If there are any wise people left among us, they will recognize that the prompt defacement of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. tells us how far America is along the dangerous path of spiritual lawlessness.
It didn’t take any time at all, after Monday’s toppling of a memorial to the Civil War dead in Durham, North Carolina. Before the tweets were even posted – “Today Confederate monuments, tomorrow George Washington!” – someone had spray-painted an obscenity on one of the columns at the Lincoln Memorial.
It wasn’t just any obscenity. It read “F**k law.”
— WUSA9 (@wusa9) August 15, 2017
In a way, the vandal did us a great service by making it so clear what this downward spiral is about. “F**k law,” indeed.
The attack on America today is an attack on the unifying genius of our founding idea: that all men are created equal. The deal is done, and law must take it as a premise.
That premise means more than that law should protect us against King George’s abuses. It is a prior immunization against the apocalyptic-collectivist excesses of 20th century statism. The purpose of law is not to homogenize men first, and then keep checking to see if they are obediently remaining identical, but to respect their inherent moral equality while also respecting their naturally-occurring differences.
In many ways, our law no longer does the most basic thing that made it a unifying force among us. We have allowed law to be corrupted by ungoverned sentiment and cynical exploitation, not only in its execution but in our minds and hearts.
This past weekend showed me that too many on the political right, as well as virtually all on the left, see it as more necessary to engage in quasi-religious rituals of repudiation and atonement than to apply the law as impartially and justly as possible.
How did they manifest this? By insisting that the only thing that mattered, in all our dealings with the awful event in Charlottesville, was explicit and singular condemnation of white supremacism – no matter what the full story of the protest event was, and no matter who else was there.
For the record, I didn’t need the incident in Charlottesville to convince me that white supremacism is deeply repugnant, and should be condemned. I also see clearly that the driver who killed Heather Heyer and injured 19 others with his car is a white supremacist, and white supremacism cannot and should not escape the justified fallout from that.
I further see clearly that well-meaning people whose only interest was in saving the Robert E. Lee statue should have been wiser than to come out and demonstrate in the company of Richard Spencer and hooded Klansmen and Nazis with swastika flags. It was obvious on Friday night what that organized contingent was, and how it was going to comport itself.
But that doesn’t blind me to the fact that Antifa, which was present in Charlottesville and by some reports outnumbered the white supremacist protesters, is just as bad as any gathering of white supremacists. (In some ways it’s worse, given Antifa’s penchant for attacking the police, fomenting general violence, and destroying property. Between Antifa and white supremacists, it’s not even a question which is more bent on undermining civil order.)
My comprehensive disgust for white supremacism also doesn’t blind me to reports from multiple sources, including a New York Times reporter, the left-leaning think tank Pro Publica, and the ACLU, that law enforcement wasn’t deployed in Charlottesville to keep the peace effectively. There are numerous reports from eyewitnesses that the police hung back and failed to intervene, a pattern seen elsewhere in places like Berkeley, San Jose, and Seattle – and in Durham on Monday, where the police stood by as a mob of vandals pulled down a statue.
The common element in these episodes of unequal non-intervention isn’t the presence of white supremacists (who were undoubtedly marching under that explicit banner in Charlottesville, but who have not been demonstrably present in some — even most — of the other locations). The common element is the presence of Antifa, and other associated radical-left groups.
My revulsion against white supremacism doesn’t blind me to that either.
But apparently it blinds so many in the chattering and political classes that it is no longer possible to appeal to their sense of equal-opportunity lawfulness.
They are prepared to accept (or merely ignore) unequal application of the law, at least where people who hold justly despised views like white supremacism are concerned.
What they can’t endure, on the other hand, is not hearing very specific ritual condemnations, against designated groups.
This is more than sad. It’s horrifying. I see a growing mass of people whose minds are less governed by a sense of lawful constraints than by a need for totemic rituals.
These rituals are no defense against evil ideas and bad people. Indeed, the felt need for them is highly exploitable. The greatest danger in them is that they turn the animating core of our moral ideas into a brutish, unslakeable crusade against other people. That is an uncontrollable dynamic, one we can’t unleash among us without a terrible cost.
Yet to hear the pundits and many of our politicians in the last three days, you would think it was somehow going to save us, for President Trump to come out and name white supremacists as Public Enemy Number One.
That mindset itself – no matter who it’s turned against – is the problem. Taken to its logical conclusion, it turns eventually into blaming the Jews for the bubonic plague, or agreeing to organize society around ritual human sacrifice as a way to propitiate angry “gods.”
Insisting on calling out people and factions, as if that and not equal application of the law is the key to the public good, is the essence of spiritual lawlessness. It’s a mob mentality, always being whipsawed from one day to the next. It leads only to destruction.
And if you’ve stood by for the “f**king” of law along the way, there is no recourse against the spiral into mob frenzy.
Donald Trump hasn’t necessarily communicated the irreducible primacy of spiritual lawfulness in the way I would do it. As president, I wouldn’t have gone off on the tangents he did on Tuesday (e.g., about the slippery slope from Confederate monuments to George Washington). I would have stuck to the central point that when multiple sides are misbehaving, the law will find them all.
That’s because America will never unify around the proposition that Antifa has special dispensation to menace the public square, whereas anyone you call a white supremacist can be denied the basic protections of law. That proposition is worse than empty. It is fatal.
But Americans will unify, even if it takes time, around the idea of our Founders that the law will not favor some of us over others. It is a sad commentary on our time that this concept seems counterintuitive to many people now. Far too many of us live today by a mental image of unity being about uniting against what other classes or groups of people are doing.
But unity that can weather storms is about having common bonds first, rather than common enemies. The rule of law, equally applied, was one of our strongest bonds for a long time. Nothing of a different character will replace it and achieve the same unifying effect. Indeed, emphasizing common enemies will do the opposite.
Prescient people can already see how quickly and easily one could be declared a common enemy, once that is the ruling ethic. People who actually understand our nation’s philosophical roots can already see that we would no longer be America, in any recognizable form. There will be no “uniting” around a future of ritually denouncing public enemies. There will only be a great flying apart.