Below is an updated version of my column in The Hill newspaper on how the discussion of reforms following the killing of George Floyd has been increasingly overtaken by the most radical elements in politics and commentary. The atmosphere is strikingly similar for those familiar with history and specifically the course of the French Revolution. That image of reformists becoming reactionaries was particularly evident in New York Mayor Bill de Blasio being booed by a crowd calling for his resignation and the same response to Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey when he refused to commit to defunding and dismantling the police department. In Washington, Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered the square near the White House to be named “Black Lives Matter” Square with giant letters painted on the street. BLM however denounced it as a meaningless stunt and activists added ‘Defund the Police.” Bowser refused to answer multiple questions on whether she would remove the added words. To do so is to risk a scene like the ones in Minneapolis and New York.
As writers, editors, and politicians yield to extreme measures, they might want to consider the fate of those who sought to ride the radical wave of the French Revolution.
Here is the column:
Jean-Paul Marat, one of the key leaders of the French Revolution, once mocked the notion that liberty could be established by his fellow revolutionaries since “apart from a few tragic scenes, the revolution has been nothing but a web of farcical scenes.”
Welcome to the French Revolution 2.0.
The tragic killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis resulted in an important focus on race relations and justice in this country. However, it is being lost to an emerging radicalism that challenges people to prove their faith by endorsing farce. Across the country, political leaders and commentators seem to outdoing each other in calling for a new order by attacking core institutions and values. There is much to be done after the tragic death of George Floyd, but there is a growing radical element fighting to out shout each other as leaders of a careening movement. Politicians are joining calls to “defund the police” and writers are calling for private censorship. Moderate voices seem to be fading with escalating demands that leaders demonstrate a truth faith by denouncing the values that define them.
Many are proving their faith by endorsing farce. Take those calls to “defund the police.” Once the mantra of only the most extreme elements in society, it has been picked up by elected leaders. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) has said that defunding all police should not “be brushed aside.” Brian Fallon, former public affairs director at the Justice Department and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign press secretary, has declared support for the movement.
Said Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who represents part of Minneapolis: “The Minneapolis Police Department has proven themselves beyond reform. It’s time to disband them and reimagine public safety in Minneapolis. Thank you to @MplsWard3 for your leadership on this!”
Other politicians have joined pledges to go after police budgets or entire departments, even as their officers continue to maintain order and stop looting. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti declared that, despite the huge cost of the riots, he will refuse to expand the police budget. Instead, he said his administration has identified $250 million in cuts and pledged to give as much as $150 million from the police budget to the “black community … as well as communities of color, and women and people who have been left behind.”
In Minneapolis, city council member Jeremiah Ellison assured the public that “We are going to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department. And when we’re done, we’re not simply gonna glue it back together.” Others, including Council President Lisa Bender, agreed. During the protests and rioting there, Ellison publicly proclaimed support for antifa, a violent and vehemently anti-free speech movement. In 2018, his father, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, supported the antifa movement as deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, tweeting that it would “strike fear in the heart of @realDonaldTrump.”
Politicians seem eager not to be left in the center of a movement shifting rapidly left. Democratic socialist and New York state senator Julia Salazar expressed her delight: “To see legislators who aren’t even necessarily on the left supporting [defunding or decreasing the police budget] … feels a little bit surreal.”
That surreal feeling is likely even more pronounced among looting victims whose stores are left unprotected while politicians and experts excuse such crimes entirely. Socialist Seattle council member Tammy Morales dismissed concerns about looting, insisting that “what I don’t want to hear is for our constituents to be told to be civil, not to be reactionary, to be told looting doesn’t solve anything.” New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones said that “Destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence” while, on CNN, Clifford Stott, a professor of social psychology at Keele University in England, said “looting is expression.”
Northwestern University journalism professor Steven Thrasher declared: “The destruction of a police precinct is not only a tactically reasonable response to the crisis of policing, it is a quintessentially American response … Property destruction for social change is as American as the Boston Tea Party.” Of course, the patriots in Boston did not keep the tea and the looters seen running out of Target stores with flat-screen TVs do not seem like they are searching for a harbor for disposal.
As politicians rallied around defunding police or defending looting, the media had its own storming of the Bastille this week. Some journalists at the New York Times denounced the newspaper for publishing an opinion column by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on the use of troops to quell riots. Despite the outcry and calls for editors to resign, Times editorial page editor James Bennet and publisher A.G. Sulzberger gave full-throated defenses to using the opinion section to hear all sides of such national controversies.
That was a highpoint in journalistic ethics. It did not last. Hours later, Times editors confessed they had sinned in allowing a ranking U.S. senator to express a conservative viewpoint on the newspaper’s pages; they promised an investigation and a reduction in the number of opinions. The only thing we were spared was the appearance of Bennet and Sulzberger being rolled down the street in a French trumbrel for public judgment in Place de la Concorde.
Ultimately, the public self-flagellation of Bennet did not save him. As demanded by various writers, he resigned.
Even art and creative work apparently must be censored or erased in this new orthodoxy. In Dallas, the well-known statue of a Texas Ranger has been removed because an article in D Magazine referred to racist history connected to the rangers. USA Today reported on the possibility that TV cop shows, from “Dragnet” to “NYPD Blue” to “Law & Order,” must be taken off the air now, so as not to glorify police work.
History suggests, however, that such demonstrations may not be enough. As proven by the French Revolution, today’s revolutionaries are tomorrow’s reactionaries — or victims. Pierre Robespierre led that revolution’s “Reign of Terror” until he was guillotined as one of its last victims, and Dr. Marat’s “farcical scenes” ended with his own stabbing in a bathtub in retaliation for some of his own blood-soaked excesses. It is a cycle repeated in revolutions throughout history: When the music stops, fewer and fewer chairs can be found by those who readily embraced extreme measures.
That is why many of our leaders should consider the words of the French revolutionary Abbe Sieyes. Sieyes was a Catholic clergyman and the author of French Revolution’s manifesto of “What Is The Third Estate?” Yet, when asked what he had done during the French Revolution, he simply responded “I survived.”