George Orwell once observed that during times of upheaval it’s often not the big events that etch themselves into your memory but the smaller or tangential ones.
The other day I was watching television and saw a black man explain that he had done what had to be done, what was long overdue, and he didn’t care about who was bothered by it anymore. Randall Woodfin, the mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, had ordered the razing of a 115-year-old monument commemorating the American Confederacy. And razed it was—in the space of 24 hours, right in the middle of an annual state “holiday” honoring the Confederate President Jefferson Davis. In a split screen image next to Woodfin speaking you could see a naked plinth, graffitied with Black Lives Matter slogans, now absent its notorious obelisk. Protesters galvanized by the horrific on-camera killing of George Floyd had tried in vain to tear down the obelisk themselves; their mayor finished the job for them.
“We don’t have time to worry about something that’s not working for our city and relegates black people to property and slavery,” Woodfin patiently explained. And what of a civil lawsuit filed against Birmingham by Alabama’s attorney general for violating the state’s monument preservation law? The city would gladly pay a fine. And that was that. With the stroke of a pen, Woodfin put paid to decades of shopworn reactionary special pleading about “cultural heritage” and self-pitying revisionism. Jefferson Davis’s party was ruined. A tribute to human bondage vanished like a thief in the night in the Deep South.
For the first time in years I felt a twinge of optimism about the future of the United States commingled with a sense of absurdity for experiencing it.
“Now?” my wife, accustomed to my doomsday prophesying, asked when I told her the good news. What about the still-active pandemic which has so far killed over 110,000 Americans and shattered the economy and sent millions into unemployment? Or the demonstrations and riots in every major American city, which have now prompted demonstrations and riots in foreign cities? Or the dozens journalists who have been roughed up or arrested or gassed for chronicling the kind of civilizational collapse in Washington, D.C., New York or Philadelphia they’d expect to see in the Middle East? Or, at the center of it all, the unlettered and puckered Caligula limply and mutely brandishing his holy book while threatening to unleash animals and mechanized divisions on his disloyal subjects?
I’ve read compelling articles lately explaining that we now inhabit a failed state. The American experiment, it’s been said, is a laboratory bust and one which—if we’re being honest with ourselves—was never all that promising or “exceptional” to begin with. To try a different metaphor, what we’re experiencing is the death rattle of liberal democracy and like all death rattles this one comes with a host of symptoms: alternating fevers and chills, occasional signs of rallying, and hallucinations which can allow the patient to mistake a vibrant past for a moribund present.
Perhaps that’s what seeing a black mayor tear down a racist statue—one that outlasted King, Baldwin and Rustin, not to mention the first black president—represented for me, a seductive but misleading flicker of life in an expiring organism. But then, it wasn’t the only sign I saw this week. Nor was it the only statue.
Other southern states are following Woodfin’s excellent example, beginning with Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam who had announced his intent to scupper a much-vandalized monument to Robert E. Lee in Richmond. Northam made this announcement in a press conference where he was flanked by Richmond’s black mayor, Levar Stoney, as well as descendants of Lee.
Stoney took to the podium and opened by saying simply, “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time.” All affirmed it was. Here, again, there was no tired debate or cavils about desecrating white patrimony or any the-South-will-rise-again idiocy. The good mayor has further proposed the removal of four additional Confederate monuments which have too long blighted the Virginia capital.
Prior atrocities in former secessionist cities, from Dylann Roof’s massacre of churchgoers in Charleston to neo-Nazis’ march through Charlottesville, couldn’t do this. A white cop in a blue Midwestern state knelt on the neck of a black man for almost nine minutes—several minutes longer than was necessary to kill him—and that was judged enough to end the argument about a previous civil war, even as a new one threatened to engulf the nation.
At the ballot box, too, there have been positive developments easy to overlook in the midst of so much Twitter-transmitted American carnage. Steve King, a redneck legislator from Iowa, has just been trounced in a primary contest and will now have to console himself with polluting Facebook and Reddit subthreads with his defense of white supremacism instead of the halls of Congress. Ferguson, a city which six years ago became a cauldron for a new civil rights movement, has just elected Ella Jones as its first black—and first woman—mayor.
As to the fear of an incipient American dictatorship taking root, civic action here seems to have forestalled this grim contingency, too, at least for the time being.
Two U.S. military officials this week abased themselves by acting as if they were servants of a Latin American junta rather than faithful executors of the Constitution. But, in the face of overwhelming public denunciation, they made stunning and telling reversals.
Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, decked out in combat fatigues, strode behind the president into Lafayette Square on Monday as part of an entourage en route to a contemptible photo op at St. John’s church, one preceded by the unwarranted clearance of peaceful protesters with rubber bullets and tear gas by Park Police.
Milley seems to have realized just how stupid and provocative this act was, and just how damaging not only to military-civilian relations but to the morale of so many of the officers under his command. He’s since written an unusual memo addressed to all American servicemen, which can only be described as a Straussian rebuke to his commander in chief. The memo affirms the right of state governors, not the president, to decide who deploys the U.S. military to American streets; it denounces racism in no uncertain terms by noting that soldiers of all hues are active in all branches of the armed services; and it upholds the right for peaceful assembly and freedom of speech—exactly the right taken away on Lafayette Square just days earlier.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who also accompanied Trump on his PR saunter through a restive capital (claiming he had no idea where he was going), spun from talking about owning the American “battlespace” to ruling out the use of the military as law enforcement until conditions become sufficiently “urgent” and “dire.”
Meanwhile, former high-ranking and well-respected members of the U.S. military have more forthrightly condemned the president as a threat to democracy. These include Gen. James Mattis, the former defense secretary, who finally broke his code of omerta about life in the Trump administration only to compare the president’s political strategy to that of Adolf Hitler. I don’t imagine such moral equivalence came lightly to a retired Marine, whatever rabid nickname the press has chosen to bestow upon him. I know it didn’t for two Pulitzer Prize-winning conservatives intellectuals who preceded Mattis by mere days in drawing similar analogies.
Washington Post columnist George Will has searingly likened today’s Republican Party, to which he formerly belonged, to Vichy collaborators of the Third Reich. Anne Applebaum, one of our finest historians of Stalinism and Eastern Europe, has implicitly compared Lindsey Graham, Trump’s principal enabler in the Senate, to Markus Wolf, the lupine spymaster of the East German Stasi. Neither Will nor Applebaum has ever been glib or insensitive about the horrors of the 20th century. Neither meant to diminish the legacy of totalitarianism by showing just how susceptible we are all to its lures. Like Mayor Stoney, they both reckoned with the haunting reality of this country and seemed to be saying with their polemics: “It’s time.”
Another conservative intellectual, Robert Kagan, published a very useful book two years ago called The Jungle Grows Back. It was couched in part as response to the End-of-History inevitabilism which had become fashionable at the end of the Cold War but farcical by the end of the occupation of Iraq. Kagan’s preferred metaphor for the fragility of liberal democracy was a garden which requires constant manicuring and cultivation lest the forces of nature, both internal and external, overtake it. “The question,” Robert Kagan asked, “is not what will bring down the liberal order but what can possibly hold it up?”
Believe it or not, we’ve seen what can, in one of the worst weeks in modern American history.