The American understanding of riots and racial violence was shaped a half-century ago, during the insurrections of the 1960s. To judge by the responses to the current rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, little has changed since then. After riots have wrought their physical and psychic damage, some invariably declare that the unrest was constructive. Patricia Bynes, a Democratic committeewoman for Ferguson, rationalized that the events in Ferguson would benefit the entire metropolitan area because, she said, “St. Louis never has had its true race moment, where they had to confront this.” She was topped by Missouri Highway Patrol captain Ron Johnson, who has been leading the police response in Ferguson. Speaking to a unity rally at a local church, Johnson suggested that, somehow, Brown’s death was “going to make it better for our sons to be better black men.” One rioter, who wouldn’t give his name, admitted that “If it wasn’t for the looting, we wouldn’t get the attention.” The virtue of disruption, academics and observers argue, is that it gives African-Americans a crisis with which to bargain. But after 50 years, what has this bargain achieved, except to cultivate a community that excels in resentment?
It’s not just African-Americans who are stuck in the sixties. Reporters are still seeking out the Kerner Commission’s white racists, who are ultimately to blame for all racial problems. Historians and sociologists are offering structural explanations for the violence; whites in general, and small businesses in particular, have little to say but simply flee to safer climes. In Ferguson, after a week of unrest that included looting and rioting, we know very little about the incident that resulted in Michael Brown’s death, despite the release of the first pathology report. The officer involved is in seclusion and has given no public statements. The Grand Jury, should one be convened, will likely have only a vague picture of what happened.
When Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012, the media constructed a racial narrative around the case—especially NBC news, which doctored tapes of George Zimmerman’s 911 call. It wasn’t until much later that pictures were shown of Zimmerman’s dark-skinned, Peruvian mother. Had those pictures been publicized earlier, the public might have understood that Trayvon Martin’s tragic death was not an example of a Klan-like murder.
In Ferguson, the media’s preferred narrative—a “gentle giant” of a young black man gunned down for no reason by a racist cop—was short-circuited by a videotape, taken minutes before his death, depicting Michael Brown strong-arming a diminutive store clerk who’d caught him stealing a box of cigarillos. Deflated, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer described the video as a “smear.” Does he think the tape should have been suppressed? His CNN colleague Jake Tapper, just back from apologizing for Hamas in Gaza and justifiably angered by the misuse of military equipment to intimidate suburban civilians, subjected the state’s Democratic governor, Jay Nixon, to a vigorous grilling. Tapper suggested that Nixon had some atoning to do for his supposedly racist past before he could be relied on to take action in Ferguson. If only Tapper had been so hard-edged with Hamas.
Historian Colin Gordon has revived the old chestnut that the rioting owes to the failure of big cities to incorporate suburbs. The problem, argues Gordon, is that small towns and cities compete with each other to attract businesses. If they had higher taxes, it’s implied, they could afford to spend more on social services. But does anyone think that Ferguson would be better off incorporated into a dysfunctional St. Louis? The vast city of Los Angeles, with its 469 square miles (compared with St. Louis’s 69) saw two of the most violent “rebellions” of the last 50 years. What, in Gordon’s estimation, accounts for that?
Riots bring but one certainty—enormous economic and social costs. Businesses flee, taking jobs and tax revenues with them. Home values decline for all races, but particularly for blacks. Insurance costs rise and civic morale collapses. The black and white middle classes move out. Despite its busy port and enormous geographic assets, Newark, New Jersey has never fully recovered from its 1967 riot. This year, Newark elected as its mayor Ras Baraka, the son and political heir of Amiri Baraka—the intellectual inspiration for the 1967 unrest.
The story is similar in Detroit, which lost half its residents between 1967 and 2000. Civic authority was never restored after the late 1960s riots, which never really ended; they just continued in slow motion. “It got decided a long time ago in Detroit,” explained Adolph Mongo, advisor to the jailed former “hip-hop mayor,” Kwame Kilpatrick, that “the city belongs to the black man. The white man was a convenient target until there were no white men left in Detroit.” The upshot, explained Sam Riddle, an advisor to current congressman John Conyers, first elected in 1965, is that “the only difference between Detroit and the Third World in terms of corruption is that Detroit don’t have no goats in the streets.”
The grotesque pantomime of repression and redemption, riots and never-quite-achieved rewards, plays out time and again. The chaos in Ferguson is but the latest episode of this long, sad drama of resentment and revenge. The drama persists in part because so many journalists and academics, not to mention black activists, have so much invested in it. It’s the conceptual air that they breathe. Sadly, to paraphrase the philosopher Ernest Gellner, some failed practices cannot be the subject of reconsideration, because they already shape the way we think.
No doubt little will be learned from Ferguson. No doubt there will be more Fergusons.
Fred Siegel is a City Journal contributing editor and author of The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class.
The president won’t let ISIS create a new caliphate . . . unless air power alone can’t prevent it.
By George Will
This far into the human story, only the historically uninstructed are startled by what they think are new permutations of evil. So, when Russia sliced Crimea off Ukraine, Secretary of State John Kerry was nonplussed: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.” If, however, Vladimir Putin is out of step with the march of progress, where exactly on history’s inevitably ascending path (as progressives like Kerry evidently think) does Kerry, our innocent abroad, locate the Islamic State?
The Islamic State uses crucifixions to express piety and decapitations to encourage cooperation. These are some of the “folks” — to adopt the locution Barack Obama frequently uses to express his all-encompassing diffidence — Obama was referring to when talking to the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman. “That’s exactly right,” Obama said when Friedman suggested that Obama believes all Middle East factions must agree to a politics of “no victor, no vanquish.” It will be interesting watching Obama try to convince the crucifiers and the crucified to split their differences.
Exactly 70 years ago, America grappled with a humanitarian dilemma. On August 9, 1944, A. Leon Kubowitzki of the World Jewish Congress wrote to Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy, quoting a Czech official’s opinion that the “destruction of gas chambers and crematoria in Oswiecim [Auschwitz] by bombing would have a certain effect now.” On August 14, McCloy rejected the request, noting that it would require “the diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations elsewhere,” a defensible argument. But then McCloy added that such bombing “might provoke even more vindictive action by the Germans.” That is, bombing an extermination camp might make the operators of the crematoria really cross.
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed implementation legislation for the Genocide Convention, the parties to which agreed to “undertake to prevent and to punish” the kind of crimes the Islamic State vows to commit. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) today says, “It takes an army to defeat an army.” Is she, too, so very 19th century? Obama seems to agree with her, telling Friedman, “We can run [the Islamic State] off for a certain period of time, but as soon as our planes are gone, they’re coming right back in.” So air power is insufficient. He also said, “We’re not going to let them create some caliphate through Syria and Iraq, but we can only do that if we know that we’ve got partners on the ground who are capable of filling the void.” We will not “let” something happen — unless air power alone cannot prevent it and no “partners” fill the void beneath our bombers. About that void:
America has fought its longest war — more than three times longer than U.S. involvement in World War II — lest Afghanistan become a state unable or unwilling to prevent terrorists operating with impunity in a substantial area. Since this war began, U.S. policies have created two such voids by shattering two states, those of Iraq and Libya.
Friedman reports that Obama says his regret about Libya is not that he waged an utterly optional war of regime change. Rather, Obama regrets not getting busy “on the ground” to “manage” Libya’s transition to democracy. So, even after 13 years in Afghanistan and nearly a decade in Iraq, Obama wishes America had gone into Libya for more of the excitements and satisfactions of nation-building.
Two questions must be distinguished. First, is it an important American interest or duty to protect, as much as air power can, Kurds and Yazidis from the Islamic State, and to (in Obama’s words) “push back” (back to where?) this group? Even if the answer is yes, there is another question: Is it wise to support the use of force by this president? He is properly cautious about today’s awful dilemma, which is not primarily of his making. But caution can be reckless.
One of Napoleon’s aphorisms — “If you start to take Vienna, take Vienna” — means: In military matters, tentativeness is ruinous. Are F-18s going to be used for a foreign policy of right-minded gestures — remember #BringBackOurGirls? — the success of which is in making the gesturers feel virtuous? “Success,” said T.S. Eliot, “is relative: It is what we can make of the mess we have made of things.” There is much material — rubble, actually — to work with as we seek success.
By Ross Douthat
After following some of the more intemperate liberal reactions to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision yesterday, I thought of this post from Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum from earlier this year, making the case for a liberalism that owns up to its own culture-war aggressions and success:
Over the last half century, various branches of government have … taken plenty of proactive steps to marginalize religion. Prayer in public school has been banned. Creches can no longer be set up in front of city hall. Parochial schools are forbidden from receiving public funds. The Ten Commandments can’t be displayed in courtrooms. Catholic hospitals are required to cover contraceptives for their employees. Gay marriage is legal in more than a dozen states and the number is growing rapidly.
Needless to say, I consider these and plenty of other actions to be proper public policy. I support them all. But they’re real things. Conservative Christians who feel under attack may be partly the victims of cynical politicians and media moguls, and a lot of their pity-party attempts at victimization really are ridiculous. But their fears do have a basis in reality. To a large extent, it’s the left that started the culture wars, and we should hardly be surprised that it provoked a strong response. In fact, it’s a sign that we’re doing something right.
As far as I’m concerned, the culture wars are one of the left’s greatest achievements. Our culture needed changing, and we should take the credit for it. Too often, though, we pretend that it’s entirely a manufactured outrage of the right, kept alive solely by wild fantasies and fever swamp paranoia. That doesn’t just sell the right short, it sells the left short too. It’s our fight. We started it, and we should be proud of it.
A cultural liberalism that took this line would be no less militant, obviously, but it would be a lot more clear-eyed about its actual situation vis-a-vis its present foes. For instance, it would be able to see that far from ushering in the Republic of Gilead, yesterday’s high court ruling at most placed a modest limitation — and, if I and others are reading the tea leaves in Anthony Kennedy’s concurrence correctly, possibly a very modest limitation — on a recent and significant liberal victory: That is, it didn’t even roll the clock back to 2009, let alone to 1959, and it’s quite possible that the ultimate impact on insurance coverage will be identical to what would have happened had the justices had ruled the other way. Such a liberalism might also be able to see that the larger pattern I wrote about yesterday, in which the Supreme Court has become a frequent refuge for religious conservatives rather than just their reliable bete noir, is itself partially the result of liberal gains in the political and cultural sphere, which have reduced religious traditionalists to making the kind of defensive appeals to liberty and pluralism and minority rights that tend to end up adjudicated in the courts. And such a liberalism would take ownership of its own ascendance and take more responsibility for (and pride in!) its own aggressions, rather than perpetually crying “theocracy” whenever its advance is interrupted.
Why doesn’t this self-aware social left show up (save in sharp, undeluded blog posts like Drum’s) more often? Well, a few reasons. First, political mobilization depends on a sense of victimhood, grievance and looming apocalypse, so no matter the correlation of forces on a given issue you can be sure that the professional agitators on both sides will have an incentive to inculcate solidarity by insisting that theirs is the heroic, hard-pressed side about to be crushed by a ruthless opposition. (See Christmas, the War on, and other extravaganzas of fauxpression, for examples from the rightward end of the spectrum.)
Second, political mobilization also requires a certain amount of ignorance, willful in some cases and cynically inculcated in others, in which the inevitably-complicated details of legal controversies (you see, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act says …. YAWN …. actually, Hobby Lobby already covers most …. zzzzzz) get boiled down to slogans fit for Twitter and cable shoutfests, and no nuancing counterpoint is allowed to be considered.
Third, as social conservatives know from bitter experience, the sense of grievance and resentment after a defeat is always sharper when you lose in the courts, because the possibility of democratic recourse feels more foreclosed than when the defeat is electoral or legislative. So even though it really is a sign of social liberalism’s gains that these issues are being litigated in the courts at all, it still feels (understandably) painful and unfair when a long drawn-out political debate ends with a 5-4 vote by a group of unelected lawyers (which is really often a coin-flip by Anthony Kennedy, philosopher king).
Fourth, human nature being what it is, loss aversion is generally more potent than the joys of winning, and even a string of victories doesn’t necessarily satisfy; if anything, it can just sharpen the appetite for further victories still. This is why ascendant parties, no matter their ideology, are rarely magnanimous to the defeated or the disfavored: Where a transformative agenda is being pursued, one set of gains is more likely make the next set of items seem that much more necessary, more essential, more inarguably correct. And under such circumstances, residual, rear-guard resistance can actually inspire more outrage than a stronger opposition, because the winning side comes to feel that it’s offensive that anyone is still fighting — don’t they know the battle’s over, don’t they know that history’s verdict has been rendered? Will no one rid me of this troublesome craft store?
This last impulse, I would suggest, is particularly potent in cases where the transformation in question is not necessarily delivering on its promises, and where there’s a felt need to find someone outside the enlightened community/the holy Catholic empire/History’s vanguard to blame for that falling-short. Where our current kulturkampf is concerned, for instance, I think most contemporary liberals are aware that post-1960s America is not quite the liberated and egalitarian utopia that was promised … but many of them are quite determined to believe that their own ideology is blameless, that there aren’t actually any internal contradictions in social liberalism, and that contemporary social problems must always and everywhere be the fault of something called “conservatism,” in all its varied guises. The revolution hasn’t failed or fallen; it’s just been resisted and disrupted by wreckers and reactionaries; etc. Which is how you end up with the sense, palpable in the liberal Twitter reaction to the Hobby Lobby decision, that if it weren’t for Catholic Supreme Court justices and evangelical-owned craft stores, all sorts of problems would gradually be washed away, like tears in a soft progressive rain.
And perhaps, if current trends persist for long enough, we will get to actually test that proposition. But not yet, not yet.
Visit USADebtClock.com to learn more!