Joe Biden and Friedrich Nietzsche

According to Joe Biden, the basement candidate for president, ending “systemic racism” in the United States is “the moral obligation of our time.”

Too late, Joe! Systemic racism in the United States ended with the Union victory in the Civil War. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. On June 19 of that year, Union General Gordon Granger announced in Galveston, Texas, that all slaves in the state were free—Texas being that last state to comply with the Emancipation Proclamation. That is the date that the latest Kwanzaa-like manufactured racialist holiday, “Juneteenth,” is intended to celebrate and that Joe’s minders intended to capitalize on by writing “Juneteenth: A Reminder Of Black America’s Long-Fought Fight For Justice.” 

The institution of slavery, which ended nearly 150 years ago, has no bearing—zero—on the plight of American blacks today. What does affect them, mightily, is the destruction of the black family, a project brought to us by more than five decades of Democratic welfare policy. 

The PR surrounding Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program told the world that its aim was to abolish poverty. It’s actual effect was to institutionalize poverty and promulgate an endless agenda of dependency, which all but guaranteed black subservience to the governmental overlord. It also institutionalized the gigantic network of government workers charged with servicing—and, by extension, perpetuating—the welfare state. The metabolism of this establishment was expertly anatomized by Christopher Caldwell in his latest book, The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties. It makes for a mournful story. 

The New Iconoclasm

Also mournful is the spectacle of violence and destructive iconoclasm sweeping the country in the wake of the death of the career criminal George Floyd while in police custody. 

For the last few of weeks, we’ve seen stores looted, police stations and police cars torched, and all manner of public monuments defaced or destroyed. As we know from (in the words of Laplace) expériences nombreuses et funestes, it is one thing to start a revolution, quite another to bring it to an end. Those gleefully riding the tiger at the beginning often wind up inside it before the journey comes to an end. 

At first, the rioters’ attention was riveted by Confederate statues. But it was not long before Christopher Columbus was enrolled as an honorary Confederate and statues to his memory, too, were toppled and destroyed. Then we saw the Lincoln Memorial defaced and, more recently, statues of Ulysses S. Grant and even George Washington consumed by the mob’s fury. 

There are at least two sides to the ongoing displays of anarchy. On the one side are the actual perpetrators, a combination of garden variety hooligans and various types of left-wing activists. On the other side are the supporters and fellow travelers, the timid if shrill coddlers of Black Lives Matter and Antifa, college-educated folk who never met a radical cliché they couldn’t embrace.

I agree with Charles Kesler and Christopher Flannery that the riots have much less to do with the death of George Floyd than with the spirit of the malign, racially inspired and New York Times-endorsed “1619 Project,” an effort to recast the story of America’s founding as a racist plot. The sharp uptick in violence and spectacle of efforts to create “autonomous zones” outside the law has led some of us to invoke 1793 and the murderous excesses of the French Revolution as an illuminating historical analogue as well. 

“How They Thirst to be Hangmen!”

And of course we must also keep in mind a third date, one that is still a few months in the future. I mean November 3, 2020, the date of the U.S. presidential election. 

How much of the theatrics we’ve been treated to—the riots, the groundless accusations of universal racism, the posturing by Democratic politicians—how much of all that is served up for the consumption of the nightly news in order to damage Donald Trump? We do not have instruments equipped to make that calculation, though the reality of the case is nevertheless clear enough. 

What has not perhaps been appreciated sufficiently is the rancorous psychological dimension of the assiduously cultivated racialist follies roiling America and other Western democracies just now. 

For a first glimpse into that story, we might turn to some observations Friedrich Nietzsche made in his 1887 book On the Genealogy of Morals about a certain species of nihilistic self-hatred. “What a display of grand words and postures,” Nietzsche wrote. “What an art of ‘honest’ calumny! . . . [L]et’s admire the skillful counterfeiting with which people here imitate the trademarks of virtue, even its resounding tinkle, the golden sound of virtue.” 

Read that column on “Juneteenth” that Joe Biden’s speech writers created for him; attend to the endless—and groundless—accusations of racism that fill the airwaves and brittle communiqués from college presidents and business owners terrified of being called “racists.” Don’t you hear the resounding tinkle of that counterfeit virtue Nietzsche adduced? “They’ve now taken a lease on ‘virtue’ entirely for themselves,” Nietzsche continues. 

“We alone are the good men, the just men”—that’s how they speak: “We alone are the homines bonae voluntatis.” They wander around among us like personifications of reproach, like warnings to us, as if health, success, strength, pride, and a feeling of power were inherently depraved things, for which people must atone someday, atone bitterly.

And then there is the other side of the conviction that virtue is the exclusive prerogative of one’s own tribe: the impulse to judge and punish, the Robespierre expedient. “How they thirst to be hangmen!” Nietzsche noted. 

Among them there are plenty of people disguised as judges seeking revenge. They always have the word “Justice” in their mouths, like poisonous saliva, with their mouths always pursed, constantly ready to spit at anything which does not look discontented and goes on its way in good spirits.

Nietzsche may not have the last word about the disgraceful parade of counterfeit virtue tearing at the fabric of American society today, but I think he makes an illuminating first foray. His is not an inquiry that you will see aired on CNN or in the pages of the New York Times, to say nothing of those rancid corridors of pseudo-intellectuality, the American university. 

About Roger Kimball

Roger Kimball is editor and publisher of The New Criterion and the president and publisher of Encounter Books. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St. Augustine's Press), The Rape of the Masters (Encounter), Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse (Ivan R. Dee), and Art's Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity (Ivan R. Dee).

Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

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