One unfortunate side effect of utopian ideology is the quest to create a system of government so righteous and noble that nobody would even try to tear it down. This is absurd and childish. Civilization is always under attack. The forces of anarchy and barbarism never go away.
There will always be people who believe The System is so fundamentally unjust that they are justified in ignoring or undermining the Rule of Law. The more I hear of that phrase, the more I find it a hollow rhetorical dodge, especially since it has become a fetish of so many people who clearly don’t believe in the Rule of Law, prominently including Barack Obama. Obama’s ideology envisions Law as an instrument through which the powerful and righteous impose their will; the mark of the truly powerful is their personal ability to ignore the burden of the Law, and waive it for the benefit of their special friends. Law, properly understood and faithfully executed, dilutes power, because each law binds the Ruling Class as strictly as the little guy, placing a burden of duty upon those who accept the responsibility of government service. Such an arrangement provides few opportunities for fun or profit among the elite, so they prefer the creation of a massive, protean body of regulations they can bend and ignore at their convenience, turning good political connections into the most valuable resource in the land. By the way, you serfs have got about 3500 new regulations coming your way before the end of the year. Merry Christmas from the Obama Administration!
Not only is the Rule of Law a hollow phrase in America today, it lacks the proper intrinsic weight. Even the most hideously savage regimes have laws, and they bloody well expect everyone to follow them, Or Else. The Islamic State has all sorts of laws, with divine authority cited for many of them. They’re even minting their own currency these days. If you know absolutely nothing else about a particular society except that it features absolute obedience to the Rule of Law, I suggest asking a few more questions before deciding to purchase a summer home there.
What we ought to be refining, and defending, is civilization. That’s what keeps coming under assault, both in America and abroad. Respect for the law is just part of a good, sturdy civilization. Not even the strongest civilization can go very long without facing challenges from within and without its borders. These challenges must be answered. The strength of a civilization is measured not by the issuance of challenge, but by the response; not by the presence of barbarians at the gates or in the streets, but by how those entrusted with the defense of society deal with them.
If you’re guessing this discussion would turn to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, you’re right. What happened there on Monday night was barbarism, pure and simple. Of course the barbarians had their reasons; they always do. In theory, those who assault a civilization could be right, and it might deserve to burn. In practice, it rarely works out that way, either now or in the dim mists of history.
One under-reported aspect of the Ferguson situation was the number and variety of outside agitators present in the streets, including such old standbys as the Communists. There are many vested interests that desire conflict and confrontation, many reasons to set fires, steal property, and fire gunshots. Alliances are made between the enemies of civilization all the time. It’s interesting how routinely their ability to set aside their differences and cooperate against a common foe is underestimated. That’s pretty much the whole story of the current Middle Eastern crisis, isn’t it?
Civilization requires aggressive defense, in the early stages of every conflict. Indulgence just makes things worse. Concessions to the assailants are taken as signs of weakness and guilt. The striking thing about the official response to unrest in Ferguson is how timid and filled with self-doubt it has been. It seems beyond the capacity of anyone in government, from Democrat city and state authorities to the Democrat President of the United States, to demand absolute respect for the law and condemn rioting as unambiguously, absolutely wrong. There are buts and maybes, a swarm of howevers and a flutter of nevertheless, lurking in every statement. This has been true ever since the early days of the Ferguson affair, when the early story about a racist monster cop randomly killing a harmless black child in what amounted to a drive-by shooting began to unravel… and another, less well-defined but even more toxic argument took shape, something about how beating up cops is OK, the law doesn’t fully apply to people from certain backgrounds, and maybe shopkeepers shouldn’t complain when certain people assault them.
Of course, not everyone who demonstrated on Monday was violent. Respect for free speech and free assembly enables them to organize and make themselves heard. But they’re still responsible for the consequences of their actions, and the quality of their discourse. An awful lot of what has been said about Ferguson, including by influential media professionals, comes far closer to the “shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” paradigm of dangerous speech than some examples of expression our government has suppressed. The peaceful protester is not a barbarian – in seeking to persuade others, he acts in accordance with the ideals of our civilization – but he must also understand when he is providing cover and support for barbarians. It is also incumbent on the government to take whatever steps are necessary to protect the protester while suppressing the looter. Everything an official does that makes it harder to distinguish between the two is a dereliction of duty.
The name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is always invoked at moments like this, most energetically by a Left that has lost the intellectual capacity to understand him. He was in the business of persuasion, not compulsion. Persuasion is an increasingly foreign concept to those who believe in establishing a collective “consensus” about every issue, and imposing it on dissenters. Persuasion necessarily implies the possibility of honorable disagreement, even in the face of assumed righteousness. The thing about true righteousness, as MLK understood, is that it tends to be extremely persuasive, when presented with patient determination. No one in Ferguson was allowed to disagree with the judgment of the mob on Monday night, as this morning’s burned-out shells of looted shops demonstrate.
The weeping owner of a smashed, picked-clean store can well appreciate the advantages of civilized discourse over barbaric rioting. It shouldn’t take such a painful lesson to drive the point home. Some of the shop owners in Ferguson were evidently relying on the promises of local activists that their stores would be spared, sometimes on the basis of mutually agreeable skin color. Such promises are no substitute for the actual Rule of Law, which is supposed to impartially guarantee your sacred individual rights no matter who you are, what you look like, or where you come down on the burning political issue of the day.
A great civilization provides generous outlets for the expression of dissent, ideally relieving the pressures that might otherwise lead people to conclude the law itself is hopelessly unjust and can be righteously discarded. The American model of government was extraordinarily brilliant in this regard – the best anyone ever devised, by far, particularly given the size of the nation our Constitution governed. Alas, many of those pressure valves have been welded shut, as collective judgment is centralized, and inescapable federal power is employed to impose those judgments on everyone. Still, our system provides many avenues for the constructive expression of dissent, which makes it notable when impatient would-be revolutionaries turn away from all those avenues and go barreling down Burning Storefront Boulevard.
We’ve heard a lot about the “opportunistic” miscreants who mix themselves into fiery protests like this, taking advantage of civil unrest to engage in petty theft and vandalism. The trick is to avoid giving opportunistic thieves and vandals so many opportunities. How can you tell the difference between someone who spends the night smashing storefronts out of righteous anger, and someone who just wants the window smashed so he can get to the TV sets behind it? You can’t, which is why such behavior must be absolutely unacceptable.
It wasn’t, of course. Excuses and allowances were made. Condemnation was withheld. A crack in the veneer of civilization was opened, and many destructive forces poured through. They’re not finished pouring through yet. Michael Brown mythology will blend with Trayvon Martin mythology, and other divisive narratives, to open a widening gulf between those who accept the legitimacy of our society – even if they’re very passionate about using persuasive means to change aspects of it – and those who want to watch it burn. A growing number of people will find it impossible to communicate with each other, because they have been convinced to discard the small amount of goodwill necessary to make a society function. Real problems and solutions will be ignored, as attention is diverted to emotionally satisfying but factually vapid causes. Collective judgments will continue to overwhelm respect for individual rights, as numerous political causes are plugged into Ferguson’s political energy, like Christmas lights plugged into an overloaded octopus electrical outlet. People living far beyond the borders of Ferguson will be even more inclined to look at passerby on the streets, or even their long-term neighbors, and see something other than fellow Americans. That is how civilizations unravel.