The Great Purge
Top Stories of the Year: #4
The right has been giving the public plenty of reasons to turn against them, as we saw in the first installment of this countdown. (For more on that, see a more old-fashioned religious conservative's appalled reaction to the religious fanaticism on display at the "Jericho March" held by the new nationalist conservatives to support overturning the presidential election result.)
So as some of us have been saying, all the left had to do this year to seem like an acceptable alternative was to not be crazy. One wing of the left—though as we will see, that label may no longer fit—actually managed it. Because this is the more surprising result, I will be covering that higher up in this countdown. But at #4 is the left acting as we would expect the left to act: taking an opportunity for legitimate reforms and turning it into an attack on civilization as such. I am referring, of course, to this summer's race riots.
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I observed in 2017 that the election of Donald Trump seems to have broken the brains of the left in one crucial respect.
The problem with their reaction to Donald Trump is that he seems to so totally vindicate all of their political prejudices that he justifies an even more vicious vilification of anyone who opposes their agenda. They think everyone who supports free market capitalism is a rich jerk who looks down on poor people? Check. They think anyone who complains about Political Correctness just wants to be a sexist boor? Check. They think anyone who talks hawkishly about Islamic terrorism must be driven by a neurotic need to prove his masculinity? Check. They think anyone who doesn't sign up for the latest iteration of the "diversity" agenda must harbor some kind of implicit sympathy for white nationalists? Yeah, well, check.
These things are not true of the overwhelming majority of people who hold those views. As applied to Donald Trump, they are a bit exaggerated—but they're close enough to be plausible. So the left is seduced by the temptation to take this as final proof that everyone who opposes them is just as irredeemably awful as they always suspected. And if that's true, then there's no point in making any effort to reach out to the rest of the country, to find out what people really think, to attempt to persuade them, or, God forbid, to learn anything from what they have to say.
I wrote this in the process of describing how that year's murderous white nationalist rally in Charlottesville made the problem even worse, allowing the left to see a Nazi under every bed in a counterpart to the Red Scare of the 1950s.
That moral panic was reactivated this year by the death of a petty criminal, George Floyd, who died while being pinned down by a callous Minneapolis police officer who ignored his pleas of medical distress. False claims of distress are a common tactic used by criminals against police officers—but then again, small-time crooks tend to lead very unhealthy lifestyles, so sometimes the distress is real and ignoring it turns out to be an act of deadly negligence.
This incident was not as blatantly obvious an example of "racist cop deliberately kills black man" as the activists would have us believe, but it was just close enough to be plausible, particularly when driven home by the emotional power of a video recording.
This could have and initially did provide the impetus for policing reforms that have been needed for a long time. In one of my roundups of news from the riots, I presented the case for some of these reforms, particularly those that reduce harassing enforcement of petty regulations on poor people. I pulled that out separately here. But note how I introduce the issue:
Trump's authoritarian bloviating and the excessive force used by some police departments do not call for a radical leftist solution. They call for some good old-fashioned American wisdom about the role of government.
George Washington is widely credited with the aphorism, "Government, like fire, is a dangerous servant and a fearful master." (He may not have said it, but he should have.)
A sane and rational approach has to start with the recognition that we absolutely need government, we need the police, we need an organized force to protect our rights—but it has to be there to protect our rights. For that purpose, government needs to be limited, controlled, and kept accountable.
This is, of course, the exact opposite of the lesson most of the protesters and rioters wanted us to take from the George Floyd case. As I had already noted in my first roundup of news about the case, "These riots are so obviously counterproductive that we are entitled to assume that they are being driven by people who do not actually care about any of the reforms that the protests are nominally intended to support." Later, I noted that, "At some point, activists who actually care about racial prejudice or excess use of force by the police are going to have to confront the fact that the far left does not care about these issues and merely wants to use them as a stalking horse for a much broader and more destructive totalitarian agenda."
We saw this agenda manifested in what I called a "Great Purge"—"a miniature Cultural Revolution-style purge of wrongthinkers. The far left does not have the power to execute much of its agenda politically, but it does have a largely unchallenged influence over many areas of the media, so that is where we see it exercising its power."
I examined the pattern of the targets.
These are not terribly courageous revolutionaries, however, and they don't have all that much power, so they're starting with the easiest targets: dead people. Mark Twain and Harper Lee have been canceled.... You may be starting to notice a trend here. To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are books with anti-racist themes that now somehow run afoul of racial sensitivities....
Who is almost as soft a target as dead people, fictional characters, statues, and brand mascots? Oh, yes, left-leaning intellectuals....
[P]robably the most spectacular result of the Great Purge was when the interns fired the editorial page editor at the New York Times. There has been a long-running battle at the Times between the more old-fashioned types who think the editorial page should reflect some degree of ideological diversity and the young wokesters who think it should be the exclusive reserve of those who think like they do. The wokesters have now won.
But the wokesters weren't content with enforcing orthodoxy through mere bluff and intimidation. The summer was dominated by actual riots—and by prominent attempts to justify violence and looting.
I described "a common profile from the riots, where some of the worst violence, vandalism, and looting has been instigated by relatively well-off young people inflamed, not by actual experience of injustice, but by radical leftist ideas. They weren't there for reform, they were there to play-act a revolution." I called this phenomenon "The Humanitarian with the Molotov Cocktail" and described the intellectual excuses for violence in one prominent case.
There has been an outpouring of sympathy for Mattis and Rahman from fellow lawyers, and you will excuse me for being a little cynical about how "progressive" this is. There is a whiff of horror on the part of educated middle-class lefties that someone like them might actually do hard time....
But I'm more concerned about what this says about the actual nature of the far left's cause. The common belief of the rioters, the essence of their supposed idealism, is that force, violence, and terror are an acceptable and even preferable means of achieving political results.... There is a full court press right now to get us to accept assault, looting, and arson as normal and acceptable forms of political activism....
We should take a moment to think what that actually means. It means that argument, debate, and voting will be replaced, as the means for making political decisions, with a kick to the teeth or the burning of your car, your home, your business. Persuasion will be replaced by terror....
Isabel Paterson once described Maximilian Robespierre, the instigator and leader of the Reign of Terror, as "the humanitarian with the guillotine." That captures the contradiction of today's rioters, who tell us they're going to make the world a better place through terror and mayhem.
This is just a small sampling of my coverage of the Great Purge. I wrote about the rise of the "mostly peaceful" protest, about a phenomenon I described as "Lord of the Flies meets Nineteen Eighty-Four," I dissected the work of our era's "woke Ellsworth Toohey," and I followed the attack on Classical music and other highbrow art under a pattern identified by Ayn Rand: "He says that he is fighting Rockefeller and Morgan; he is fighting Beethoven and Shakespeare." I also did a little original reporting on the "The Campus Surveillance State."
But the highlight of my coverage, looking back, was my analysis of the brief, unhappy life of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (later known by the less charming acronym CHOP), the mini-utopia set up by leftist protesters in Downtown Seattle.
From the beginning, CHAZ captured the paradox of rule by protests in a free society.
The loudness with which CHAZ trumpets the idea of "autonomy" without providing any actual mechanism for the people to control it reminds me of the old Cold War joke about how a country that has the words "Democratic" or "People's" or "Republic" in its name is almost certain not to be democratic, not to be a republic, and not to be accountable to the people.
But most of all, as I noted on the occasion of its demise, CHAZ/CHOP showed what "defund the police" means in practice: the totally uncontrolled use of force.
In a civilized society, the use of force—especially by our would-be protectors—must be limited, controlled, and held accountable.
How can we do that? Perhaps by having an official roster of these protectors who are required to tell us their names, undergo background checks and training, keep records, and wear body cameras. These protectors should be bound to appear in court to answer for any misdeeds. Also, they should report to officials elected by the people they are supposed to protect.
In other words: the police. Police forces are the means by which the use of force is controlled by the people.
The police do not always do their jobs professionally—and the people do not always do an adequate job at holding them accountable—and there are moments like now when we become acutely aware of the need for reform. But reform means: lobbying for new rules and laws, electing new public officials, and doing the follow-up to make sure the new rules are actually implemented and lead to the intended results.
This is difficult and often unglamorous, but there is no better alternative. When you hand over the use of force to an unthinking, unaccountable mob and the self-appointed 'voices' of the collective—well, we now have a perfect illustration of where that gets you.
My broadest philosophical overview on this aspect of the past year was an homage to Ayn Rand's comments on the era that gave us the last big round of race riots.
I've remarked before that it's like we're living through 20th Century Lite, a period in which we re-enact all the grave mistakes and pathologies from which we ought to have learned in the last century, just on a smaller scale. If so, we've now reached 1968, including cities convulsed in race riots at the same time that astronauts are being launched into space....
In 1969, Ayn Rand summed up the contradictions of her era in the essay "Apollo and Dionysus," which contrasted the clean rationality of the Apollo moon missions against the mindless, mud-smeared emotionalism of the hippies at Woodstock. Somebody on Twitter suggested that the proper update to that article would be "Apollo and Eris," after the Greek goddess of discord, and that's such a good idea I'm going to steal it.
The lack of clear thinking, the willingness to be driven purely by emotion, is the pervasive theme of the last week's events. This is the blind panic and confusion that follows from a failure to use reason. But instead of being dressed up in the supposedly pleasant hedonism of the Summer of Love, our emotionalism this time is going straight toward its most discordant expressions: anger, hatred, and violence.
It may be hard to believe, but this year's throwback to an era of race riots is partly a result of our refusal to grasp how much progress we've made. All of the issues involved here: racism, excessive use of police force, crime—all of them have been much worse. (I laid out the evidence on both sides back in 2016.) But there are people who need us to believe that one or the other of these things is reaching a level of unprecedented crisis because that is how they panic us into enacting their ideological agendas.
Like I said, this is just an overview, and there's a lot more that I left out. Going back through everything I wrote over this past year, I was surprised to discover how much I was all over this story as it was developing. I suppose this is a good opportunity to remind you how much information and analysis you get out of The Tracinski Letter—and that you can rely on being equally well-informed about the big stories that will emerge in 2021.