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Artillery Row

Letter from Washington: The new silent majority

Americans agree on more than you might think

What, if anything, can Americans agree on?  More than once this week, living under curfew and the incessant drone of helicopters, and within earshot of the nightly chants of protesters, I have wondered if the answer is “nothing”.

However, a Monmouth poll conducted after the appalling video of the death of George Floyd emerged, and as protests and unrest swept through cities across the US, presents a more complicated — and heartening — picture than two irreconcilable Americas refusing to budge.

According to Monmouth, three in four Americans think racial and ethnic discrimination is a big problem in the United States. Five years ago, the figure was 51 per cent. Some 78 per cent think that the protesters’ anger is either fully justified or partially justified. Asked about the messy cocktail of protest, violence clashes and looting, just 17 per cent say that the “actions of the protesters” were “fully justified”. Taken together, these numbers reveal a country in which a large majority appears to agree that the following three things are true: that racism is a major issue in America, that the anger of protesters is justified, but that some of the actions of protesters are not justified.

The camp that accepts these basic propositions is big enough to include everyone from Ilhan Omar, the hard-left Democratic congresswoman who represents Floyd’s home town of Minneapolis to George W Bush. It includes the country’s major sports stars, celebrities and corporations. It also includes those policemen and women across the country who have taken a knee in acknowledgment of the protesters’ central grievance.

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All of this consensus on the most fraught question in American history and at a time when we are frequently told that the country is at its most divided since the Civil War.

It might not need to be pointed out, but there exists no mainstream voice or sizeable section of the population expressing any doubt about the horror of what happened to Floyd. How could there be? The kindest thing that anyone can say about Derek Chauvin, the police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, is that he deserves his day in court.

For all this common ground, the rules of partisanship dictate that the divisions that do exist are thrown into sharp relief. The main cleavage is on the nature of the unrest: peaceful or violent? Patriotic Americans or anarchistic antifacists? Aggrieved citizens or opportunistic looters? The answer is all of the above. But on both sides, the partisan tendency is to deny the possibility that more than one thing can be true at once.

On the left, the violence is downplayed for ideological reasons — and without much subtlety. “Violent protests are not the story. Police violence is,” instructed one headline. According to a popular protest slogan, “white silence is violence”. Property damage, on the other hand, is not. There was distressingly little pause in the liberal media to mark the death of David Dorn, a black 77-year-old retired police chief from St Louis shot and killed as he tried to stop looters raid a pawn shop this week.

The right has dutifully played its part, minimising the peaceful elements of the protests that have grown over the last seven days and emphasising the brick throwing and shop looting that mercifully — at least at the time of writing — appears to be on the wane. Conservatives rightly argue that the breakdown of order in a city is a scary, dangerous thing, and that it is a dereliction of duty for liberal mayors to do anything other than everything within the law to restore it.

But the Trump administration has not, first and foremost, been interested in helping them do so. Instead it has concentrated on pointless military larping on the streets of Washington, firing rubber bullets and gas canisters at a crowd of Americans in Lafayette Square to clear the way for an absurd photo-op and using the bully pulpit to aggravate, rather than heal, the country’s wounds.

In this chaos, Trump and his advisers saw an opportunity for a Nixon strategy, playing up the President’s “LAW AND ORDER!” credentials to win over the “SILENT MAJORITY!”, as the President tweeted with characteristic subtlety this week. There are a few problems with this plan.

The first is incumbency: an election promise to “restore order” makes more sense when it’s the other guy who needs to erect a fence around the White House. The second is a misreading of the public mood: as the Monmouth poll reveals, the priorities and prejudices of the average American have changed considerably in the last 50 years.

Ironically, it is an aged, old-fashioned liberal who appears to understand this. By refusing to “go woke” in his response to Floyd’s death, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden speaks for the new silent majority, distressed by the problems exposed by the incident, alarmed by the violence that followed and fed up with the partisans at both extremes.

***

As Biden’s campaign appears to realise, outrage at Floyd’s death, acknowledgement of the major obstacles black Americans face and a determination to do something about all of that are not the same thing as the “Antiracist” set of beliefs held by many progressive college-educated Americans. Some scenes from protests this week remind me of a 2105 provocation by John McWhorter, a black professor of linguistics at Columbia, in which he describes this Antiracism as America’s new secular religion.

Watch a white crowd in Bethesda, a wealthy suburb of Washington, DC, genuflecting as it renounces its white privilege. Consider the self-flagellation of a self-described “white ally” who describes for Vox her “journey as an antiracist”: “I’m a poisonous snake — not inherently bad, but I carry a poison that can kill, and I need to do everything in my power every day not to bite people of colour, and I need to, just like a snake, shed my skin, not that I can get rid of my white skin but shed the embedded white supremacy that lives with me and in my community.”

Then read McWhorter: “Antiracism—it seriously merits capitalisation at this point—is now what any naïve, unbiased anthropologist would describe as a new and increasingly dominant religion. It is what we worship, as sincerely and fervently as many worship God and Jesus and, among most Blue State Americans, more so.” Antiracism, McWhorter argues, “has a clergy, a creed and even a conception of Original Sin.” Its adherents await a Judgment Day:

Antiracist scripture includes a ritual reference to, as it were, the Great Day when America “owns up to” or “comes to terms with” structural racism—note that “acknowledge” is a term just as appropriate—and finally, well, fixes it somehow. But how would a country as massive, heterogenous, and politically fractured as this one ever arrive at so conclusive and overarching a policy as “fixing” racism, either psychologically or structurally? The whites “out there” are, after all, such incorrigible heathens—just what were we assuming would change their minds? Tablets from on high? What, precisely, is anyone specifying in calling for America as a whole to finally “wake up” to racism? What would this “coming to terms” even entail, anyway?

The specifics are as hazy as the Rapture, and considered just as beside the point. America “coming to terms with” racism functions as an abstract construct serving not as a political plan, but as a tacit promise of catharsis. In the here and now, whites cannot erase the PRIVILEGED brand seared into their white skin. However, after Judgment Day, after the Rapture, after the Great Day, the accounts will finally be settled. After America has its Great Awakening, whites will walk in the grace of innocence at last.

McWhorter thinks Antiracism is a religion with good intentions, and might even be capable of revealing some truths. But, he argues, it is ultimately a self-indulgent distraction: “Real people are having real problems, and educated white America has been taught that what we need from them is wilfully incurious, self-flagellating piety, of a kind that has helped no group in human history.”

***

Underscoring this religiosity is the casualness with which protesters have thrown caution to the wind on Covid-19, ditching social distancing to express their outrage.

The hypocrisy is undeniable. For weeks, Americans who questioned the fact that social distancing rules should trump their first-amendment right to attend religious services were variously sneered at and accused of granny murder by the same political leaders who have thrown their weight behind a different group of Americans exercising those same rights.

Even public health officials, notionally committed to “following the science” are at it. “White supremacy is a lethal public health issue,” said a group of doctors and infectious disease experts in one letter.

The contortions of those attempting to reconcile their support for the protests with their concern over the coronavirus were typified by Mark Levine, a public health official in New York City, where Covid-19 has killed 17,000 people, including a disproportionate number of black New Yorkers.“Let’s be clear about something: if there’s a spike in coronavirus cases in the next two weeks, don’t blame the protesters. Blame racism,” he tweeted.

This impressively flexible thinking cannot get around the essential fact that, for both of America’s political tribes, some things are worth risking your life for.

But then what do you expect from a country founded by zealots?

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