Life

Fox News’ Fixation on Mollie Tibbetts’ Murder Is Astonishingly Hypocritical

A still of Bret Baier discussing the murder of Mollie Tibbetts on Fox News.
Fox News’ Bret Baier discusses the murder of Mollie Tibbetts.
Photo illustration by Slate. Image via Fox News.

Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts is dead, and the president and Fox News have predictably used her murder as an occasion to fearmonger about “illegal” immigration, even as some members of her family have begged them to stop. Meanwhile, as many pointed out on Twitter this week, husbands, boyfriends, and men who can’t take rejection kill women in America every day, to little outcry from the right (unless the woman in question happens to be pregnant). The misappropriation of Mollie Tibbetts’ murder is of a piece with the right’s conspiracy-minded fixation on rumors and shadows of pedophilia, even as real children are separated from their parents and put at risk of abuse in detention centers, and grown-up children tell us that they experienced sexual abuse at the hands of their wrestling coaches and are called liars by members of Congress for their pains.

The hypocrisy of the right’s selective defense of some women and some children, mounted only when it suits their xenophobic and partisan purposes, can make you feel like your head is going to spin right off your shoulders. It feels useless to get mad about it—especially because we’re now provided with so many occasions to feel this kind of helpless anger. The Trump-supporting right specializes in hypocrisy around accountability—it’s now somehow common wisdom that it’s OK to break the law if you’re a powerful person committing campaign finance violations but not if you’re a refugee trying to flee violence with your kids. (After all, Dad can do what he wants, while the rest of us must fall in line.) But it feels important to anatomize the type of hypocrisy we see in the case of Mollie Tibbetts because this particular kind of selective concern tells you something about the way the right is using white paternalism to cement its power. I think of it, for lack of a better shorthand, as the hypocrisy of care.

During the “white slave” panic of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which unfolded across Britain, Canada, and the United States, reformers ignored the actual needs of young women who were moving to big cities from small towns—namely, laws that would guarantee a fair wage and protection from sexual assault in the workplace—and focused instead on lurid and ultimately uncorroborated tales of black and brown men luring white women into sexual servitude, using these perceived threats as a rationale for keeping close track of women who would otherwise live free in the big city. Historian Marilla McCargar points out, in a post on the Canadian fight against “white slavery,” that this false narrative “was quite effective in controlling women, but ignored the plight of women who were most vulnerable to exploitation: new immigrant women who had fewer economic choices than white women.” White female progressives participated in that particular 100-year-old episode of hypocrisy, too. I bring this up because it shows how misplaced care—whether misdirected through obliviousness or with malicious intent—has real consequences for its targets.

Today, the right likes to imagine that the biggest threats to women and children are immigrants, abortion, Hollywood, and liberal feminism. No matter how often women say that these problems identified by conservative men in power are not really what’s wrong, like all controlling fathers, they think they know what’s good for us. By inflating the importance of this pet set of vulnerabilities, by using them to argue for a border wall or abortion restrictions or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, they get to exercise more control over us all.

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