Among Weimar America’s Thugs
Reader Adamant highlights a Twitter thread by Jordan Perkins, a PhD candidate in political theory at Columbia. I’ve posted the whole thread below, via Threadreader, but if you want to see it on Twitter, and/or follow Perkins, go here.
Here’s the thread:
1. Mini-thread on the collapse of societal norms. I’ll give you plenty of time to mute before continuing.
2/32 One of the most dysfunctional traits of human beings who seek to live peacefully together is the basic tendency of people to bias their moral and ethical judgments in their own favor.
3/32 This idea was one of the major principles in John Locke’s political theory. Locke was not by any means the first to recognize this psychological mechanism, but he made it central to his theory of justifying the existence of the state.
4/32 According to Locke, one of the primary reasons to have a government at all is that, in the state of nature (where we relate to one another without the social structure of the state), we are all judges in our own cases.
5/32 That means that if you and I have a conflict—say, I think you’ve taken something that is rightfully mine, and you think you haven’t—neither of us is going to be very good at making dispassionate, ‘correct’ moral/political/legal judgments.
6/32 Your perspective will be biased in your favor, and mine will be biased in mine. This makes peaceful resolution of the controversy incredibly difficult, and the descent into bloodshed as a mechanism for resolving it incredibly likely.
7/32 According to Locke, one of the paramount advantages of the state, and one of the strongest reasons for establishing a government with the power to make and enforce law, is that this government can counteract this basic human tendency…
8/32 …by providing law-makers who are not tailoring the rules by which we live exclusively to their own self-interest, and judges who are more impartial, and therefore, more likely to get it right.
9/32 This makes the peaceful resolution of conflicts more likely. (It also means, as a more Hobbesian point, that even when people do not accept the state’s adjudication of the controversy as ‘fair, people will probably accept it anyway…
10/32 …because they do not want to incur the state’s violent wrath from refusing to do so). Thus, according to Locke, we are better able to respect the principle that no one should be the judge in her own case in civil society, as compared against the state of nature.
10.1. (Footnote): @Vermeullarmine has an incredibly insightful paper on the limits of the ‘No one should be a judge in his own case’ principle. If you’re interested in law or social science, you should read it.
11/32 Again, this basic insight into human nature wasn’t original to Locke. Versions of it have existed since ancient times. And it is confirmed by a wealth of modern psychology, which shows that people tend to bend and distort their perceptions of what is morally right…
12/32 based on what is, in fact, in the case at issue, in their own self-interest.
13/32 Okay, so how is this relevant to the current political crisis in the U.S. (and, arguably, Europe)?
14/32 Over time, the people of a society build up a set of norms, many of which not explicitly encapsulated in law, which determine what ‘moves’ are allowed by political actors—what are and are not breaches of the rules of the game of politics.
15/32 Once we have established a polity, we rely on those rules to determine which attempts to aggrandize political power are allowed, and which are not.
16/32 These norms are to some degree enforced by the instruments of the state, but once the political community exists under the state, they are more often policed by public censure of those who violate the rules.
17/32 17. Here the problem of partiality in moral judgment rears its head again. Because there’s an easily predictable cycle of social devolution which is about the most central mechanism for destroying a free republic.
18/32 Once I violate the rules of the game of politics, you feel justified in doing the same. But your judgment of the fact that I have violated the rules is subject to two defects.
19/32 First, you are more likely than I am to believe that I have violated the rules. Because, again, your judgment is biased in your favor, and mine in mine.
20/32 Second, once you’ve judged (perhaps wrongly) that I’ve broken the rules, you are likely to overestimate the proportional response to me doing so. I.e.: You are likely to over-punish.
21/32 Because I feel that I have not violated the rules—and that I feel especially slighted that your response was disproportionate to even the perceived injury—I feel just as aggrieved by your response as you felt about my original action.
22/32 So I punish as well. And, again, because my reason is similarly biased (a) I am likely to construe even an appropriate response as over-punishing, and (b) I am likely to over-punish your over-punishment.
23/32 This is the sort of devolution that we’ve been in for years. Conservatives (like me) are likely to say all this began with Obama’s breaches of institutional norms to legislate progressive policies, despite losing Congress in 2010.
24/32 Liberals are likely to say that everything Obama did was justified and that all the ‘bad actions’ descend from Trump and McConnell’s norm violations. (Note the self-interested interpretations of the same set of political facts!)
25/32 That doesn’t really matter. The evaluation of how we got on this road is irrelevant to recognizing that we are on it and that the republic cannot survive unless we find another path.
26/32 I no longer have any patience for liberals who say that their shrugging at left-wing violence is justified because Trump’s vitriol pushed them to it. This is both factually wrong and beside the point.
27/32 Similarly, I have no desire to interact with any conservative who says that threatening violence against counter-protestors at Trump rallies or mailing pipe bombs to Democratic MCs is in any way justified.
28/32 (And it may be that this is yet another of the many perceptual biases which taint politics, but my impression is that the liberal side is MUCH less likely to condemn political violence from their side than the conservatives are.)
29/32 It doesn’t really matter. ‘I feel justified in skipping merrily down the path toward the violent dissolution of the republic, because, whatabout x’ isn’t a reasonable argument. I’m not sure it’s an argument at all.
30/32 You can ridicule those who are calling for a return to civility on both sides of the aisle. Maybe it’s right to ridicule them because we’re already so far down a doomed path that there’s no turning back.
31/33 But make no mistake: it has been YEARS worth of violations of socio-political norms, beginning with the norm of basic civility, that put us on this path, and there’s no non-violent way out which doesn’t involve reinstating those norms.
32/33 Unless you truly want the U.S. to collapse into a totalitarian state, you are abetting those who do with any argument of the form “Person X did something nasty, so my entire tribe can respond in kind.’
33/33 33. So, really, before you pile on, think long and hard about whether you want to purposefully aid in the job of burning down the republic. That’s exactly what you’re doing, however morally good you feel about it. End rant.
I’m willing to defend both the intellectual history and social science behind this thread, but only to the extent that is reasonable for something I spouted off while waiting for my underwear at the laundromat.
This morning, over my first cup of coffee, I saw a TV report that mentioned a Trump rally crowd in Wisconsin last night chanting “Lock her up!” when Hillary Clinton’s name was mentioned by a local Republican candidate at the podium. It bothers me that two years after she lost the election, Trumpist crowds are still vilifying Clinton by calling for her imprisonment. But the fact that they did that on the same day that someone sent a pipe bomb to her home — that’s just a fascist mob mentality, and it’s tearing this country apart.
Don’t come at me with your whataboutism. I frequently denounce left-wing mobs in this space, most recently the lunatics who were clawing at the doors of the Supreme Court when Brett Kavanaugh was inside being sworn in. Anti-civil political mob behavior needs to be called out and repudiated no matter who does it, because as Jordan Perkins says, its normalization will destroy us all.
Trump encourages this. So do leading Democrats (e.g., Maxine Waters, the anti-Kavanaugh mobs). “Whataboutism” is pointless. As a conservative, though, I find it particularly appalling when right-wing personalities use mob-inciting language (in this case, a communist phrase!) to describe our present reality:
Newt Gingrich says media has “earned” the label “enemy of the people” https://t.co/GrhPQF9N9b
— Justin Green (@JGreenDC) October 25, 2018
In his talk, Gingrich said that the polarization is “everyone’s fault,” which, okay, but the term “enemy of the people” is utterly unworthy of an American, especially a conservative American who is old enough to remember the Cold War, and what communism was, and is. And to use that phrase a day after someone sent a pipe bomb to CNN! What is wrong with him?
You want a great book to read? Among The Thugs, by Bill Buford. It’s a 1993 non-fiction account by Buford detailing what it was like to embed himself with riotous English soccer fans. The book tells you very little about soccer, but an enormous amount about crowds and power and civilization. Here’s a lengthy excerpt well worth reading. The reference to Split is about a photo of Croatian nationalists climbing aboard a Yugoslav government tank that has been sent out to keep order, and dragging the tank commander out of the turret:
Every crowd has a threshold; all crowds are initially held in place by boundaries of some kind. There are rules that say: this much, but no more. A march has a route and a destination. A picket line is precisely itself: an arrangement of points that cannot be crossed. A political rally: there is the politician, the rally’s event, at its centre. A parade, a protest, a procession: there is the police escort, the pavement, the street, the overwhelming fact of the surrounding property. The crowd can be here, but not there. There is form in an experience that tends towards abandon. I have described the relentless physicalness of the terraces and how they concentrate the spectator experience: that of existing so intensely in the present that it is possible for an individual, briefly, to cease being an individual, to disappear into the power of numbers—the strength of them, the emotion of belonging to them. And yet again: it is formlessness in a contrivance of form. Being a spectator is an insistently structured experience: there is a ticket that confers exclusivity; there are gates that govern what is possible here, inside; what is not possible there, outside. The demarcations are reinforced by the architecture itself. The face that a stadium, of uniform concrete or brick, presents to the outside world is blank and unexpressive: nothing is said, nothing admitted. The face that it presents to itself is an enclosure of faces—faces packed as tightly as bodies will allow, design at its most expressive: everything is possible here. Outside, one experience; inside, another; outside again, and the crowd experience, like the match which governs it, is terminated: there is an ending, closure, a point when the crowd can be designated as having ceased to exist. In every crowd, there is something—with form—to contain the inherently formless nature of the crowd itself, to control what is potentially uncontrollable.
And when the threshold is crossed, the form abandoned?
There in the streets of Tottenham I watched the faces, concentrating, as moment by moment everyone tried to build up the confidence or the intensity or simply the strength of feeling that would allow them to step over the high boundary that separated them from where they wanted to be. The idea was, figuratively, literally, historically, an act of transgression: to step (gressare) across (trans) what was forbidden to cross. Everything militated against crossing it. Every act of every day, every law that had been learned, respected and obeyed, enforced and reinforced, every inculcated custom of conduct, was preventing them from finally taking the step.
Again, the photograph in Split. The man with the moustache has been followed up on to the tank by five or six others. These men are not LeBon’s morbidly nervous, half-deranged masses nor are they Gibbon’s urban scum; they are ordinary, ordinarily responsible members of society, except in this one crucial respect: they have now done what is not done and cannot return to the orderly crowd standing round watching them. Having crossed this line, they are now outside the civilization they have left behind. On the face of one, the man pulling at the jacket of the one with the moustache, wanting also to get to the tank commander, is a look of terrible excitement. It is not panic or fear or anger or revenge. It is exhilaration.
There cannot be many moments in a person’s life when what is civilized ceases to be, when the structures of continuity—job, shelter, routine, responsibility, choice, right, wrong, the state of being a citizen—disappear. English, the great mapping language of imperialism, has no verb which is the antithesis of to civilize, no word to describe the act of un-making the rules that citizens have made. Our lives do not admit the prospect, are organized to exclude it. Our day consists of patterns of conduct that hold us intact. My place in a civilized society, my place as a citizen, derives from an arrangement of agreements and routines. My day is heavily patterned: I wake, pee, eat, shit, shower, dress, travel to work, write my letters, make my phone calls, pay my bills, attend to my diary, drink coffee, pee, talk, lunch, run errands, catch my train, arrive home, have dinner, drink, pee, am entertained, fuck, pee, clean teeth, sleep. I have a house, a shelter. I leave it in the morning and return to it in the evening: it is there—a material fact, not simply reassuring but reinforcing in its familiarity. I own it by virtue of an agreement between me, my place of work, the bank and the law of the land. I am a collector, not in a refined sense but a fundamental one—my photographs, my articles of clothing, my pieces of furniture (arranged so), my library of books (arranged so), my friends and loved ones (arranged so), my idea of my life made smooth and comfortable by regular use, my papers, my work, my idea of me. I surround myself with things, prop myself up with property, fill up my space with stuff: I personalize it; I make it intimate, I make it mine.
I have so many images for it—this state of being a citizen, of being civilized. I see it as a net that holds me in place, keeps me from falling. I see it as a fabric—a network of individual threads, intertwined, pulled tight—that keeps me warm, that I can wrap around both me and others. I see it as property, a house, a structure, a made thing, walls to keep out the cold, a door to keep out the unwanted, a roof to protect me from the night and its terrible undifferentiated darkness.
But I see it, too, as a weight. I see it as a barrier, an obstacle between me and something I don’t know or understand. I see it as a mediator, a filter that allows only certain kinds of experience through. And I am attracted to the moments when it disappears, even if briefly, especially if briefly: when the fabric tears, the net breaks, the house burns—the metaphors are arbitrary. This line, again; this boundary: I am compelled, exhilarated, by what I find on the other side. I am excited by it; I know no excitement greater. It is there—on the edge of an experience which is by its nature antisocial, anti-civilized, anti-civilizing—that you find what Susan Sontag describes as our ‘flair’ (the word is so attractively casual) for high temperature visionary obsession: exalted experiences that by their intensity, their risk, their threat of self-immolation exclude the possibility of all other thought except the experience itself, incinerate self-consciousness, transcend (or obliterate?) our sense of the personal, of individuality, of being an individual in any way. What are these experiences? There are so few; they are so intolerable. Religious ecstasy. Sexual excess (insistent, unforgiving). Pain (inflicting it, having it inflicted)—pain so great that it is impossible to experience anything except pain, pain as an absolute of feeling. Arson. Certain drugs. Criminal violence. Being in a crowd. And—greater still—being in a crowd in an act of violence. Nothingness is what you find there. Nothingness in its beauty, its simplicity, its nihilistic purity.
If you want to read more from that excerpt, click here.
Ever watched Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph Of The Will? It’s her infamous 1935 Nazi propaganda film, depicting the Nuremberg party meeting that year. It is one of the most religious films ever made, with Hitler as its deity. Here is a still from one of the most memorable scenes: Hitler, flanked by Himmler and a second high-ranking Nazi, marches through 150,000 SA and SS troops standing at attention, to lay a wreath at a memorial to the World War I German dead:
That shot, and that scene, captures one of the overarching themes of the film, and of the Nazi movement: the willing surrender of individuality to the collective, embodied in the person of Adolf Hitler. In the film, we see Rudolf Hess address the crowd, saying, “Hitler is Germany, just as Germany is Hitler!”
As Buford discusses, to lose oneself in a crowd gives one a feeling of exaltation that is very hard to come by in everyday life. The closest I’ve ever come to it was being at LSU’s Tiger Stadium, chanting the same thing as 100,000 others, and being at my first U2 concert — Thanksgiving Day 1987, in Baton Rouge, on the “Joshua Tree” tour — singing the chorus to “40” with everyone else in the arena. Those are very small things compared to what Buford experienced with the rioting English fans, and certainly minuscule compared to Nazi mass rallies. But the seed is there.
Buford, on transgressing boundaries, especially in being part of a crowd involved in a violent act: “I am compelled, exhilarated, by what I find on the other side. I am excited by it; I know no excitement greater.”
When Buford wrote the book, he was editor of the prestigious literary magazine Granta. To read Among The Thugs and to make that journey with him as he surrendered to the tribalism that was antithetical to everything he had learned in the process of civilization — well, it’s to be given a glimpse of what is possible for yourself, too, given the right set of circumstances. And that is what makes it terrifying.
Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler, or even close. I can’t think of a left-wing US leader who is either, nor can I think of a left-wing leader who is even as effective at mobilizing these sentiments as Donald Trump. But we Americans — all of us, left and right — are getting ourselves used to thinking in the kinds of categories, and unleashing the passions, that a truly gifted demagogue will be able to marshal with ferocious effectiveness.
Trump is not the problem. The problem is who comes after Trump. Trump, and Trumpism, didn’t come from nowhere. On this blog, I point out over and over how left-wing transgression of norms, on campus and elsewhere, feeds Trumpism. Jordan Perkins explains how it works. It is also true that Trumpist transgressions feed the left. That leaves us with Perkins’s conclusion:
But make no mistake: it has been YEARS worth of violations of socio-political norms, beginning with the norm of basic civility, that put us on this path, and there’s no non-violent way out which doesn’t involve reinstating those norms.
To turn back means to refuse the narcotic pleasures of hating the Other, and losing oneself in a mob of others who hate the Other too. Not sure how we do this in a fundamentally emotivist culture… .
UPDATE: In the comments section, you will see a few people exemplifying the whataboutism that Jordan Perkins identifies.
UPDATE.2: A reader writes:
I was at the Wisconsin rally last night. What struck me was the cheery, carnivalesque atmosphere—smiles galore and lots of red hats. Sure, there were caustic, mocking, albeit funny T-shirts and buttons for sale. But this is Wisconsin. People are nice here. Take the venom with a grain of salt. Plus the economy is clipping along at a great pace. This isn’t an impoverished, rural part of the country. People were in a great mood. Chants of “Lock her up!” lasted a hot second. And it was a joke more than anything. A ritual joke one might say. This is what you chant, at least once, at a Trump rally. Trump’s calls for civility at the start of his speech got big applauses. What more likely caused this applause: hypocrisy or the fact that “Lock her up!” is actually a joke to be enjoyed? The only real ire last night occurred when some left wing protestors tramped through eliciting calls to “Get a job!” Wisconsin, after all, has plenty. In short, these Trump fans were happy people not yet sick of winning.
What I find most interesting about your post, though, is the fact that it hinged on chants of “Lock her up!” I didn’t even remember that chant happening until you (who weren’t even there) reminded me that it happened. I think this is a great example of what media can do to our perception and memory of events we weren’t even present at. Curious and a bit frightening, no? The narrative is so set that the media picks out the bits that fit their narrative even if said bits are the most forgettable elements of the event itself. I don’t blame the media necessarily in this particular instance. They can hardly help themselves. But the point remains that they’ve blinded themselves to how motifs transform with time. And in the process, the rest of the country is the worse off. In an era of unparalleled access to information, it’s almost as if we know less than we could imagine.
None of this is to challenge your point about the coarsening of the national discourse or whataboutism. The points are well-taken. It is to say, though, that I didn’t see any thugs in Wisconsin last night. Such an exception, surely, is worth keeping in mind. Maybe there are others.