Lying is the most consistent form of political speech. But the most insidious of political utterances is not the empty promise, it’s the stumpy slogan — the most pernicious of all political speeches. Stumpy slogans are sheathed in a veneer of righteousness while calling for the blood and punishment of a hated and less powerful group.
When I think of the empty promise, I think of Obama’s “Hope and Change.” Once it was clear the administration would prop up Wall Street and leave working people to fend for themselves after the 2008 crash, it became evident the slogan meant “y’all can just keep hoping for change.”
The stumpy slogan makes me think of Pope Urban II kicking off the first crusade. He promised a remission of sins for all who took up arms to help recapture the Holy Land from Muslim control. His rallying cry, “Deus Vult” or God wills it, justified the action, much to the chagrin of Jewish and Muslim people from Europe to the Middle East.
Perhaps not as deadly, but deadly nonetheless, is “Law and Order,” a contemporary slogan that rallies much the same way as “Deus Vult” did. Voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said, “Black people know what white people mean when they say law and order.” The heroic Hamer was savagely beaten by police and suffered a forced hysterectomy as a result of her fight for voting rights.
Even though the term “Law and Order” conjures a vague sense of justice, it means using violence, usually state-sanctioned, to maintain an economic and political order. While it posits the outward mask of law in the service of order, when it’s employed, there is no connection to justice.
The slogan probably enjoys popularity because of a combination of squinty-eyed, Dirty Harry-style movies and the seemingly immortal television series of the same name. In these stories, there are straight-as-nails officers of the law and courts that doggedly pursue justice without regard to race, class or creed. The stories give life to the belief that these fictions are a mirror of how the criminal justice system really works.
A better example of “Law and Order” in action comes from a contemporary of Fannie Lou Hamer, the segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace. During his presidential campaign speech in Madison Square Garden in 1968, Wallace gave the quintessential “Law and Order” speech. He savaged the civil rights movement and the protests condemning the Vietnam War. He blamed “anarchists,” “communists,” and the “liberals and the left-wingers.” He mouthed the vague threat that their “day . . . is going to be over soon.” He complained that the police were “handcuffed” by the Supreme Court. But his chief complaint was that “[o]ur system is under attack: the property system, the free enterprise system,” and he repeatedly declared that the answer to all these ills was “Law and Order.”
As an example of what Wallace meant by “Law and Order,” one only need look at what he told the New York Times in 1963. He said that the civil rights movement in Alabama could be solved by “a few first-class funerals.” Weeks later, Klan members bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, murdering four girls — Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair. Even though the FBI compiled enough evidence to name the perpetrators, Wallace’s Alabama, so committed to “Law and Order,” would not prosecute them. The term “Law and Order” is a mockery of justice, exemplified by the soundtrack currently blaring out of the White House.
A popular criticism leveled by conservatives against poorer people is that they show a proclivity for crime and a lack of productivity. Now, the criticism leveled at protesters from both parties is that they commit violence and looting. But the protests, the crime rate, and the poverty rate are not signs of deficient moral grit or a lack of intelligence and work ethic. The degree to which our crime and poverty rates are higher than other developed countries is related to national policies that created those needless evils. The protests are not sparked by a disdain for justice, but by a desire for it.
At the center of our national conversation about crime and poverty, is this donut hole where an obvious observation belongs: poverty and crime are linked. To alleviate the first, address the second. This is where “Law and Order” is most useful: instead of taking a more humane approach to the plight of the working class and the poor — in particular, people of color — our country takes actions that make us look more like a penal colony rather than the wealthiest country in the world.
Instead of providing decent housing, a decent job earning a living wage, competent healthcare, great childcare, or excellent, affordable education, we have an economy systematically coining people’s lives into profit. Our government has bred a body of law enforcement straining on a leash to perpetrate all the “Law and Order” it deems necessary to keep people kenneled in miserable conditions. The police seem incapable of mustering enough thought to realize that many of the dangers they face on the job are created as a matter of policy, not some innate defect in the people they police.
Breonna Taylor was a casualty of that “Law and Order.” George Floyd was as well. So were those four girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church back in 1963. Our miserable policies set the stage for their homicides at the hands of people more than willing to use force.
In the first presidential debate, it was farcical to watch the two candidates wrestle with each other about who the real “Law and Order” candidate was going to be. One candidate seemed to advocate that cops shoot more people, while the other thought cops should just shoot them in the leg. We should be wary, given the history of the term.
It’s not surprising, since “farcical” is our state legislature’s modus operandi, that the Louisiana Senate Finance committee voted along partisan lines to send House Bill 38, the Louisiana Police Funding Protection Act, to the full Senate for a vote. House Bill 38 was created in response to calls from the public to defund the police. The bill was meant to ensure that no municipality or parish cuts police funding by more than 25% without losing money for construction projects and appropriations from sales tax dedications. (HB 38 ultimately failed in the final minutes of the most recent special legislative session.)
Even though no local government is planning to defund the police, Louisiana’s Republicans senators could not help acting out a little political theatre to spotlight their devotion to “Law and Order.” Sadly, there’s rarely a flicker of justice on that stage.
About the author: Leo Lindner taught English composition for three years at Nicholls State University until the extravagant riches lavished upon him by the University of Louisiana System weighed on his conscience so heavily it encouraged him to take a position as a “mud engineer” in the oilfield. He worked on the Deepwater Horizon for 5 years with some of the finest people he will ever know. He is now retired and lives with his excellent wife, Sue.
The Opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Opinion Editor Amy Stelly at firstname.lastname@example.org.