The events that transpired in the wake of the Charlottesville atrocities have sparked a wave of hyperbole across the USA. Public statues have been the focus of this upheaval. Several monuments have been defaced across the United States by radical activists. America and indeed the western world’s relationship with our past in under considerable strain. But why is tearing down monuments and rewriting history books only the preserve of the radical few?
Rather than getting upset or producing a long social media tirade against these actions. I set myself the mission of trying to understand why some individuals are so determined to remould our relationship with history.
My first stop was the Black Lives Matter movement’s website. On their principles list, I found many things that I agree with; celebrating differences between communities, helping Black American’s stay out of prison, encouraging empathy between communities etc. Yet there were other areas that I thought were out of place.
This case was indicative of what I found throughout my journey. What the ‘left’ currently stands for is generally quite difficult to ascertain. Of the campaign groups I looked at, very few had straight forward goals. I found it hard to believe that the membership of these social movements was fully on board with the lofty ideals of their organisers. I struggle to imagine that most Black Americans think that ‘cis-gender privilege’ is an issue of the utmost concern to them.
This highlighted to me the reason why the left is getting it wrong on history. The rhetoric coming from groups like Black Lives Matter alienate most people they claim to represent. The positive things left-wing intellectuals promote get lost in an ocean of unintelligible waffle.
We only need to look at academia to understand where this issue originates.
It is no secret that many academics are left-wing. This is true in Britain as well as America. While the shopping revolution has been busy transforming the west since the 1980s. Left-wing academics have been busy in their offices. Scribbling away next to their first editions of Dialectic of Enlightenment and The Affluent Society.
Historically we occupy interesting times. Never before has such a large proportion of the population received higher education (around 20% apparently). While the numbers of graduates have increased, the role of ‘the academic’ has changed considerably. It is hard to imagine a fledgeling university graduate today producing a weighty tome of thought-provoking polemic in the way that Joseph Schumpeter or Bertrand Russel used to. Young PhD students these days are consigned to producing ‘micro-histories’. The Role of Bone China in Revolutionising Working Class Houses in 1820s Newcastle for example. More ambitious enterprises are given over to senior academics.
It is not surprising that as areas of research become obscure. The general population pay less attention to what these left-wing academics are talking about.
As new ideas spring up, they are usually promoted by an enthusiastic vanguard before being absorbed by the public at large. When one thinks about the 1960s. It is hard not to imagine Hippies taking psychoactive drugs at Woodstock and dancing in a circle. This image ignores the many millions of people who lived through the 60s without abandoning their shoes or resorting to polygamy. What millions of people did, however, was incorporate the aspects of Hippie culture they found acceptable into their lives. Perhaps donning a tie dyed headband or buying a Bob Dylan record.
Similarly, during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, there were the extremists who waved their little red books and spied on their family members. Yet, even with the backing of a brutal dictator millions of Chinese did not abandon Confucian culture lock stock and barrel.
I believe the people defacing statues are a small but determined band of radicals. While their actions may attract support online. The impact of their revolutionary edge will be dulled by the demands of popular approval. While many on the left revel in the militancy of their comrades. They forget that many people do not share or comprehend their beliefs.
The way that many left-wing radicals have framed their positions in this debate misjudges what most disadvantaged Americans actually want. My search for understanding took me to a discussion about structural white supremacy in Baltimore. It became clear to me that the panel did not mirror the desires of the people they claimed to represent.
The regular African Americans appeared to want a fair deal from the government. I absolutely agree that current levels of public spending are way too high. However, it is not unreasonable that under the existing system people get equal treatment from the state.
While the participants on the video waxed lyrical about ‘dismantling structural oppression and building a redistributionist society’. What the individuals on the ground seemed to desire was the same capacity to consume and go shopping that their fellow Americans possess. It is easy for the left to make discontent with the current state of affairs look like the precursor to the October Revolution. What I found was that people simply wanted a more equitable slice from the same pie. Not a bigger pie.
The left-wing activists I came across combined the desires of ordinary Americans with untoward Marxist drivel.
In the aftermath of the Charlottesville riot. It became clear to me that having a debate about whether known Confederate generals who fought for slavery on display in public parks might be worthwhile. Perhaps they belong in a civil-war museum instead? As one African-American man suggested.
Some on the left see history as an exercise in cultural flagellation that needs to happen in order embrace multiculturalism. They ignore that multiculturalism is already happening. It can and does exists without rewriting our past. I agree that history should not be a celebration of the past as much I believe it should not be a universal condemnation.
By telling ‘white people’ that history should be an act of collective repentance while Black History Month should be celebrated is insulting and alienating. People are not cosmic pawns of historical forces. The past needs to be something we can all access, not just Marxist university PhD students.
Left-wing intellectuals have a strong academic tradition. I believe that the left as it stands is retreating into an ivory tower, and that is why millions of people are scratching their heads every time they open their mouths.