Rioting is not the language of the unheard any more than abuse is the language of the abused. Both sentences have a manipulative, selective half-truth partisanship about them, which excuses the behavior of whomever is the hero of their narrative, aspiring to victory at the expense of other unheard victims. So in this one sense if only this one, Dr. King was absolutely wrong. Every person who reads even the smallest bit of human history knows that riots can be sponsored, directed, and stoked by those in power to do their bidding, and every Jew knows that in their bones.
Humanity is a complicated thing. Roughly 1% of the population is psychopaths and 1% is sociopaths, circumstances which cannot be overcome. Roughly 7% have narcissistic tendencies which can be overcome. One has to figure that there might be a similarly saintly 2% of the population and another 7% that can aspire to true altruism. But the rest of us are just… doing what we can to respond best to every situation, content with the simple truths we’re handed until life gets so complicated, so adult, so difficult, that everything we thought was true until the most difficult moments is true no longer, and all the safety of our assumptions provide us no comfort at all, and all around us there are only nightmares.
Making decisions in pressure-filled moments is the most complicated thing we will ever do; the Heissenberg Uncertainty Principle carried over into real life, when a thousand infinitesimal circumstances and details affect the decisions we make. Eventually, we will either forgive each other for them, for we know not what we do, or we will all die prematurely with lives completely unsatisfied.
Whether the riots were a spontaneous eruption of rage by normal African-American people who don’t have fanatical bones in their all too often broken bodies, or coopted by Antifa-like elements searching for this moment to set America on fire, or by far right agent provocateurs looking to make their opposition look bad just as perhaps Nazis once did to the Reichstag building, or some combination of the three, one can only shrug and understand that however one feels about this moment, it was completely inevitable: A country cooped up for ten weeks, yet another video of police lynching of African-Americans, a President stoking the fires of a country’s rage for five whole years, mass death everywhere, and an unemployment rate already unseen even in the Great Depression. This is the American Carnage of which Trump has long spoke, and he is now the ultimate visitor of carnage on this country over which he supposedly presides.
But the last round of widespread American riots, riots in the wake of the greatest gains in liberty ever achieved on American soil, resulted in the irrecoverable loss of urban prosperity that, fifty-two years later, still sets back every goal it ever set out for itself. Today, at a moment when cities finally appear poised for some sort of permanent renewal, the same frission and synergy and cash flow and hyperorganization which makes cities the greatest of all human achievements also makes them the most dangerous – the kindling upon which thousands die of murder, and substance abuse, and now pandemic. In such moments, the people with money inevitably leave, and leave the people without money rot in the remains. Whether it’s morally justifiable that some people have more capital than others is irrelevant, some people always will, and from generation to generation it’s usually the same people who used to have capital that still do. However unfair it is that the undue burden is placed on some people over others, that burden will not lift.
What alleviates the burden is not changing the system, the forces that maintain an invisible bias of favor, if such a system exists, is so much more infinitely complicated than anything socialists, anarchists, intersectionalists, communists, and so many other false ideologies allege, and however much they promise that the system can be overthrown and a better one put in its place, never believe them. They are the same snakeoil recipes as conservatism, libertarianism, Christianism, and even fascism, all they do is put the same ingredients in the bowl in reverse order; they corrode every measure of security which liberals and their ancestors fought so hard to implement over hundreds of years.
The proof of it is all around America today in every major city. It will probably take another fifty years to recover from the self-inflicted economic hits of this weekend. How many thousands more will die from the spread of COVID during these protests? And whether Trump wins in 2020 or a much more competent fascist wins later, how many more thousands will die from the still worse coming poverty? How many more thousands will die from murder in unpoliced streets or murder in overpoliced streets? How many more millions will go into incarceration? How many more millions may die of still more pandemics, and still have no proper medical care?
What can avert this evil decree is the kind of robust regulative state of the sort that liberals affected in the mid-20th century that ensured the greatest gains in civil rights in all of American history, perhaps all of human history. Putting back all the safeties that were once in place: taxes on the wealthy nearly three times as high as they are currently, a ban on trading between commercial and investment banks, the most stringent environmental protections and the strongest division between state and church, ambitious infrastructure and maintenance initiatives, liberal immigration laws leavened by reliable background checks, strong reliance and stronger involvement in international-multilateral institutions, and yes, more obvious now than ever, truly universal health care. And there is only one candidate to vote for and volunteer for in whom that all remains a possibility.
America is not a dream or a nightmare, it is a reality. America is not a beacon nor an abyss, it is a mountain that must be climbed. It has never been a place that achieved greater liberty except through the most herculean efforts of strength and conscience, nor is it a place that preaches liberty while practicing only tyranny. It is a place comprised of very normal people with inclinations to both good and evil, and given more freedom to pursue both instincts than any other country in world history. It is a country naturally predisposed to extremes, and therefore when the regulatory state ceases to do its job, it has greater capacity for extreme behavior than any other country, capacities that have never even begun to realize their full potential. But within that potential for unspeakably violent warfare is the ability to eventually win a more perfect peace, but history amply demonstrates that peace is inevitably a purchase at the steepest possible price.
America is a struggle, a place where hundreds of millions have arrived either on the chance to do better, or arrived because worse was done to them. It can never form a perfect union, only a more perfect one, and perhaps by definition, half the time it will fail. Jill Lepore’s indispensible instant classic, These Truths, asks of the Declaration of Independence, “Does American History prove these truths, or does it belie them?” The answer, insofar as there can ever be one, is that America simultaneously does both. But now, as ever before, and perhaps quite a bit more, America is called to answer that question definitively.
I could of course be wrong, I have been many times, and this may be the result of the filter through which my ultradramatic temperament sees the world. But it seems to me that this moment is the very moment to which entire American experiment has been building, when we see whether a nation so conceived in liberty can long endure. Difficult days may be ahead, the type of hard days which many of us were assured in childhood could never happen in this country. But they seem to be almost here, and we, like so many billions before us, may be called to account to see how we respond in some of the most pressure-filled moments in human history. None of us know how we’ll behave through them, and some of us may have to live with the guilt of our actions for the rest of our lives as so many adults always do, but our stories are all part of the larger story. And in that sense, whether for good or ill, our lives have meaning and lessons to be drawn for those who come after us. May we all set an example rom which the future can draw good lessons.