Thursday, 23 July 2020 09:57


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Michael S. Swisher

Michael S. Swisher is Chairman of the Board of Directors of Religion & Society, the Foundation that publishes The St. Croix Review.

Order: Prerequisite to Liberty

Looking out on the placid natural beauty of the St. Croix Valley, it takes some effort to imagine that a mere half-hour’s drive to the west, violent rioting in Minneapolis following the May 25 death of George Floyd caused an estimated $500 million in damage from looting, vandalism, and arson. The left-wing mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey, ordered the Minneapolis Police Department to abandon its third precinct station, which the rabble burnt to the ground. Numerous small businesses along Lake Street, one of the city’s principal east-west thoroughfares, and some others elsewhere in the city, were ransacked and burned.

The response of the Minneapolis City Council to this mob violence was to vote on June 26 to abolish the city’s police force. To put the icing on the cake, the Democrat-Farmer-Labor governor of Minnesota, Tim Walz, on July 2 asked for federal aid to help pay for the destruction that he assiduously refused to prevent. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — rightly, in my opinion — declined his request. Even though Minnesotans outside Minneapolis (of whom I am one) will likely end up footing a significant part of the bill, there is no reason why we should expect the rest of the country to pay for the mis-, mal-, and non-feasance of Minnesota politicians.

How — or whether — the devastated areas may be rebuilt is, in any event, unlikely to be affected by the denial of Governor Walz’s request. The $16 million he wanted “would have been used to reimburse local governments for debris clearing, repair, and rebuilding.”[1] It comes nowhere near the cost of replacing what has been destroyed. That money, if it is to be spent, will have to be raised from other sources.

The great majority of construction is financed by mortgage lenders. Real estate mortgages are traditionally considered safe investments, but that is a qualified assumption. Is the collateral safe? It must be covered by fire insurance, for example. How many insurers will care to cover properties in an area where there has been widespread arson? Policies, if available at all, will be very expensive. If a property should be in a floodplain, it must be covered by flood insurance. Flooding is so unpredictable, and the damage it causes so great, that no private insurer in the United States will carry it. There is a federal flood insurance program, and the amount it will cover is strictly capped. Shall we have a federal riot insurance program as well?

How Minneapolis, or any of the other cities where rioting has taken place, from New York to Seattle, can recover from their self-inflicted wounds, is a conundrum that we shall see resolved slowly, over many months, or even years. It will be a harsh lesson in the dependence of liberty on the enforcement of order.

Liberty is not license. It is not, in other words, the ability to do as one pleases, without thought of its consequences for others, as the riotous crowds in cities from coast to coast have done. Liberty is the ability of ordinary citizens to go about their lawful business without fear of losing their lives or property. It is the freedom of the small retailer, restaurateur, or tavern keeper to feel secure in his person and about his premises. It is the confidence of the tenant of an apartment above his shop that he will have a place to sleep at night and that his belongings will not be reduced to ashes.

All of these aspects of liberty are dependent on an order of society that prevents such things from happening, by moral suasion if possible, but by force if necessary. It is no favor to poor people, or to those of racial and ethnic minorities, to allow riot and crime to run rampant through the vicinities where they live and work. The notion that lenience towards lawlessness somehow benefits such people is a romantic fantasy of the intelligentsia, who conceive of the criminal as a victim of oppressive capitalism, and of his offences as acts of resistance against it. No person who had actually lived in a crime-ridden district would be so foolish as to believe such twaddle.

Moreover, this is historically a foreign attitude, brought here by European Jacobins and Marxists. Alexis de Tocqueville contrasted American and European attitudes toward crime in his famous work Democracy in America. Tocqueville observed that in Europe, “the criminal is an unfortunate who fights to hide his head from the agents of power; the population in some way assists in the struggle. In America, he is an enemy of the human race, and he has humanity as a whole against him.” Tocqueville recounted an incident in which “the inhabitants of a country where a great crime had been committed spontaneously form[ed] committees for the purpose of pursuing the guilty one and delivering him to the courts.”

A remarkable illustration of this once-characteristic American approach can be found in Theodore Roosevelt’s early book Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail (1888), in a tale that rivals any Western to grace the silver screen. During the bitter March of 1886, Roosevelt and his ranch hands looked out on the Little Missouri River at a treacherous winter landscape in which ice had jammed as it was breaking up. They had kept their horses on the side opposite the ranch house, requiring them to ferry themselves across in a small boat. One day they discovered the boat missing, the rope mooring it cut cleanly through with a knife. They found a red woolen mitten with a leather palm on the ice, which left no doubt that the boat had been stolen.

TR and his men suspected that the thieves were a group of “three hard characters” who had already attracted the unfavorable attention of other neighboring cattlemen. Roosevelt wrote:

They belonged to a class that always holds sway during the raw youth of a frontier community, and the putting down of which is the first step toward decent government. . . .

“The three men we suspected had long been accused — justly or unjustly — of being implicated both in cattle-killing and in that worst of frontier crimes, horse-stealing; it was only by an accident that they had escaped the clutches of the vigilantes the preceding fall. Their leader was a well-built fellow named Finnigan, who had long red hair reaching to his shoulders, and always wore a broad hat and a fringed buckskin shirt. He was rather a hard case, and had been chief actor in a number of shooting scrapes . . .”

Not disposed to suffer this theft without resistance, Roosevelt and two of his hands, Bill Sewall and Wilmot Dow, built a flat-bottomed boat from available materials and chased the villainous three downriver. After three days they discovered the stolen boat, and then the thieves’ camp. Roosevelt, Sewall, and Dow surprised and placed them under arrest (TR being a deputy sheriff of Billings County). After re-provisioning at a nearby ranch they decided to split up, with Sewall and Dow continuing downriver and Roosevelt taking the thieves to the jail at Dickinson. TR hired a local settler to drive his prisoners in his wagon, while Roosevelt followed on foot. The settler was incredulous that Roosevelt and his men had not simply lynched the rogues — but drove on, and after three hundred miles, they arrived and turned them over to the sheriff.

Do we lack such people today — or have they simply retreated? Unparalleled numbers of policemen are today filing for retirement or disability benefits. Law enforcement is a difficult job, and not particularly well-paid. It requires an officer to make life-or-death decisions quickly under extremely stressful conditions, with the risk of spending years thereafter being second-guessed by lawyers, judges, and (worst of all) journalists, who are never answerable to anyone for the harm they do.

We need to rediscover the old American determination to uphold order so that liberty might flourish. As Eric Voegelin memorably observed, the history of order is the order of history.

The Word We No Longer Hear

Many people are still living who remember the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Today’s tumults resemble those of that period in superficial respects, but differ in an essential way.

Sixty years ago, the focus was not on demolishing Confederate monuments or “defunding” the police. It was, rather, on ending the separate but unequal treatment of blacks that enjoyed the force of law in one-third of the United States — and not just the former Confederate states.[2] It was on securing the franchise for black citizens that had been guaranteed them by the Fifteenth Amendment.

The asserted and widely popular aim, was not merely the end of the racial segregation that had enjoyed the approval of the courts since Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), but the establishment of a colorblind society, in which (to borrow the words of Martin Luther King), people would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

The word used to describe this was integration. Integration derives from the Latin integer, meaning “whole.” Integration was expected to bring the negro into, and make him an integral part of, the whole society, where he might cooperate and compete with persons of other races on a basis of objective standards of ability and character — in short, on merit.

Today, integration can only be called a failure. We do not hear the word integration any longer. It has proved a failure not least because blacks themselves appear not to want integration. Today, we read that black college students demand separate residence halls (at Yale, Columbia, MIT, Brown, Williams, and other universities.[3] In some cases they have demanded — and received — separate commencement ceremonies. More than 75 schools, including Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, and Yale have acquiesced.[4]

What explains this fashion for “neo-segregation”?

It is easy to forget in this day and age when Martin Luther King has well-nigh been canonized, but by the year of his death, his advocacy of peaceful protest had become distinctly passé. His position of leadership had been effectively challenged by younger, more militant blacks such as Stokely Carmichael and H. “Rap” Brown, who had little or no connection to black churches (as older negro leaders did) and fewer scruples about violence. “Black power” was then the message rather than integration, and “burn, baby, burn” replaced civil disobedience. More than 300 race riots took place between 1965 and 1968, killing 250 people and destroying property worth hundreds of millions of dollars.[5]

Mike Gonzalez, writing in The Wall Street Journal, outlines the sequence of events that took place:

“Militants intimidated politicians, college administrators and midlevel bureaucrats into laying the foundation for the identity politics that rankle our lives today.

“In response to the activists’ demands, the policymakers of the past blessed the federal bureaucracy’s creation of racial and ethnic categories and the related use of racial preferences for university admissions, employment, and government contracting. . . . The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was intended to cure problems like segregation. Instead, by creating an incentive system based on grievances, the architects of identity politics all but assured victimhood would never end. . . .

“McGeorge Bundy was President Kennedy’s national security adviser. No Boston Brahmin was more representative of the elite set. By the time he left Camelot and took the helm of the Ford Foundation in 1966, the era’s riots were fully underway. . . .

“Bundy and his team believed in a staggering stratagem that [historian Karen] Ferguson calls ‘developmental separatism.’ The theory held that only after a period of ethnic separation could assimilation take place at some time in the future. One could say that they invented modern identity politics.”[6]

This combination of violent black ideologues and have white liberal intelligentsia assured that King’s dream of a nation where people would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character remains as much a dream in 2020 as it was in 1963.

Systemic Racism (?)

We have heard much in recent weeks about the “systemic racism” that is supposed to pervade American society. What is it?

Tom Sowell, who at the age of 90 has lived through the era of de jure racial segregation and the heyday of white supremacist politicians like Sen. Theodore Bilbo (D-Miss.), Governor Orval Faubus (D-Ark.), and Governor George Wallace (D-Ala.), has recently said that systemic racism does not exist. In substance, he is right. Today there is no de jure segregation. Race-baiting white supremacy like that of Bilbo, Faubus, and Wallace is a thing of the distant past.

Yet even a fictitious idea has a sort of existence. Consider astrology, which claims that the position of the planets and stars at the time of a person’s birth foreordains the course of his life. There is no evidence to support this, yet vast numbers of people believe in it, and it sustains a sort of industry that brings some of its adherents economic benefit. In this sense, astrology exists. In the same sense, so does “systemic racism.”

Systemic racism exists in this way because it is the only politically correct explanation for the persistent underachievement of lower-class blacks. We should not deceive ourselves — there is a large black middle class. It is almost invisible to the general public that relies on the mass media. There we see only the culture of the black lumpenproletariat, which just can’t seem to get ahead, which is beset by higher rates of unemployment than any other ethnic group, which features prominently in hostile encounters with the police, and which is disproportionately represented in prison populations.

There are, of course, other explanations for these phenomena than systemic racism. It is well known that more than half of all homicides and robberies are committed by black offenders, even though blacks make up only 13 percent of the population.[7] Moreover, most victims of their crimes are their neighbors. Naturally, police pay more attention to black communities. Noticing such things, however, raises the suspicion that the person who notices them is “racist.”

Likewise, more than fifty years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was then an academic sociologist, drew attention to the high rate of illegitimate birth in the black community, then around 30 percent. He was roundly derided at the time for “blaming the victim.” Today, the rate is over 70 percent. The decline of stable, two-parent families has come about because government has replaced the man of the house as breadwinner, and many young males gravitate to gangs because fathers are not present in their lives. The situation has become steadily worse since Moynihan’s study, but noticing it again runs the risk of branding the noticer as a racist.

One need not even bring up the subject of race to be called a racist. Amy Wax, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, published an op-ed article in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2017 in which she lamented the decline of “bourgeois culture.” [8]

That culture laid out the script we all were supposed to follow: Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.


“These basic cultural precepts reigned from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. They could be followed by people of all backgrounds and abilities, especially when backed up by almost universal endorsement. Adherence was a major contributor to the productivity, educational gains, and social coherence of that period.”


For her temerity in publishing such arguments, and for later defending them on the grounds that her ideas were about culture and not about race but acknowledging that different cultures had different racial compositions, Prof. Wax became the subject of a campaign to fire her. A petition to do so garnered 4,000 signatures. A local Black Lives Matter leader threatened to disrupt university classes if she were not fired within the week. Ultimately, she was relieved of her duties teaching first-year law students.[9]


Clearly, any attempt to explain any misfortune, reversal, or failure on the part of any black person in any way that assigns any responsibility for it to his own behavior, is likely to lead to censure and possibly worse consequences. The only acceptable explanation is one that absolves him of any blame for his own situation, and that is “systemic racism.”


Eric Holder, Attorney General in the administration of Barack Obama, once said that the United States needed an “honest conversation about race.” A conversation, ordinarily, has at least two sides — but events like those described make it obvious that only one side is allowed. That’s not a conversation — it’s a lecture. How long will citizens sit still for it? *






[2] We may recall that the landmark 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education originated in a lawsuit against the public school system of Topeka, Kansas – a city and state that had not participated in the secessions of 1861.



[5] Mike Gonzalez, “We Might Get Fooled Again,” Wall Street Journal, Friday, July 10, 2020, p. A15.

[6] ibid.

[7] Jason L. Riley, “The Full Truth About Race and Policing,” Wall Street Journal, Wednesday, June 10, 2020, p. A17.



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