I am a little surprised that the English essayist Walter Bagehot is not a more conspicuous part of our intellectual furniture. His was a gently disabused, quietly penetrating sensibility, at once sophisticated and manly. How much wisdom is packed into his warning that ‘History is strewn with the wrecks of nations which have gained a little progressiveness at the cost of a great deal of hard manliness, and have thus prepared themselves for destruction as soon as the movements of the world gave a chance for it.’
Then there was his observation, drawn from the same basket of anthropological canniness, that ‘Civilised ages inherit the human nature which was victorious in barbarous ages, and that nature is, in many respects, not at all suited to civilised circumstances.’
Indeed it isn’t. If you wanted to identify a polar opposite of Bagehot, you could do worse than pick the French activist and apostle of radical equality Babeuf. Born François, Babeuf adopted the sobriquet ‘Gracchus,’ after the Roman rabble-rousers, Gaius and Tiberius, who introduced mob violence to the late Roman republic and, like their French acolyte, came to sticky ends at the hands of the mob.
As I look around at the erupting pustules of look-at-me violence and carefully staged disruption that are disfiguring our public life, I am torn between the thought that we are witnessing a dangerous access of social disintegration and a suspicion that all the histrionics might just be a sort of Michael Dukakis 2.0, with the Left madly searching for their helmet-in-a-tank moment.
Let me say for the record that these alternatives are by no means mutually exclusive. Maybe we’re witnessing something composed of 30 per cent or 40 percent pre-revolutionary breakdown and 60 or 70 per cent fatuous play acting.
I suppose it depends in part on how seriously you take the declarations and antics of our cut-rate, bargain-basement Babeufs. Some of them, I believe, mean what they say. When former Attorney General Eric Holder, for example, says ‘When they go low, we kick ’em,’ I take him at his word. Ditto for that student of Saul Alinsky, Hillary Clinton. Interviewed recently by Christiane Amanpour, the former First Lady said that ‘You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about.’
Mad Maxine Waters wholeheartedly agreed, announcing to her followers that it was open season on Republicans. ‘If you see anybody from [Trump’s] Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd,’ said the aging Californian. ‘You push back on them and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.’
It is all unpleasant for those in the fray, of course. Senator Ted Cruz and his wife are driven out of one of their (former) favourite restaurants by incontinent crybullies. Senator Mitch McConnell and his wife are accosted in a similar manner. On the other side, Nancy Pelosi (who herself justified ‘collateral damage’ against those who ‘disagree’ with Democrats) was just harried by anti-Communist protesters.
What does it all mean? One the one hand, there have been scattered episodes of real violence. Antifa, for example, that loose-knit congregation of terminally disaffected but mostly affluent agitators, have engaged in some serious mob behavior, cracking heads and destroying property as they parade about complaining about fascism while acting like fascists. And let’s not forget, though the mainstream media wishes we would, about that fervent Bernie Sanders disciple James Hodgkinson, who betook himself to a Republican baseball practice session in June 2017 with a cache of automatic weapons in tow. Hodgkinson opened fire, almost killed Representative Steve Scalise, and seriously wounded others.
On the other hand, there is an awful lot of posturing going on. Just think of the video clip of those pathetic people weeping and trying to claw their way into the Supreme Court after Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation. The female in the purple dress was especially choice. I wonder if she practiced in front of a mirror beforehand? And then there are many melodramatic protestations by people who have been waiting impatiently in the wings to declare their victimhood-fired rage. ‘We will not sit down and shut up,’ skirled one member of this sorority. ‘We will keep screaming. We will continue to confront our elected officials wherever we encounter them. . . . We have a brave, bold vision for the world we want to live in and of what justice means to us.’ Sure you do, honey.
Several percipient commentators have noted that our post-war social and political consensus seems to be in serious disarray. I do not doubt that this is true. And I have no doubt that, if Eric Holder had his way, there would be a lot more kicking of people who were down. Then, too, there is the Hodgkinson expedient. If you want to gauge how serious that murderous rampage was, just imagine if had been a practice game for Democratic lawmakers instead of Republicans. The media would have gone into hysterical overdrive over that.
At the end of the day, however, it is worth looking behind Hillary Clinton’s little emission about civility. What she meant, of course, was that civility was only possible when Democrats are in power. Only then can the noblesse oblige. The tort that makes civility impossible, in other words, is that Donald Trump won and she didn’t. Where does that leave us?
It leaves Hillary Clinton, I submit, on the ash heap of history. As to the ambient histrionics that occupy so much of the nightly news, I vacillate between thinking it is the advance guard of some existential challenge to our political dispensation and, to the contrary, thinking it is like Macbeth’s bitter expostulation about that tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
I see a lot of Babeuf aspirants running around. I wish there were more students of Walter Bagehot to siphon off a little of their toxic self-infatuation.