There seems to be some discomfort with the beheading of statues of Sir John A. Macdonald even from people who are not fans of Sir John A. Macdonald. And rightly, because disorder in the streets is not an innocent thing.
In the United States it is a great deal more serious than in Canada. And I am of course aware that it was triggered there by legitimate concerns about racism and police brutality particularly in combination. But just because an action is based on legitimate concerns does not mean the action is legitimate. The ends do not justify the meansâ€¦ on either side.
Speaking of means, it should be noted in passing that the current American upheaval may achieve the highly unintended end of re-electing Donald Trump. Polls are uncertain and since I denied he could even become the Republican nominee in 2016 you can take my prognostications about 2020 with all the salt available. But it is worth noting that half a century ago popular disgust with rampant violence, from riots to muggings, helped elect Richard Nixon at a time when the public was not by and large inclined to vote Republican. And it might do so again; for what they are worth polls suggest that the riots are strengthening the GOP in places and among demographics where they normally struggle in vain.
One may double down and say this response just proves in 2020, as in 1968, that the public are bigots and thugs who deserve a rock in the face. But if you do so, you are unlikely to win friends or influence peopleâ€¦ except to vote against your preferred candidate. For that reason, I think Biden's condemnation of the rioters was weak. His bad-people-on-both-sides echoed Trump's good-people-on-both-sides and, in both cases, fell dreadfully short of what was needed. Both men should have named names and, I want to emphasize here, both should have been particularly scrupulous about denouncing those thugs who claimed to be on their side or that they were on the thugs' side.
The only semi-reputable politician who cheered at the toppling and beheading of the Sir John A. statue in Montreal was the head of the Bloc Quebecois, one Yves-FranÃ§ois Blanchet, who seems determined to prove that separatism is not mainstream but a weird resentful branch of the left. (But I repeat myself.) When Alberta premier Jason Kenney offered to take the statue, Blanchet sneered "I'm ready to put it in a nice crate with some feathers â€” I'll let him provide the tar" with, my National Post colleague Chris Selley added, "typical grace and restraint."
By contrast Montreal mayor Valerie Plante, not exactly a right-wing fanatic, said "I strongly condemn the acts of vandalism thatâ€¦ led to the John A. Macdonald statue being torn down. Such gestures cannot be accepted nor tolerated" though "I am also in favour of adding monuments that are more representative of the society to which we aspire." And our PM, not exactly a bourgeois conformist, said "We are a country of laws and we are a country that needs to respect those laws, even as we seek to improve and change them, and those kind of acts of vandalism are not advancing the path towards greater justice and equality in this country."
Somewhat uncharacteristically, Trudeau hit the spot here. What is it that's so wrong with disorder in the streets?
Of course there's the obvious practical matter that you might get smashed in the face by one of these obscenity-hurling, middle-finger-brandishing, mindlessly-angry "protestors". (I use the scare quotes because normally a protestor has a cause and some capacity to articulate both its premises and its program. For these people, rage seems to be the alpha and omega.) Or especially if you're poor, black and American, you might see your place of business destroyed leaving you destitute. But there's more.
Ordinary people here grasp something that often escapes our revolting elites, in the Christopher Lasch sense that it is now the privileged who are most resentful of the society that has showered them with benefits. (Thus the state-funded CBC in its "Kids News" speaks cheerfully of "Sir John A. Macdonald and other political leaders with racist histories".) Namely that to rampage around destroying historical monuments, burning down stores and attacking government buildings, to denounce the rule of law in principle and trample it in practice, is monstrously arrogant.
In fact it is the embodiment of the deadly sin of pride, not to mention wrath as well as envy. To look at Sir John A. Macdonald, a towering figure with some clay in his feet, and sneer that if I'd been around I'd have been so much better than him that I should smash his statue in resentment, is an amazing piece of self-conceit. Who decided you were so great? Oh. You did.
Of course there are some historical figures I condemn with few or no reservations. And not just obvious ones like Stalin. I have been a fierce critic of Thomas Jefferson for decades over his wicked hypocrisy on race (and yes, I have the lecture recordings to prove it). But I do not stand before students and say I was better than Washington, Franklin and Lincoln combined. Instead I warn them that if such people could have flaws that seem both grave and obvious in retrospect, we certainly do as well. To me, the failings of past giants is cause for humility not arrogance.
As I argue in a different context in The Great War Remembered, it is very easy to mock the performance of Allied generals in the First World Warâ€¦ provided we are careful to remain ignorant about the tactical, strategic and geopolitical problems they faced. But the more we know, the less inclined we are, or at least should be, to say well if I'd been there I'd have told Haig a thing or two and we'd have won the war in a walk in 1915.
By the same token, I may be very frustrated by the philosophical and policy errors of those around me today, many of whom will I am confident not have statues erected of them later. As they are confident I will not. But I do not consider myself so obviously superior to them that I should shout them down, "deplatform" them with fire alarms and bullhorns, or just plain old break their faces and windows. Who am I to do such a thing? If I were on a mission from God it would, at best, be to harangue people, not to hang them.
By contrast, when angry radicals gain power on a mission from God or lack of same, from Robespierre to Mao to ISIL, they do hang people. Or guillotine, starve, shoot and otherwise abuse and kill them. They are in the grip of a rampaging, monstrous ego that reduces others past and present to dust and offensive dust at that, and grinds it underfoot.
This argument is not an effort to whitewash the past. Canadians should debate whether Sir John A. Macdonald's aboriginal policy was appalling, enlightened for its time, or both. And whether "enlightened for its time" is good enough, if it was, or can we legitimately say he should have done better, as William Wilberforce did?
These are fair questions. And they may fairly be answered with an indignant no to the first and yes to the second, as well as yes and no, yes and yes or no and no. But they may not be answered with an f-bomb and a rock, denying both historical figures and contemporaries any semblance of respect and sweeping aside our fellows' right to free speech, free assembly, freedom of opinion and the rule of law in the name of "direct action."
There are of course situations in which one ought to defy the law. But as Martin Luther King Jr. showed us, in a self-governing society that aspires to respect human rights, flaws are best corrected by non-violent civil disobedience that calls citizens to heed the better angels of their nature. In a tyranny the reverse is true and subversion, conspiracy and clandestine or mass violence are appropriate. But when people who live in the former think they live in the latter and act accordingly, something vile has broken its bonds.
That something, I submit, is the sin of pride. And normal people find it very frightening. If elite figures cultural or political do not, it is perhaps because they too are in its grip.
Photo Credit: CBC News