“The future is a refuge from the fierce competition of our forefathers.”G.K. Chesterton
In the wake of the killing of a black man by an American police officer, reasonable people all across the West were left aghast in seeing the stark irrationality of choice of targets by the new iconoclasts. When monuments of the likes of Union fighters and slavery abolitionists were vandalized, such as, for example, John Greenleaf Whittier’s statue (a slavery abolitionist and a poet) or the all-black regiment of Union soldiers who fought in the US Civil War (not to mention Abraham Lincoln‘s statue on its way to being removed), most attempts by sane commentators to make sense of the rioters’ behavior were along the lines of: “you can’t possibly expect the mob to behave rationally”, as if it is all just the natural consequence of the mob’s tendency to act out its stupider member’s ideas (Tucker Carlson—whom I respect a lot—was a bit more straightforward than that, visibly amused in calling them “idiots”). Then: “It’s political fanaticism” in the form of Carl Jung’s famous observation that “people don’t have ideas, ideas have people” was also trending. To some degree, those are still the mainstream theories. But as true as they are, it’d to naive to look at today’s iconoclasm and blame ignorance and ideology alone for its irrationality. There’re other reasons why no statue is ever good enough for the mob. For the time being, I’ll borrow a definition of ‘ideology’ from this Quillette essay by Conor Barnes: when “its adherents learn to see themselves as guardians rather than seekers of the truth”.
Who hasn’t been through the ideologue phase? I know I have. I was somewhat of an anarchic revolutionary type myself when I used to live in London. I even took part once in the annual Million Mask Mach in the city’s center (The MMM is an annual protest organized by Anonymous hacktivists in major cities across the world, mostly fueled by anti-establishment sentiment). But like with many in their early twenties, politics was little more than an opportunistic hobby. My stances were just a badge to shove on people’s face when trying to look either cool or virtuous (also, beyond my anarchic tendencies, it’d hard to determine exactly where I stood, at least not without having to deal first with the many instances pointing to cognitive dissonance). Therefore, if granted that ideologues are ‘guarding some truth’, I guess in my quest for justice I had very little ‘truth’ to guard. Sure, my grievances were substantially different from those coming out of the intersectional left (thank God), let alone supported by prominent politicians at the time such as today’s defund-the-police-Democrats in the US. But just as a protest like that year’s MMM was eventually going to reveal to me, like any member of the modern Social Justice army, all I needed to feel on the right side of history was to project the perfect stereotypical enemy onto everything and everyone who stood in my path. Whether it was the uniform of a law enforcement agent, the steady eyes of the police officers guarding number 10 and Her Majesty the Queen, or whether it was a statue commemorating someone’s past achievements, it didn’t really matter. As Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson often says, “an ideal is also simultaneously a judge”. And so as long as whatever I was looking at represented achievement, its mere existence cast a shadow on my own shortcomings. And as such, it was part of ‘the problem’.
Anyway, not much came about from that 5th of November (Bonfire Night in the UK). A few arrests were made, a couple of police automobiles were set ablaze, but no statue was thrown into the river and the city and I went business as usual before the sun rose. In the next years I’d even come to my senses, abandon my radical opinions, and join the center-right side of the spectrum. I’m only mentioning this because I believe there was something about me then (and most of the protesters) that goes beyond ideology itself, and that is crucial for understanding the irrational, iconoclastic aspect of today’s far-left rioters. For one thing, there was so much pride emanating from all of us that evening that the arrogance in the air seemed to extend to the point that we clearly thought of ourselves as the first and only real force for positive change in the world. Logically so, if we were nothing but slaves of the current structure of society, that could only mean that our ancestors had done nothing but to contribute to shaping the very rigged system we were meant to rebel against. Hence in the intoxication of youthful pride and juvenile disobedience, no statue—hypothetically—couldn’t have been spared, no matter its size.
Sure, as a decent psychoanalyst might point out, with all of that projecting in motion, somewhere beneath the surface, in our prig little minds, must have lurked the knowledge that it was mostly make-believe, that the ‘downtrodden’ we were claiming to fight for didn’t want to be rescued, perhaps as it probably does to Labour progressives now, who after the historic Red Wall came gloriously crumbling down during the last election are probably starting to wonder whether the British working-class is actually on their side. Nevertheless, unlike most people, we were red-pilled, ‘woke’, if you like. And naturally, once we’d have paved the way for the utopia (or whatever better system was going to replace the current one) we believed the world was going to thank us. We were delusional. Like Sir Roger Scruton once said of the May ’68 rioters: “they were enacting out a lie, a self-scripted drama, one in which the central character was themselves”.
Now, despite the fair amount of self-deprecation, it’d be unfair to be totally cynical and assume that we had all of our fingers pointed in the wrong direction. After all, radicalism rarely means one’s wrong about everything. Most people I’ve met had some stuff figured out already: they had zero trusts in the mainstream media; they hated the patronizing elitism of some of the political establishment, and (on a more personal note), my utter refusal to join the selfie-obsessed Instagram trend turned out to be the wisest choice of my life. Today, the ‘how-can-I-make-this-about-me’ generation of virtue-signaling influencers reflect the very self-righteousness of the progressive political class, who in turn is promptly praised by its contemptuous acolytes in the mainstream media. Quite the prescient type? What if I tell you that I even opposed racism?? Now, if this doesn’t provoke any esteem from the dear reader, it’s because it was designed not to. We all know that racial discrimination still exists, but why should anyone be revered for something as common sense as treating people the same way regardless of their skin color?
Unfortunately, that has become the new ‘social justice’ trend. In our PC societies, ‘normal’ is promoted as ‘exceptional’ and vice-versa. As all of that happens, now-social conservatives such as myself like point out that it’s been a while since we talked about other virtues. Honor, loyalty, courage, love for one’s country. Nationalists take it a step further and point to Christian Europe as the true ideal, back when its power was unsurpassed and its confidence through the roof. While the vision of the latter has clear limitations, the former surely has a point. Today’s political pundits seldom stand up for traditional values. One could say, that the reason is that ad hominems from the left are so ubiquitous nowadays that many conservatives are too busy trying to convince those who’ll still continue to despise them that—when it comes down to it—they’re actually “quite liberal on most issues”, as their opponents succeed in destroying everything conservatism ever stood for—until, likely, there’ll be nothing left to it but a mere reactionary impulse. Former Republican nominee and ‘Never Trumper’ Mitt Romney, for example, was one of the first to kowtow to the far-left, marching through D.C. along with BLM protesters as the first violent riots broke out in the US. Maybe he felt the calling, or maybe it’s because, as the great (and lately super-cool I must say) Peter Hitchens said:
“Selfishness needs to attack things that demand self-sacrifice—family, marriage, duty, patriotism, and faith. And above all, it needs weakness and confusion among those in charge.”
Is not being racist the best a man can get? Today, it feels like that was the only real goal of radical-progressives. After all, how else could weak people get the public admiration they think they deserve? Rioters know—as well as I used to—that one way to receive it is to turn childish disobedience into a virtue, and to make a regime-change revolution gleefully led by moral relativists and resentful nihilists look like the only real hope for the well-being of the human race (take a look at the first US riots back in May).
So, how did we get here? How did rioting, looting, and tearing down monuments become a synonym of ‘progress’? ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ asked Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton’s in his 1910 book. Back then, the English poet’s answer could be summarized as something approximating a more sophisticated way to expand on the legendary chauvinist meme: “hard time create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times.” The weakness of the modern man. I’m no chauvinist, but if there’s something to the proverb at all, I believe we must now be entering the last stage. For he said:
“There are so many flaming faiths that we cannot hold; so many harsh heroisms that we cannot imitate; so many great efforts of monumental building or of military glory which seem to us at once sublime and pathetic…”
No philosopher in 20th-century history (with the possible exception of the recently deceased Sir Roger Scruton) has stressed the necessity to emulate our predecessors more than Chesterton. Our ancestors are certainly not without their faults, but in the years following my anarchic phase, both him and Scruton were crucial in making me realize how much of the modern-left cultural obsession in demonizing everything that preceded us in the name of ‘progress’, actually reveals how deep the instinct to carry the burden of civilization on one’s shoulder is in all of us. Societies aren’t created thinking short-term. Sooner or later, they demand a sacrifice from each of us. As of now, the average conservative (along with a few disaffected liberals) says the violence we’re witnessing on the streets is the inevitable consequence of decades of post-colonial / neo-marxist propaganda. All of those theories have merit, of course. But perhaps there’s more than ideology to the iconoclasm of the far-left. Yes, some men just want to watch the world burn (as the wise Alfred said), just as it is true that often ideas have people and not the other way around. But people are people, and people feel. And are especially emotions like fear and denial that can give birth to the irrationality reflected in much of today’s extreme activism. In other words, as Mr. Chesterton puts it: “Men invent new ideals because they dare not attempt old ideals. They look forward with enthusiasm, because they are afraid to look back”. I know I was. I’m glad I’m not anymore. But as the fire against our heritage continues to rise, I can’t say I’m surprised to see progressives keep staring far into the future yet never once into the past; rioters smashing what they don’t want to build, as weak people continue to fear what they’re not willing to become.