American revolutions: Rewriting the language of the unheard
‘Dissenting viewpoints — for example, the belief that America is not an intrinsically racist country—are shunned as further proof of racist pathologies’
Why is the universal horror felt by the American public in response to the brutal killing of George Floyd cause for a full-blown culture war? After video footage emerged of Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, dying from asphyxiation as a white Minnesota police officer kneeled on his neck for over eight minutes, the action against those responsible was swift and the public outcry unanimous.
The protestors, although they flouted the coronavirus social distancing rules, had (and still have) broad public backing. A Monmouth poll from June showed 78 per cent of the public believe protestors’ anger to be partly or wholly justified. A Reuters/Ipsos survey found 73 per cent supported “the peaceful protests and demonstrations” though 79 per cent rejected the violence and criminality of rioters. And an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that Americans believe, by a ratio of two to one, that instances of police brutality against blacks point to a broader problem.
The scene is, after all, grimly familiar. Floyd’s death came only months after a similar injustice, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old jogger, chased and shot dead by a former policeman and his son. These acts of violence not only resemble the lynchings of the previous century, and evoke the active role that government once played in depriving black citizens of their most basic rights—they are also a powerful illustration of what members of the black community have long complained. That even when conceding that the overrepresentation of African Americans in crime statistics has more than one explanation, the problems of police brutality and racial profiling remain, and require redress through rigorous reform. For instance, the Harvard economist Roland Fryer has analysed officer-involved shootings and found no evidence of racial disparities, but he has also observed in the data “large racial differences in police use of nonlethal force,” such as “black civilians who were recorded as compliant by police [being] 21 percent more likely to suffer police aggression than compliant whites.”
The trouble is that the spirit of conciliation and cooperation necessary to tackle this problem is altogether lacking in “woke” politics. I am referring to the over-simplistic and illiberal view of history and politics—and of everything else, for that matter—once shrugged off as student shenanigans which now holds sway in mainstream liberal institutions from the Democratic party to the New York Times editorial page. It is a view of America which overlooks the great milestones achieved in the country’s long and bloody history—the war which ended slavery; the Thirteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which respectively abolished slavery and enfranchised black men; the civil rights movement; increased social mobility; and the representation of African Americans in every sector and in public office, including a popular two-term president.
None of these advancements necessarily mean African Americans have arrived at total equality of opportunity and equal treatment under law. But neither should they be discounted in favour of a deterministic view of human history and nature, which argues that the trajectory of a person’s life is dictated by their skin colour to such an extent that the only viable solution is to “dismantle” the system and start over. Under this prevailing postmodern ethic, the difference between Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis—even between Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler—are matters of degree. These dead white men are all, by today’s standards, racist. The solution, according to Twitter’s trending page, is to #BurnItAllDown. This kind of fanaticism—quite apart from its disregard for progress—is dangerously counterproductive.
When the rioting began in the aftermath of Floyd’s death, Time magazine ran a piece arguing that there is a time “When Rioting is the Answer”. The piece points out that political violence has long been part of the American story and psyche, even noting that “America was founded on riots”. And that’s true (sort of). To pick but just two examples, in the buildup to the American War of Independence, colonial rebels ransacked and burned the house of Governor Thomas Hutchinson for his public support of the Stamp Act. They also famously destroyed property when they dumped chests full of tea into Boston Harbour. Americans consequently take pride in their insurrectionist beginnings, and their suspicion of tyranny (in the guise of authority) continues to this day. Distrust of government is the precise reason that the Founders enshrined a constitutional right to bear arms, providing Americans not only with the philosophy but with the actual means to take the law into their own hands, should that be necessary. So, yes, the anti-British colonial elites stirred up popular support for the cause of American independence. And perhaps today’s anti-American metropolitan elites, arguing that the greatest tyranny facing America is now itself, are attempting something similar. Wesley Lowery argued in The Atlantic that “the justice system—in fact, the entire American experiment—was from its inception designed to perpetuate racial inequality”. R.H. Lossin took this a step further in a piece for The Nation, arguing that “attacking police stations” not only “makes rational sense” but is “the fulfilment in some small but concrete way of the central demand being made by protestors across the country: Police need to be defunded, and some police stations need to disappear.” I wonder whether such commentators realise that their ability to publicly castigate their government undermines their own argument.
Though rioters are not an existential threat in the way that real revolutionaries (of the French, Russian, or American variety) were, the recent vandalism of the Lincoln memorial steps is more than just a public nuisance. It is symbolic of a kind of cultural masochism that occurs when American history is recounted in hyper-racialised terms. While slavery is undeniably the scourge, or “original sin”, of the country—one which must be acknowledged in stark and comprehensive terms—a great deal is lost, skewed and distorted when it becomes the only lens through which the past is viewed.
An obvious example of this is the recent 100-page issue by the New York Times Magazine, entitled “The 1619 Project”. (It has since won the Pulitzer prize for commentary). The project’s creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, argues that American exceptionalism needs to be “reframed” wholly in terms of the consequences of slavery. But Hannah-Jones does not mention, for instance, that emancipation plans in the rebel colonies were underway as early as 1780, that decades before the Civil War Thomas Jefferson implored Congress to stop Americans “from all further participation in those violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa”, or even that President Lincoln was assassinated by a white supremacist for the central role he played in the nationwide abolition of slavery. That Frederick Douglass himself described him as “emphatically the black man’s president” is yet another piece of evidence on the other side of the ledger that Hannah-Jones fails to acknowledge. Writing for National Review, historian Allen C. Guelzo of Princeton University complained that history reduced to one single cause is no history at all: Hannah-Jones’s narrative is one “in which black leaders who preached reconciliation and seized hold of the American promise for themselves all but disappear from view” and in which “white abolitionists vanish, and in which 360,000 Union soldiers die in vain”. The consequences of this are significant. Adopting “The 1619 Project” in their school curricula, tens of thousands of children across America will now learn the self-fulfilling prophecy that America is not a land of healing and hope, but one of division and despair.
There is another consequence, too. Though the right to express a dissenting view is constitutionally guaranteed under the First Amendment, dissenting viewpoints—for example, the belief that America is not an intrinsically racist country or that affirmative action is not the best way to achieve social mobility—are shunned as further proof of racist pathologies.
The American social scientist Musa Al-Gharbi, a black independent, explained it to me thus: “There’s this idea that if you don’t toe the line, the progressive line for a lot of race issues, then you’ve ‘internalised racism’. This is an idea that actually goes back to Marx—he called it ‘false consciousness’. But the problem with false consciousness, especially as a social-scientific concept, is that it isn’t falsifiable . . . By [Karl] Popper’s definition of science, this kind of thing is just not science.”
Al-Gharbi views this theory as religious in nature. “There’s a metaphysics, with ‘whiteness’ operating as a malevolent force in the world, and an ‘original sin’ at the root of all society’s ills—albeit without any apparent hope for progress or redemption . . . if there’s no real hope, then white liberals, especially the elite class, don’t really have to change anything about the way they’re acting, about how they’re profiting from the system.”
The effect of this orthodoxy is to shut down debate at the precise moment that it would be most constructive—that is, when there is enough public and bipartisan support for meaningful political reform.
The political Left claims to hold the monopoly on anti-racism yet is interested in far more than just race relations. For instance, the Black Lives Matter Global Network advertises on its website its noble aims of working “vigorously for freedom and justice for Black people and, by extension, all people” but declares its means to achieving these aims as “dismantle[ing] cisgender privilege” and “patriarchal practice”, as well as “disrupt[ing] the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure”. Among its biggest policy priorities is to “defund the police”.
As Al-Gharbi noted, this is all too convenient for progressive politicians, who are effectively off the hook. Perhaps they think that the American public won’t notice that the cities with the worst crime problems, including Minneapolis where George Floyd was killed, are run by Democrats. The scenes of mayhem emerging from Seattle in which the mayor has allowed rioters to declare a nation state in a six-block area amounts to a staggering abdication of political responsibility. Graffiti from within the self-styled “police free” Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone reads “burn them all”, “kill pigs”, “kill cops”. Yet the the New York Times has declared it a “homeland for racial justice”. New York City, meanwhile, is facing what is potentially its sharpest rise in murder rates since the 1990s. Rather than address this, the mayor and governor are busy disbanding their 600 plainclothes officers in accordance with the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement. And what about the fact that the neighbourhoods worst affected will be communities of colour? After that Council voted to dismantle its police force, Lisa Bender, a member of the Minneapolis City Council, appeared on CNN to support the decision. When the interviewer asked her what a person would do if, in the middle of the night, her home was broken into, Bender replied that such a concern “comes from a place of privilege” and can therefore be discounted.
The fact that these problems are happening in Democrat municipalities would be politically advantageous for any normal Republican president. But that’s not what America has. Nevertheless, what Donald Trump lacks in conventional moral leadership he attempts to make up for in spectacle. The President tweeted “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”—words associated with segregationist politicians of the 1960s. Unwilling to pass up a photo opportunity with a Bible outside St. John’s Episcopal Church (damaged by rioters the night before), he also used a combination of smoke canisters, shields, pepper balls and horses to clear out peaceful demonstrators. Luckily for him, Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, is engaging in toe-curling posturing of his own. (He told voters via a popular African American radio host that “if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or for Trump, you ain’t black”.) Trump’s strategy now is to mirror Richard Nixon’s appeal to the “silent majority” of 1968, who might be sympathetic to the protestors but who are unwilling to do away with law and order.
So far, Biden has done well to ignore the more radical demands of the Black Lives Matter movement, refusing to “defund the police”. (Based on current polling, if Biden improves on Hillary Clinton’s abysmal performance among non-college whites and manages to maintain his lead in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania—states Trump won in 2016 by less than one point—he is set for victory.) Senate Democrats, however, are pursuing a more all-or-nothing strategy and recently blocked a Republican police reform bill that would restrict officers from performing chokeholds as well as increasing federal funding for police body cameras.
It would be a shame if the momentum for constructive change in the aftermath of Floyd’s death were spoiled by its excesses or by naked election-year politicking. There are many areas for police reform; whether it’s police unions, which help protect bad cops such as Floyd’s killers, or policies such as “qualified immunity”, which prevent victims of police brutality from waging civil suits against their attackers. There are also many ways in which to educate against the real and present dangers of racism, remembering especially those blood-spattered chapters of American history, without surrendering to the quasi-Marxist dogmatists who cannot tell the difference between the American political system and that of Iran. It’s one thing to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It is quite another to argue that because the baby made the water dirty, it ought to be drowned. The progressive repudiation of America, on account of its struggle with racism, is an act of political self-sabotage that fundamentally misunderstands human nature and history. Come November, it will be a hard sell.