Andrew Sullivan hasn’t been fired from New York Magazine, despite the venue apparently having censored or deep-sixed one of his Friday columns, probably about violent protests. And this week he has an unusually good effort in his tripartite essay. I’m referring to the first part—on the authoritarianism of the progressive Left. (The other two parts, also good, are on Trump’s decline in the polls due to mishandling the pandemic, a decline that Andrew applauds, and the efforts of Keir Starmer, the new leader of Britain’s Labour Party, to purge anti-Semitism from its ranks.) All in all, it’s a good read, which you can access by clicking on the screenshot.
If you’ve used up your access to the New York Magazine site, and are paywalled, judicious inquiry might yield you a copy of Sullivan’s essay.
I’d quote the entire first section of the article as a whole, but that would violate fair usage policy. I’ll give just a few quotes and a summary of the argument. In short, Sullivan contends that the erasure of history by revolutionary movements has often proceeded, especially in our era, by the “elites” (intellectuals or the regime in power) egging on young people, who then go nuts and try to efface every remnant of the past. (At this point I’d highly recommend you reread Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which, though mis-prognosticated as to date, is just 36 years late.)
Sullivan’s examples are the Taliban’s destruction of Afghan art like the Buddhas of Bamian; the Cultural Revolution in China, which Mao had to eventually curb; the urging of revolution in late 19th-century Russia, approved and promoted by the “intellectual elite”; and now the turmoil in the U.S., which is largely fomented by the young and promoted by the organs of the intellectual Left, like the New York Times and Washington Post. (Neither Andrew nor I decry the entire program of Leftist progressivism, of course; what he and I deplore are the excesses, including the rampant attempt to rewrite history, an activity not foreign to Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four.)
Here are a couple of paragraphs from Andrew:
. . . 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.
That last sentence above is a zinger, but not far from the truth. He goes on:
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.
If we’re mentioning stuff that we find creepy yet few dare criticize, well, I found the action below a bit creepy as well. Although sentiments behind it were laudabe—sympathy for the murder of George Floyd—but the optics. . . . well, too close to penitentes. And, in fact, the performative act was criticized by some blacks as “virtue signaling”, “pandering,” and “cultural appropriation.” A better response from the legislators would have been a strong statement, and, better yet, legislation (which, with a Republican Senate, would be futile, but still symbolic in a better way):
One critical tweet:
Democrats in the House and Senate decided to wear African patterned cloth and take a knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in honor of George Floyd.
This is a mess. pic.twitter.com/CerdH2Zuqq
— Frederick Joseph (@FredTJoseph) June 8, 2020
As Andrew proceeds through the column, his prose gets more and more heated but also more and more eloquent as he says what needs to be said—and what all of us should be echoing loudly, regardless of the fear of being called a racist, a bigot, a transphobe, and all the other slurs that keep appalled Leftists from speaking out:
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.
. . . 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.
And at the end is a call to stop the excesses, encapsulated in the final sentence:
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.
I was chatting to a writer friend the other day, and I asked why he, who shares the views of Sullivan and I, didn’t write something about it. He responded that he had nothing novel to add—that people like Andrew had said it all. I responded that I look at anti-wokeness in the same way as I look at atheism: there really isn’t much new to say here, but we still need to oppose both religious nonsense and wokeness constantly, and in the public square. If for no other reason, we need to do this because standing up against the madness, like coming out against religion, empowers the timorous and silent to come out publicly and join us.
Here are a few examples of the “revolutionary spasm” that Sullivan mentioned, examples that I see as bordering on the ludicrous.
a.) The musical group The Dixie Chicks changed their name to “The Chicks.” They presumably did this because they thought “Dixie” had some association with slavery, but there are at least three explanations for the word “Dixie” (which simply refers to “the South”)—two of which have nothing to do with slavery and the third one, about a kind slaveowner, is probably a myth. The most credible explanations refer to the Mason-Dixon line, a surveyed boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland that had nothing to do with slavery, and the antebellum issuance by banks in Louisiana of ten-dollar notes (ten is “dix” in French), notes that became known as “Dixies”.
b.) The defacement of road signs for Penny Lane in Liverpool. That road was, of course, made famous by the eponymous Beatles song. But lately, signs for the street have been defaced on the supposed grounds that it honors a slave merchant named James Penny. To wit:
It now turns out that, according to the Liverpool Slavery Museum, and reported by The Independent, there appears to be no connection between the street name and the slave merchant. As the site notes, “The road is instead believed to take its name from a toll on the road that was paid in pennies.”
But that didn’t matter. All it took was a rumor with no facts behind it, and the mob had a spasm. This is truly a kneejerk reaction in the literal sense: the foot kicks out when the knee is tapped, and it’s automatic and uncontrollable.
c.) The mass toppling of statues, often again prompted by urgings of the elite. There’s justification for statue removal, as well as some renaming of institutions, but things have gotten out of hand, and the reaction is automatic. Nobody, it seems, was sufficiently virtuous in the past to allow their statue to stand undamaged, and so those who have fallen or had their monuments defaced include Thomas Jefferson, George Washington (in Portland, of course), Theodore Roosevelt (Greg will have more to say about this later today), Ulysses S. Grant, Mohandas Gandhi (for crying out loud!), Ulysses S. Grant and (in France) Voltaire. I can only guess that Charles Darwin is next, for although he was an abolitionist, he made some pretty dire statements about indigenous peoples and blacks.
Now some statues, especially monuments to oppression, could justifiably be removed from the public square, but my own view is that they should be put in museums with appropriate labels, not destroyed. Or, as they do in some places, left to decay and degenerate as nature’s elements take their toll. For doesn’t their presence also tell us something about history?
All this does is erase U.S.and world history with no palpable benefit save displays of virtue by the destroyers. Now you might say, “Well, the history is still there in the books,” and I’d respond, “It’s also in the statues that make people ponder their history.” After all, when I’m in India I see monuments to Gandhi all the time in public, but I’m not constantly reading about him. In the end, the “erasure” movement is identical to Winston Smith’s job in Orwell’s novel (from Wikipedia):
Winston Smith works as a clerk in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth, where his job is to rewrite historical documents so they match the constantly changing current party line. This involves revising newspaper articles and doctoring photographs—mostly to remove “unpersons“, people who have fallen afoul of the party. Because of his proximity to the mechanics of rewriting history, Winston Smith nurses doubts about the Party and its monopoly on truth.
Sound familiar? And, as we know, the party line changes over time. Who of today’s heroes will be tomorrow’s villians?
I’ll finish with a quote from Henry Olsen writing in The Washington Post:
It is here that sober minds must pause and reflect. There is no pure past to which one can turn for intellectual sustenance if one desires a political regime dedicated to freedom and equality. Just about every pre-modern political regime was predicated upon the idea that its purported superiority justified treating outsiders over whom it ruled as if those people were not human beings. Aztecs murdered their war captives as human sacrifices to their gods. Many black Africans did not see other black Africans as fellow human beings to be protected against white slave traders; instead, they simply captured them and sold them to profit themselves. Mongol conquest of Russia and China was brutal and tyrannical as the warrior clan ruled on its own and for its own benefit. Almost all civilization has been based on inequality and tyranny regardless of the color of the masters’ skin.
And this we need to remember.
Decry the madness!