Norman Podhoretz was once asked “whether they had special typewriters in the Partisan Review office with entire words like ‘alienation’ stamped on each key.” Presumably there are keys stamped “right-wing extremism” at the Washington Post and the New York Times today.
There “is good reason to worry about right-wing, anti-government extremism — and potential violence — in the Age of Obama,” Eugene Robinson warned in the Post shortly after the health-care bill became law.
“How curious that a mob fond of likening President Obama to Hitler knows so little about history that it doesn’t recognize its own small-scale mimicry of Kristallnacht,” Frank Rich wrote in the Times. “The weapon of choice for vigilante violence at Congressional offices has been a brick hurled through a window. So far.”
So far, the “surge of anger” directed at elected officials has resulted in the arrest of a single lunatic in Philadelphia who believes that he is the “son of the god of Enoch” and threatened Rep. Eric Cantor (R., Va.). Beyond that, some intemperate words were uttered, and a guy rear-ended a car in Tennessee because he objected to a bumper sticker.
Small-scale Kristallnacht? Really?
Whatever Rich may think, the debate over health care demonstrates that the United States enjoys a remarkably non-violent politics. Its citizens, conservative, liberal, and independent, settle their differences peaceably at the polls. If there were howls of protest when the most consequential legislation in a generation passed, there was scarcely any violence.
Rich’s argument is the more curious given that the tea partiers — his would-be Putschists — take their stand precisely on the principles that ended the bloody political strife of the past.
Violence was once the law of politics. In The Growth of Political Stability in England, J. H. Plumb observed that “conspiracy and rebellion, treason and plot” were commonplace in 17th-century England. Yet by 1730, the kingdom was tranquil, and “Englishmen were congratulating themselves on their tolerance.”
Politics became pacific, in England and America, because the Whiggish revolutions of 1688 and 1776 vindicated the principle that neither life, nor liberty, nor property can be taken by the state without due process of law. The American patriots — who knew that the power to tax is the power to destroy — further refined this formula for domestic peace by insisting that there can be no taxation without representation. Where these principles prevail, politics is as a rule peaceful. The victors in a political struggle cannot proscribe their opponents; the losers need not resort to violence to save themselves.
Yet in spite of the tea partiers’ attachment to the country’s founding ideals of limited government and a tranquil political order, Robinson maintains that “the danger of political violence in this country comes overwhelmingly from one direction — the right, not the left.”
What political violence can he mean? Czolgosz, the assassin of President McKinley, was a disciple of the anarchism of social thinkers like Bakunin, who believed that a truly free society would emerge only after a violent revolution led by elite illuminés. When President Kennedy was assassinated, newscasters speculated that he was the victim of “right-wing extremism.” In fact he was killed by a deranged Marxist.
As for the Jim Crow racists the tea partiers are said to resemble, the segregationists were motivated not by the Old Whig ideal of universal liberty the tea partiers espouse, but by a paternal social philosophy grounded in the politics of classification and caste. Ditto Timothy McVeigh, who was influenced by a white-supremacist tract, The Turner Diaries.
The political violence Robinson deplores is a consequence, not of the Whig principles to which the tea partiers appeal, but of social philosophies reared on principles of discrimination that have often served as a pretext for bloodshed.
Some of these social philosophies are radical, others are reactionary. Georges Sorel, the social philosopher who in Réflexions sur la violence called proletarian violence “a very fine and heroic thing,” was a man of the Left. Charles Maurras, who as leader of L’Action Française advocated royalist dictatorship, was a man of the Right. What unites the social philosophies is hate. Lenin despised the bourgeois; Hitler despised the Jew and the Slav; the Belgian Futurist in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited “claimed the right to bear arms in any battle anywhere against the lower classes.” If disciples of the social imagination in the United States, like their Fabian counterparts in England, purified the social vision of hatred, they remain in thrall to its vision of class warfare.
America’s social reformers may be as little prone to violence as their Whiggish, tea-partying cousins, but there is one area in which their reforms are likely to exacerbate rather than mitigate the really alarming forms of violence we confront today, the violence that is a by-product of the decay of traditional patterns of communal life and our reliance on the ineffectual social institutions that have replaced them.
While Beltway sages lamented right-wing violence, four people were killed in a drive-by shooting in the capital. Murder rates are up in New York. Although mass shootings appear to have peaked in the 1990s, in the 2000s there were nearly twice as many as in the 1970s and more than ten times as many as in the 1920s.
James Alan Fox and Jack Levin of Northeastern University explain the violence by pointing to the “eclipse of traditional community: higher rates of divorce, the decline of churchgoing and the fact that more people live in urban areas, where they may not even know their neighbors.” Such violence preoccupies us — if you doubt it, consider the popularity of the CSI shows, 48 Hours, and Dateline NBC — in part because we suspect that the rise of the sociopath is only the most lurid manifestation of a more extensive breakdown.
The great expansion of material power that began in the 18th century, though it brought unexampled prosperity, overwhelmed those civic institutions, most of them independent of the crown and the feudal gentry, that strengthened communities and ministered to their sick or “strayed” souls. This civic-pastoral culture was rooted in the local knowledge of particular people and conditions. Such voluntary associations as the confraternity and the sodality, the guild and the charité, were hospitable in the widest sense. In old French towns the hotels-dieu — “hostels of God” — offered refuge to the weak and the sick. In Venice the Scuole Grandi — the “Great Schools” — brightened the city’s piazzas not only by sponsoring civic festivals, but by distributing alms, succoring paupers, and administering hospitals. In the smoky depths of Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, in the coal-hell of the English Midlands, the civic-pastoral system still functioned — when Morel is too sick to work, the community helps him.
Social reformers, rather than draw on the immense stock of moral know-how the old institutions embodied, regarded them as archaic and replaced them with vast bureaucratic machineries that treat people statistically and generically. These social agencies, if they are capable of the pity that redistributes wealth, cannot easily rise to the compassion that raises up those who have been cast down amid the sorrows and difficulties of the world.
As cases of funk multiply, as psychopathic extravagance turns classrooms into shooting galleries, as depression becomes the norm rather than the exception, as television ads reflect, as in a circus mirror, a sick, sleepless, and impotent people, it seems to me that our faith in social technic must be reexamined, and that we should reconsider the merits of a civic culture that, though it had its defects, was grounded in a deeper knowledge of the heart.
It is not simply, as Wordsworth said, that “old usages and local privilege” once “softened, almost solemnized” man’s mortal existence: They tamed or channeled passions that we, with our elaborate social mechanisms, seem powerless to control. Yet rather than question the soul-killing social codes and regulations that have replaced voluntary, spontaneous, and deeply traditional patterns of civil life, our intellectual elite prefers to blame the thunder on the right.
– Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal. His most recent book is Forge of Empires 1861–1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.