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‘They Want Revenge’

A weary progressive peacemaker is tempted by despair

Franklin Evans, a progressive, a regular commenter on this blog, my friend, and one of the most decent people in America, e-mails to say:

I’m struggling lately. I’m being forced to reconsider the balance I want to strike between being in the fight for social justice and preventing an existing backlash towards you and yours from becoming a pogrom of revenge.

The people for whom I fight — people of color, people outside the binary male-female heterosexual label, people who leave their places of birth and heritage out of fear for their lives to seek one of the few remaining places in the world where they believe they can live normal lives — are getting increasingly bogged down in the rhetoric of opposition, a rhetoric that is identical on both sides of these issues.

That last reference to the rhetoric, by the way, is the one and only instance where “both sides are…” is valid. That it is valid doesn’t protect it from the same irrelevance as the rest, but there it is.

I have friends in the fight who rail against being told to be patient, to be tolerant, to accept incremental changes and improvements, and I despair of their getting their heads out of their hearts and seeing the rational reality of how and why society and culture is just not going to change in a matter of days, months or years without some form of violent revolution… that being, quod erat demonstrandum throughout human history, at best a temporary “solution”.

But they have a point. It’s the main point. It should be simple to understand. They and their ancestors and predecessors have essentially been told for decades to wait, with almost nothing to show for it. Their present awareness is maimed loved ones and friends, bloody or charred corpses in morgues awaiting their identification of them, and judges and courts doing, in their minds, almost nothing to punish the perpetrators.

They see white supremacists with assault rifles and battle gear in front of city halls, courthouses and their own houses, and police standing aside or not in sight. They see mainstream media reporting on how “they do it, too” when the frequency and degree of their fellows acting in kind is minuscule by comparison. They read accounts and see pictures of lynchings, and fail to understand how the ACLU can “defend” speech that calls for violence against them (something the ACLU has recently changed, I must add).

They see the present, they see the record of the past, and they see insanity. “Not all [fill-in-the-blank] are like that” isn’t just ridiculous in many of their eyes, it is a lie.

You know it’s not a lie, I know it’s not a lie, but the practical truth on the ground is that when they see or hear that, what they see or hear instead is “be patient, continue to die, some day it will be better”.

You and I don’t get a fair hearing for the rational rebuttals. They see those rebuttals for the empty words they are, and the proof of their emptiness is essentially being rubbed into their faces.

They don’t just want change. They don’t just want to take over the seats of power. They want revenge.

I understand their motivations very well. It pervades my family history on both sides, going back centuries. It’s not “in the blood”, it’s the reality of the human condition.

I doubt very much I and those of like mind will succeed in preventing the revenge taking. My doubt will not prevent me from trying, and I won’t offer any excuses if I fail.

I appreciate those words deeply.

Let me see if I can approximate what it looks like from the conservative side. Note well, readers: I am not saying that all of the views I will articulate below are my own, and I’m not defending these views here. Some of these views are in fact my own, and I do defend them elsewhere. In this post, though, I’m just trying to follow Franklin’s example and attempt to explain why many on the cultural Right are fed up and tempted by extremism. What follows is a general attempt to get into the heads of the right-of-center versions of the people Franklin writes about. Not everyone who would place themselves within that camp agree on all these points. Again, I’m just trying to sketch out a portrait along the lines that Franklin has done.

They are people who feel besieged on all sides. They are losing ground economically, and have been doing so for decades. They took for granted that if they worked hard and played by the rules, their kids would live better than they did. For many of them, it hasn’t played out that way. For older ones, their adult kids may have failed to build stable families of their own; some are left to raise their grandchildren. For younger ones, they are terrified of losing their kids to heroin. It’s happening around them. Not long ago, having babies out of wedlock was all but taboo. Now it’s normal.

The church — if they go to church — may not be much help. The sense of community that they grew up with — or that their parents did — has largely dissipated. Nobody is quite sure why, but its absence is felt. They have watched in just over a decade gay marriage go from a minority cause to constitutional triumph, and are now watching this culture celebrating transgenderism, even to the point of encouraging little kids to take hormones to alter their bodies. And they’re watching people who don’t embrace all of this be denounced as no better than white supremacists, and having their livelihoods taken away from them.

If they’re Southern, they’ve lived with Confederate statues all their lives, and maybe haven’t even noticed them. Suddenly, it’s all over the media that these statues have to be taken down now, and if you disagree, well, that’s probably because you’re a racist. Southern or not, they may have no particular fondness for the Confederacy, but they wonder what’s next? Will we have to abhor Washington and Jefferson to prove our decency? People say no, that will never happen, but they always say it will never happen, and it usually does.

They don’t trust the public schools to be places of order and learning. And look at what’s happening at the universities. The campus Left refuses to let some conservatives speak. In many places, the humanities faculties are bastions of left-wing dogmatists, who teach that everything these conservatives value is wicked. Hatred of white people, especially white males, is considered a virtue. University administrators capitulate to left-wing mobs. These people watch as even their state universities surrender, and they say to themselves, as they have said in Missouri: to hell with that place.

Their lives are hard and getting harder. They aren’t sure who we are as Americans anymore, or what America means. The world feels that it’s coming apart — and they are being blamed for it because of their race, their religion, their politics. They know that exhortations to “celebrate diversity” not only doesn’t include people like them, but also entails them learning to feel shame over their culture. They get anxious and defensive, and are prone to believing the worst about those not like them. The things they were taught to believe about fair play, and judging people not by the color of their skin, or their wealth, or their religion, and so forth? They are coming to believe that those things are really lies used by liberals running institutions to disempower and dispossess people like them. So when a guy like Donald Trump comes along and makes noises about blowing the thing up, they may think: what have we got to lose?

They believe that if the people on the left get power, they are going to seek revenge on people like them. And some of them are gearing up to fight.

Again: I’m not saying that they’re right about all these things. I’m just trying to give a broad sketch of what it looks like to many people digging into trenches on the opposite side of the battlefield from the people among whom my friend Franklin moves.

These folks — like their counterparts on the Left, and like all of us — live in a culture that no longer rewards patience, restraint, honor, humility, and self-sacrifice. Instead, it rewards and encourages exactly the opposite, and catechizes citizens to believe that anything that’s wrong in their lives is the fault of somebody else. In a culture like what we have become, can’t you see why peacemakers like Franklin would despair?

A reader of this blog read Mark Lilla’s new book urging his fellow liberals to abandon identity politics in favor of a politics of solidarity. “Never going to happen,” he e-mailed last night. “The Left is as tied to the boat anchor of Identity politics as the Right.”

Yep. It’s where all the passion is. This afternoon, I watched a well-informed conservative DC pundit on TV saying that Capitol Hill is crawling with Republican members of Congress who are disgusted by President Trump’s words and behavior, but who don’t dare to speak out because they are afraid of their own voters back home punishing them with primary challenges from the Right.

This can’t last. This won’t last. Something’s got to give.

UPDATE: Franklin Evans replies to comments:

I tried and failed to post this an hour ago. In the meantime, seeing some responses and assuming this time I succeed, I suggest two things: re-read my post for context, it will show some of you how you are mistaken in your reactions to selected parts of it; second, I am supremely unsurprised to see some readers engaging in the very guilt by association I have as my “punchline” below, towards both myself and Rod. I will respond directly to some of you.

A bit of background for readers not familiar with the relationship Rod and I have built over the years:

My first motivation was, well, the very despair that Rod points to. I’ve spent a few thousand words over several threads trying to make the general point, that we are entering a time when conflict is the norm, not the exception that serves to bring to light those issues and ideas the need to be seen. Conflict, as I’ve observed and experienced in my lifetime, is serving to obscure. Polarization is not the cause of conflict. It is the symptom of a conflict that is closing eyes and minds instead of opening them.

I am, in short, on a precarious balance point between my love for Rod and his family, and my love for the people for whom I am driven to advocate and protect.

Unlike Rod, whose vision and integrity I trust implicitly, I play no devil’s advocate (yeah, a small pun there) in my statements. What I’ve described is accurate, and my feelings towards it and those expressing and acting, are sincere. I don’t agree with them — that being the inadequate summary of the rational rebuttals I’ve tried and will continue to try to get across to them — but I understand them, and I must honestly say I sympathize with them.

My family heritage is rife with conflict and violence. My Jewish heritage spans both branches of the diaspora. My Serbian heritage spans centuries of warfare, internal and external, culminating with the Ottoman occupation and continuing through decades of nationalism and xenophobia, all based on religion and ethnicity. I embody both sides, the bigots and the victims of bigotry. I grew up with it, evidenced by my mother once declaring that there is something rotten at the heart of the German culture. I was appalled by her saying this, and told her that makes her a bigot. She paused in that moment, as always very deliberate in forming her thoughts before speaking, and said yes, it does, and she is.

I will trot out the fact that I’m the son of a Holocaust survivor, but when I speak and write about balance, I must then add that I’m the son of a Serbian heritage of savage warfare, and my direct connection to the regime of Tito: my father and all surviving members of the Serbian Army that opposed him and his partisans were convicted (mostly in absentia) war criminals, some of whom actually did collaborate with the Nazis and the Italian fascists. I have no way of knowing if my father was one of the latter. It is possible.

My personal experiences, I now must concede, pale by comparison. I’ve had personal confrontations based on identity, mine vs. theirs as it were. I’ve had a couple of scrapes and bruises along the way, not meaning to minimize my own perspective, but to put it into a wider context.

It all comes down to what is — my sense of assertion is as strong as it can be — the first danger in our present conflicts. It is by far the prevailing theme in my family heritage. It is well nigh ubiquitous now in our rhetoric, be it campaigns for office or neighbors complaining. It propels the movements to adopt “hate” speech and crimes as social norms and legal designations. It is, I personally believe, possibly the last nail in the coffin of our personal freedoms begun by the so-called Patriot Act, out of the acts of war on U.S. soil we call 9/11.

It is guilt by association.

That is the abstract of our times. It is my personal target of opposition. It is, without exception, the thought behind the fears I express for Rod and his fellow travelers. In my personal, ethical commitment to balance, it is a fear I have every reason to believe I’ll be applying to my own safety.



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