Be careful what you wish for

Andrew Sullivan, prefaced by the Beatles:

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.

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