Yogi Berra was right: it’s déjà vu all over again. Just turn on the evening news. If you are old enough, you might blink twice and wonder whether you are not back in 1968. The looting and mayhem, the promiscuous invocations of universal ‘racism’ and ‘non-negotiable demands.’ Haven’t we been there, done that? ‘We must recognize that justice is a higher social goal than law and order.’ Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to some eager CNN reporter? No, that was William Sloane Coffin, Jr., Chaplin of Yale University, in 1972.
Remember Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers? When his trial for murder opened in New Haven in 1970, Yale’s President, the pathetic patrician Kingman Brewster, said that ‘I am skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States.’ That more or less guaranteed, and half-excused, the round of violence that followed.
Over the last few days, numerous policemen have been attacked, several have been killed, in the wave of domestic terrorism coruscating across the country. Seale would have been pleased. ‘If a pig comes up to us and starts swinging a billy club,’ he told a crowd, ‘you got to [shoot] that pig in defense of yourself! We’re gonna barbecue some pork!’ Tom Hayden, all admiration for Seale’s performance, told the crowd to ‘make sure that if blood is going to flow, it will flow all over the city.’
I use the phrase ‘domestic terrorism’ advisedly. Neither the New York Times nor CNN will tell this secret. The violence that is exploding across the country now has almost nothing to doing with the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by Derek Chauvin, a white policeman. That was merely the catalyst for a process that has deep roots in American culture.
The moral is: ideas matter. For decades now, our colleges and universities (and increasingly our grades schools) have been preaching a gospel of cultural self-hatred. America, according to this gospel, is evil. The country is inextricably racist and beholden to an irredeemably exploitative economic system. The latest retelling of this creation myth is the Pulitzer-Prize-winning ‘1619 Project’ whose fundamental message is that America was started as a ‘slavocracy.’ According to this malignant fantasy, the Revolutionary War was fought primarily ‘to protect the institution of slavery.’ At last count, elements of this disgusting bit of historical revisionism were being adopted in the curricula of some 4,000 school districts.
They are also working themselves out the streets of our cities. One contingent is made up of ordinary or garden variety hooligans, young men and women (mostly men) who are out to loot and smash up whatever they can.
More dangerous is the other contingent, the ‘intellectuals’ — pajama-boy, Soros-subsidized thugs who have been taught to hate their country and now have a chance to express that hatred unfettered by civic order. ‘After the Vietnam War,’ wrote one academic radical, ‘a lot of us didn’t just crawl back into our literary cubicles; we stepped into academic positions. With the war over, our visibility was lost, and it seemed for a while — to the unobservant — that we had disappeared. Now we have tenure, and the work of reshaping the universities has begun in earnest.’
Not all of them are on the streets, like the Ivy-league-educated lawyer Colinford Mattis and fellow attorney Urooj Rahman, who tossed a Molotov cocktail into a New York police vehicle on Saturday. Some are living vicariously, like Sarah Parcak, an Egyptologist at the University of Alabama, who took to Twitter as rioters beset Washington, DC, to advise others on how to topple obelisks: ‘Just keep pulling till there’s good rocking, there will be more and more and more tilting, you have to wait more for the obelisk to rock back and time it to pull when it’s coming to you. Don’t worry you’re close!’ Was dispensing such wisdom a good idea? She must have worried about that, because she later wrote ‘PLEASE DO NOT PULL DOWN WASHINGTON MONUMENT.’ But her intentions were clear: an obelisk, she noted, ‘might be masquerading as a racist monument.’ She later confessed that archaeology and Egyptology have ‘deeply racist, colonialist, and nationalist roots… It is a field that has caused and continues to cause enormous harm (see DNA research).’
It wasn’t long ago that we were assured that the ‘end of history’ was nigh: that a Western-style liberalism was on the verge of establishing itself the world over and that peace and amity were breaking out everywhere. But instead of that attractive version of the end of history, we are now witnessing something like the retribalization of the world: a violent turn against Western liberalism and its tradition of rationality, respect for individual rights, and recognition of a common good that transcends the accidents of ethnic and racial identity. Given this situation, it is all the more imperative that we educate our students in the Western tradition, that we teach them about the virtues of our society and its democratic institutions. Such education is the staunchest bulwark against the forces of disintegration we are facing.
The multiculturalists rant on about the repressive, inequitable nature of US society. Antifa and their allies do their best to bring it about. The spectacle of violence on the streets and unbearable posturing by the media and our elites — we’re all racists; we’re all guilty! — reminds us that the real choice facing us today is not between a ‘repressive’ Western culture and a multicultural paradise, but between culture and barbarism. Civilization is not a gift; it is an achievement — a fragile achievement that needs constantly to be shored up and defended from besiegers inside and out. These are facts that do not easily penetrate the cozy and coddled purlieus of the academy, to say nothing of the guttural ravings of the mob. But they are part of the permanent challenge that any civilization must face. This was something that Evelyn Waugh understood with exceptional clarity.
‘Barbarism,’ he wrote in a somber moment in 1938, ‘is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly will commit every conceivable atrocity. The danger does not come merely from habitual hooligans; we are all potential recruits for anarchy. Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace; there is only a margin of energy left over for experiment however beneficent. Once the prisons of the mind have been opened, the orgy is on. There is no more agreeable position than that of dissident from a stable society. Theirs are all the solid advantages of other people’s creation and preservation, and all the fun of detecting hypocrisies and inconsistencies. There are times when dissidents are not only enviable but valuable. The work of preserving society is sometimes onerous, sometimes almost effortless. The more elaborate the society, the more vulnerable it is to attack, and the more complete its collapse in case of defeat. At a time like the present it is notably precarious. If it falls we shall see not merely the dissolution of a few joint-stock corporations, but of the spiritual and material achievements of our history.’
The tragedy that engulfed George Floyd should not distract us from this exigent truth.