The white & the woke
How Antifa and Condé Nast have taken over the Black Lives Matter protests
They had to make it all about themselves, didn’t they? No sooner had black Americans started protesting the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman, than the whites took it over. They pushed the protests towards fighting the police. They denounced the incorrigible racism of their nation and families. They ‘took a knee’ at every opportunity, even though the posture looked oddly like the one struck by Officer Derek Charvin when he had taken a knee on George Floyd’s windpipe.
The further the focus of protest moved from police violence against black people, the further it moved from black neighborhoods, and the whiter the faces in the footage became
The killing was the spark and the coronavirus the accelerant – when one of the Four Horsemen is around, the other three are sure to turn up sooner or later – but the dry tinder came from all over. We have seen racial protests on a scale last seen in the late Sixties. This is strange. By every index, racial equality has improved since the reforms of the Great Society. White American disgust at racist violence by the police has risen sharply since Black Lives Matter began in 2014. In late May, a Pew Research survey found that nearly two-thirds of whites believe that the criminal justice system treats blacks unfairly. Meanwhile, the number of unarmed black men killed by the police has declined.
Something else is going on here. We know this because something else very quickly did go on here. The propagandists insist that the response to the killing of George Floyd was unified, and a mostly sympathetic American media has repeated this. But the truth is that the protesting, looting and rioting rapidly divided on racial lines. So did a more radical and open-ended political campaign that used the killing of George Floyd not to end police racism, but to pressure elite institutions.
Black protestors in the cities tended to direct their protests at the local police and their violence at the local stores they looted. Only in St Louis, Missouri, a city especially troubled by drug-related gang violence, were the police shot at in the chaotic first week. Meanwhile, white protestors tended to respond differently, and in distinctly generational ways.
When order broke down at the protests, younger whites fought the police. The instigators were the cells known as Antifa or the “black bloc”. These European-style anarcho-communists emerged from the aspic of 1968 at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017. In almost every major city after every major march, Antifa and its sympathizers fought the police. Not without reason, black protest organizers and inner-city residents complained that their cause and protests were being hijacked by woke whites.
Antifa and its black-clad wannabes were also prominent as the disturbances moved into their second phase. After two weeks, the black inner-city neighborhoods had cooled. The sites of confrontation now moved out of black neighborhoods and in two directions. One path led back to a battlefield on which black and white groups had united in the early days of Black Lives Matter: attacks on statues to Robert E. Lee and other heroes of the Confederacy.
The other path led to a battle with the American system itself. The targets this time were not local or state policing, or the management of communal relations, but symbols of the American founding. Statues of slave-holding Founders like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were despoiled. Christopher Columbus was beheaded in effigy in Boston, tipped in to a lake in Richmond, Virginia, and overthrown outside the Minneapolis state house, at which a Native American group danced in triumph around his prone form.
The further the focus of protest moved from police violence against black people, the further it moved from black neighborhoods, and the whiter the faces in the footage became. The anarchists who seceded from the United States by declaring the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in six gentrified, heavily gay and mostly white blocks of Seattle were almost entirely white. They rectified this by delegating security in their urban Eden to Raz Simmons, a black rapper who poses with a machine gun in his Twitter profile. Simmons delivered his first exemplary beating within hours of his appointment.
Meanwhile, older whites – call them the weak, rather than the woke – engaged in ritual abnegations and atonements. White church leaders knelt to wash the feet of black church leaders. In Virginia, white suburbanites rallied to raise their hands, testify to their sins and announce their spiritual rebirth, as though appropriating the habits of evangelical black churches.
Prominent whites in the media confessed too. Condé Nast, a top-of-the-market titan that had laid off dozens of employees due to the coronavirus, was a particular locus of revolutionary conscious raising. Anna Wintour suddenly realized that it must be hard to be black and work at Vogue. The editor of foodie magazines Bon Appétit and Epicurious resigned after it emerged that he had attended a Halloween party in the guise of a Puerto Rican.
“Our mastheads have been far to white for far too long,” his staff announced. Their recipes, they confessed, had been “white-centric”. When they had covered non-white recipes, they had “appropriated, co-opted or Christopher Columbused them”.
None of this had anything to do with George Floyd or police violence against black men. Nor did the revolt of the newsroom at the New York Times after it published an op-ed in which the Republican senator Tom Cotton called for the use of force against rioters, a notion endorsed by a majority of Americans. The weapons of struggle were now the thought-crime language of the private campus: institutional racism, white supremacy, whitesplaining, cultural appropriation. Those wielding them were the graduates of four-year colleges, the kind of people who can afford to take entry-level jobs in the media.
Again, the white generations divided, only this time their antagonism was obvious. As with the #MeToo scandals, the young are “calling out” the complicity of the old. Their talk of equity and equality and Christopher Columbusing is a means of seizing the moral high ground, displacing senior management, and moving up the corporate ranks. In the parlance of Tom Wolfe’s essay of 1970, they’re “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers”: exploiting white guilt to gain sinecures in the institutions.
The protests and the campaigns that have exploited them are soaked in the vocabulary of the radical Sixties. The universities curated and taught the ideology that Wolfe called “radical chic” as lovingly as mediaeval monks had preserved their manuscripts and theology. After 1968 there was peace in the land for forty years – until the financial crisis of 2008 led educated, affluent young whites to conclude that the stopped clock of 1968 was once again telling what time it is.
The only safe space is now inside an institution, whether of government, education or media
The generation that graduated after 2008 are lost and angry. The Boomers who left college after 1968 inherited the prosperity of the Fifties, enjoyed the social liberalism of the Sixties and Seventies, then cashed out in the economically liberal Eighties. Their grandchildren, the Millennials, are going nowhere, relatively speaking. They are the first postwar generation who don’t expect to live better than their parents do. They enter the job market already lumbered with a mortgage (“student loans”), only to discover that a liberal arts degree isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Like Dostoevsky’s “underground man”, they live in their parents’ basements and bristle at low-grade clerical work, because the internet has made clerical workers of us all.
In Washington, DC, the Millennial rioters threw paint on the statue of Gandhi outside the Indian embassy. Since the Subaru-driving classes gave up on God, Gandhi has been their next best thing, a vegetarian who broke an empire, a Lennon in a loincloth, a divinity in a dhoti. The failure of middle-class whites to recognize him shows how badly the educational system here is failing. The kids can’t even recognize their false gods.
The young American left talks like Marx, but their revolution is Tocqueville’s: the “revolution of rising expectations”. As in pre-1789 France or pre-1917 Russia, America’s educational system produces more prospective members of the elite than the state and the market can employ. The liberal order that enriched the Millennials’ grandparents and parents has failed to enrich them. It is, in fact, holding them down, because the “silverbacks” of the older generation are still in power.
The Millennials talk of “safe spaces” because there are fewer safe spaces in American life, fewer secure perches in a gig economy that makes Uber drivers out of college grads. The only safe space is now inside an institution, whether of government, education or media. Once you have that spot, the only way to protect it from the increasingly vicious competition of your peers and rivals is to outplay them in the rhetoric of identity politics.
We are witnessing the end of the post-Sixties liberal system in America. The privileges that it endowed will have to be defended or lost. Blacks are no longer the largest non-white group; they are now outnumbered, theoretically at least, by Hispanics. Red-state whites have already declared for Trump and the old America. Blue-state whites can no longer afford the inter-generational solidarity that the liberal system fostered. The younger, radical generation is taking the civil rights of blacks as a pretext for levering their parents’ generation out of power. They have no time for free speech: why would they want anyone to describe what they’re doing?
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