Politics, et Cetera

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

They Said It:

This may seem illogical, but history is full of such paradoxes.  For it is not always when things are going from bad to worse that revolutions break out.  On the contrary, it oftener happens that when a people which has put up with an oppressive rule over a long period without protest suddenly finds the government relaxing its pressure, it takes up arms against it.  Thus the social order overthrown by a revolution is almost always better than the one immediately preceding it, and experience teaches us that, generally speaking, the most perilous moment for a bad government is one when it seeks to mend its was.  Only consummate statecraft can enable a King to save his throne when after a long spell of oppressive rule he sets to improving the lot of his subjects.  Patiently endured so long as it seemed beyond redress, a grievance comes to appear intolerable once the possibility of removing it crosses men’s minds.  For the mere fact that certain abuses have been remedied draws attention to the others and they now appear more galling; people may suffer less, but their sensibility is exacerbated.  At the height of its power feudalism did not inspire so much hatred as it did on the eve of its eclipse.  In the reign of Louis XVI the most trivial pinpricks of arbitrary power caused more resentment than the thoroughgoing despotism of Louis XIV.  The brief imprisonment of Beaumarchais shocked Paris more than the dragonnades of 1685.

Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the Revolution, 1856.



The past ten or eleven years in America have been consistently and depressingly discordant.  The 9/11 attacks and the subsequent military response were initially sources of cohesion and American unity.  But, beginning with the invasion of Iraq, that unity soon collapsed, and it has never been rebuilt, or even slightly repaired.

If anything, the ongoing and persistent disintegration and balkanization of the once well integrated American nation has been the one constant in society over the last decade.  The American people are dividing up, picking sides, turning on one another in an explicit and unrestrained way.  And the hostility between the various factions is greater now than at any time since the Vietnam War.

As noted above, Iraq started it.  Then the election of a hostile Democratic Congress continued it; the financial crisis and the Great Recession compounded it; TARP and the auto bailouts fueled it; the enactment of Obamacare hastened it once again; the messy implementation of Obamacare and the mounting evidence of massive corruption within several important governmental agencies kept tensions high and encouraged greater indignation; and now the killing of two unarmed black men by police, as well as handful of other race and “privilege”-related concerns, have brought it all to a low boil.

Longtime readers will note that we have long believed that the country is irreparably divided into two distinct factions, separated by overt and irreconcilable differences with respect to the foundations and application of morality.  The disunity of the last decade or so reflects this, in part, but it also reflects the effects of a host of staggering technological advances that have created huge gaps between the rich and the poor, the educated the uneducated, the various cultural groups and races, and, yes, the generations.

We sense that a denouement of some sort is swiftly approaching. And while we can’t say for certain what sort of political repercussions this climax will produce, we expect that they will not only be unpleasant, but potentially debilitating.

Now, none of this is to say that the current round of unhappiness – stemming from the Michael Brown and Eric Garners deaths – will be the spark that produces the proverbial fire.  Yes, the recent protests seem to have unexpected staying power.  And many observers seem to agree with the hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, who has promised that “America has not seen protests like those that are coming if justice doesn’t start to come down.”  But this blather comes with no guarantee.  Many people said the same things about the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, which was far longer-lived and far larger, in aggregate, than the current demonstrations, but which ended with the familiar whimper, not a bang.  Moreover, even many on the Left, including the super-liberal, black governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, are beginning to express their exhaustion with the “disruptive” protests and the costs they are creating in the form of such things as reduced economic activity and police overtime.

Nevertheless, these events are important, because they expose the disheartening, but very evident disconnect between the expectation among these protesters that something can be done to make the world the kind of place they would like it to be and what actually can be done in response to their anger.  Indeed, their anger is acute, intense, honest, and heartfelt.  But, whether the protestors know it or not, it does not stem from the abuses that they claim to want remedied.  Hence, our belief that this will end badly.  Very badly.

In order to explain what we mean here, we think it might useful to take a brief trip back in time to the last period in which American society suffered from such tension, to the 1960s.

Now, we are not great fans of the manner in which the Left went about attempting to right the wrongs of the 1960s.  Nevertheless, their concerns were real and they were right in demanding that these concerns be recognized and taken into account by the political elite.  They saw man’s inhumanity to man close up and were determined to change it.  They saw the horrors of the segregated South.  They saw the unfairness of discrimination against women. They understood, reflexively, the brutality and quixotic nature of the American war in Indochina.  In short, they saw that the country had serious problems that would not – could not – be tolerated any longer.  And while they may have settled on unfortunate or perhaps foolish or over-the-top solutions to some of these problems, they nevertheless understood the evil extant in some of the nation’s corruptions and did their very best to ameliorate them.

The Jim Crow laws of the Southern United States are probably the most easily identified and easily decried symbols of the problems that soiled the many virtues of this great nation in the 1960s.  Segregation, discrimination against, and disenfranchisement of blacks was not only common, but was indeed endemic in the South in the century between Reconstruction and federal Civil Rights Legislation.  The Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University notes the following:

Jim Crow was more than a series of rigid anti-black laws.  It was a way of life.  Under Jim Crow, African Americans were relegated to the status of second class citizens.  Jim Crow represented the legitimization of anti-black racism.  Many Christian ministers and theologians taught that whites were the Chosen people, blacks were cursed to be servants, and God supported racial segregation.  Craniologists, eugenicists, phrenologists, and Social Darwinists, at every educational level, buttressed the belief that blacks were innately intellectually and culturally inferior to whites.  Pro-segregation politicians gave eloquent speeches on the great danger of integration: the mongrelization of the white race.  Newspaper and magazine writers routinely referred to blacks as niggers, coons, and darkies; and worse, their articles reinforced anti-black stereotypes.  Even children’s games portrayed blacks as inferior beings. . . . All major societal institutions reflected and supported the oppression of blacks.

The Jim Crow system was undergirded by the following beliefs or rationalizations: whites were superior to blacks in all important ways, including but not limited to intelligence, morality, and civilized behavior; sexual relations between blacks and whites would produce a mongrel race which would destroy America; treating blacks as equals would encourage interracial sexual unions; any activity which suggested social equality encouraged interracial sexual relations; if necessary, violence must be used to keep blacks at the bottom of the racial hierarchy.  The following Jim Crow etiquette norms show how inclusive and pervasive these norms were:

A black male could not offer his hand (to shake hands) with a white male because it implied being socially equal.  Obviously, a black male could not offer his hand or any other part of his body to a white woman, because he risked being accused of rape.

Blacks and whites were not supposed to eat together.  If they did eat together, whites were to be served first, and some sort of partition was to be placed between them.

Under no circumstance was a black male to offer to light the cigarette of a white female — that gesture implied intimacy.

Blacks were not allowed to show public affection toward one another in public, especially kissing, because it offended whites.

Jim Crow etiquette prescribed that blacks were introduced to whites, never whites to blacks.  For example: “Mr. Peters (the white person), this is Charlie (the black person), that I spoke to you about.”

Whites did not use courtesy titles of respect when referring to blacks, for example, Mr., Mrs., Miss., Sir, or Ma’am.  Instead, blacks were called by their first names.  Blacks had to use courtesy titles when referring to whites, and were not allowed to call them by their first names.

If a black person rode in a car driven by a white person, the black person sat in the back seat, or the back of a truck.

White motorists had the right-of-way at all intersections.

Blacks were denied the right to vote by grandfather clauses (laws that restricted the right to vote to people whose ancestors had voted before the Civil War), poll taxes (fees charged to poor blacks), white primaries (only Democrats could vote, only whites could be Democrats), and literacy tests (“Name all the Vice Presidents and Supreme Court Justices throughout America’s history”).  Plessy [v Ferguson] sent this message to southern and border states: Discrimination against blacks is acceptable.

Violence too was both common and accepted.  According to the historian Leon F. Litwack, between 1882 and 1968, at least 4,742 black men were lynched in the United States.  And, as Time magazine noted, many such lynchings were more than mere murders: “Before Sam Hose was doused with oil and set afire, he had his ears and fingers cut off and the skin stripped from his face.  Jesse Washington, a retarded farm worker convicted of killing a white woman, was hung by a chain over a bonfire and repeatedly dipped into the flames.”  The New York Times, in a blog post recalling the civil rights march on Selma, Alabama in 1964, reminds us that the violence was not only pervasive and sadistic, but was state-sanctioned as well:

On March 7, 1965, state troopers and a sheriff’s posse in Selma, Ala., attacked 525 civil rights demonstrators taking part in a march between Selma and Montgomery, the state capital.  The march was organized to promote black voter registration and to protest the killing of a young black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, by a state trooper during a Feb. 18 voter registration march in a nearby city.

The New York Times on March 8 described the day’s events.  As the demonstrators crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, they were ordered by the police to disperse.  When they stood in place, the troopers charged at them.

“The first 10 or 20 Negroes were swept to the ground screaming, arms and legs flying and packs and bags went skittering across the grassy divider strip and on to the pavement on both sides,”  The Times wrote. “Those still on their feet retreated.  The troopers continued pushing, using both the force of their bodies and the prodding of their nightsticks.”

The police also fired tear gas at the crowd and charged on horseback.  More than 50 demonstrators were injured.  The Times described a makeshift hospital near the local church: “Negroes lay on the floors and chairs, many weeping and moaning.  A girl in red slacks was carried from the house screaming.”  Amelia Boynton lay semiconscious on a table.  “From the hospital came a report that the victims had suffered fractures of ribs, heads, arms and legs, in addition to cuts and bruises.”

The day of violence, which became known as Bloody Sunday, was covered in newspapers across the country and broadcast on national news, outraging many Americans.  A photo of Mrs. Boynton lying unconscious on the bridge became the most enduring image of the day.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. soon arrived in Selma to organize a second march as civil rights lawyers filed for a federal injunction to prevent police interference.  Dr. King led a ceremonial march over the Pettus Bridge and back on March 9.  While the march itself was peaceful, segregationists attacked three white ministers who supported the march that night, killing one, James J. Reeb.

The point of all of this is to note that the racial imbalances in this country in the 1960s were real, were dramatic, and were horrific.  Likewise, discrimination against women, gays, and others was also horrific, if less extravagantly so.  The discord that characterized that decade, therefore, was understandable, even if the solutions produced were, at times, less than ideal.

We note this in order to compare it to the problems facing the country today and especially those relating to race.  Now, we don’t have any desire to minimize the deaths of young black men, especially Michael Brown and Eric Garner, who were killed by police.  Nor, for that matter, do we mean to minimize the broader problems facing young black men in this country, including the epidemic of black-on-black violence and the almost preposterously high rate of young, black, male incarceration.  All of these problems are real, serious, and worthy of remedy.  And so, for that matter, are other social problems that plague the country, including violence against women, which has been in the news a great deal lately.

At the same time, we think that a few considerations are worth noting here.  For starters, the “list of demands” undergirding the current protests range from the mundane to the absolutely ridiculous.  The most prominent protest organization, “Justice League NYC,” is an offshoot of a decade-old group formed and funded by (Comm-symp) Harry Belafonte.  And on the one end of the demand spectrum, for example, the Justice League demands the appointment of a special prosecutor to give the state government more power and to remove power from the hands of the people (the grand jury).  On the other end, the League demands “The immediate firing of Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo and all officers responsible for the death of Eric Garner.”  The irony in this latter demand, of course, is that the denial of due process is an obvious and flagrant violation of the officers’ civil rights.  Second time as farce, and all that, we suppose.

A second problem with the demands is that they are exceptionally unlikely to produce anything at all like the “justice” the marchers are demanding.  Truth be told, we sympathize with the protestors.  We feel that the black community suffers unduly from a whole host of problems that perpetuate poverty, joblessness, high rates of incarceration, and poor education, just to name a few.  Unfortunately, as we have argued over the last couple of weeks, those problems can no longer legitimately be labeled “race” problems.  They are economic and social in nature and apply across race lines, affecting virtually the entirety of the working class and the working poor.

What this means, in turn, is that any of the reforms the protesters are demanding are largely irrelevant to the plight of black community.  Justice League NYC demands an end to “broken windows” policing.  This sounds bold enough, we suppose, but we fail to see how letting petty criminals walk the street untroubled by police is going to provide safer communities, better schools, or higher paying jobs for the country’s urban areas.  If anything, we’d guess that this demand in particular would make life in big cities much less tolerable.

A final issue with the demands sought by the protest organizers is something of a combination of the first two.  We want to be careful here.  We don’t mean to suggest that any serious injustice should be ignored in this country.  And nor, for that matter, do we mean to suggest that demands must be deemed “unimportant” if they are less important, less critical, and less necessary than the demands that were justifiably sought by the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.  Racial progress does not necessarily produce a perfectly equal and just society (obviously!).

That said, whipping up anger, stirring up protests, encouraging violence, and acting as if the relatively minor racial issues that persist today are the equivalent of the major, state-sponsored obstacles faced a half-century ago is both shameful and potentially destabilizing.  When the leaders of the current protests insist that today’s injustices are the equivalent of yesterday’s, they not only belittle the sacrifices made back then, but encourage the crowds to expect real, serious, and tangible benefits from the protests and the meeting of their demands.

And yet the simple fact of the matter is that even if every single one of the protesters’ demands were met, no one, with the exception of the policemen who would be summarily dismissed, would notice any change whatsoever.  This does not necessarily mean that there is no injustice to remedy.  But it does mean that the leaders of the protests, who are quite clearly promising something more profound, are fostering disappointment.  And lest you think that none of the protest leaders would even consider overpromising the crowds or tarnishing the legacy of the Civil Rights movement, consider the following, from an August, 2013 “Best of the Web,” column by James Taranto.  As you read it, consider the passage above from the New York Times regarding Selma and consider as well that this type of thing is all too common among the so-called civil rights leaders of today.

Florida is the New Selma, and not for the first time.  On a visit to Tallahassee Tuesday, Jesse Jackson “used the phrase ‘Selma of our time’– a reference to civil rights marches in Alabama that helped prompt change in the 1960s,” the Miami Herald reports.

By way of explanation, the paper quotes an earlier, ungrammatical comment the septuagenarian would-be provocateur made last month on CNN, where he “talked about an economic boycott to ‘isolate Florida as a kind of apartheid state given this whole stand your ground laws.’ ”

It isn’t the first time Florida has been the New Selma.  As National Review’s John Miller and Ramesh Ponnuru noted fully one-eighth of a century ago, George W. Bush’s thin margin of victory in the 2000 presidential election won the Sunshine State that designation as well.  But if Florida is the New New Selma and was also the Old New Selma, there have also been other New Selmas over the years:

Houston was another Selma, too, back in March, when [Jackson] was fighting to preserve two race-preference programs (Houston Chronicle, March 11).  A few months before that, the New York Times reported on Jackson’s efforts to win more lenient treatment for students who were being punished for fighting at a high school in Decatur, Illinois: Decatur was just like, you guessed it, Selma (December 12, 1999).  In February 1999, Jackson found Selma in, of all places, Riverside, California, after an accidental police shooting.  That’s four Selmas in less than two years. . . .

Jackson is not alone in seeking to trivialize civil-rights history.  As Commentary’s Seth Mandel noted the other day, Rep. John Lewis — who suffered a fractured skull when a racist mob beat him on Bloody Sunday — in 2008 scurrilously likened the McCain campaign’s criticism of Barack Obama to the Birmingham church bombings.  Lewis has a long history of similar comparisons, and his undisputed heroism 48 years ago does not excuse his inflammatory and irresponsible rhetoric.

Some of the efforts to evoke the civil-rights movement today are downright laughable.  The Washington Times — in a story reporting that the Smithsonian Institution is trying, no joke, to acquire the sweatshirt Trayvon Martin was wearing when George Zimmerman shot him in self-defense –reports: “The National Museum of African American History and Culture is set to open in 2015 and will display objects related to the Civil Rights Movement, such as the handcuffs used to restrain Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.”

Was Gates arrested at Selma?  Unlikely, since he was 14 at the time.  It’s a safe bet the event in question is the one that happened in Cambridge, Mass., in 2009, when Gates was trying to break into his own home and a passerby mistook him for a burglar and summoned police.

All of this brings us, at long last, to the second reason why we expect that the unrest that has characterized the country for more than a decade will, sometime in the relatively near future, reach a watershed moment, when broader conflict becomes inevitable.  Again, we don’t know that the current protests over Michael Brown and Eric Garner will lead to this moment.  Indeed, we’d be inclined to say that they won’t.  But something eventually will.  And while our discussion in these pages is largely driven by the course of the events occurring contemporaneously, the broader forces both driving the unrest and underpinning our analysis of it are, for the most part, applicable to the unrest in general and not merely the present case in particular.  In any event, it is worth noting that once civil unrest reaches a critical point, then it cannot be resolved easily or quickly.  At that point, neither failure nor success will diffuse the tension.  In fact, either is likely to inflame the situation more, at least in the short-to-moderate term.

The capacity of failure to exacerbate the rage and frustration felt by a population that feels it’s been wronged is something that we think is fairly obvious.  The inability to resolve issues that led to unrest will, in many cases, lead to unrest again, and again, and again, until the issue is, at last, resolved, either with the issue dismissed categorically or with the unrest producing at least some modest success.  And it is at this point that things begin to get interesting.

In may sound counterintuitive, but both experience and some of Western Civilization’s greatest thinkers have argued that success in social and political matters often leads to radicalization in the expectation of further success.  Full-blown revolutions are, it turns out, often fueled by moderate success within the system.  Once a regime has conceded to some, even small, demands, it is perceived by the revolutionaries as weak and prone to compromise.  And then the demands get more serious and more severe.  In his 2006 tome, White Guilt, the inimitable Shelby Steele makes precisely this point (emphasis in original; hat tip to the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto):

There is no determinism between one’s racial wounds and the acting out of black rage — a phrase that came into use only after the 1964 Civil Rights [Act].  Oppression, in itself, pushes people neither to anger nor to revolution.  If it did, black slaves would have been so relentlessly rebellious that slavery would have been unsustainable as an institution.  It is wishful thinking in those who rightly abhor oppression to see it as a kind of dialectic that leads automatically to the rages that eventually topple it.  Slavery might never have ended had not larger America — at the price of a civil war — decided to end it.  The slave’s rage meant nothing and brought only the lash.

Anger is acted out by the oppressed only when real weakness is perceived in the oppressor.  So anger is never automatic or even inevitable for the oppressed; it is chosen when weakness in the oppressor means it will be effective in winning freedom or justice or spoils of some kind.  Anger in the oppressed is a response to perceived opportunity, not to injustice.  And expressions of anger escalate not with more injustice but with less injustice.

This is, of course, Tocqueville’s old admonition about revolutions – as noted in the “They Said It” section at the top of this piece – restated.


We’d argue, as Steele does, that the same general principle noted by Tocqueville (and others) applies to social upheaval as well, not merely to actual, bona fide physical revolution.  Once a regime has whetted its detractors’ appetites, both the demands and the lengths to which the detractors will go to achieve those demands often increase substantially.  In the current situation, the fact that the demands are, generally speaking, so meaningless, it strikes us that any regime – be it the city of New York, the state of Missouri, or the federal government of the United States – might be likely to concede to these demands just to diffuse the tensions.  But that will only backfire, leading eventually to even greater unrest.

As we’ve said, we believe that America’s ongoing social tensions are leading to a denouement, a point at which the tension simply must be resolved.  We suspect that this point will be disruptive and ugly, to say the least, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that most of the tension is poorly defined, while the proposed remedies to the tension are even more poorly designed.  The problems are misunderstood and the remedies are useless, in short, which is to say that the bubbling gases of social unrest may eventually explode, but that explosion will not rectify the situation.  The unrest will continue.

The good news in all of this, we think, is that after the denouement, after the proverbial explosion, there will be nothing left to try except to rebuild society along the lines envisioned by the Founders.  Freedom, liberty, and equality under the law would go a long way toward diffusing the current tension.  But short of that, which is unlikely, they can also go a long way toward rebuilding a society and a governing ethos better suited for the 21st century.  Walter Russell Mead, who has long cataloged the original virtues of American liberalism, has argued that contemporary “liberalism” needs to be refashioned to fit the challenges of the current era, just as the classical liberalism of the Founders was refashioned to meet the needs of the 20th century.  We tend to think that he is right and to hope that this is ultimately, possible.  Unfortunately, we doubt that we, as a society, can get to that point, without having to undergo the trial first.

Good luck to you.  Good luck to all of us.


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