Silence Is OK
Today's protesters carry signs claiming that "Silence Is Complicity." They believe that systemic racism exists in the U.S. and that silence perpetuates it. Only by supporting or even joining the street protests can silent Americans prove they are guiltless.
Many of the protesters also believe that those who remain silent should be attacked, either online or in person. Innocent bystanders, and those who try to defend them, are beaten, and crowds are brought to the homes of perceived opponents. What we have witnessed goes far beyond pushing and shoving: we have seen vicious assaults, shootings, looting, and acts of arson. Protesters believe that the silent American must be punished for remaining silent.
There are several problems with this reasoning. First, it assumes the existence of "systemic racism." I have never seen any evidence that America is a systemically racist society. Recent polling confirms my impression.
In a recent Pew Research poll, 78% of Americans said they have confidence in the police. Broken down by race, 84% of whites, 74% of Hispanics, and 56% of blacks have confidence in the police, and this even after unprecedented media coverage of anti-police protests. (The numbers were higher before the much publicized killing of George Floyd.) If there were systemic racism in America, there would not be such confidence in the police, even among minorities.
What racism does exist in America is anti-white in nature: the racism of affirmative action, minority set-aside contracting, and other minority privileges. Biden's criteria for selecting a vice presidential running mate ("a woman of color") was the essence of racism and sexism, since it excluded 85% of the population on the basis of race and sex. No matter how qualified a white male, a white female, or a black male was, Biden refused to consider any such person. Is this the way we should choose the person who stands a heartbeat away from the presidency?
Even if racism did exist to the extent liberals claim that it does, individuals in America would have every right to remain silent. Our First Amendment guarantees the freedom to speak or not speak as we wish. It is only in totalitarian states like North Korea or Venezuela that the population is marched out and forced to cheer for the party in power. Those who don't cheer loudly enough are beaten, starved, sent to concentration camps, or shot. Do you think it won't happen here?
Unfortunately, the left believes that its causes take precedence over the Constitution. If progressives gain control, our constitutional liberties will be taken from us because it is always possible to find a cause that takes precedence over our freedoms.
That was the argument of our first female Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O'Connor, in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003). In the majority decision, which O'Connor wrote, the justice as much as admitted that affirmative action is unconstitutional, but, she asserted, it must be tolerated for another 30 years or more because social justice takes precedence over constitutional rights. It was just that sort of opinion that our Founders dreaded.
This is one reason why our Founders included the Constitution's so-called supremacy clause stating that "the legislative acts of the United States ... shall be the supreme law of the respective states." Our Founders foresaw attempts by states or local entities or groups to defy the Constitution (not to be confused with powers duly reserved for the states), and they attempted to forestall these attempts.
Today, many discrete interests — racial, sex-based, or lifestyle-based, and many of them regional in character ("coastal" in nature, for instance) — come into conflict with the Constitution. Like the early "nullifiers" who wanted to carve out exceptions for their special interests, today's social justice activists believe that the Constitution does not apply to them because of the overriding importance of their beliefs. Our Founders understood that no true union can survive that sort of divisiveness.
It has gotten worse since Grutter v. Bollinger. While Justice O'Connor grudgingly accepted the social needs argument, now half of our justices don't even flinch. Like Justice Ginsburg, they consider the Constitution a "living" document that can be made to say whatever they want it to say, and they believe that a mere five justices have the right to legislate from the bench.
According to the living Constitution logic, those who disagree with the protesters might have no recourse when their safety and property are attacked. Joe Biden called the protesters "peaceful" even as they were looting and assaulting others. It's difficult to know what's going on in Biden's mind, but he seems to believe that anyone who acts in support of a liberal cause must be given a pass regardless of the criminality of his actions. This is just another variation on the idea that social justice overrides liberty.
In the end, this line of thought leads to social anarchy, with the mob the arbiter of what is legal. It seems that Biden would accept the use of force in support of BLM while abandoning those who wish to remain silent. He has joined the "Silence Is Complicity" crowd.
Underlying Biden's position is the collectivist principle that all existence is ideological and that the private life should no longer exist. If one has earned a comfortable retirement and wishes to spend it collecting stamps or pursuing some other hobby, that sort of behavior is deemed racist. If one is devoted to making life better for one's family, that activity is seen as white privilege. Progressives believe that everyone has the moral duty to support the protests — and the protests are, in effect, supporting two key demands: socialism and minority privilege.
In the long run, it goes farther. It's not just remaining silent — it's living a comfortable life that is seen as criminal. The ultimate object of attack is not the police — it's what the police protect or are supposed to protect, and that goes beyond the upscale stores on the Magnificent Mile. What's at stake is capitalism itself and the bourgeois existence it funds. The more radical protesters, who often come from affluent families, despise affluence and wish to eliminate it.
The logic of complicity would sweep up every American in a revolutionary whirlwind that would end with anarchy, penury, and violence. With no concept of constitutional rights to protect them, Americans would find themselves subject to the mob. In the end, as America declined into chaos, the silent American would find himself huddled in his once comfortable home, without water, electricity, or food, fearing every moment the arrival of the looters.
It should be obvious that it's really the protesters who are "complicit." They believe that the mob has every right to attack those who disagree with it, even those who merely wish to remain silent and lead their own lives. They are the ones we should fear.
Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).