In recent weeks, a series of high-profile criminal cases stemming from private citizens acting to protect their communities have been in the spotlight. A young Kyle Rittenhouse worked with other volunteers to protect Kenosha, Wisconsin from violent Antifa and BLM rioters. He ended up being attacked and defended himself from a violent mob, killing two and wounding one in the process.
In Georgia, a father and son, frustrated by a series of thefts, tried to stop a suspected burglar, Ahmaud Arbery. Arbery ended up charging them and reached for the son’s gun, only to be shot dead in the melee.
One man’s courage is another man’s rash vigilantism. Critics say Rittenhouse and the McMichaels were stupid and full of bloodlust for getting involved, and should have left these matters to the professionals. This cautionary message is widespread and does not come exclusively from the Left.
The Managerial Regime Citizen
Professional civil service and bureaucratic systems are the foundations of the managerial state. This system justifies itself because of the perceived benefits of specialization, professionalization of government tasks, and jealous guarding of bureaucratic turf, similar to private-sector unions.
The extensive state bureaucracy encourages a different relationship between the state and its citizens. Under this system, citizens are more like consumers or spectators, whose electoral control consists of symbolic “no confidence” votes at most. Criticism, initiative, and input into matters of government are usually looked at skeptically, as evidenced by the recent deployment of the FBI against parents who dared to speak out against critical race theory. As Terry McCauliffe infamously summed up the matter, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
Without getting into a pedantic discussion of democracy and republics, it is fair to say that the United States evolved quickly into a democratic republic. The republican part consisted not merely in the existence of a constitution and the conduct of elections, but also from citizen participation in various government functions, whether it was in the jury system, the militia, the posse comitatus, or acting as part-time, citizen-legislators.
Alexis de Tocqueville observed that the great genius of Americans came from the people’s capacity for organization and problem solving without the need for official intervention, in contrast to continental Europe. “In the United States, as soon as several inhabitants have taken an opinion or an idea they wish to promote in society, they seek each other out and unite together once they have made contact. From that moment, they are no longer isolated but have become a power seen from afar whose activities serve as an example and whose words are heeded.”
To flourish, a republican system needs more than voting, but also patriotism, public-spiritedness, and courage. Mere self-interest would never counsel one to resist threats while serving on a jury, or rush to the barricades to protect against an invading threat, or inconvenience oneself to help the victim of a crime. Rather, it is always individually rational (but collectively disastrous) to fob off one’s duties to others and hang back.
The latter way of thinking is familiar to me from the years I spent in New York and Chicago. Both are large, anonymous, urban centers with a great deal of diversity. Both have large police departments and elaborate city services. But the dark side of these cities resides in the cynical and widespread desire “not to get involved.” From the Kitty Genovese murder to the modern-day “no snitching” culture, a culture hostile to the concept of civic duty has led to a coarsening of life, the explosion of crime, the growth of government, and the destruction of community.
This is not surprising. Many of the people in both cities are not recognizably American in any meaningful sense. From whence would they acquire habits in decline among Americans themselves? As the country has become more urbanized (a century-long process) and has deliberately favored immigration from illiberal parts of the world (a 50-year process), it has become less respectful of republican virtues and less capable of self-government.
Prosecutions of those few who do take initiative—Rittenhouse, George Zimmerman, or Bernie Goetz—reinforces the supine and servile mentality that serves only to increase the relative power of the managerial class as distinguished from ordinary citizens.
A lot can be said about Kyle Rittenhouse and the other men who went out to the streets of Kenosha last summer. Perhaps these self-defense volunteers were reckless, dangerous, foolhardy, and naïve. But even if the volunteers were all those things, they were also noble, brave, and pro-social. Kyle Rittenhouse worked as a lifeguard. He spent the earlier part of the day cleaning up graffiti. In the several interviews of him, he appears unbearably earnest and innocent.
Even in his use of force, he only shot the few people directly attacking him. He did not panic, and he declined to impose rough justice on the mob. He even tried to turn himself into the police, who incompetently sped past him.
If he was young and inexperienced, so are a great many young men. Indeed, physical courage is something of a young man’s game. But one cannot also label the army veterans and local business owners as immature when they decided to take action because the state had abandoned them and their community. They were doing something brave, and they were doing something that an incompetent and indifferent managerial system made necessary.
An Ethic of Self-Preservation
Will Not Preserve Civilization
Whether from the Right or the Left, the constant mantras of caution eventually cede all power and initiative to a hostile state. It is an ethic of weakness and humiliation, the opposite of the Spirit of 1776. At every possible opportunity for courageous civic engagement—a letter to the editor, appearing at a protest, making a donation, or simply refusing to utter lies—there is always a choice to be made between cautious cowardice and civic-minded courage. The recent explosion of “cancel culture” has only thrived, in part, because of the neutered agreeableness and abject fear that has become the national norm.
Year after year, teachers, military officers, managers, cops, lawyers, social workers, and everyone embedded in the system console themselves that they’ll do the right thing someday when they have the power to do it—someday when they’re in charge or at least more influential. But after decades of shrugging compliance, one’s beliefs tend to conform more to one’s actions as a matter of psychological self-preservation.
The notion of conforming one’s actions to one’s beliefs—and, indeed, even the category of personal beliefs—becomes unfamiliar. Even mild criticism feels dangerous, radical, and unseemly. In spite of the self-consolation stories people tell to themselves, few people find greater moral courage on the eve of receiving a pension than they do as a young person, full of idealism and energy.
To be clear, even in courage, one should be prudent and strategic. But civilization and self-government cannot survive solely by rational self-calculation. Purely self-interested rationality always says it’s good for someone to do something, but not you. As we used to learn as kids, if everyone behaved that way, nothing would get done.
Someone has to stand up and do something, and when that someone appears, we should be forgiving and even admiring of his courage in a world where so few people stick their necks out. The world is better for young men like Kyle Rittenhouse defending their communities.