In a recent online column in National Review, Victor Davis Hanson, one of our wisest and most independent-minded pundits, prophesies (“Year Zero,” July 7, 2020, https://www.nationalreview.com/2020/07/cultural-revolutions-start-year-zero ) that the current flurry of “Jacobinism” will be followed by a “Thermidorian reaction,” such as in July 1794 sent Robespierre and Saint-Just to the guillotine and, after the expected settling of scores, inaugurated with the Directorate a brief period of (very!) relative tranquility—to be followed by the Consulate and then the Empire of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Although Hanson’s historical sense is generally acute, this reference to Thermidor strikes me more as wishful thinking than as a sober analysis of the situation. In the first place, Antifa and BLM, unlike the Jacobins, are far from having taken power in the society as a whole. The national imposition of PC along with rioting and vandalism is bad enough, but hardly comparable to the slaughter of thousands of French nobles and moderates after a series of show trials, and toward the end, without trial—along with such provincial variants as tying people together in pairs and tossing them into the Loire. Not to speak of ending the Old Regime, creating a calendar with a real “Year Zero” (which lasted until 1806), and beginning the implementation of the metric system.
Hanson predicts that, analogously, the liberals who have been groveling before BLM will eventually tire of this and turn against their ideological masters. I would be as glad as he to see this, but his sense that these same “liberal appeasers,” whose eagerness for self-abasement he greets with justified contempt, are now “growing uneasy,” and are “on the verge of becoming Thermidor[ian]s” neglects the utter absence of the loss of control—and imminent threat of death—that the elites were reacting to in 1794.
Indeed, without examining the balance sheets of our “cultural revolutionaries,” it is obvious that they are being funded by the very same elites whose superficial symbols they are destroying—but whose bottom line they are leaving intact.
Why, if they are “growing uneasy,” would Disney sign a presumably multi-million-dollar contract with the egregious Colin Kaepernick—scarcely known for his expertise in television programming—to produce an “exclusive docuseries” on racism? Disney executives are hardly afraid of finding themselves in the tumbrils. On the contrary, they understand that racial virtue-signaling is good for business. The “revolutionary” victimocrats, for their part, are “Marxist” only in the sense that, like Marx, they are against capitalism, and if they take power will institute “socialism.”
Take a look at the current non-fiction best-seller list, and you will see that, outside of Bolton’s revenge-book against Trump, almost all the others are about race. Whatever one thinks about Kaepernick’s potential contribution to the “docuseries,” his name is surely worth quite a bit, and what else really matters?
“Black rage,” as Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele and others (Kanye West!) will tell you, siphons off a great deal of resentment from the rest of the society. The “outrage” expended over the “structural racism” supposedly experienced by poor Mr. Floyd is by many degrees of magnitude disproportional to what a genuine Marxist would call today’s real structural disparities: the excessive rewards for the upper echelon of high tech and finance executives, while in the cities, living conditions deteriorate and middle-class neighborhoods—and the middle class itself—wither away.
Rockefeller and Carnegie couldn’t write computer code, but they certainly had to work a lot harder for their big bucks than Bezos and Zuckerberg. I need not begrudge the latter their billions, but I had a good job with lifetime tenure that now provides me with a decent pension, whereas today, I would be “the wrong color and the wrong gender” to receive such advantages. The more white Americans, particularly recent college graduates, worry about denouncing their “privilege,” and wrecking Western civilization along with it, the less they are focused specifically on their economic interests—for so long, at least, as their “Jacobin” activities are financed by billion-dollar foundations and/or residence in Daddy’s basement.
Our billionaires will become Thermidorians only when the mob starts tearing down the gates of their mansions. Except that then, some of its members might actually get hurt, which is not in their job description. Whatever else you can say about the sans-culottes and the Bolsheviks—and the Nazis—they were not just ruthless, but tough.
I think the best we can expect by way of Thermidor is for the Trump deplorables, along with other traditional Americans who, like Professor Hanson and myself, are sickened by the current spectacle, to vote Republican in November in sufficient numbers to offset the efforts of the mob and their well-wishers. At least then, Western civilization will still have a chance.
I was going to add an earlier version of the above as a “Coda” to the previous Chronicle, when I read Hanson’s July 9 follow-up column: “The Fragility of the Woke” (https://www.nationalreview.com/2020/07/woke-protesters-historys-ingredients-riot-revolution/#slide-1 ). This piece, which emphasizes the practical if not ideological contradiction between “revolutionary” activity and woke sensitivity to microaggression, might almost be read as a direct refutation of the Thermidor analogy. Whatever else you can say about the participants in past revolutions, no one ever called any of them snowflakes. The protection of Mommy and Daddy has never been more pathetically invoked than by the unnamed female Harvard graduate in Hanson’s piece who lost her summer accounting internship after posting a video on TikTok threatening to stab anyone who said “all [i.e., not just black] lives matter”—a punitive reaction which, if not a sign of Thermidor (although it’s that time of year), at least suggests some degree of sanity in the accounting profession.
Those who overthrew the Jacobins had reason to fear for their lives; those who might secretly be skeptical about smashing statues of former presidents are concerned in the first place with their bottom line, which has thus far been entirely on the side of the mob. If even Chick-fil-A, whose management is sincerely Christian, understands its role as requiring disengagement from the Salvation Army and shining black people’s shoes, one wonders what powerful individuals or institutions would look with favor on a reversal of direction, let alone participate openly in it.
The so-called “Chomsky letter” that appeared in Harper’s Magazine on July 7—whose association with the virulently anti-American Chomsky is touted as a guarantee of its “respectability”—is not a warning of the immanence of more drastic action, but a polite demurral from the excesses of their political allies in resistance [sic], by a group of intellectuals whose tolerance for dissent from left-wing views is prefaced by denunciations of Donald Trump and “right-wing demagogues.” Here is the first paragraph:
Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides. (https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/ )
I find it shameful that decent people would put their names to a document that cannot make a simple point in favor of “open debate and toleration of differences” without vilifying its political enemies. If all right-thinking people are presumably united in the belief that Donald Trump “represents a real threat to democracy,” how then is the opposite point of view to become a matter for “open debate and toleration”?
In a word, this well-intentioned screed belongs in a textbook of pragmatic paradoxes, only far more long-winded and less amusing than the one about the Jewish mother who tells her son “Be spontaneous!”
Neither “Spengler’s” nor my own expressions of admiration for Yuja Wang (see Chronicle 664) were intended as advertisements for Chinese Communist rule. Their point was rather to make us realize that the sublime self-confidence that followed victory in WWII and in the Cold War is no longer in season. Having stolen a good deal of our intellectual property, China has reached the point where it can if necessary advance on its own. And its current progress under a totalitarian form of government, which has led its leadership to the belief, which may not be altogether misplaced, that China can do without the window to the Western economy provided by Hong Kong, should at the very least make us begin to doubt that the decay of authority prevalent throughout the West—less in the US than in many other places—remains compatible with the kind of freedoms that had, over the past several centuries, proved most conducive to new discoveries in science and technology.
This last has been the credo of the liberal-democratic world, which seemed confirmed in 1989. Yet the disappointing outcome of our middle-Eastern “democratization” policy may indeed reflect more than these societies’ unpreparedness for our form of government. I find troubling, as well as distasteful, the increasing degradation of our “commons” in ways unthinkable in previous generations: libraries become homeless shelters, mental hospitals emptied onto the streets, an increasing unwillingness, despite the demonstrated success of the “broken windows” anti-crime measures of Giuliani and co. in the 1990s, to punish criminals for “minor” offenses, or even to set bail for them—not to speak of the wholesale release of prisoners during the present epidemic.
Thus far, I would not say that the fabric of our civic life has been permanently disrupted, at least not in the neighborhoods I frequent, although the growth of “no-go zones” (the French call them zones sensibles) is disquieting. Nor have everyday interracial relations deteriorated in my experience. But what is disturbing for the long term is the absence of any sign, not of “Thermidor,” but simply of a broad-based return to dignity and decency.
The fact that the sight of mobs demolishing statues apparently makes “respectable” people, not offended, for heaven’s sake, but instead anxious to find “nice” ways of performing the same tasks, is a clear sign that, for the foreseeable future, “respectability” will mean following the lead of BLM and similar organizations.
Even this does not make the USA less attractive than China. Being able to cry “F… Trump!” or publicly tear up his speech surely reflects a more decent society than one where the least hint of opposition to the Great Leader would be severely punished.
But our social order will remain viable only to the extent that the resilience of our political system embodies a faith in the system itself that is stronger than the hostility to an elected president condemned as a “threat to democracy.” This seems to be less and less the case. The ever-increasing importance of the Supreme Court, coupled with that of the bureaucracy, is the direct result of the increasing impotence of our “deliberative” legislative bodies. Had the Democrats had a sufficient majority in both Houses, President Trump would surely have been removed from office on one pretext or another. As Beria used to say, Show me the man, I’ll find you the crime: Покажи мне человека, и я найду тебе преступление.
To suggest that all this will go away if only someone other than Trump becomes president is in fact an admission of our system’s bankruptcy. If duly electing “the wrong person” suffices to create a crisis that requires systemic correction, then the only logical next step is to prevent such “threats to democracy” from ever holding office. After all, Hitler gained power by legitimate means—and when Trump won in 2016, many were the voices that warned of his imminent imposition of “fascism.”
If the Democrats gain control of Congress as well as the presidency, I would not trust them, who stick together far more reliably than the Republicans (just observe the voting pattern on the Supreme Court over past few decades), not to remove whatever checks and balances pose a threat to their power, beginning with the filibuster and the “voter suppression” involved in requiring personal identification and in-person voting—all the while presenting this as defending democracy from “the forces of illiberalism.” Even in the best of cases, hopes for a speedy return to some level of cooperative or even civil interaction between the parties are dim indeed.
I am not a pundit, and making predictions about the future is not the purpose of these Chronicles. What I believe we are witnessing here is not simply the irrational obstinacy of one political faction that needs only to be enlightened, but the breakdown of a delicate equilibrium.
The greater freedom of the West, which has opened the entire world to modernity, has clearly been until now an asset lacking in the other great civilizations that, before the Industrial Revolution, rivaled it in power and military strength. The developments we have been witnessing are discouraging, not because our system is revealing itself to be suffering from such things as “systemic racism,” but because, as I pointed out twenty years ago (see Chronicle 652), “fairness” in the sense of meritocracy is, not so paradoxically, proving itself harder to endure than unequal “privilege,” which insulates the individuals within a given caste from the shame of failure. If you have to lose, it’s much less painful not to lose “fair and square.”
Until the end of the 20th century, the advantages of Western freedoms, despite the man-made catastrophes of its first half, remained predominant. But the current wave of resentment-driven militancy puts them in doubt.
Even were the West to produce a pianist as gifted as Yuja Wang, its problems would remain. But it should be a warning to us that it is totalitarian China that has given to the world today’s most outstanding interpreter and performer of its most complex manifestations of beauty, Western masterpieces once performed exclusively in the West. This should certainly lead us to ask ourselves in what other domains the world’s oldest and largest civilization might be poised to surpass us.