Nihilistic and atavistic behavior is not that difficult to understand. If you did not understand what was happening in A Clockwork Orange, simply think about why young men act that way. We think this kind of violence is hard to understand, because it has no roots in reason. Yet when adolescent boys dance around Piggy’s head on a pike in Lord of the Flies, we say, “Yes, of course, how could it turn out otherwise?”
Now we have sober discussions about which statues ought to come down in the United States, and which ought to remain standing. Well, you don’t have discussions with a mob: what I mean to say is, we see reasonable people have sober discussions about which statues the mobs should have pulled down, and which statues the mobs should have spared. Read Bret Stephens’ column on the subject to get an idea of what I mean. If Lee worked for disunion in his country, and Grant worked for union, Lee goes and Grant stays.
You’ll remember the conflict in Charlottesville developed over a statue of Robert E. Lee. One group wanted to remove it, and another wanted to keep it where it stood. You did not hear a lot of reasonable talk between these two groups. They wanted to fight. That’s what they did. People who swing clubs at each other do not make fine distinctions to justify their latest crack over an opponent’s head.
Around the time Robert E. Lee came down in New Orleans, people could see the logic of the statue attacks clearly enough. If every slaveholder is a villain – and why would we honor villains with statues – then why do we have statues of George Washington standing all over the place? Why do we honor him? He was another plantation owner from Virginia whose behavior was problematic, and you know what problematic means in this context. It means your statue comes down.
The mob in Portland showed all of us the American Jacobins are as good as their word. Twenty-first century avatars of virtue – who want us to know they are better than the rest of us – pulled down George Washington’s graven image and desecrated it. They might have quoted the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” What is George Washington but a sacrilegious idol for all of us raised in the corrupt temple of Western democracy, where white privilege is the mark of the devil?
You can convince yourself that mobs light our way to a better future, even if you might find their methods rather distasteful. Apparently Thomas Jefferson could overlook what Edmund Burke could not, in his enthusiasm for mob action in France. No matter how violent and destructive riots and massacres became in that country, Jefferson saw them as historical harbingers of better times, where the French people would realize their ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
Part of mob psychology and militant ideology is that if you are not with us, you might as well be dead. We saw that with ISIS not so long ago. We saw that in China’s Cultural Revolution a couple of generations ago. We have not reached that point here, but a lot of signs indicate that we will have a difficult time pulling back from this particular abyss, where the only people who have not lost their minds are victims of those who have. When you can lose your job and livelihood, and be ostracized by people who were your friends before you committed a thoughtcrime with one wrong utterance, we have travelled a long way toward a place we do not want to be. Such places do not even exist in a democracy. We already inhabit it.
To topple a statue requires solidarity. A lot of people have to pull in the same direction. For a certain social cast of mind, it is fun to participate in these acts of desecration with others. The gang in A Clockwork Orange does not rape women by themselves. They shed restraint only with help from others. Now if you want to destroy your cultural fathers, do you suppose that is easier to do as part of a gang? What acts could be more oedipal than to pull down statues of Washington and Grant? Why not pull down the Washington Monument? It could be done, you know. You would just need enough helicopters and people with ropes and cables. In just a few hours, you would have a fatherless country, an orphan culture with no historical roots.
I want to end with a comparison that may not appear valid at first. Statue toppling is not so different from book burning. Note I do not mean statue toppling figuratively; I mean actual vandalism. We will always talk about which memories and historical figures we want to preserve, just as we talk about which books we want to read and preserve. Toppling is symbolic murder, in the same way that book burning is symbolic murder of thinkers and their ideas. Both acts are committed by atavistic mobs. Members of these mobs do not make fine distinctions about why they do what they do. Book burners do not carefully sort through what books they want to burn, and what books they want to keep.
Simlilarly, when mobs went after statues of Confederate generals a few years ago, and found no one would stop them, they felt emboldened to go after Generals Washington and Grant this June. If you do not see a straight line to connect Charlottesville and other cities in 2017 with statue riots of June 2020, you did not watch closely enough then, or consider why we should have another rash of statue attacks after George Floyd’s murder.
Why should we consider these things, when revenge, retribution, and anger dominate our minds? Mobs do not make fine distinctions. Mobs do not even want power or authority. They would not know what to do with power or authority if they acquired it. They merely want to destroy, and they want others to see them do it.