‘Are elk racist?’ It seems, on the face of it, a peculiar question; but this is a peculiar time. For 120 years a bronze elk sat atop a fountain between Chapman and Lownsdale squares in downtown Portland. Elk feed on grasses, leaves, and bark. They enjoy the shy seclusion of forest habitats and the untamable pride which accompanies being one of the largest terrestrial mammals in North America. Their political significance is oblique.
But not in Portland. In Portland even the most blameless statue is a standing target and a symbol of oppression. Following the death of George Floyd, the elk was covered in graffiti over and over again by protesters. In an impromptu attempt at barbecuing the creature, the mob tried to set the statue on fire. Finally, in early July, it was removed by Portland’s puzzled Regional Arts and Culture Council. Another blaze had damaged its granite pedestal so severely that the authorities feared the elk, with its majestic head, its foliage of spreading metal antlers, would tumble over and vengefully skewer an assailant.
Purged elk aside, what is happening in Portland? Since May the city has become a synonym for violent protest. Police precincts, restaurants, shops and federal buildings have been attacked. Clashes between local police, demonstrators and federal forces produce astonishing images, showing a cross between medieval warfare and warehouse raves. The footage, of beatings, and a murder, is even crazier. Portland has been described as a ‘petri-dish’, and a ‘theme park’ where the United States’ intractable social conflicts can be settled by force. Even the mayor was tear-gassed. It’s like a John Carpenter film from the 1980s: Escape from Portland; a dark carnival in a lawless urban zone, where, seething among the ruins, feral warrior tribes, each with their own sophisticated rituals and codes, wage fruitless battle for obscure purposes.
The situation cries out for a Norman Mailer, a Tom Wolfe, a Joan Didion. But we have Andy Ngô instead. Ngô has written for the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal, Quillette and for this outlet, among several others. Like the authors at the beginning of the paragraph, he has a habit of becoming part of the stories he writes, though without their flair for literary expression. In the main, his work is a guide to the anarchist factions that are a major presence in Portland. He says of antifa, the largest of these groups, that their ‘unambiguous goal is to destroy all American institutions and then the country itself.’ His forthcoming book Unmasked is subtitled Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy. Whoa.
More eye-catching, if it’s even possible, than that subtitle, is Ngô’s Twitter feed. An outstanding digital beachcomber for years now, Ngô provides his followers with videos of riots, criminality and mindless carnage. He has been busy this summer, as you might expect. His signature move is posting mugshots of the rioters who are arrested so frequently in Portland. Here’s the most famous #PortlandMugshot, by far:
— Andy Ngô (@MrAndyNgo) September 11, 2020
Ngô has posted hundreds of these photos. The Portland faces are variously beat-up, scarred, tattooed, pierced, greased, slimed, disturbed, alienated, resentful, lumpen; really quite wretched and demented, near-demonic even, some possibly schizoid. On display are reality impaired persons, irrationals and paranoiacs of every stripe. Every now and then, (and more than one Pilgrim Father had this glint in their eye) they have the Elect look, the look that takes for granted the ultimate triumph. The least perfectible, these mugshots say, are those who are most likely to take seriously the notion of a perfect society. Ngô’s audience enjoy these pictures, which are offered, like Gillray’s cartoons of Jacobins, as leftist caricatures and two minutes of hate fodder. Underlying message: this is the portraiture of a city and a nation in decline. No, you wouldn’t want this lot striding up your garden path with their bullhorns, their placards, screaming their ugly slogans…but as entertainment? To laugh at through a screen and from a distance? Sure. Of course, the laughter belongs to Ngô’s fans, not Ngô. If his writing is anything to go by, he sees these people as the springs and interior workings of a fearsome revolutionary machine. First they came for the elk…
V.S. Naipaul once opened a novel with this reverberating line: ‘The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.’ The Portland mugshots are a procession of people — however materially well-off some of them are — who have nothing. No ballast, no inner resources, no sense. They’re not professional revolutionaries; they’re people who have stepped on every metaphorical rake out there. The United States does not fit the profile of a country about to undergo a violent social revolution. The sad mugshots will continue to have nothing, if they continue to masquerade as revolutionaries. You’re not looking at Leon Trotsky here. You’re looking at a collection of Lee Harvey Oswalds. It’s not in Andy Ngô’s interest to say that. Likewise, nobody doing the Trump-Is-Literally-Hitler act is going to stop now — the rhetorical ball has been thrown very high indeed, and it’s not falling back down to earth.
Among the premier calamities of America’s cold civil war is, as Dr Johnson said of war generally, ‘the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.’ Analysis becomes leaves-falling-in-autumn predictable. Complacent talk on one side, indulgent talk on the other. Or the other way around. These people are Marxists! Those people are fascists! Anarchists will destroy democracy! Weimar is discussed. The Russian Revolution is discussed. The downfall of the Roman Republic is discussed. The KKK is discussed. The present makes sense, but only with the right application of dodgy historical context. It is argued that one leader provides cover for his side; it is argued that another leader doesn’t really mean what he says. Nobody in authority has any authority. There is a heavy aroma of conspiracy, putsch, even pogrom, in the airless digital networks. The ‘discourse’ on a bad day — and right now most days are bad days — feels like being trapped in a box room with Jim Jones.
The impression emerges of a culture overrun by ‘grifters’ — the ready, all-purpose taxonomists and point-scorers, who, for Twitter or television, force a tidy partisan grid on an increasingly senseless reality. Every incident — including the ones where people lose their lives, when some mark takes the game too seriously and snaps — can be safely interpreted by odious propagandists, then forgotten. Everybody knows this by the way. They know that this hysterical culture of complaint and accusation, repeated day after day, results in paralysis, confusion and, eventually, violence. But, like a ‘one more bet and-I will make my money back’ gambler, shakily heading (again) to the roulette table, everybody keeps reading and watching and clicking on these products. Look at the mugshots: aren’t those people disgusting!
Revolution? Nope. This is called regression: cultural and intellectual regression. Participant or observer, innocent or cynic, the truth is that most of us are inured. It hardly matters anymore. Indifference to what really matters goes right to the top. America is still struggling to reopen its schools, but the presidential debate last week was dominated by debates about antifa and the Proud Boys. Arguing about things that don’t matter is easier than solving problems that actually exist. For the next showdown, Trump’s health permitting, the candidates might as well try to work out how racist that elk statue was.