As I write this, America is four months into the Coronavirus lockdown and one month into the George Floyd Riots. Are these two things unrelated? Probably not – when all the news that came in this spring seemed tailored to convince people that 1) normal life is over, and 2) the authorities are incompetent, forces like the ones we’re seeing in action right now were bound to come out of the woodwork sooner or later.
Could anyone have predicted in advance that the outcome would be a riot whose theme – as if to satisfy the natural human desire for variety – would smoothly flow from “black lives matter,” to “defund the police,” to “all statues are racist,” as rioters rushed forth to topple Union and Confederate memorials alike? Probably not, though the basic elements have long been in place.
Three weeks ago, I wrote an article about the riots in which I bluntly stated that the forces of law and order are all pushovers. Since then, nothing has happened to make me change my mind. At the beginning of the fiasco, you had the Minneapolis Police Department staging a “tactical retreat” and letting “protesters” burn their police station. Now, you have the Mayor of Birmingham taking down his city’s Civil War monument on the grounds that he would rather pay a $25,000 fine (for violating the state law against removing statues) than deal with continuing unrest.
As before, the chaos has generated plenty of howls of impotent outrage from right wing media. Here is a typical example from Breitbart, excerpt below:
“With the ongoing 1619 Riots, that were sparked with the death of George Floyd, the establishment media and elected Democrats finally did it — finally decided to show their true colors and desperation by openly embracing, championing, and encouraging violence. Before the 1619 Riots, as a country, on the right and left, we all agreed there was one line that could never be crossed; that we could never, ever, ever condone or encourage violence of any kind. You see, we all knew that was the slippery slope to hell. We all knew our civilization and democracy depended on…”
Any well-educated conservative or libertarian can look back across the last century-and-a-half of American history and see the step by step unravelling of the constitution and way of life that our founders gave us: The rise and growth of imperialism, the Federal Reserve Act, the New Deal, the usurpation of the war-making power by the President, the Warren Court’s displacement of Congress as America’s top legislature, and the Sexual Revolution (i.e. the reason that most American children no longer grow up with both parents).
We can all see the welfare state, the takeover of our education system by central planners and the ensuing collapse in its quality, the combination of overregulation and a loose monetary policy which has made American manufacturing uncompetitive and ruined the economic prospects of the working class, the fact that America now has the world’s highest incarceration rate, and so forth.
How, then, can someone conclude that statue-toppling, of all things, is what has finally put us on the wrong side of the civilization-vs-barbarism line?
Now I could just say that Breitbart is exaggerating the importance of the present moment in order to get more clicks – i.e. for the same reason that so many Democratic news sources insisted that the 2018 midterm was the most important election in their viewers’ lifetimes. But I think that something bigger is going on here.
America’s mainstream conservatives are howling in agony because, after more than a century of trading their liberty for safety, they are seeing that the bargain has gone sour. They’re not getting any safety.
Take another look at that Breitbart quote. The article says that, up to this point, the fundamental consensus at the heart of American society was that “we all agreed there was one line that could never be crossed; that we could never, ever, ever condone or encourage violence of any kind.”
What happens if you look at this from the point of view of its supposed audience, people who admire George Washington and the other American founders? Does the Breitbart claim make any sense? Did Washington and his comrades believe that violence was always wrong?
No, they didn’t. If you had asked these men what they thought the basic principle undergirding American society was, they would probably have described some sort of consensus about the rights and liberties of the newly independent United States, which the American people had a mutual duty to defend, against both foreign powers and government overreach, using violence if necessary.
But what happened sometime between 1776 and today is that the fundamental ethos of American right-wing politics shifted away from “these are our rights, and we will spill our blood to defend them,” and toward “nothing that goes on in politics ought ever to endanger my life or my property or my job or my social status.”
And now the right is gnashing its teeth because, after giving up so much liberty in exchange for safety, the left is laughing at it and refusing to deliver the goods. Since people on the right have forgotten how to engage in confrontational politics – even when, like President Trump, they are holding important offices – they can’t actually do anything to hold the left to its end of the bargain. That the deal is being broken for such a stupid reason – all cops are bastards and all statues are racist – just rubs salt in the wound.
Now, I ought to make it clear that I, personally, don’t think that immediate revolutionary violence would have been the right answer to all of the abuses of power that I listed a few paragraphs up. Nor do I think that the right is in a good position to have a revolution – violent or otherwise – today. What people have got to understand is that violence is only the top of a whole pyramid of risky, disruptive, and otherwise confrontational acts that people have got to engage in from time to time to in order to win or maintain their freedoms.
The participants in the Boston Tea Party, for instance, never caused bodily injury to anyone, and they were careful to harm no property other than the tea they were dumping into the harbor. It was when Parliament overreacted to this very limited action, by suspending the Massachusetts legislature and closing the Port of Boston to the innocent and the guilty alike, that violence became a necessity in the eyes of most of Massachusetts’ colonists.
After independence was won, the new nation faced its first constitutional crisis with the Alien and Sedition Acts. Basically, what happened was that Congress passed a law which made it illegal to criticize the government. The state legislatures of Virginia and Kentucky then passed unanimous resolutions stating that the Sedition Act was unconstitutional, and absolving their citizens of the duty to obey it. Was this a risky move? You bet. Colonial legislatures had been dissolved for defying Parliament just a few decades earlier.
But it worked – most Americans sided with Virginia and Kentucky and saw the new law as illegitimate; most printers refused to obey it; many printers who got charged with sedition were acquitted by sympathetic juries, and one who wasn't – Matthew Lyon – ended up as the only American elected to Congress while in jail. Fairly soon, the Sedition act was gone and the men responsible for it had been voted out of office.
The story continues in much the same vein. As America began its westward growth, thousands of abolitionists risked imprisonment to defy the fugitive slave laws long before their views prevailed in the corridors of power. In 1857, it was Benjamin Curtis’ surprising willingness to give up one of the highest offices in the land - by resigning from the Supreme Court in protest of the Dred Scott decision - that undermined that decision's legitimacy to a degree that has never been seen since.
In the twentieth century, great gains have been made by various movements willing to employ boycotts, strikes, illegal marches and sit-ins, and other confrontational tactics; what they all had in common was a willingness to take personal risks in order to disrupt business-as-usual and force a confrontation with one’s political opponents, from which the easiest course of action (for the opponents) was to back down.
This way of doing things is alien to the modern right, which is why the modern right has such a losing record. Consider the case of Brendan Eich, the CEO of Mozilla, who was fired after word got out that he had supported the winning side in California’s Proposition 8 election over same sex marriage. Since people who voted with Eich were in the majority, it would probably have been easy for a strike among other Mozilla employees who shared his views to force the board of directors to change its mind.
But the right showed no solidarity. The other conservative employees chose to keep their heads down in the hopes of taking home a few more paychecks before the sky fell in on them too. And that’s why people who say the wrong things about sexual deviants are getting fired like a bunch of dogs from academia, the medical profession, and woke corporations across America. If they stood together, they could have put an end to it – those industries wouldn’t have been able to handle the sudden loss of a third or so of their personnel – but conservatives instead have chosen to let themselves get picked off one by one.
And then there are the men who have to deal with ex-wives or school counselors trying to change their children’s genders without their consent. My two cents are that if this ever happens to you, then you had best get out of the country as soon as you can. Sure, it will mean giving up your job and the various comforts of American life, but when your child is at risk of being sterilized and mutilated, what’s the holdup? Vladimir Putin has treated Edward Snowden well; someone fleeing the transgender movement would probably be met with a similarly warm welcome in his country. If a little snow isn’t up your alley, you could take your case to the asylum courts of Manilla instead; Rodrigo Duterte has about the same attitude toward Western degeneracy that Putin does.
I’ve said before that if it were my child on the line, I would be willing to hijack a plane to Siberia if that’s what it took. And yet the transgender child cases that I have seen in the media have never ended with a parent taking even the simple expedient of walking across the wide-open Mexican border.
Perhaps you remember the case of Alfie Evans, the British baby who died in a hospital two years ago after the NHS decided that his life wasn’t worth trying to preserve, and got a court order to forbid his parents from taking him to Italy for experimental treatment. One might ask oneself, if the unjust killings of people like Eric Garner and George Floyd can lead to riots, why was there no “Alfie Evans Riot?”
And one might answer that it’s because people on the right know that burning and looting private property isn’t an ethical way to protest one’s grievances against the government – which is a good point. But the thing is, the Alfie Evans protestors didn’t even engage in carefully-targeted vandalism against one of the guiltier government agencies, a la Boston Tea Party. Nor did they take hostages and offer to release them on condition that the baby was sent to Italy, nor did they do anything else that might make the authorities reluctant to repeat the same course of action the next time a baby with a mysterious disease lays wasting away in a British hospital.
What we have right now, across the western world, is a political order in which one side is willing, like the Founding Fathers, to stick their necks out for their cause and engage in a lot of confrontational politics, plus the occasional act of violence, when it suits their purposes. On the other side of the aisle, people are generally content to signal their beliefs in the most low-risk, low-reward ways possible – this is the reason, for example, why President Trump’s role in the present unrest has mostly been that of tweeter-in-chief.
As long as conservatives have a job to walk back to the next morning, most of them are willing to let the political winds blow in whatever way the left decides to steer them. That’s how they ended up accepting a system in which only the other side got to be disruptive, and as each of their freedoms was lost, they comforted themselves by saying, ‘at least we’re still free from violence.’ But now the time has come that they aren’t free from that, either.