Or: "Driving Through The Caution Lights."
In 1932 my grandfather was the judge in a case where the lynching of the defendants was a very real possibility. This is what he said to the court:
Now, gentlemen, this is for the audience, and I want it to be known that these prisoners are under the protection of this court. The Sheriff and his deputies, and members of the National Guards, are under the direction and authority of this court. This court intends to protect these prisoners and any other persons engaged in this trial. Any man or group of men that attempts to take charge outside of the law are not only disobedient to the law but are citizens unworthy of the protection of the State of Alabama, and unworthy of the citizenship which they enjoy. I say this much, that the man who would engage in anything that would cause the death of any of these prisoners is not only a murderer, but a cowardly murderer, and a man whom we should look down upon with all the contempt in our being; and I am going to say further that the soldiers here and the Sheriffs here are expected to defend with their lives these prisoners and if they must do it, listen gentlemen, you have the authority of this court, and this court is speaking with authority, the man who attempts it may expect that his own life be forfeited or the guards that guard them must forfeit their lives. If I were in command, and I will be there if I know it, I will not hesitate to give the order to protect with their lives these prisoners against any such attempt.
I am speaking with feeling and I know it because I am feeling it. I absolutely have no patience with mob spirit and that spirit that would charge the guilt or innocence of any being without knowing of their guilt or innocence. Your very civilization depends upon the carrying out of your laws in an orderly manner. I am here listening to this case trying to sift the truth or not the truth of it and I am going to strengthen that guard if necessary and I am going to let everyone know that any attempt, and I believe these boys understand, that you have got to kill them before you get these prisoners. That is understood and they have told me they would, and they will do it. Those are the instructions and orders given to the guards.
I absolutely have no patience with mob spirit. I could never have been a lawyer, but I did inherit enough of my grandfather's spirit to put me in absolute agreement, intellectual and emotional, with him. I am speaking with feeling and I know it.
That was my initial reaction to the Covington Boys vs. Progressive Opinion affair, though not my initial reaction to the incident that sparked the conflict. In that reaction I'm happy to say that I passed the Covington Catholic test, as described in The Atlantic by Julie Zimmerman. That is, when I first read of the incident I thought Hmm, that looks bad, but there's probably more to the story. And I waited to see what facts would emerge when the dust settled. One lesson that we all ought to have learned in recent years is that sensational stories in the media often prove to be far less sensational when more light is shed on them.
Of course there was a great deal more to the story, so much so that the original "narrative" was shown to be largely false. I know there are still holdouts for that view, but I don't think it's tenable. As an assessment of the facts these two pieces speak for me:
Andrew Sullivan, in New York magazine: "The Abyss of Hate vs. Hate."
Caitlin Flanagan, in The Atlantic: "The Media Botched the Covington Catholic Story."
Note that neither of these is a conservative publication, and neither of the writers is a Trump supporter; quite the contrary. I'm not sure what Sullivan's views in general are these days, but I don't think he can be described as a conservative. I had pretty much given up on him a while back and only saw this piece because someone linked to it. Flanagan is, as far as I can tell, more or less a conventional liberal, but clear-eyed and not an ideologue. She's one of the few writers currently at The Atlantic whom I'll take time to read.
For me this was something of a Young Goodman Brown moment. Brown is the protagonist of the Hawthorne short story which bears his name. In brief, it describes the crisis of a young Massachusetts Puritan man who discovers that all the respectable people of his town are participants in a rite of devil-worship held at night deep in the woods. Nothing ever looks the same to him afterwards. (You can read the story here.)
The initial reaction to the Covington story among journalists, various celebrities, and the left in general was the work of a mob in every respect except that of physical violence, and that was vehemently threatened (which put me in mind of Yeats's line "had they but courage equal to desire"). It disgusted me. On a visceral level I was sickened by the mindlessness of it, by the way a mob joyfully discards all constraints on its ugly passion. A mob is an entity in itself, something bigger, more stupid, and more wicked than the individuals who constitute it.
But internet mob actions happen fairly often. What made this one so disturbing to me was similar to what disturbed Goodman Brown: not that there were devil worshipers in the woods, but that the respectable people were among them, as excited and happy to be there as any witch. Usually these mobs are made up of anonymous people with no power apart from whatever they can collectively exercise as a mob. But the mob attacking the Covington boys was led by institutions and people who have a great deal of cultural influence: The New York Times; The Washington Post. CNN. Pundits and entertainers. One of the first of these I saw, after the initial story appeared, was from Michael Green, one of the screenwriters for Blade Runner 2049. Green said (on Twitter, naturally) of the now-famous boy in the MAGA hat :
A face like that never changes. This image will define his life. No one need ever forgive him.
My interest in seeing BR 2049 again died a quick death when I saw that.
There were worse, of course, including the Beauty and the Beast co-producer who thought the boys should be fed head-first into a wood-chipper. Some of the attackers deleted and apologized for some of their most offensive and violent comments. The press backtracked to a degree, but at least from what I saw most went no further than to admit that the situation was more complex than they had initially said.
I don't know whether any of them have ever admitted that their story was just plain false in every important respect. At worst the boys were guilty of bad manners and "disrespect" (an odd complaint to make in 21st century America)--unless you believe that a MAGA hat is only and always a symbol of white supremacy, and anyone wearing it a white supremacist, morally equivalent to a Klan member. Or that the silly "tomahawk chop" gesture, used by fans of every sports team with an Indian name, is the moral equivalent of burning a cross. It's one thing to say that the hat and the gesture are offensive and insensitive, combative where reconciliation is needed. I would largely agree. But it's quite another to say that they are threats of violence, even a species of violence, and only used by racist monsters. I know there are people who believe these things, just as there are people who believe Obama is a secret Muslim. Reason is powerless in such cases.
Part of the secret power of a mob is a truth of human nature that we would all prefer not to see: it feels good to hate. Really good. There's a kind of ecstasy in surrendering to it. There is a lot of hate in our politics now. There is plenty of it on the right, but there is at least as much on the left. And many or most of those on the left are unable to see it, even when, in cases like this, it is on striking public display.
To a degree this is to be expected as the normal human tendency to be blind to one's own faults while having a keen eye for those of others. But part of it is that progressives have defined themselves particularly and explicitly as we who do not hate, we who are not those who hate. By definition, then, hate is something that other people, their enemies, do. It's the very essence of their opposition to the right, which they see precisely as the party of hate. Therefore whatever indignation they feel and express is not hate. If you see something in them that you might be inclined to call hate or malice, it is their righteous anger. It is an aspect of their virtue, so of course they aren't ashamed of it.
Empathy, openness, and fairness are also among the qualities on which the left prides itself, and ones which were nowhere to be seen in this affair. How was it that thousands, at least, of presumably sane people were able to focus so much hatred on one teenage boy, caught in a strange situation which he did not create, with a look on his face which they deemed arrogant, and moreover symbolic of the world's greatest evils? (Of personal grievances as well--some commentators were enraged because the picture reminded them of someone they hated in high school. If I felt that way about someone I would not expect anyone else to take it seriously.) In matters like this the left is absolutely unwilling and/or unable to consider the possibility that legitimate disagreement can exist, that anyone can see the matter other than they do and not be an evil person. In this view it's simply not possible that anyone could have reasons for supporting Trump that are not evil or at the very least hopelessly and culpably stupid, and in any case beyond respect, dialog, or simple courtesy. (I'm speaking generally; there are individual exceptions.)
All this has been under way for a long time, but it's reached a dangerous pitch now. There are a couple of remarks that I see frequently on conservative web sites: "This is how we got Trump" and "This will not end well." Both are applicable to this situation.
Flanagan and Sullivan are worth quoting in confirmation of those two observations. Flanagan, on how we got Trump, and may get him again:
I am prompted to issue my own ethics reminders for The New York Times. Here they are: You were partly responsible for the election of Trump because you are the most influential newspaper in the country, and you are not fair or impartial. Millions of Americans believe you hate them and that you will casually harm them. Two years ago, they fought back against you, and they won. If Trump wins again, you will once again have played a small but important role in that victory.
Sullivan, on the bad end toward which we seem headed:
A campaign slogan for a candidate who won the votes of 46 percent of the country in 2016 is to be seen as indistinguishable from the Confederate flag. This is not the language of politics. It is a language of civil war.
I can understand this impulse emotionally as a response to Trump’s hatefulness. But I fear it morally or politically. It’s a vortex that can lead to nothing but the raw imposition of power by one tribe over another....
This is the abyss of hate versus hate, tribe versus tribe. This is a moment when we can look at ourselves in the mirror of social media and see what we have become. Liberal democracy is being dismantled before our eyes — by all of us. This process is greater than one president. It is bottom-up as well as top-down. Tyranny, as Damon Linker reminded us this week, is not just political but psychological, and the tyrannical impulse, ratcheted up by social media, is in all of us. It infects the soul of the entire body politic. It destroys good people. It slowly strangles liberal democracy. This is the ongoing extinction level event.
And a commenter at Rod Dreher's blog offered this warning:
We are driving through the caution lights because we trust our civilization, our safety, our wealth, our technology, to be secure against self-destruction. It’s never safe to ignore the caution lights. C. S. Lewis wrote that “pain is God’s megaphone.” We would be fools to ignore the signals.
One lesson that a mob teaches us is that the restraints of civilization can be more easily broken and discarded than we like to think. And this recent incident teaches us, if we were so naive as not to know it already, that education (or "education") is no guarantee of resistance to the impulse.
I absolutely have no patience with mob spirit. I am speaking with feeling, and I know it.