A Half-Century of Adolescent Agitators
Much that is deeply wrong with our culture and politics today has its origins in the 1960s, but that can be exceedingly difficult to discern from the media's selective memory on that troubled period in our history. A proper understanding of modern politics requires an accurate view of history.
Americans were reminded this week by every news source that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, 50 years ago. It is less well remembered that massive riots erupted in major cities around the country in the wake of the murder of King, that these riots lasted for a week, and that nearly 50 people died and damages approaching $200 million in 2018 dollars were inflicted by individuals marking King's death by activity directly antithetical to his philosophy of non-violence. Scholars have shown that the financial cost of black rioting in the 1960s made a major contribution to the maintenance of black-white wealth gaps. Good luck finding any discussion of that in the midst of the national commemoration of King’s death.
A related historical fact unlikely to be accurately recalled in the mainstream media: On April 6, 1968, two days after King was shot and killed 50 years ago today, Eldridge Cleaver led a Black Panther ambush of Oakland police that resulted in two officers wounded and a young Panther recruit, Bobby Hutton, dead in a shootout. The left mythologized this into the prototype of today's Black Lives Matter narrative of "innocent black man shot by racist police." It is perhaps of some importance that one of the proto-myths on which Black Lives Matter bases its own modern framing of police interaction with blacks began with an unprovoked attack on police by violent, avowedly anti-American revolutionaries.
Yet another poorly remembered set of events that took place in April 1968 is of immense utility in understanding some troubling recent phenomena in American politics. On April 23, 1968, radical leftist students at Columbia University forcibly occupied numerous buildings on the university's campus and held them for a week before police ejected them. The entire university had to be shut down as a result, classes canceled, the semester adjourned prematurely. The radicals comported themselves throughout the affair as hooligans, making incoherent and illogical demands, shouting obscenities at the administration and the entire American society with bullhorns from the illegally occupied office of the university's president, physically fighting and hospitalizing police, menacing and bullying faculty, and barbarically burning and destroying precious documents and records. One of their leaders, Mark Rudd, was later a central player in the Weather Underground, a domestic terrorist group responsible for many bombings of military and civilian targets inside the United States. Rudd, who has recently tried to rehabilitate himself as an avuncular adviser to younger radicals too historically illiterate to know the full extent of his crimes, infamously encapsulated the intellectual maturity of the Columbia movement by publicly threatening his university's president with this charming witticism: "Up against the wall, m‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑!"
While the particulars of Columbia in April 1968 have disappeared into oblivion, the spirit of Mark Rudd lives on. It has migrated down in the culture to a still more youthful incarnation today. We see it these days not only in the subset of college students who are offended to the point of outrage by every non-progressive idea they encounter, but in still younger students such as those who have emerged as the leaders of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School anti-Second Amendment movement. The Columbia effect can be clearly observed in Emma González and David Hogg and the rest of their baby-faced allies. What this says about the current state of American political culture is not encouraging.
Listen to González and Hogg speak for more than a few seconds and sort out the vulgarities; trite buzzwords; and juvenile, patently unrealistic fantasies. You will not be left with much at all. They are high school seniors, so they can be excused for lacking competency on matters for which we would typically hold adult interlocutors accountable. But it's not their penchant for saying incoherent things that makes them akin to the Columbia radicals. It's their belligerence. It's the absolute self-righteousness, the sense that they are certainly, without the slightest doubt, right about everything they claim and that those opposing them are not only wrong, but corrupt, sinister, evil.
How do you respond to evil? You ruthlessly destroy it. The left's strategy of the day for destruction of evil enemies is deplatforming, where possible, and targeted reputational assault in social media where it is not. When Laura Ingraham criticized David Hogg's response to being rejected by the more selective colleges and universities to which he applied, she did so essentially factually, and her use of the term "whining" to describe the tone of his remarks is at least arguable. She noted that Hogg was complaining about not being accepted to colleges when his GPA (the equivalent of some kind of B average) is typically not sufficient to win admission at the more selective institutions. His response was to go after her in the merciless mob-mentality manner the left does today: he viciously turned his Twitter followers loose on her advertisers, and they began barraging the sources of Ingraham's livelihood.
This is one of the ways the left riots today: it can still destroy property and physically assault you, but now it can also hound you out of work and popular media platforms, and it can relentlessly poison your reputation through concentrated and mendacious social media assaults. There is no need to risk the bruises and fractures (and arrests) of the student rioters of the '60s now that media technology has made available more sophisticated forms of annihilating enemies without the need for a cogent argument for your position.
There are two ways to take Hogg, González, et al. You can think they are children, moral innocents, with emotional viewpoints informed by their experiences toward which we should be empathetic but which are nonetheless too unsophisticated to be entered into adult discourse about serious matters, and so therefore they are insulated from criticism. Or you can think they are adults, who can make statements in the public sphere that would be taken seriously and who must therefore submit themselves to rigorous criticism in that public sphere. They and their allies cannot have both. If they are children, let them emote free of criticism, and leave their emoting outside the playing field of adult political discourse. If they are adults, then they can be criticized, and in just the terms in which other adults are criticized. In the latter case, the adults who want to profit from the lugubrious fulminations of David Hogg and Emma González while protecting them from any attack will just have to recognize that entering the game means playing by the stakes of the game. Factually deprived, overwrought ranting must be called by its name, even if the ranters are freshly scrubbed high school students who never miss an opportunity to remind everyone of their status as hapless, pitiable victims.
That week in late April 1968 marked an important shift in American radical youth culture. The old prototype of the thoughtful, well read early SDS member who challenged American domestic and international actions by delving thoroughly into the philosophical and cultural traditions of the country and arming himself with serious counter-arguments gave way to the foul-mouthed, half-literate, violence-prone ideologue personified by the young vandals at Columbia. David Hogg and Emma González are not (yet) calling for "Two, Three, Many Columbias." But wait around a bit and see where this goes, as they start to fully realize how unrealistic their utopian plans are and how much unchecked power their media supporters have given them to go after "the evil people." And try not to despair for the country.