CLAIM

Boston-based history professor Heather Richardson surmised President Trump's Executive Order on immigration was a "shock event." See Example(s)

EXAMPLES
Collected via e-mail, January 2017

I’ve seen a suspicious post in a few places on facebook. It’s attributed to ‘Heather Richardson, professor of History at Boston College’. As far as I can tell Heather Richardson exists.

This plausible ‘Don’t share, copy and paste’ article does not have the ‘feel’ of a considered academic opinion.

It is written around the idea of a frequently occurring ‘shock event’. There is only one example given — that of the southern states during the lead up to the civil war. That solitary example is provided as an assertion without connecting it in any way to the idea of a ‘shock event’.

It begins by saying it is non partisan but that is hardly supported by the thrust of the argument.

I suspect this is a quite well written polemic and someone has used the name of a noted academic to give it authority.

CORRECT ATTRIBUTION

RATING

CORRECT ATTRIBUTION

ORIGIN

On 29 January 2017, Boston College history professor Heather Richardson published what would become a widely-shared Facebook post pertaining to President Trump’s 27 January 2017 Executive Order temporarily halting entry to the U.S. of residents of seven countries, positing the controversial decision was a “shock event”:

Last night’s Executive Order has all the hallmarks of a shock event. It was not reviewed by any governmental agencies or lawyers before it was released, and counterterrorism experts insist they did not ask for it. People charged with enforcing it got no instructions about how to do so. Courts immediately have declared parts of it unconstitutional, but border police in some airports are refusing to stop enforcing it.

Professor Richardson postulated that backlash against President Trump’s sudden action was planned cover for a separate subsequent act not yet apparent:

Such an event is unexpected and confusing and throws a society into chaos. People scramble to react to the event, usually along some fault line that those responsible for the event can widen by claiming that they alone know how to restore order. When opponents speak out, the authors of the shock event call them enemies. As society reels and tempers run high, those responsible for the shock event perform a sleight of hand to achieve their real goal, a goal they know to be hugely unpopular, but from which everyone has been distracted as they fight over the initial event. There is no longer concerted opposition to the real goal; opposition divides along the partisan lines established by the shock event.

Facebook users commenting on Richardson’s popular post referenced a 2007 Naomi Klein book theorizing policymakers deliberately foment and leverage exhaustion and distraction stemming from upheaval and uncertainty, in the service of enacting policies to which the citizenry might otherwise object:

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism is a 2007 book by the Canadian author and social activist Naomi Klein. In the book, Klein argues that neoliberal free market policies (as advocated by the economist Milton Friedman) have risen to prominence in some developed countries because of a deliberate strategy of “shock therapy”. This centers on the exploitation of national crises to push through controversial policies while citizens are too emotionally and physically distracted by disasters or upheavals to mount an effective resistance.

As of 31 January 2017 Heather Cox Richardson was listed as a professor of nineteenth-century American history “at both the undergraduate and the graduate level[s],” with some career focus on the “transformation of political ideology from the Civil War to the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt.” Although Richardson’s Facebook post was widely shared and commented upon, it is a speculative one that hinges on the assignment of motives and is therefore an opinion-based text. Moreover, Richardson’s theory rests on the occurrence of a future event which may or may not take place, and which would not necessarily be identifiable as the one to which she referred.

Ms. Richardson confirmed to us that she was indeed the author of this piece, as published to her personal Facebook page (Heather Richardson) and shared via her author page (Heather Cox Richardson), although some social media repostings may have truncated or otherwise altered it.

Richardson’s complete post is reproduced as follows:

I don’t like to talk about politics on Facebook — political history is my job, after all, and you are my friends — but there is an important non-partisan point to make today.

What Bannon is doing, most dramatically with last night’s ban on immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries — is creating what is known as a “shock event.” Such an event is unexpected and confusing and throws a society into chaos. People scramble to react to the event, usually along some fault line that those responsible for the event can widen by claiming that they alone know how to restore order. When opponents speak out, the authors of the shock event call them enemies. As society reels and tempers run high, those responsible for the shock event perform a sleight of hand to achieve their real goal, a goal they know to be hugely unpopular, but from which everyone has been distracted as they fight over the initial event. There is no longer concerted opposition to the real goal; opposition divides along the partisan lines established by the shock event.

Last night’s Executive Order has all the hallmarks of a shock event. It was not reviewed by any governmental agencies or lawyers before it was released, and counterterrorism experts insist they did not ask for it. People charged with enforcing it got no instructions about how to do so. Courts immediately have declared parts of it unconstitutional, but border police in some airports are refusing to stop enforcing it.

Predictably, chaos has followed and tempers are hot.

My point today is this: unless you are the person setting it up, it is in no one’s interest to play the shock event game. It is designed explicitly to divide people who might otherwise come together so they cannot stand against something its authors think they won’t like. I don’t know what Bannon is up to — although I have some guesses — but because I know Bannon’s ideas well, I am positive that there is not a single person whom I consider a friend on either side of the aisle — and my friends range pretty widely — who will benefit from whatever it is. If the shock event strategy works, though, many of you will blame each other, rather than Bannon, for the fallout. And the country will have been tricked into accepting their real goal.

But because shock events destabilize a society, they can also be used positively. We do not have to respond along old fault lines. We could just as easily reorganize into a different pattern that threatens the people who sparked the event. A successful shock event depends on speed and chaos because it requires knee-jerk reactions so that people divide along established lines. This, for example, is how Confederate leaders railroaded the initial southern states out of the Union. If people realize they are being played, though, they can reach across old lines and reorganize to challenge the leaders who are pulling the strings. This was Lincoln’s strategy when he joined together Whigs, Democrats, Free-Soilers, anti-Nebraska voters, and nativists into the new Republican Party to stand against the Slave Power. Five years before, such a coalition would have been unimaginable. Members of those groups agreed on very little other than that they wanted all Americans to have equal economic opportunity. Once they began to work together to promote a fair economic system, though, they found much common ground. They ended up rededicating the nation to a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Confederate leaders and Lincoln both knew about the political potential of a shock event. As we are in the midst of one, it seems worth noting that Lincoln seemed to have the better idea about how to use it.

Sources:

Boston College Staff Directory.   “Heather Cox Richardson: Professor.”
    Accessed 1 February 2017.

Wikipedia.   “The Shock Doctrine.”
    Accessed 1 February 2017.