Last night, a relative sent me this op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal last week written by Andrew Michta, Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany. In short, the piece invokes Czesław Miłosz’s The Captive Mind to argue that the protests for racial justice, the toppling of statues, and cancel culture are all part of a broader ideological project to identify those people who disagree with leftist politics, discredit and segregate them from society, and build Communist-like totalitarianism in the United States.
Michta presents an interesting perspective, but it’s riddled with logical fallacies, unfounded assertions, and motivated reasoning. The whole premise of his argument rests on a false equivalency between protests for racial justice and Communist totalitarianism that totally mischaracterizes and homogenizes the protests and the politics behind them.
Michta claims that the protests are an “attempt to rewrite history” and “recast all of American history as a litany of racial transgressions.” He’s attacking a straw man; the current political moment is the culmination of decades of boiling frustration. It’s forcing us as a country to re-examine our history, challenge dominant narratives written mostly by White men, and confront the many instances of racism that still exist. And that’s a good thing.
People like Michta seem perfectly content to gloss over how awful it’s been for Black people in America. Black people were literally enslaved in this country for over 250 years and denied basic human rights, and after Emancipation they spent another century living under oppressive Jim Crow laws. The legacies of those institutions still manifest themselves today: the massive wealth gap between Black and White families, educational and employment disparities, and imprisonment rates are just a few examples.
Because these facts run in direct contradiction to the ideals set forth by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—that all men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights—they’re not convenient history. If anything, Michta struggles with cognitive dissonance because this dark history doesn’t fit into his own narrative of America.
In order to form a more perfect Union, it’s our duty to reflect on the times that America has failed to live up to its promises and work to correct those mistakes. That’s what these protests ultimately aim to do; they’re not “erasing American history” as Michta claims. The more we act like our country is infallible and above reproach, the more we slide toward the very blind allegiance to the State—i.e. totalitarianism—that he criticizes.
Are the protests violent in nature? In many cases, yes. But what’s the alternative? For decades, Black people have peacefully protested and have been met with silence, derision, or even suppression. Colin Kaepernick got blackballed by the NFL for kneeling during the national anthem as a form of protest for social justice. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated for preaching the virtues of racial equality, civil rights, and nonviolence.
There have been peaceful protests all throughout the past decade in response to the countless deaths of unarmed Black people at the hands of police, and yet there’s been no substantive change. Black people are fed up because it seems like hardly anyone is listening, so the protests have gotten more violent. Is that lamentable? Yes, but property damage can be fixed; lives lost to police brutality can’t. It’s easy for White people to be bystanders when we don’t have any skin in the game. But when racialized police brutality leads to property damage, it imposes costs on us that force us to care. Theft and vandalism aren’t tactics I endorse, but I certainly understand why they happen.
Furthermore, the heavy-handed response by the federal government has only worsened the situation. Sending in federal troops to “restore order” to these cities is borderline fascistic, and the right wing of the political spectrum would be kicking and screaming about it if Barack Obama were doing this (see this video of Sean Hannity on the Bundy standoff from several years ago). Donald Trump is uniquely agitating the situation, which is all the more reason why it’s imperative he be voted out of office. To be sure, there are some nefarious actors from both extremes of the ideological spectrum out there looking to foment unrest for their own political goals, but they likely represent a small fraction of the mass of protestors in the streets.
To say that these protests are just a front for neo-Marxists to “identify and separate those groups that deserve affirmation, in their view, and those who do not,” as Michta does, is ridiculous. For one, this presumes that the racial unrest is coordinated by some homogenous, centralized ideological force. The fact that movements like Black Lives Matter are extremely decentralized discredits that assumption. The idea that all leftist forces in this country are under the collective influence of some international network of Marxist elites is ludicrous and conspiratorial.
Additionally, Michta’s line of thinking treats all protestors as though they have a contempt for freedom of speech or liberty writ large, which is a gross mischaracterization. He conflates left-wing progressivism with the Stalinist totalitarianism Miłosz criticizes in The Captive Mind. Most of these protestors are not avowed Leninists. Many of them—including pretty much all of the protestors I personally know—are staunch advocates for civil liberties and vehement opponents of any sort of authoritarian ideology. This just sounds like lazy stereotyping and motivated reasoning by a right-wing populist professor.
Michta points out that protestors have toppled statues. Let them. Dismantling monuments is by no means a “wholesale denunciation of America’s past,” nor does it “wreak destruction on ordinary Americans or their history,” as he claims. We shouldn’t be glorifying Confederate belligerents for their treasonous attempts to perpetuate the institution of slavery. Historical figures with complicated legacies like Christopher Columbus and Andrew Jackson shouldn’t be revered as heroes, either. This is just part of the long overdue re-examination of our history that I mentioned above.
No one is going to erase the history of the Civil War or the American Revolution by knocking down some marble. There aren’t any statues of Adolf Hitler, but we all know who he was and what he did. No one claims the Germans have erased history by banning Nazi iconography. These sorts of things belong in museums and textbooks; they shouldn’t be prominently displayed in public places for adoration.
Michta’s fear that “those who control the symbols of political discourse can dominate the culture and control collective consciousness” is way overblown. America has been, and will always be, a pluralistic society. It’s too pluralistic to become totalitarian. By nature, no one group can single-handedly control all symbols and discourse in the ways that Communist governments did in twentieth century Eastern Europe. And even if they could, taking down some statues hardly accomplishes that goal.
I suppose one could argue that the iconoclasm inherent in felling monuments is an example of “cancel culture” at work. And I agree with Michta that cancel culture is problematic. We shouldn’t blacklist people or destroy their careers because they hold unpopular opinions, once made an offensive joke, or posted something distasteful on social media years ago. Doing so can produce a chilling effect on speech and also ignores the ability of human beings to learn and grow over time.
However, while cancel culture has its many faults, likening it to totalitarianism is a huge stretch at best. The figures that these monuments commemorate all held deeply problematic views and did some bad things. Of course, they should be judged in the context of their time, not according to some modern progressive standard. But even with that in mind, they all did things worthy of condemnation. They should be canceled.
The same goes for people who actively and deliberately use problematic language. Mainstream society doesn’t tolerate words like the n-word or r-word anymore because they carry with them deeply offensive connotations; there should be a social stigma against using them. That doesn’t mean the people who say those things should be permanently banished from society, but they probably deserve to be publicly shamed. The reevaluation of language is a natural part of an evolving society, not some ideological weapon of a “dominant party” as Michta claims.
And, unlike in a totalitarian society, our government can’t throw people in prison for saying or believing offensive things (so long as they’re not inciting violence). We have a constitutionally protected freedom of speech. But that freedom doesn’t protect from the social consequences of such speech. If you say stupid things, then whatever reputational costs you suffer are yours to bear. Michta just seems like he’s frustrated that social standards have changed over time and doesn’t feel like keeping up.
Michta’s critique of “sanitizing language” also misses the boat. He’s right that language has power, but his definition of “proper” terminology is heavily influenced by his own world view. Calling the protests “riots” ignores their purpose and gives the government an excuse to suppress them with force, a hallmark of authoritarian regimes. Refusing to acknowledge that many national monuments carry with them racial baggage is itself a form of sanitization that absolves America of all of its past mistakes.
Ultimately, I reject the idea that we face some “stark binary choice.” There is no “unrelenting assault of the neo-Marxist narrative” that threatens to destroy America. There are, however, newly ascendant forces of progress that aim to improve America and atone for its sins. If there is a choice to be made, it’s whether we embrace that inevitable progress or dig our heels into the dirt and cling to a past that wasn’t all that kind to people of color, women, LGBTQ individuals, religious minorities, or almost anyone who wasn’t a White, Christian, heterosexual male.