Is Our Long National Chivaree Over?
The American social unrest of 2020 and beyond has petered out with little to show.
As the summer of 2023 winds down, one notices—for all the talk of extreme heat—a cooling off.
2020 saw at least twenty-five deaths from riots. The Crowd Counting Consortium, a group that collects data on politically-motivated public assemblies such as demonstrations, counted 270 instances that year involving property damage or injury to a policeman. The group used that figure to downplay the seriousness of riots following the death of George Floyd.
The most notable civil disturbance of 2021 was the breach of the joint session of Congress to count the votes of electors for the 46th President. Five deaths were recorded in connection with that event, but only one (Ashli Babbitt) was linked to it directly.
The following year, no American incident rated mention in the Wikipedia category “2022 Riots,” as the nation failed to place in a field that included the “Kazakh unrest.” So far this year the only riot of note in the U.S. occurred when a streaming personality announced a fan meetup in New York City to give away video game consoles. As Marx put it in The Eighteenth Brumaire, history repeats itself, the first time tragedy, the second time farce.
This decline in the number and seriousness of American riots is either good or bad news depending on one’s politics, but it surely represents the end of a long-running chivaree that America has been subjected to over the past three years.
It may seem odd to invoke the term “chivaree,” which dates back seven centuries, to analyze current events, but there are several parallels between recent American civil disturbances and the folk custom.
“Chivaree” is an Anglicization of the French word charivari, which is in turn derived from the vulgar Latin caribarium, the act of rattling pots and pans with an iron rod to make noise. Although “chivaree” has passed out of common usage among the educated and urban dwellers, it is still heard in spoken English in small towns. (I last heard it in Green Ridge, Missouri, which has a population of 475.)
“Charivari” referred to a noisy public gathering that could be a positive celebration, such as a wedding, or negative, to scorn behavior that ran counter to community mores, such as wife-beating. (In the former case, the literal practice of pot-rattling manifests at reduced scale by tying tin cans onto the back of the newlyweds’ car as they drive away from the reception.) In the latter, charivaris typically included mocking music or chanting intended to annoy those who were the targets. If things got out of hand, this type could escalate into violence, ranging from minor (carrying the accused around on a long pole) to extreme (tarring and feathering).
Charivaris produce embarrassment or worse for the targets, but nothing for their perpetrators beyond feelings of self-satisfaction and moral superiority: Shaming is the point, not a by-product of the ruckus. So, were the riots of 2020 productive social action, or mere charivaris?
There are measures of well-being—education, employment, personal wealth, life expectancy—that can be used to assess whether the resources that flowed into the political demonstrations of the recent past furthered their stated goals or were counterproductive. If black people were worse off in these categories in 2020 and things have not improved (or gotten worse) since then, one can reasonably conclude that the time, money, and effort spent in taking to the streets were not well-spent: That is to say, that the protests were nothing but a big chivaree.
Take education, for example. The gap between scores of white and black students on achievement tests widened in 2020 and has increased since then, reversing a narrowing trend that had begun in 1975.
Labor statistics are not so bleak, as the gaps between black and white workers grew smaller in terms of unemployment and workforce participation rates from 2020 to 2023. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, however, this reflects the fact that, at the onset of that period, blacks were more likely to work in sectors hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and thus their rebound was greater. The “wealth gap”—the difference between the median wealth of blacks versus whites—has gotten worse since 2019 according to liberal sources such as the Center for American Progress and the Brookings Institution.
In the critical area of public safety, the news was unequivocally bad. According to the National Crime Victim Survey, the rate of gun deaths in large cities rose 37% from 2018 to 2021. African-Americans were disproportionately the victims of these killings; in Chicago, blacks represented 81% of all homicide deaths, in Baltimore, 92%. The victims were overwhelmingly black males—in Baton Rouge 79%, in Louisville, 68%. While there may be several causes of this negative trend, efforts to defund urban police forces must surely be counted as a material factor, and one that has caused some urban mayors to recant their previous positions.
So, the civil unrest that began in 2020 launched a million selfies taken by demonstrators and countless “Black Lives Matter” banners on left-leaning churches and well-tended suburban lawns, but overall did nothing to improve the lot of those for whom the movement claimed to speak, and in some cases worsened it. Rioting, it turns out, is bad for your wealth and your health, and is a diversion from the hard work required in order to change things for the better.
The typical chivaree mob historically was comprised of unmarried young men who would parade through the streets wearing masks or painted faces, and in some cases the dress of a lower-class “out” group, such as blacks and Native Americans. (The Boston Tea Party was a chivaree where participants dressed as Mohawks with painted faces.) Chivaree revelers purported to be non-violent, but this was often camouflage: Participants taunted their targets, hoping to provoke a reaction, and responded in kind when it came. The parallels to the events of the recent past are too obvious to require mention.
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At the conclusion of a charivari, gifts were often solicited from the objects of abuse; this was the price paid to get the revelers to go away, much like trick-or-treating by children. Fund-raising by the Black Lives Matter Foundation has declined from $90 million in 2020 to $9 million in the organization’s most recent fiscal year, perhaps as it has become apparent that money was neither the problem, nor the solution, to the riots.
What has changed to make riots less attractive than they were a few years ago? As Samuel Johnson put it, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” There is a presidential election starting up next January, leaving little time to abandon the revelries of the recent past in favor of the sober politics that can avert a political execution.
The principle “No enemies to the left” emerged during the French Revolution; successive avant-garde factions took ever-more-extreme positions in a game of revolutionary one-ups-man-ship, and members of the National Assembly adopted them all in order to maintain power. Once this dynamic takes hold, as it did following the spring of 2020, it takes a sober mind and a courageous heart to emerge from the mob and provide adult supervision.