Political science teaches us to look for the non-event—that is, where something didn’t happen, as opposed to where something did. The non-event in the recent protests over the barbaric murder of George Floyd by a white policeman was the Baltimore protest. Unlike the protests in, say, New York City, Minneapolis, and Portland, the protest in downtown Baltimore (where I live) was relatively peaceful, and so failed to make the news. This came as a surprise to many, given the violence in Baltimore in 2015, after the death of an African American, Freddie Gray, at the hands of Baltimore police officers.
Then again, drill down to the bottom of the 2015 protest and one finds another non-event. Much of the violence and property destruction during that protest—and it wasn’t much—resulted from teenagers kept from boarding their buses to go home after school. Adrift in the city, they started throwing bottles and bricks. There was some looting. A CVS and two police cars were burned. That’s about it. During the protest, adult African Americans chanted alongside the teenagers, but it was mostly the teenagers who pushed things over the edge, acting more out of immaturity than politics. If anything, black adults tried to quell the teenagers and keep their neighborhoods from being destroyed.
What explains the relative peacefulness of the current Baltimore protest and violence in the others? Watching events on television and listening to the protesters, one can reasonably conclude that the difference turns on the relative percentage of black residents. Baltimore is 63 percent black, while, in contrast, New York City is only 25 percent black; Minneapolis only 20 percent black; and Portland just 6 percent black. Cities with proportionately larger black populations seem to have more peaceful protests. Other cities confirm the trend. For example, the protest in Detroit, which is 83 percent black, has been relatively peaceful; the protest in Seattle, which is 7 percent black, has been violent.
The trend illustrates an important point about the protests—and about American politics in general. Two groups of protesters exist. The first group includes African Americans who live in rough urban neighborhoods, face a tough job market, and often have few skills and low incomes. According to Pew Research, they make up roughly one-sixth of the protesters. These people have a lot of experience with policing—both the good and the bad. They all know someone caught up in the criminal justice system. The Floyd murder rightfully infuriated them and confirmed everything they had suspected about policing’s dark side.
The second group includes mostly white people, often young, typically college graduates, or soon to be, and makes up roughly half the protesters. These people have little personal experience with the police or criminal justice system. This second group also includes well-educated African Americans who went to (or who are currently attending) traditionally “white” colleges, especially elite ones. The black attorney charged with throwing a Molotov cocktail into a NYC police car, for example, went to Princeton.
The Democratic Party exhibits a similar division. One group includes African Americans, many of them poor and urban. Although angry about bad policing and their economic situation, they form the moderate wing of the Democratic Party. Their support for Joe Biden, the moderate candidate, allowed him to win his party’s nomination. On social issues they actually lean conservative. The other group includes the Sanders-Warren supporters, composed mostly of young, well-educated whites, along with young, well-educated blacks. They, too, are angry, but their anger finds expression in a variety of ideologies that extend far beyond bad policing, and that demand a fundamental restructuring of human relationships, American society, and the globe. One of these ideologies, Black Lives Matter, also enjoys support in the first group, but the rest—for example, feminism, transgender ideology, environmentalism, globalism, and social justice ideology—reign in the second group.
Factoring out the looting issue, it is this second group that pushes violence in the predominantly white cities—for example, in the form of Antifa, a mostly white organization—and makes the more outrageous demands, such as defunding or disarming the police. It was a young white protester, for example, who asked Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey if he would defund the local police, and led the booing when Frey refused. The second group’s demands are more general and universal—for example, destroying capitalism, reining in climate change, and redistributing wealth between rich and poor nations.
The two groups have different goals that must be approached differently. The first group makes several reasonable demands that fit within the long history of American race relations. They should be accommodated. The second group poses a danger to liberal democracy, not because of any particular policy proposal—for example, on taxes or health care—but because of its cancel culture and opposition to free speech. Even then, the origin of these illiberal goals lies not in any system of ideas, but in something less vaunted, which needs to be fleshed out.
The First Group
When reading the Movement for Black Lives platform (of which Black Lives Matter is a part) one is surprised to find several planks that could have been written by an Eisenhower Republican. For example, the movement advocates reinstating Glass-Steagall, the 1933 law that separated commercial and investment banking. Repealed during the Clinton Administration, the law would have prevented commercial banks from targeting African Americans for subprime mortgage loans during the 2000s, which contributed to the 2008 financial crisis. Reinstating Glass-Steagall is neither anti-capitalist nor anti-American; indeed, the law reigned during the peak of the American Century. Rather than revolutionary, it was prudent, just as opposing the privatization of a small portion of Social Security was in the 2000s. Glass-Steagall and the opposition to Social Security privatization recognize that certain white and black subpopulations are unfamiliar with complex financial products, and therefore vulnerable to financial manipulation.
The movement’s platform also calls for a more progressive tax code. During the Eisenhower years, the rich paid more in taxes, so nothing out of the ordinary there. As for the movement’s opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and its demand that we pay more attention to American workers, these parts of the platform could have been written by Trump. The movement also has an ally in Trump in its call for financial assistance to black colleges and its demand that the 1996 crime bill be modified, which Trump has delivered on.
The movement’s focus on police reform is particularly important to African Americans in the first group, yet it also resonates with some Republicans. For example, it demands an end to the death penalty. Many Republicans have also soured on the death penalty, as DNA tests exonerate people wrongly convicted of capital crimes decades before. Republicans understand that overzealous prosecutors and unscrupulous police pose a threat to them as well. Republicans have also grown suspicious of chokeholds and other violent police techniques, since they, too, can be on the receiving end. Recognizing that many black males have criminal records that keep them from finding gainful employment, the movement demands that felons caught up in the war on drugs or prostitution have their records expunged, and that prospective employers be limited in what they can ask about an applicant’s criminal past. Many Republicans share these concerns.
Reducing police union power is the most obvious area of agreement between the movement and Republicans. The movement complains that police unions protect bad cops, and that the police harass citizens for minor infractions, such as traffic violations, to add to the city’s budget—money that then comes back to the police in the form of lucrative pensions. I was a victim of such a “sting” operation in Montgomery County. I and 30 other drivers were fined in sequence for starting our cars at a crosswalk while a police officer impersonating a civilian purposely hovered inside the crosswalk one foot from the curb. It was infuriating. Yet this is nothing compared to what others have suffered, and without recourse. Until recently, for example, it was illegal to record Chicago police officers doing anything. Even when the police did something wrong, it was the accuser who risked jail if he or she had recorded evidence.
The Movement for Black Lives and Republicans diverge on how much to go after other public employee unions. The latter want to crack down on the teachers’ unions as well, to get rid of bad teachers and improve public education. Interestingly, many African Americans in the first group also dislike the teachers’ unions and embrace charter schools. The movement’s silence on the matter is telling, and one senses an uneasy relationship between the two groups of protesters. The Movement for Black Lives includes Black Lives Matter, which appeals to the first group, but also advocacy organizations that appeal more to the second group, such as Girls for Gender Equity, the Queer Palestinian Empowerment Network, and the Alliance for Educational Justice, which supports public schools. For this reason the movement’s platform sometimes gives the feel of having been artificially stitched together, with some planks meant to appeal to the first protest group, others to the second, and some representing an attempt at bland compromise. The plank that reads, “A constitutionally protected right to a ‘fully-funded education,’” is ambiguous enough to be taken as a support for public schools, for charter schools, or for both.
Tension between the two groups of protestors erupted along these same lines last month, with poor blacks resenting progressive, upper middle class, well-educated whites and blacks—the kinds of people who staff the teachers’ unions—for ignoring them. In Chicago, for example, an alderman representing a poor black neighborhood accused Mayor Lori Lightfoot, an African American and a graduate of elite colleges, of positioning law enforcement to protect the largely white downtown, while leaving his district to burn. The alderman implied that the second group cared more about upper middle class whites and blacks than it did poor blacks.
Some of the demands made by the first group of protestors are practical and reasonable. They deserve our respect and attention. Within the Black Lives Matter network itself one finds similar such demands. Iowa Black Lives Matter, for example, calls for reinstating the voting rights of felons who have served their time, banning police chokeholds, permitting the Iowa Attorney General to investigate police misconduct, and preventing the rehiring of police fired for misconduct. These are all reasonable.
Yet there is another dimension to Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives that appeals more to the second group of protestors—for example, blacklisting anyone who fails to agree with them—and that leads down the dangerous path to censorship.
The Second Group
Getting a handle on the second group of protesters is hard because their ideas are all over the map, ranging from climate change to marijuana legalization to abolishing prisons to free public housing to getting rid of historical statues. Hypocrisy from many in this group only makes matters worse. Some say, for example, to believe all women, but when a woman made a sexual harassment charge against Democrat Joe Biden, many did not believe. Some called protests against the coronavirus lockdowns a public health hazard, but many of these same people saw no problem with their own protests.
In fact, the second group consists of three types of hypocrites.
The first type is not really a hypocrite but, rather, an opportunist. These people do not champion any social principles on the issues being debated, and so they have nothing to be hypocritical about. Instead, they look for opportunities to get ahead or stay in power. An example would be Congressman Eliot Engel, who, at a news conference on the social unrest, was caught on microphone saying, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.” These people may be sneaks and liars, but they are not hypocrites. As politicians, their main business is to please, and above all not to displease.
The second type of hypocrite is a conscious hypocrite, most commonly found among upper middle class white progressives. These people know they are hypocrites, and they are aware that other people know it too. They virtue signal constantly—for example, by hanging a Black Lives Matter sign on their front door—although they would quickly beef up their own neighborhood security force if the police were ever disbanded. For them, the world is nothing but a large theater in which an endless play is going on, with one hypocrite giving his or her cue to another, each virtue signaling in turn. Still, these people believe their hypocrisy has value, so it doesn’t bother them very much. To their minds it sets a standard of decorum; it also places a bridle on those beneath them on the social scale, who, without the example they set, might give free rein to their racist passions.
The first two types of hypocrites are usually over the age of 35. The third type—often the cause of violence at the protests—is younger. These people are unconscious hypocrites. A dense fog of ideology surrounds them and conceals from them their own hypocrisy. For example, without embarrassment they “cancel” conservatives and moderates who have worn black face or made homophobic remarks in the past, but not liberals or radicals who have committed the same offense. Their minds are arranged in such a way that, while knowing one thing, they can believe in something else.
These people do not really think in the traditional sense. On the contrary, opposing ideas do not exist for them; the whole world in their eyes is an uneducated audience that provides them with an endless opportunity to lecture and moralize. They do not feel the slightest desire to escape their ideological confines. For example, when presented with data about the low number of unarmed blacks and whites killed by police annually, and the fairly even distribution of black and white police officers involved—useful information when trying to reform the nation’s police departments—they do not express any interest in the news, and even get angry when told about it.
What drives these protestors is not any particular issue, which requires knowing facts, but something deeper. Many of them come from middle and upper middle class backgrounds. Some of them went to private schools. Unlike protesters in the first group, they have never dealt with the police. They have never known physical want or hunger. Yet faced with disappointment in life, for whatever reason, they feel the need of a cause. Whittaker Chambers observed the same need among privileged young people joining the communist movement in the 1950s: “a reason to live and a reason to die.” By defending “the cause” against inconvenient facts, they imagine themselves performing a lasting service to their cause, which suppresses any feeling of hypocrisy.
These young people curse the police. They think love is a great and beautiful thing that everyone needs. They hate the laws and want more just ones; it is a time of vows. In college, or just out of college, they have ideas and no responsibilities. They are not in daily conflict with people and things. They have no family to support, no business to run. They work only with words and phrases, which give them an abstract idea of the world, often exalted, but inaccurate. Because they do not know the world, they cannot know the practical world of public affairs. But they do know the world of words, and from here arises their hatred of free speech.
In college, empty words are all around them, creeping up on them, closing in upon them; these people carry the burden of stock phrases all day—phrases such as “hetero-normative” and “patriarchy.” Yet none of the words brings any light into their educational existence; their thoughts remain fixed. Indeed, such fixity is the basis for their security. Ideology makes them always ready for everything, any subject, ranging from foreign policy to domestic issues; no current event can catch them unawares or cause them to make the slightest deviation from their fixed worldview that entangles them from head to foot as in a net. They need only repeat their phrases and perform all necessary actions, even while looking out the window to see if other students are playing Frisbee on the lawn.
The world of words is the only world that children can know, and many of these white protestors are only a stone’s throw from childhood. Children are given food, clothing, and shelter; these things come to them like air through a window. They live in a fairy tale, and reading sometimes accentuates the fantasy. In children’s stories, for example, all labor in the object world is simplified, if not eliminated, because all useful labor is performed without the child’s help and away from view. A journey is a minor thing, covered in a few words. Wars involve transportation, digging trenches, and repairing machines, but these are monotonous actions, gladly done and forgotten, and in children’s stories these are also abbreviated. In children’s stories the memorable drama starts only when the slow and heavy things are in place. Day to day living—including, for example, day to day policing, or in my own field, day to day doctoring—children assume just gets done, one way or another, and they don’t have to think about it. They have no idea how much work it takes.
Nowadays the child’s mentality stays with the person through college and into early adulthood, especially with the new emphasis on “narrative” found in the adult worlds of advertising, human resources, public relations, entertainment, journalism, and media. Rather than sift through contradictory facts to wrestle with an issue’s complexity, these young hypocrites latch onto narratives in which the emphasis is put on the last few moments of drama, which yield the vital message. The narratives hardly differ in structure from children’s stories, or television shows for that matter. Real labor, meaning the day to day moving of objects, where an object’s weight is felt, but which children might find boring, is skipped over to get to the dramatic moment.
In narratives words are more important than reality; belief is more important than fact. This is why young protestors in the second group eagerly embrace censorship, and why their hypocrisy does not bother them. Facts and alternative ideas risk ruining the story, and so they must be filtered out carefully. The story has already been told; all that is needed is a smile or angry gesture to drive the message home. In other words, the narrative need only be acted out. Inconvenient facts just ruin the show.
White students become actors in these narratives when they protest, just as children are actors in their made-up games. Children enjoy the experience of playing a character, like a pirate or a cowboy. In the same way, young white protestors in Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone enjoyed playing revolutionaries and acting out their narrative. Indeed, the Seattle Mayor confirmed their narrative when she praised it as a kind of “Summer of Love.” The protestors self-consciously act their roles to bring about a state of belief in others, but also in themselves. They know their parts well; they make-believe, and believe themselves, in their conceit, because others, such as the Mayor, believe them (at least for a time).
Today’s violent protests have a chorus and ensemble style that recalls ancient Greek drama. The protestors alternate between being actors and spectators. Sometimes they watch, sometimes they shout and scream; sometimes they egg another protestor on; sometimes they commit an act of violence on their own, thereby occupying center stage. Curiously, actors in ancient Greece were called “hypocrites.” It is the origin of the term. In Greek drama an actor wore a large mask, to convey which character in the narrative he or she was playing. The word was later expanded to include a person pretending to be someone he or she was not. Many protestors in the second group fit this definition.
This second group of young, overwhelmingly white, violent protestors is not monolithic in its behavior, but youth remains the common denominator. In one video, a young angry white woman berates black police officers for defending “the system.” O youth, so easily discontented and disgusted! Like all youthful revolutionaries, the young woman never wavers, and everything seems to her extraordinarily simple, clear, and incontrovertible; and indeed, given the narrowness and one-sidedness of her views, everything is quite simple and clear, and all that is necessary, she says, is to be logical. Her self-confidence is so great that it can only repel people (as it does the black police officers) or bring them to heel, such as the people whom she harangued in college, and who mistook her boundless self-assurance for depth and wisdom, the way she once mistook students who taught her, with their air of knowingness, how their program to end systemic racism went into every problem and that there could be no question of not carrying it out.
In a second video a young white man speaks scornfully to several black police officers and expresses shock when they refuse to throw down their shields and join his side. “I don’t understand why people think the way they think,” he tells the reporter, shaking his head with contempt. O youth, its frenzies, it wild temerities, it dreadful mortifications! How pleased is youth when it enunciates a doctrine, and how stupid the adults seem when they reject ideas that beautifully fit their needs.
In a third video a young woman shouts and shrieks at an elderly black man who defends the Emancipation Memorial statues in D.C. O youth, its daring visions and outbursts, its impetuousness, its seething power! I have witnessed similar ferocity among young people who, having with difficulty freed themselves from the religion in which they were raised—knowing terror in the process, and then rapture—never tire of pouring venomous and embittered ridicule on clergymen, as if in retribution for the deception they believe was practiced on them.
Much has been written about this second group of protestors—for example, how some have turned the protests into a kind of exercise in self-improvement and a way to achieve the higher self. Indeed, the woman in the first video cries, “Racism is my problem. I have to fix it,” thus turning the protests into a vehicle for self-actualization. One also finds currents of romanticism among the protestors—the pains, the triumphs, and the agitations of the human heart, as in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. These young people clutch the air with frantic fingers and condemn society as being all horror, all terror, all guilt. One also discerns a trace of nihilism as young people laugh and smile while throwing projectiles and overturning cars, what Abbie Hoffman called making revolution just “for the hell of it.” Yet all of these explanations share a common theme: youth.
How different are these young, white, well-educated, and often affluent protestors from the protestors in the first group! The first group is composed of inner city African Americans who know reality well. They know the sorrowful, sinful, suffering world of deprivation and hard knocks. Battles for them do not take place only in their thoughts, but also in reality.
Also how different are these young, violent, unconscious hypocrites from their older counterparts. Older, conscious hypocrites try to be polite, only to discover that they are never polite enough. Violent unconscious hypocrites, on the other hand, never worry about being polite.
Conscious hypocrites virtue signal out of good manners; they fear offending people because they fear being rude. Violent unconscious hypocrites virtue signal out of a fear of offending, which for them is really a fear of being offended, while their fear of examining reality and listening to other points of view is really the child-like fear of doubting. For deep down these young hypocrites know the truth about the empire of words and catchphrases they have built. The history of philosophy shows that, in the course of centuries, people have been able to prove almost everything as it relates to ideas. They have proved the truth of an ideology and its falsity; they have proved the necessity of pure democracy and its impossibility; they have proved that men are different from women, and that men are the same as women. One can prove anything with words, especially when the words one employs are neither clear nor precise. This is why these young violent hypocrites fear free speech most of all, and will do everything to quash it: their empire of words can easily be destroyed by other words.
Who is to blame for the violent protests?
Not youth, for their obnoxious behavior should not surprise. Everyone must live out his or her own life. Attitudes change with passing years. The sort of wisdom that comes with adulthood and old age cannot easily be acquired by a young person. Conflicts with reality make people realists, and this wisdom cannot be handed on to young idealists who expect to change the universe with little effort. Besides, every generation has a grudge against its predecessor, and generally the grudge is well-founded. Police departments have in the past failed to root out bad cops and fire them.
Nor can we blame college professors. In many liberal arts and social science departments, young people often learn under professors who have little real-world experience themselves, who went from college to graduate school to teaching without having to grapple with reality. These professors, too, live in a world of words, where the distinction between reality and illusion is blurred, and is replaced by a kind of pride in authorship, and an attachment to accuracy, in papers that few people read, and which causes them to argue among themselves, to correct each other on points of detail, but which in fact bear no relation to reality, which exists for them only in their imagination. These people cannot help being what they are.
No, the blame lies with the liberal establishment, the adults in the room. It has allowed the protests to go forward violently and to move well beyond the issue of police brutality.
Some of its behavior reflects cowardice as well as hypocrisy. For example, white establishment liberals in high-profile positions profess to believe in the old ideals of fair play. Yet when accused of committing a micro-aggression or some other thought crime, and suddenly finding themselves targeted by the mob, they resign rather than fight for their ideals. Recent examples include the Federal judge in California who resigned when leftists claimed that his use of the word “street-smart” was racist, and the head of the Poetry Foundation, who resigned when the mob called his statement about the protests insufficiently apologetic and groveling. These office holders forget that their high positions, including their high salary and status, also come with an expectation that they will defend the ideals of fair play against the mob when the time comes. Rank-and-file citizens count on this inner strength, because they themselves lack the education or courage to resist on their own. Indeed, it is why these jobs come with such high pay and prestige. They come with the duty to resist the mob and to take withering fire. It is probably the officeholder’s most important skill; after all, many people can run a poetry foundation or do the work of a judge. These officeholders caved when this special attribute was most needed.
They caved because deep down they didn’t believe in their system. The root of the trouble is that the liberal establishment, both here and in Western Europe, where similar protests have erupted, has lost faith in itself and its ideals. It has not believed in its ideals for a very long time. In a way, it never really recovered from the catastrophes of the two World Wars. Belief in nation, religion, family, and classical liberal ideals of justice faded in the conflagration. Other ideologies took their place—for example, welfare state liberalism, neo-liberalism, and the doctrine of “not seeing color”—to patch the system, but these, too, failed to deal with the problem of rising economic inequality, the lack of jobs for low-income people, and the plight of African Americans who flounder in bad public schools. These beliefs became the butt of jokes through various comedic forms over the decades—for example, the “culture of irony” in the 1970s, the sarcastic television shows in the 1980s and 1990s, the stand-up provocateurs who pushed the edge of the envelope in the 2000s—with the liberal establishment laughing nervously along while the jokes gradually wore it down and drained its strength, causing it to stoop and weaken, until finally—today—the invisible central core within it has broken completely. The long wasting process that had been acting internally all this time has come to the surface. All the liberal establishment asks now is to be loved and to be forgiven. It promises never to demand anything of anyone again. Its last gasp is to prop up a few politicians in their late seventies, people like Biden and Pelosi, who represent the last generation of liberal establishment politicians to retain some shred of belief in the old American experiment, while hoping, “Maybe they’ll manage to save us?” The stern hand of History having already put the shameful brand of an ignoble death upon its anemic and flaccid face, the liberal establishment will perish in this belief.