interesting times

You Say You Want a Revolution?

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

One of the things you know if you were brought up as a Catholic in a Protestant country, as I was, is how the attempted extirpation of England’s historic Catholic faith was enforced not just by executions, imprisonments, and public burnings but also by the destruction of monuments, statues, artifacts, paintings, buildings, and sacred sculptures. The shift in consciousness that the religious revolution required could not be sustained by words or terror alone. The new regime — an early pre-totalitarian revolution imposed from the top down — had to remove all signs of what had come before. The items were not merely forms of idolatry in the minds of the newly austere Protestant vision; they also served to perpetuate the rule of the pope. They could be occasions for treason, heresy, and sin.

The impulse for wiping the slate clean is universal. Injustices mount; moderation seems inappropriate; radicalism wins and then tries to destroy the legacy of the past as a whole. The Taliban’s notorious destruction of the great Buddhas of Bamian in Afghanistan was a similar attempt to establish unquestioned Islamic rule. “Muslims should be proud of smashing idols. It has given praise to Allah that we have destroyed them,” Mullah Mohammed Omar explained. This was the spirit of Paris in 1789 as well. “If we love truth more than the fine arts,” the Enlightenment figure Denis Diderot remarked, “let us pray to God for some iconoclasts.” (He was also the lovely chap who insisted that “humankind will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” And in the French Revolution, of course, he almost got his way.) The Romans, for their part, eventually decided that the only way to govern Jews was to physically destroy their Temple in Jerusalem.

Iconoclasm is not just vandalism and violence. It is a very specific variety that usually signifies profound regime change. That’s why the toppling of old Soviet monoliths in the 1989 liberation of Eastern Europe was so salient. They were important symbols of that sclerotic Soviet empire’s power. And for true revolutionary potential, it’s helpful if these monuments are torn down by popular uprisings. That adds to the symbolism of a new era, even if it also adds to the chaos. That was the case in Mao’s Cultural Revolution, when the younger generation, egged on by the regime, went to work on any public symbols or statues they deemed problematically counterrevolutionary, creating a reign of terror that even surpassed France’s.

And Mao’s model is instructive in another way. It shows you what happens when a mob is actually quietly supported by elites, who use it to advance their own goals. The Red Guards did what they did — to their friends, and parents, and teachers — in the spirit of the Communist regime itself. They murdered and tortured, and subjected opponents to public humiliations — accompanied by the gleeful ransacking of religious and cultural sites. In their attack on the Temple of Confucius, almost 7,000 priceless artifacts were destroyed. By the end of the revolution, almost two-thirds of Beijing’s historical sites had been destroyed in a frenzy of destruction against “the four olds: old customs, old habits, old culture, and old ideas.” Mao first blessed, then reined in these vandals.

Similarly, in late-19th-century Russia, much of the intellectual elite also found themselves incapable of drawing a line when it came to revolutionary behavior — and so they tolerated violence that eventually swept everything away in terror. Even though they were the elite, the intelligentsia regarded the wealthy as the real rulers and salivated at the prospect of dethroning them. As the Russian-history professor Gary Saul Morson told The Wall Street Journal: “The idea was that since they knew the theory, they were morally superior and they should be in charge, and that there was something fundamentally wrong with the world when ‘practical’ people were.” Welcome to the New York Times newsroom in 2020.

Revolutionary moments also require public confessions of iniquity by those complicit in oppression. These now seem to come almost daily. I’m still marveling this week at the apology the actress Jenny Slate gave for voicing a biracial cartoon character. It’s a classic confession of counterrevolutionary error: “I acknowledge how my original reasoning was flawed and that it existed as an example of white privilege and unjust allowances made within a system of societal white supremacy … Ending my portrayal of ‘Missy’ is one step in a life-long process of uncovering the racism in my actions.” For Slate to survive in her career, she had to go full Cersei in her walk of shame. If you find this creepy, but don’t want to say that out loud, just know that you are not alone.

Ibram X. Kendi, the New York Times best seller who insists that everyone is either racist or anti-racist, now has a children’s book to indoctrinate toddlers on one side of this crude binary. Or take this position voiced on Twitter by a chemistry professor at Queen’s University in Canada this week: “Here’s the thing: If whatever institution you are a part of is not COMPLETELY representative of the population you can draw from, you can draw only two conclusions. 1) Bias against the underrepresented groups exists or 2) the underrepresented groups are inherently less qualified.” Other factors — such as economics or culture or individual choice or group preference — are banished from consideration.

Revolutions also encourage individuals to take matters in their own hands. The distinguished liberal philosopher Michael Walzer recently noted how mutual social policing has a long and not-so-lovely history — particularly in post–Reformation Europe, in what he has called “the revolution of the saints.” “The ‘saints’ were very strong on the work of neighborhood committees. In Calvin’s Geneva, law and order were maintained through ‘mutual surveillance.’ Church members (ideally all Genevans were church members) ‘watched, investigated, and chastised’ each other.” Imagine what these Puritans could have done with cell phones and Twitter histories.

Revolutionaries also create new forms of language to dismantle the existing order. Under Mao, “linguistic engineering” was integral to identifying counterrevolutionaries, and so it is today. The use of the term “white supremacy” to mean not the KKK or the antebellum South but American society as a whole in the 21st century has become routine on the left, as if it were now beyond dispute. The word “women,” J.K. Rowling had the temerity to point out, is now being replaced by “people who menstruate.” The word “oppression” now includes not only being herded into Uighur reeducation camps but also feeling awkward as a sophomore in an Ivy League school. The word “racist,” which was widely understood quite recently to be prejudicial treatment of an individual based on the color of their skin, now requires no intent to be racist in the former sense, just acquiescence in something called “structural racism,” which can mean any difference in outcomes among racial groupings. Being color-blind is therefore now being racist.

And there is no escaping this. The woke shift their language all the time, so that words that were one day fine are now utterly reprehensible. You can’t keep up — which is the point. (A good resource for understanding this new constantly changing language of ideology is “Translations From the Wokish.”) The result is an exercise of cultural power through linguistic distortion.

So, yes, this is an Orwellian moment. It’s not a moment of reform but of a revolutionary break, sustained in part by much of the liberal Establishment. Even good and important causes, like exposing and stopping police brutality, can morph very easily from an exercise in overdue reform into a revolutionary spasm. There has been much good done by the demonstrations forcing us all to understand better how our fellow citizens are mistreated by the agents of the state or worn down by the residue of past and present inequality. But the zeal and certainty of its more revolutionary features threaten to undo a great deal of that goodwill.

The movement’s destruction of even abolitionist statues, its vandalism of monuments to even George Washington, its crude demonization of figures like Jefferson, its coerced public confessions, its pitiless wreckage of people’s lives and livelihoods, its crude ideological Manichaeanism, its struggle sessions and mandated anti-racism courses, its purging of cultural institutions of dissidents, its abandonment of objective tests in higher education (replacing them with quotas and a commitment to ideology), and its desire to upend a country’s sustained meaning and practices are deeply reminiscent of some very ugly predecessors.

But the erasure of the past means a tyranny of the present. In the words of Orwell, a truly successful ideological revolution means that “every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.” We are not there yet. But unless we recognize the illiberal malignancy of some of what we face, and stand up to it with courage and candor, we soon will be.

Viral Politics

The resilience of COVID-19 should not be a surprise. We’ve long known how infectious it is, and how difficult it is to restrain such a large epidemic once it has broken out of containment. And in a country as large and as unruly as this one, stopping an epidemic was never likely to be easy.

But even I’m amazed at the strength of the second phase of the first wave, now hitting the South and the Southwest and California, as social distancing has largely collapsed in many states, as disinformation from the president and administration continues, and as our tribalism has turned even wearing a mask into a political statement. It’s not just more testing that is bringing the bad news; it’s a higher and higher rate of positive test results that we’re seeing.

The only saving grace in this has been a declining number of deaths — but that number may be premature, as we wait and see what happens with the thousands of new cases now being discovered. As Alexis C. Madrigal and Robinson Meyer note, “Because COVID-19 itself can take weeks to kill its victims — and even then the data do not reflect them immediately — we should not expect to see victims of the Sun Belt surge appear in death data for as many as 28 days after it began.” Maybe with younger victims, and with steadily improving care and treatment, death rates won’t be as high as they have been. But that we are confronting another wave of acute sickness seems pretty clear at this point, and I can’t see how anyone can see this as anything but a depressing and comprehensive failure. If it forces a second lockdown in many red states, that failure will fuel even more discontent and civil unrest as well as another economic swoon. Even the stock market may not be able to recover from that.

My own view is that this is obviously central to Trump’s sudden, deep decline in the polls. A president who cannot act to prevent a fatal epidemic, who cannot keep a consistent message, and who has shown himself at times to be completely bonkers in his responses is one way this man’s utter unfitness for office has been proved even in the eyes of those more sympathetic to him — older white people. It’s their shift to Biden that has been dispositive in moving the fundamentals of our politics. Now that the epidemic is intensifying in those states where Republicans predominate (with the exception of California), those soft-Trump voters could move some more. Whatever their views on police brutality and racism in America, they are also, I suspect, unnerved by a president incapable of rising to the occasion, unable to unite or calm, able only to inflame and disgust. There’s a real chance that if this continues, Trump slips into post-Katrina Bush territory — and that we have a landslide.

I’ve been tough on Biden, but you also have to give him credit for getting out of the way. The stay-out-of-the-headlines strategy has been remarkably successful, keeping Biden’s gaffes and obvious cognitive decline in the background and his simple acceptability as a normal president in the foreground. If the Democrats had picked a younger or more woke candidate, they might have been tarred more successfully by Republicans with some of the uglier aspects of the recent unrest: the chaos and looting, the demand to “defund the police,” the debacle of CHAZ in Seattle, the toppling of a statues of presidents. Trump has been trying to do this to Biden, and it just doesn’t stick. The Democratic nominee appears culturally reassuring on all these counts. Black voters, among the wisest in the Democratic coalition, knew what they were doing in nominating him, and white voters in swing states are also far more comfortable with him than they ever were with Hillary Clinton.

The dream is that a clear and decisive defeat for the GOP in November can help shift the narrative set in 2016 so that history records Trump and his enablers as an outlier in corruption, incompetence, and insanity and we are able to cauterize this hideously illiberal period in American history. That was my hope in the first six months of this nightmare, until I began to despair at the resilience of Trump’s support. Now, suddenly, we have a chance to bring it to fruition.

For America’s sake and the world’s, we need to draw a hard line under this presidency — and we now have an unexpected chance to do exactly that. You can almost taste the prospect of a post-Trump America in the air these days. Let’s keep our focus on this simple task and vote in such numbers that even he cannot dispute his utter rejection by the American people. Know hope.

Starmer Versus Anti-Semitism

I guess you could call it Keir Starmer’s Sister Souljah moment. The newish leader of the opposition in Britain just fired his shadow education secretary and former rival for the party’s leadership, Rebecca Long-Bailey, for a tweet. Yes, I know this is, generally speaking, not so great an idea. Firing individuals for mere association with repellent beliefs is not a principle I’d defend in most circumstances. But Long-Bailey is not being targeted or smeared by a mob; she won’t lose her job as a member of Parliament or her membership in the Labour Party; she works for Starmer in her role in the shadow Cabinet, and he has a right to pick his own team as he wants. She was given a chance to remove and disown the tweet and stay in place, but refused. And in this case, there’s an important context.

Starmer inherited a Labour Party plagued by left anti-Semitism, which had been ignored at best, and aided and abetted at worst, by the former leader Jeremy Corbyn. Starmer campaigned on a zero-tolerance approach to the question, insisting that removing this stain from the Labour brand was going to be his top priority as leader. And what his former colleague tweeted was an interview in the Independent with a left-wing actress, Maxine Peake, where Peake spoke of “tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.” In tweeting this article, Long-Bailey commented: “Maxine Peake is an absolute diamond.” She was asked to remove that retweet, and when she refused, she was fired from her shadow Cabinet position.

Under Corbyn, she wouldn’t have been. Simple as that. Sure, it’s not true that there’s some kind of sinister Israeli influence on American policing, although some cops have trained there, and no evidence that what was done to George Floyd has anything to do with any of this. But a senior Labour figure associating with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories would not have raised many alarm bells under Corbyn, especially when it was framed as criticism of the Israeli government. Starmer has just taken a very different tack.

The firing was swift and decisive and crisply defended: “The sharing of that article was wrong … because the article contained anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and I have therefore stood Rebecca Long-Bailey down from the shadow cabinet. I’ve made it my first priority to tackle anti-Semitism and rebuilding trust with the Jewish community is a number one priority for me.”

The left’s suspicion that Starmer would be purging its ranks from senior leadership is almost certainly overblown. Starmer is not Tony Blair; he’s a fully fledged lefty and has been ever since his high-school days. He doesn’t want to inflame party tensions. But he rightly understands that this is a key issue in regaining voters’ trust of Labour, and it will almost certainly help him build on the momentum against the Johnson government that his leadership has jump-started. As he becomes more widely known, Starmer is winning fans. His approval rating has gone from 39 to 48 percent in a month, as Boris Johnson’s ratings have plummeted and as COVID-19 continues to wrack Britain. Forty percent of Brits now see Starmer as a credible prime minister–in–waiting; and although his party continues to lag the Tories, it’s beginning to make gains. This stand against tolerating anti-Semitism will, I think, help it gain some more.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: You Say You Want a Revolution?