Depicting revolutionary France, Dickens wrote, “Six tumbrils roll along the streets. Change these back again to what they were, thou powerful enchanter, Time, and they shall be seen to be the carriages of absolute monarchs, the equipages of feudal nobles, the toilettes of flaring Jezebels, the churches that are not my father’s house but dens of thieves, the huts of millions of starving peasants!”
Today America’s tumbrils are clattering about, carrying toppled statues, ruined careers, unwoke brands. Over their sides peer those deemed racist by left-wing identitarians and sentenced to cancelation, even as the evidentiary standard for that crime falls through the floor. Rioters over the weekend destroyed a statue of Ulysses S. Grant, the general who finished off the Confederacy. Falsehoods and innuendoes outpace the truth: in Oakland, a panic arose over what were supposedly nooses in a public park; turns out they were just exercise equipment that had been there for months. But no matter. America’s Jacobins are in no mood to reason. As in Dickens’ France, genuine social problems have mushroomed into a national orgy of self-harm.
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But who are these cultural revolutionaries? The conventional wisdom goes that this is the inner-cities erupting, economically disadvantaged victims of racism enraged over the murder of George Floyd. The reality is something more…bourgeoisie. As Kevin Williamson observed last week, “These are the idiot children of the American ruling class, toy radicals and Champagne Bolsheviks playing Jacobin for a while until they go back to graduate school.” Most of the culling is taking place not in the streets, but in the faculty lounge, the corporate boardroom, the upstart real estate firm with a socially conscious Twitter footprint and a penchant for Mean Girls GIFs. The most high-profile casualty so far isn’t even a person but a maple syrup, Aunt Jemima, whose threat to world peace seems rather manageable.
Such superficial victories are a clear sign of the bourgeoisie’s soft hand. Meaningful police legislation, the kind that might prevent future George Floyds, currently being worked on by serious reformers, is a difficult push. Whereas reducing policymaking to maximalist slogans is easy; spray-painting a statue is even easier; whining about a visage on a syrup bottle is easier still. And ease is the currency of these weekend warriors, these erstwhile stoppers of Kony. Who is the face of their revolution? It’s tempting to name Melissa Click, the white (check) communications professor (check) who at a 2015 protest over racial issues (check) exhorted others (check) to beat up a student journalist. (Click was later fired for her misconduct by the University of Missouri, only to be scooped up by Gonzaga. The culling, it seems, only ever goes in one direction.)
But there’s another figure who I think is even more representative than Click—not from the French Revolution or our present Tantrum of the Tenured, but the 1960s.
In early 1970, a townhouse in Greenwich Village exploded, leaving a charred hole in the facade on West 11th Street. Police later concluded that the cause was a short-circuited bomb, which young radicals had been building in the basement. This was the work of the Weather Underground, the left-wing terrorist group, which was planning to plant the explosive at an officers’ ball at Fort Dix. Among those killed in the blast was a young woman named Diana Oughton, who may have been holding the bomb when it accidentally went off.
It will not surprise you to learn that Oughton did not have a difficult childhood. Her father, James Oughton, was one of the wealthiest men in the state of Illinois thanks to his vast agricultural holdings. Diana grew up in a small town, Dwight, but amid immense privilege, and when she arrived right on time at Bryn Mawr, she was a paint-by-numbers Republican who supported abolishing Social Security. Her transformation over the intervening decade is one of the most instructive and fascinating cases of radicalization ever documented, one that’s inspired both Hollywood (the movie Katherine is loosely based on her life) and the news media (a four-part UPI profile of Oughton by journalists Lucinda Franks and Thomas Powers won a Pulitzer). Somehow Oughton went from a lively and caring rich girl to very nearly one of America’s worst mass murderers.
How did this happen? Some of it had to do with her volunteer work at a far-flung village in Guatemala, which opened her eyes to poverty, inequality, and the corruption of American foreign aid. Some of it had to do with her beau, leftist lowlife Bill Ayers, who later became one of the Weather Underground’s leaders. But a good deal more had to do with her gilded upbringing, which drew the contempt of her fellow radicals and seemed to turn her hatred inwards. It will also not surprise you to learn that the Weathermen were white. What drove them to madness was a cloying need to repudiate their privilege and prove themselves worthy comrades of the African Americans then fighting for liberation. (It didn’t work: the Black Panthers ultimately denounced them as “chauvinistic” and “scatterbrains.”)
Oughton, Franks and Powers note, came to detest “everything that she was.” They conclude, “She regarded the world she saw around her as the implacable enemy of everything she believed in. Like the rest of the Weathermen, the privileged children of that world, in the end Diana had only one ambition: to be its executioner.”
The Diana Oughtons of today aren’t about to start blowing up federal buildings, as did the Weather Underground. But they do share that mentality: in deploring their privilege, they’ve come to reject everything that bestowed it upon them, their history, their nationality, their traditions, their culture, most of the past and some of the present as well. As recently as a decade ago, President Barack Obama portrayed America as an imperfect but worthy project, applying its ideals of opportunity and equality to those still left behind. Today such incrementalism is a dirty word. The waypoints of societal change are intolerable. All must measure up to the uniform yet constantly changing woke yardstick. Thus did a CNN contributor casually suggest that the Washington Monument might be demolished because George Washington was a slaveowner. Anyone suspected of harboring racism—even a founding father who, however imperfect himself, helped codify principles that ended slavery—must be brought to his knees.
It’s worth repeating that this isn’t a working class production. It’s driven by a new generation of bratty Bolsheviks, those spoiled enough to think they can set a single standard and then tear down the world for not living up to it. In lashing out at the society that coddled them, they swing first at themselves. Once our tumbrils were police vans and pickup trucks with Confederate flag bumper stickers; now they’re vehicles for upper-class solipsism and masochism.
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