The Great Purge

Who Stands Up to the Mob?, Part 1

The idealistic early days of the Revolution have a tendency to be followed by the chaos of the Terror. In the case of the George Floyd protests and the Black Lives Matter movement, we’ve pretty much decided to skip the Oath of the Tennis Court phase, ditch the idealism, and go straight on to the Terror.

That has taken the form of riots, looting, and now a Great Purge in which everyone who is deemed out of step with the revolution is to be expunged.

These are not terribly courageous revolutionaries, however, and they don’t have all that much power, so they’re starting with the easiest targets: dead people. Mark Twain and Harper Lee have been canceled.

The Duluth [Minnesota] school district said it was removing To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from its curriculum because their content may make students feel “humiliated or marginalized.”

Michael Cary, the district’s curriculum director, said that its schools planned to replace the novels with texts that “teach the same lessons” without using racist language.

Next up after old books? Old songs.

The Rugby Football Union has announced that it will be conducting a review into the singing of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” following mass Black Lives Matter protests….

It first became England’s rugby anthem around 1988, when the national team felt disheartened after losing 15 out of 23 matches in former tournament, The Five Nations. Audiences had only witnessed one try in two and a half years–but in a match against Ireland, they scored six half tries, and the melody became a tradition with fans ever since.

You may be starting to notice a trend here. To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are books with anti-racist themes that now somehow run afoul of racial sensitivities. Similarly, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was a spiritual written about the Underground Railroad that rescued Southern blacks from slavery.

The only bright spot of living through a full-blown moral panic is that it provides some moments of grim amusement, and Trevor Phillips, a black British politician and business who is the former head of the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, captures the absurdity here.

So “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” celebrating the Underground Railway, written after the Civil War by a freed slave, made popular by the African American Fisk Jubilee Singers, sung at many black funerals and civil rights demonstrations, honored by Congress, now to be banned. It was a favorite of Paul Robeson, of Louis Armstrong, and of Martin Luther King. The last attempt to ban the song was in 1939, in Germany. So black people’s own culture is also now to be cancelled. Please everyone, take a breath before you eliminate black lives from history.

We need to find the amusement where we can, because there will be plenty of tragedy to go along with it.

The same mobs who targeted a statue of Winston Churchill because, despite defeating fascism, he was supposedly prejudiced against Indians, are now targeting a statue of Gandhi because he was prejudiced against blacks. That’s the amusement.

Now here’s the tragedy. Mobs attacking, vandalizing, or tearing down statues are becoming a weekly feature of summer nights in the US. In San Francisco last weekend, they protested against racism by attacking statues of Francis Scott key and–wait for it–Ulysses S. Grant. Also caught up in the general mayhem and destruction? A statue of the Spanish novelist Miguel Cervantes, because I’m sure he must have done something bad once.

The point isn’t that none of these people even know the history behind the statues they’re tearing down. (Not that this matters. Is it more acceptable to burn a book if you’ve read it first?) The point is that they are not thinking at all.

Literally, they aren’t. Here’s a little vignette from the mob in Washington, DC, that tore down a statue of Albert Pike, the only Confederate general to have an outdoor statue in the city.

[S]hortly after 10 PM, several protesters climbed the statue. They had come prepared with rope and chains, tying them to the statue for the crowd to pull it down. Dozens of others cheered the effort, though many said they did not know whom the statue represented….

John Henry Williams, 23, said he didn’t know who Albert Pike was before Friday and had no idea that protesters would seek to take down his statue. But learning that Pike had been a Confederate general was enough for him…. He stood on the side of the statue with a megaphone, helping to lead the group in chants as protesters struggled to bring it down.

This thoughtlessness is part of the point. The “protesters” are training themselves to act like a mob, carried away by the emotions of the crowd, drunk on a sense of collective power without much consideration of the ends toward which that power is used.

There’s a similar character–both the unthinking frenzy and the cowardice–to the other big target of the recent purge: corporate mascots. The mobs have already bravely done away with Aunt Jemima (over the objections of her relatives) and now they’re gunning for Uncle Ben and the Cream of Wheat guy. These are actually battles that were fought and won at least 50 years ago. The man on the Cream of Wheat box, for example, was originally a minstrel show caricature named “Rastus,” but since the 1920s, the company has used the image of Chicago chef Frank L. White.

That’s why I was amused by the last line of an article on this in a technology magazine by a white guy from Toronto who has set himself up as the magazine’s arbiter of racial messages in advertising: “Here’s hoping these announced ‘reviews’ and ‘evaluations’ actually lead to real change.”

That’s right, getting somebody to remove a picture of a black chef from a box of breakfast cereal counts as “real change.” You could not make this up in a parody.

Who is almost as soft a target as dead people, fictional characters, statues, and brand mascots? Oh, yes, left-leaning intellectuals.

Probably the softest targets are poets, who can be purged merely for being insufficiently enthusiastic. So a group of poets launched a petition that succeeded in ousting the leadership of the Poetry Foundation. Their crime? When the foundation came out in support of the recent protests, the petitioners found that the “watery vagaries of [its] statement are, ultimately, a violence.” I appreciate that poets can be expected to use “violence” in an entirely metaphorical sense, but you would think they might know that “vagary” does not mean the same thing as “vagueness.” Then again, these are contemporary poets.

I think Kyle Smith has it right, and this has a lot more to do with the enormous size of the Poetry Foundation’s endowment. This petition, like the last one sent in by the restive poets, contains petulant demands for large sums of money.

Hollywood is pretty easy to push around, too, so the Academy Awards have already announced a new “diversity” requirement. You could say that this will kill the Oscars, or you could say that this is evidence they have already given up on regaining a mass audience.

But probably the most spectacular result of the Great Purge was when the interns fired the editorial page editor at the New York Times. There has been a long-running battle at the Times between the more old-fashioned types who think the editorial page should reflect some degree of ideological diversity and the young wokesters who think it should be the exclusive reserve of those who think like they do. The wokesters have now won.

Kevin Williamson points to part of the pattern here. Wokism is the creed of the educated upper middle class, so it tends to focus its energies, not on the actual sources of poverty and oppression, but on the places and institutions that hold the most interest for the elites: who edits the New York Times, who runs the Poetry Foundation, who’s eligible for an Oscar, who gets into Harvard.

It’s always the same thing: Our newspapers are full of intense interest in Harvard’s admissions standards but have very little to say about New York City’s dropout rate. People can’t help being fascinated with themselves and their peers.

Or take one of the latest contretemps: a previously unknown person who once wore an insensitive costume at a Halloween Party hosted by a Washington Post cartoonist. That’ll teach her for being friends with a leftist.

That last incident, along with the tearing down of the statue of U.S. Grant, has heralded a kind of a turning point. Or maybe the latest breaking news is an even clearer turning point. In Madison, Wisconsin, a copycat mob just stormed the state capitol and knocked down a statue of an abolitionist who died fighting for the Union in the Civil War, along with an allegorical figure representing progress. So-called progressives toppling a statue to progress is a metaphor for our era if ever I saw one.

Not to be outdone, in Washington, DC, a mob just declared its intention to destroy the Emancipation Memorial, a statue paid for by freed slaves and unveiled in 1876 with a speech by Frederick Douglass.

This is a master class on how to destroy any vestige of credibility for your cause. Our Great Purge has become so blatantly irrational, so cowardly and vicious, so totally unrelated to any remotely legitimate cause, that it is summoning a growing resistance.

That is the really important story here. Political Correctness has been a problem for decades, and there is always a mob waiting to hound nonconformists. The important story is always this: Who stands up to the mob?

That is the question I will take up tomorrow in the second half of this article.

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