The recent eruption of rage directed at the police, symbols of our nation’s past, and normal patriotic sentiment has been a sight to behold. What began as a rather predictable anti-police protest in the wake of George Floyd’s death has morphed into a nationwide orgy of iconoclasm.
The whole episode is reminiscent of the 1960s, when radicals protested the Vietnam War, took over campus buildings, and raged in the streets at symbols of authority.
But a closer look reveals something distinct this time around.
The Counterculture Became the Establishment
The 1960s counterculture generally was anti-capitalist. The Left looked at the “system” or “the Man” and saw a vast, interconnected set of institutions: universities, corporations, police, the military, and the government. These institutions were treated as a common enemy, with the Pentagon as likely to be targeted for criticism (or terrorism) as Dow Chemical or Columbia University. As the Vietnam War ended, much of that energy dissipated, but the counterculture did not disappear.
The institutions of the establishment are still around today. They’re still very powerful. But they’re no longer treated with much hostility. Instead of dismantling the establishment, the Left took it over. The Weather Underground, Black Panthers, and other radical groups continued to wage a low-level struggle against the establishment during the 1970s. But most of the leaders of the counterculture, far from “dropping out,” went on to careers in the major institutions of cultural power: universities, the media, the government, and even big business.
Barack Obama, for example, began his political career in the living room of a former Weather Underground terrorist. CIA director John Brennan was an actual Communist before joining the CIA. Infamous Chicago Eight co-conspirator Jerry Rubin became a successful stockbroker in the 1980s.
Today the Left functions as a defender of the establishment. After all, that establishment has been hijacked and is now serving the opposite goals that it served prior to the 1960s.
As a result, the media described the FBI and CIA as the defenders of democracy when they were running the Russian collusion operation against President Trump. Leftist rioters have benefited from organized bail funds promoted by Hollywood stars. And the entire Left indulged a maudlin romance about retired generals a few weeks ago when they joined in criticism of President Trump.
Big Business Embraces Grievance Politics
What is perhaps most jarring is the emergence of an alliance between big business and leftist radicals.
One would think big businesses would be wary of all this disorder. Presumably, company assets and the cushy lives of their executives are jeopardized by violence in the streets. But, like wealthy people and institutions everywhere, large corporations are well insured. They’re also shielded from much of this disorder, having moved many of their manufacturing operations overseas and spending most of their non-working time in gated communities and well-guarded high rises.
More important, these companies share the basic moral outlook of the protesters and rioters. Uber Eats earlier this month announced that black-owned businesses would have free delivery privileges on its system—a possible violation of Title VII. Apple has pledged donations to organizations challenging “racial injustice and mass incarceration.” Banks have closed early to celebrate Juneteenth, something that almost no one outside of Houston had heard of only a few weeks ago.
None of these corporations are willing to stand for law and order. Instead, they all stand for the same extreme version of racial justice preached by the radicals, one that labels America’s past a story of “systemic racism.” With America so labeled, there is little reason to oppose the vandalism and symbolic destruction of the heroes and symbols of America’s past.
It is possible corporate America may simply be trying to avoid the heat and capture the zeitgeist. Who can forget their “we are all in this together” ads during the coronavirus shutdown? But one does not see them joining forces with other controversial campaigns, particularly those on the Right. Corporations were not weighing in on the March for Life or celebrating the Second Amendment following the Heller decision. They were notably muted about President Trump’s victory in 2016.
Corporations getting behind Black Lives Matter is much more than a generic endorsement of equality, something in which essentially all Americans believe. The message of the “peaceful” protesters, however, is not conducive to peace, which is why the protests routinely become violent riots. The message of BLM is that the country is fundamentally bad and that police brutality is not something exceptional, but a reflection of our supposed “systemic racism.” Thus, the stories and heroes that used to unite Americans, such as George Washington, must be “reexamined” or erased.
The Establishment Prefers Cultural Leftism Over the Economic Kind
There is something notably absent from the Leftism of the protesters. Just a few short months ago the entire Democratic Party establishment locked ranks against the insurgent campaign of Bernie Sanders. Republicans also made much of his “socialism.” Everyone in power hates him.
That’s because Bernie’s message was one of economic populism. It comes from the traditions of the Old Left of Woody Guthrie and the Wobblies. In this vision, the chief obstacles to our collective happiness are found in economic inequality, the power of large corporations, and a lack of security for working people, regardless of race.
While the Democratic Party’s elders decided that message would not sell, it obviously excited a lot of young people. It promised a solution to the diminished prospects many are facing from student loan debt, deindustrialization, and flat wages. It is not wrong to note that it is a flawed and dangerous message, but it is not nearly as corrosive to national solidarity as the racial grievance message animating the protests of recent weeks. Unlike “abolish whiteness,” economic leftism makes an appeal to all races, including at least a cohort of Trump voters.
Bernie’s populism would not, however, do much for Nike, Uber, Wall Street, Apple, and the cosmopolitan managerial elite. Bernie’s Old Left politics entailed a potentially ruinous transfer of wealth, some of which would end up in the hands of the hated rednecks of flyover country, and much of which would have to come from those in the establishment now profiting from the policies Bernie wanted to change.
The racial grievance politics of the New Left allows corporations to acquire virtue on the cheap. They can throw a few bucks to charity, run some sentimental ads, hire a diversity officer, and accrue goodwill without harming the bottom line.
Focusing on an imaginary “white privilege” distracts the protesters and their fellow travelers from the real privileges attendant to Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, D.C.’s army of six-figure government workers, or any of Wall Street’s anonymous billionaires. Someone distracted by burning down a Wendy’s franchise or tearing down a statute of some dead white guy is one less person tempted to burn down the Federal Reserve or tear down penthouses on Wall Street. It’s a ritual and mostly ineffectual attack, like sticking pins in a voodoo doll.
Immediately prior to the recent unrest, 20 million Americans were put out of work because our leadership class panicked. A time of prosperity was destroyed because of unverifiable and now demonstrably false predictions about the spread and mortality of the coronavirus.
Most of those who contributed to these baleful decisions—government health officials, media figures, and partisan enemies of the president—were hardly affected by the shutdowns. They could work from home, receive a full paycheck while furloughed, or live quite well on their accumulated wealth. Politicians, media figures, and corporations said “we’re all in this together,” while waitresses with $100 in the bank had to make do for three months without income.
Directing the vague anxieties and alienation of protesters away from economic concerns towards racial grievances helps the establishment. It allows those who are responsible for our current state of affairs to erect and then topple a strawman of “white privilege.” This bogeyman is a cruel joke to an out-of-work coal miner in Appalachia or an unemployed barista in Minneapolis.
As long as the protesters are focused on racial grievances, they are not paying attention to the actual policies and privileges of a rich and powerful establishment mostly indifferent to the nation in which it prospers. While I have no doubt many protesters are convinced of a crisis of racist police brutality, it does not stand up to scrutiny, and it is eclipsed by the economic and other problems affecting Americans of every background.
Far from being an act of charity, corporate America making common cause with the New Left’s racial grievance politics is a self-interested campaign of distraction and evasion. Their privileges are safe, so long as the mob is targeting the statues of dead white men from the long-displaced WASP establishment of yesteryear.