometimes, even two or three sources — of news. The sad reality is that nowadays you increasingly have to sift through a handful of news stories about the SAME event and piece together all the facts that a reporter from here decided to exclude or a reporter from there decided to misrepresent. You have to assemble that full composite yourself. You can’t rely on it being spoonfed to you.)

And why? Because they wanted to make absolutely sure that you arrived at a very specific conclusion. They wanted to manipulate you and guarantee that you’d think a certain way. That’s plain as day here. Although this kind of thing happens frequently in the world of covert ‘advocacy journalism’, it is somewhat rare that you get such a black and white case where there are so few moving parts to a story that it’s downright glaring when one is intentionally deleted or obscured for ideological reasons.

Here’s what it comes down to: is that fine with you? Are you okay with that? Are you glad when information deemed problematic is withheld from you? Is it no big deal that the story has been dishonestly simplified for public consumption and subsequent breaking down by social-media stomach acid into rage-fuel? Is the dishonesty acceptable because it’s more important, from a utilitarian perspective, that this viral video be enabled to act as a catalyst for a beneficially cathartic outpouring of hatred towards ‘Karens’ across the land and what they represent? You know, because a deluge of ill-informed hatred is famously the best way to cause the recipients to change their ways and become better people… Moral education is best delivered red-faced at the top of your lungs or in all caps, after all.

(Sidebar: I’ve seen a bunch of op-eds debating this point, so I’ll weigh in on it briefly. Karen is a racial slur. That’s not even a judgement call, it’s just a simple recognition of the meaning of the term as well as the specific way that Karen is employed as an insult. To back that up, here’s a typical definition I found online: “Racial slurs, often called racial epithets, are words or phrases that refer to members of racial and ethnic groups in a derogatory manner.” And as far as I know, Karen is used to demean exclusively white women who are alleged to be some combination of entitled, self-centered, histrionic, panicky, hostile, and racially prejudiced because of their whiteness. So it’s actually even a double-whammy as a slur.

The only point I really care to make is stop trying to have it both ways. People should be honest with themselves and others, admit that it is indeed a slur, and then openly acknowledge that they think using slurs is just dandy when they’re ‘harmless’ and ‘funny’ and ‘true’ and only directed at white people. Seriously, just come out and say it. Because it’s plain that’s your unspoken reasoning. Personally, I’m powerfully inclined to the opinion that we shouldn’t be trying to coin new, better, more palatable racial slurs. I know this is nuts and I’m really going out on a limb here, but, yeah, I’ll admit it: I’m pretty okay with the idea of striving for a society where they’re extinct. But evidently a lot of people disagree. A lot of people seem to think that the problem is really just narrowing down which racial group the slurs are directed at. Those with white skin being the bullseye of innocuous hilarity, of course. And, hell, you might even be able to make a convincing case for why your contention’s true — I rather fucking doubt it, but I suppose anything is possible hypothetically — but you’d first have to have the modicum of courage required to actually make the case explicitly. And I do say ‘modicum’ advisedly, because if you’re on the left, it doesn’t require any sort of real bravery whatsoever. Don’t fret, you’ll just be applauded and given a sash that reads “one of us!”)

So, what happened to ol’ Amy Cooper? Well, if you don’t know, I don’t even have to tell you, do I? You could easily guess. These things follow a depressingly predictable formula. When the social-media mob descends, you are fucked. No two ways about it. Because it’s incredibly important to the baying crowd that there be a blood sacrifice to satiate and appease them. They’ve had the lengthy build-up — a rising intoxication from rage and indignation — and so they need there to be release. A climax of fury, of destruction, where the human effigy of some evil they despise in the world is immolated and they can feel the satisfaction of having seen justice done.

And in Amy’s case, they definitely got their fill of warped gratification (and some are even still basking in the afterglow every time a new update on her ongoing life-disintegration comes out.) Rightly or wrongly, this encounter will follow her for the rest of her life: her name has become widely associated with the scourge of everyday racism. This will be the millstone around her neck which impossiblizes most anything she might like to do. How will she ever make a new friend or find a job or get a landlord to rent to her when a quick google search of her name, even thirty years hence, will bring up a hundred op-eds denouncing her as a monster? People who recognise her face, of whom there will be many, will yell at her or assault her or spit at her in the street. On top of all the death threats she will no doubt have already received, a smaller trickle will continue to enter her online inbox and physical letterbox for a long time to come.

Given Amy Cooper’s massive infamy, objectively speaking the average murderer or rapist just released from prison will likely face less negative ramifications as they try to go on with their lives. And I mean several orders of magnitude less. I know that sounds crazy. But isn’t it even crazier that it’s fucking true?

The old-school conventional wisdom is that a murderer is theoretically deemed to have “served their time” and “repaid their debt to society” once they’ve languished in a prison cell for a few decades and then finally get paroled. (In fact, many convicted murderers have gone on to great success by monetising their ‘redemption story’. They write bestselling books and get paid to give motivational speeches about how to turn your life around. After all, rich people like nothing more than someone who’ll come tell them that the penal system actually works because cage-based rehabilitation is such a surefire bet. They long for the mental convenience of that simple worldview.) But there’s nothing Amy Cooper can do to sufficiently atone, there’s nothing she can do to prevent the remainder of her life becoming a wasteland. She’s already abjectly apologised, but it’s not enough. She’s already paid a high price in her personal and professional life, but it’s not enough. She could voluntarily submit to being locked up in solitary confinement for ten years and it would achieve zilch. Nothing will ever be enough. She is beyond even the possibility of making restitution by demonstrating contrition and accepting a harsh enough (though finite) punishment. Because it’s not about right or wrong ultimately. There is a craving deep down which stands outside of morality. We need to feel better. We must be able to watch the effigy of abstracted wrongdoing consumed by flames forever more. Otherwise how will we know that we’re good people? Otherwise how will we sleep easy, confident that our work is done and we made the world a better place?

The greater the anxiety a group of people — and this holds true at any scale — feel about their own role in either perpetuating or not doing enough to combat some ill that plagues the group as a whole, the more harshly they single out one of their number to serve as some unsightly crossbred hybrid of a sacrificial lamb and a scapegoat. (We’re all said to harbour a certain degree of ‘implicit bias’, right? Combine that with the fact that you likely benefit, even just involuntarily, from at least one ‘[INSERT GROUP NAME HERE] privilege’ and you’re starting from a moral black-eye you’ll have to work hard to visibly atone for and transcend. I largely don’t even disagree with either factual proposition; I just think they’re used the wrong way. And, well, I don’t know about you, but I find it really dispiriting that even a secular society will find a way to reinvent and reimplement some concept of original sin which can be employed as a whip…) My guess is that it’s been this way ever since we humans started walking upright and living together. It’s the quickest, most effective release-valve for collective angst and uneasy consciences. I bet sometimes when archaeologists find those cavemen skulls which have been smashed in, it’s an example of what I’m talking about. Maybe the tribe had grown so apprehensive about the dwindling food that when Smarg (son of Smarg, grandson of Smarg, great-grandson of Smarg) was caught gobbling more than his fair share of woolly mammoth tusk-marrow, he became the avatar of all Scarcity and Hunger and they set upon him with heavy rocks and not even a trace of mercy.

Now, believe it or not, I’m not trying to make you feel sorry for Amy Cooper. In fact, throughout this whole piece I actually have had no interest in trying to convince you of anything at all about her. I freely acknowledge that there’s no reading of this situation where she comes out smelling like roses. My point is simply the following. There are many cases of someone being publicly shamed and having their life fed into the woodchipper where there’s no uncertainty whatsoever about what they did and why, and so the argument has to be “alright, yes, so this person clearly revealed themselves to be a ___ist, however… blah, blah, blah.” This isn’t that. Not really. Although she was committing a harm either way, there is an open question about the issue at hand, which is the nature of this woman’s intention. I wholeheartedly concur with this precept of the legal system: mens rea rightly ought to determine someone’s level of culpability.

Thus, I’m really just here to ask you whether you’re one hundred percent sure that she made that phonecall and said what she said because she’s a racist? If you are, you are. Okay. But if you’re not, you must register the possibility that a woman overreacted to a man threatening to hurt her dog and subsequently had her world blown to smithereens because two-bit journalists misrepresented the story. (Just as there is no due process in the court of public opinion, there is no appeals process either. So this damage is forever.) I would hope that possibility, even if you consider it a relatively small one, troubles you. I can tell you: it troubles me.

But before Amy Cooper can enjoy any of those long-term difficulties which are going to hound her until the grave one day grants her final respite, there’s all the present shit she’s going to have to deal with first. Let’s examine some of those.

First off, there’s all the people (both in the press and not) fine-combing her past for any previous misdeeds — whether large or small, whether hard facts or spurious rumour, whether relevant or irrelevant — in order to retroactively stitch together a patchwork case for her being a racist by ‘proving’ that she was at least always a shitty person.

Talking of which, why are reputable news outlets joining in on this? How are they justifying digging into this woman’s past for totally unrelated ‘dirt’? For instance, why on earth did The New York Times feel the need to tell me all about the married man she slept with and loaned money to for sordid ends and then sued to get it back? What does that have to do with anything? How did whoever runs their newsroom decide that it was in the public interest? No, I’m really asking. I want to know. I feel like a damn maths teacher here: “the outcome of the calculation isn’t enough, you have to show me your work too.” I hope there were fractious internal emails and memos where they debated the ethics of this shady shit; I very much would like to read them. And if instead there was no soul-searching? Jesus, that speaks for itself. It must just be part of “all the news that’s fit to print,” I guess. Meaning that the resort to lazy character assassination is evidently alive and well at all echelons of the grand old profession. Personally, I just can’t believe that that’s still the go-to in these situations. I don’t get how you can possibly defend digging up unrelated questionable stuff from someone’s past to try and disparage them in order to appease the worst, most bloodthirsty elements of your readership. Leave that franchise to the fucking tabloids. I mean, has the NYT implemented a new program where they share a pool of muck-raking ‘reporters’ with the New York Post?…

Next up, Amy Cooper was of course fired. Which is really just de rigueur for any company whose employee gets embroiled in some viral outrage-bait or social-media imbroglio, no matter the particulars. Who cares whether the allegations are true or not. They just want to avoid getting dragged into it. And they sure as hell don’t feel any kind of obligation or loyalty to their workers (though, naturally, demand both from their workers anyway.) I hear most high-profile companies tend to have a clause in their employment contracts which states something along the lines of “if you do anything to bring disrepute on this company…” And that is, funnily enough, a wholly subjective pronouncement to make. Indeed, it’s there so that they keep in reserve an incontestable free pass to fire someone for anything done even while off the clock. (Don’t you just love the totalitarian aspirations of modern capitalism? Your responsibility to the company is 24/7/365 and all your actions, even in your personal life, must be self-vetted as being in its best interest. Toss in regular drug tests and stipulations about visible tattoos/piercings/etc and they pretty much exert ownership over your entire body. And all for subsistence wages? What a fantastic deal. Republicans & Tories are totally right when they say that the Labour Rights movement is now just a bunch of piffle because it’s already run roughshod over poor Johnny Megabucks, Esq. and won every conceivable luxury. You know, if anything, we should all be marching in the streets for Bosses’ Rights…) I would say that whatever your thoughts on Amy Cooper, the fact that companies arrogate this power and its capricious use to themselves is not something that should be celebrated.

Amy has also just recently been charged with a crime. Specifically, ‘Falsely Reporting an Incident in the Third Degree’, which in plain english just means making a fabricated allegation to the police and is classified as a misdemeanour. It’s an interesting choice. Because you would have expected them to find some felony to charge her with, given all the political pressure they’re under to really throw the book at her. That being said, some googling informs me that this particular crime can be punished by “a maximum of one year in jail or three years probation. In addition, a fine of up to $1,000… may be imposed.” And let’s just say I wouldn’t exactly keel over from shock if some judge with an activist mindset is persuaded to go ahead and put Amy Cooper inside a prison cell, even just for a short time, to try and make an example out of her.

Honestly, I don’t have any issue with Amy Cooper being charged. I think in most other cases prosecutors would be more sympathetic to the claim, which has been publicly made by her, that she overreacted because she was alone and scared, but no matter. At the end of the day, what she did was extremely serious and could potentially have ended very badly for Christian, so I’m fine with the idea that she needs to answer for herself and her actions before the eyes of the law. (Though, if this is the type of thing where you can avail yourself of a jury trial, I don’t know how she could possibly be unbiasedly judged by an assembly of her peers given how severely the news coverage has distorted the incident at hand and painted her as an awful person just looking for opportunities to be racist. Then again, the likelihood of some kind of plea deal being sought maybe makes that a moot point.)

Interestingly, Christian has written a piece for the Washington Post — makes you wonder if he had some reason for snubbing the more obvious hometown choice of the NYT — where he pledges that he won’t voluntarily cooperate with the prosecution of Amy Cooper. Notwithstanding the slightly pompous and self-regarding tone which suffuses the piece, there are indeed creditable aspects to what he says and the stance he takes. I was impressed that he derided the prospect of “an ambitious DA with an election next year, in the current social climate,” cynically seeking the maximum sentence for publicity reasons, and that he stated that he didn’t think this would represent “a commensurate punishment.” He also expressed displeasure with how castigating this woman was being used as a feel-good distraction from the larger fight against everyday racism as an insidious societal problem. I agree with him, that’s exactly right. And it’s good that he’s coming at this with due scepticism and that he evidently has a backbone of personal conviction. It would have been much easier to just go along with the prevailing winds and get patted on the back yet more.

However, surprise surprise, like much of the press he deceptively frames the event itself, by presenting what happened without any reference to his threat with the dog treats. This is slippery and self-serving and an attempt by him to mould the narrative for his own benefit. He didn’t have any problem boasting about this aspect back when he made that first Facebook post, but now he obviously realizes that it complicates the question of assigning blame.

Therein lies my next point: where are the charges for Christian Cooper? I’m guessing there must be some crime under the New York penal code that covers threatening to hurt someone’s animal and/or employing such threats to coerce? Those aren’t trivial or harmless things to do, are they? Does the District Attorney’s office not think that this deserves their attention too? Is that kind of behaviour to be given a free pass in their city? And, moreover, just like with Amy there’s no question whether he did the action itself. It’s an open and shut case. I’m sure if they ever did pursue it, he’d just get a slap on the wrist (whereas Amy’s likely to get the fucking thumbscrews), but, hey, at least that would be something. A symbolic gesture to show that you’re more interested in justice being applied indiscriminately than merely inviting praiseful headlines to try and grease the skids for your next re-election bid.

What’s really bizarre is that Christian Cooper has now become some kind of celebrated figure. To the point — and we’re really delving into the depths of dark absurdity here — where his political endorsement was seen as valuable when he granted it to Joe Biden. Now, maybe he’s just an all-around great guy in the rest of his life, I don’t know. Maybe he teaches orphans to read Latin and travels to Australia to save koala bears from wildfires. But all I, and everyone else commenting on this story, know is that he makes a habit of slyly threatening people’s animals if he witnesses them breaking a park rule. So, you know what? Fuck that guy. He may well be the victim of Amy Cooper’s false allegation (maybe even for racist reasons too, that’s possible) and as I said earlier that’s a truly horrible thing to have happen to you, but that doesn’t make him a saint or a hero all of a sudden, it doesn’t make me curious to hear his musings about how to fix the ills of America, and most of all it doesn’t erase his creepy ‘no, I’ll make you follow the rules!’ routine which he’s evidently employed on several other people in the past too. Just forget everything else for a second, if your mom/sister/daughter was alone in a secluded wooded area with a stranger and he threatened her dog to make her do as he said, you would be thinking ‘fuck that guy’ too, and you know it.

The fact that we can’t all just openly admit even that is… mind-boggling.

I think it’s self-evident that this incident emerging around the same time as the George Floyd killing undoubtedly strapped a colossal afterburner to the rocketship of the Amy Cooper video’s virality and outrage-sparking. The coinciding timing was crucial here. It amplified people’s reactions, and allowed this video to be folded into a greater outcry.

Nevertheless, in my opinion it’s pretty ridiculous to try and link them. (As has been done unambiguously many times. E.g. this WaPo op-ed entitled ‘Amy Cooper and George Floyd remind us how far we have to go‘.) I mean, what are we doing here? One is a hideous act of callous violence which is widely considered to be outright murder under colour of law; the other is a brief testy squabble between two people who each did stupid things which only escalated it further, but which ultimately came to nothing in terms of physical harm. These things are actually not alike. In really any significant way. And pretending otherwise is just foolish and unproductive.

Now, regardless of whether Amy Cooper’s motivation was based on being genuinely afraid and discombobulated or just indeed being racistly malicious and phony, it is fair to view aspects of this incident through the lens of racial dynamics and to ask certain questions. Would she have been so quick to call the cops on Christian if he wasn’t black? Maybe not. There is definitely a repugnant phenomenon where some white people during any kind of friction with a person of colour jump straight to dialling 911 and wield it like a weapon, whereas if it was another white person they’d view them as less threatening and be more amenable to trying to deescalate and defuse the situation in a respectful way. And is it potentially a VERY different thing to call the cops on a black person than a white person? Can it mean inflicting a heightened degree of endangerment? It sure can. And that is also extremely fucked-up and depressing and outrageous and appalling and disgusting and… once more with feeling… outrageous. No ifs, ands, or buts. All the vociferous moral outcry about this fact is totally justified.

The conversation everyone is now having about societal racism is so crucial and so overdue. Yet it is not served — is, in fact, hindered and undermined— by pointing at an incident which also has a very plausible more-innocuous explanation and saying “look, if you’re confused, that is what we’re talking about, that’s the bullseye.” It would be very easy, given the multidirectional righteous fury which has erupted the world over, to ignore the uncertainty, complexities, and grey areas of such events. To try and mash the round peg into the square hole. So that there can be another seemingly straightforward example to add to the list and further build the overall case being made. And it seems a lot of people are more than happy to do this. But I just can’t get behind it. The facts of a situation always matter. Doubly so when they’re the lynchpins which help you understand the full picture of why it unfolded the way it did, how the escalation ping-ponged back and forth. Who, exactly, are we helping when we indulge in the luxury of ignoring inconvenient, complicating facets of a situation just because emotions are running high about other things? If you’re willing to half-ass your analysis of something potentially related to it, aren’t you denigrating the importance of the antiracist struggle itself? Given that you won’t even expend that extra mental effort of looking at something clearly and thoroughly?

That’s another reason why I object to the news media so brazenly trying to strategically misportray this story: it’s insulting. They think you can’t digest nuance. They think that unless they simplify and reframe the story so you can only reach one (a.k.a the ‘right’) conclusion, you’ll never get there, you can’t be trusted to get there. You should feel aggrieved that they have such a low opinion of you. I think they could have given the reader the full context and excised no details, and after a little consideration that reader may very well reach the same moral conclusion anyway: even though Christian blatantly instigated things by taking the situation from a 0/10 seriousness to like a 6/10 or 7/10 seriousness with his dog-threat, ultimately that’s still way overshadowed by Amy then taking it to a 10/10 seriousness by adding on an extra false allegation when calling the cops, which is egregiously wrong and exceptionally dangerous. (And that conclusion can still hold even if you take the most charitable interpretation of Amy having done it without ill intent.) To which I would say fair enough. I’m open to that. But can anyone explain to me how it’s somehow okay — or maybe, if you think so, even good — that we be herded towards a particular conclusion by having a story conveyed to us in an inaccurate way? My inbox is always open. I’d love to see the impressive contortions and self-abasement an argument for that would have to employ. HBO Max is fucking expensive, man… and I’m not made of money; I need to source free entertainment wherever I can get it.

I don’t want reporters ‘erring on the side of caution’ to mean presuming the reader is so dumb that stories have to be massaged into untroublesomely simple narratives for their own benefit. I flat-out reject and repudiate that arrogant paternalism. Who are they to decide what you should and shouldn’t get to know? Who are they to decide what you can and cannot handle? If you ask me, they are not competent or entitled to decide what’s best for you. Reporters should be mere conduits for information in as full/unexpurgated a form as they can present it. And their only operating assumption should be that their readers are intelligent and very much capable of sophisticated and complex ethical calculus.

So when they shirk that, when they treat you like children whilst simultaneously begging you to preserve their particular outlet (e.g. by paying for a subscription or whitelisting them on adblockers), just take a second to consider what it means to go on supporting the work of those who think so little of you.

An insult paid for is an insult earned and doubled, wouldn’t you say?

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