Riots are the exclusive domain of those who view themselves as outside the law. Whether they are outside the law because they are above or below it is a matter of perspective. The rioters may see themselves as the oppressed who are below the law while their victims tend to think of them as above the law, with the power to rob and kill, without paying any significant price for it. All that is true whether we are talking about Russian peasants killing Jews, Indonesians killing ethnic Chinese or African-Americans killing whites.
The riot is usually directed at the authorities or some vulnerable group, sometimes both, but invariably one of them takes precedence. The authorities prefer that the rioters direct their rage at a conveniently vulnerable group and afterward the vulnerable group takes the blame for the violence directed at them. The rioters treat those few of their number who were killed in the looting spree as martyrs, while the rioted-upon pick up the broken glass and try to reopen their stores again.
Minorities rarely riot against majorities for the practical reason that rioters are cowards and they want to have the numbers on their side. A riot is less often a symptom of injustice and more often a sign that they have the numbers and that all they need is a pretext to go out for a fine day of looting and maiming. A riot isn’t a response to injustice, it’s a power play by people who believe that they are above the law and that their victims are outnumbered.
It’s a rather odd development that white people in America took on the role of the Chinese in Indonesia or the Jews in Russia, long before they became a demographic minority, but not entirely so. Race riots have mostly happened in cities where white people had become or were on the way to becoming a minority. And all three groups share the vital characteristic of being hard-working types whose success is overestimated by the looters looking for a taste of that success without having to go out and work for it.
The hated groups are not satisfied with their lot in life, instead they go out and strive for more possessed of the peculiar belief that they can rise above their station in life through hard work and ingenuity. Their neighbors rarely appreciate this attitude. In their world someone who has more than they do probably stole it from them. And when they booze up and riot, they’re only getting back what’s rightfully theirs.
In the mythology of the looters, they are the persecuted ones, and when the government sympathizes with the looters, that is the message it sends out. The mythology of a white grip on power driven by bone deep racism and privilege has its echoes in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a conspiracy theory that justifies every act of violence against them.
But if riots were really triggered by a black and white racial disparity, then Asians wouldn’t be the victims of African-American riot rage from New York to Los Angeles. If anyone can be exempted from charges of shipping slaves or conspiring to employ their privilege to keep people of color down, it would be Chinese and Korean immigrants. But it isn’t really race that’s the issue, it’s being a successful minority.
Chinese, Jewish and white storeowners in America are targeted by rioters for the same reason that Chinese storeowners in Indonesia are. Because they are members of an outside group who are working hard and getting ahead and that is the worst imaginable crime to people who believe that success through honest work is impossible. That anyone who succeeds has taken advantage of a rigged system and is exploiting them to get ahead.
That mindset is no longer confined to a few ghettoes; it finds open expression in city government, in state government and even in the White House and the Justice Department. The ugly resentment, the selfish greed by those who have never worked for a living, is dressed up with American flags and the looting is described as wealth redistribution, but it’s still the same thing. Except now the government functionaries do the looting.
The American city was once the heart of an industrial machine manned by workers who believed that they could get ahead in life. And then the worker became a minority in cities dominated by the indolent, by municipal unions, by social workers, community organizers and bleeding heart college graduates who squeezed him out. When the looters came for the American worker, he fled to the suburbs, the city declined, and the rioters unleashed their rage on the Chinese who came to take his place.
Working Americans are becoming a minority in a country where fifty percent don’t pay taxes, but do profit from the taxes of others. Where wealth redistribution is the goal, but no matter how much wealth is redistributed, it’s never enough for the perpetually dissatisfied and the permanently angry who always have license to take to the streets in pursuit of some ephemeral justice that can only be gained with bullhorns and broken windows.
Magical thinking rejects the discipline of labor, instead it believes that individual or group success derives from their ‘specialness’ and that a failure to achieve that merited success is due to being obstructed or conspired against by the underhanded people who cunningly go out and work for a living instead of wallowing in the warm tub of their own specialness.
This cultural dysfunction is commonplace in the Middle East and some of the more viciously backward parts of the world whose concepts of fairness and law are completely subjective and completely alien to a law abiding society. Its carriers are far more intolerant and xenophobic because they cannot see any perspective other than that of the self. It has also become commonplace in the Western world and the rioters and looters are drawn from the preening and posturing ranks of its would be superstars, who if they don’t make it always have the five-fingered discount to fall back on.
Once a society embraces magical thinking and comes to believe that it can grow its economy through unlimited spending on a welfare state and cargo cult infrastructure investments, it needs scapegoats to throw to the mob when things don’t go well. The scapegoats are invariably the members of the hated groups who continue to persevere, who are outsiders and who aren’t satisfied to sink down with the rest of the culture.
White people in America have come to occupy a similar place to the one held by minority groups such as Jews and Asians. There is a bizarre and vulgar obsession with their success, entire schools of thought dedicated to proving that their success is unjustified and has only come about as a result of a vast conspiracy, clannish privilege and underhanded tactics. There is an equally strong obsession with punishing them for their success.
21st Century America is as obsessed with white power as 19th Century Europe was with Jewish power. The latter obsession played a sizable role in the destruction of Europe, the former obsession now seems set to do the same thing to America. Even the old tropes of collective guilt and atonement have been brought back in the service of the same drive to destroy those who succeed in the name of those who think that it is more moral to fail.
But the ugly truth that can be seen in the wake of a riot is that destroying those who succeed does not spread their success around, it destroys the destroyers. A community in the wake of a riot is not better for having driven away the storeowners. It is poorer, more miserable and more deprived. It has injected itself with another dose in the cycle of violence, looting the ever-diminishing remains of a local economy until nothing is left but empty storefronts and a few food stamp bodegas sheathed in bulletproof glass.
These communities have not been deprived, they are self-deprived. They are not oppressed, they are oppressing themselves. The disparity in power has long ago shifted their way, if they have all too often chosen to use that power in a destructive way, the fault is their own. It cannot be healed with more affirmative action, more apologies and more power shifts. The last three years have made that painfully clear.
If the rioters were once below the law, they have become above the law. Or perhaps they have become the law. Race rioter extraordinaire Al Sharpton is a frequent visitor to the White House and a fixture on liberal cable television. Twenty years since mobs ran down the streets of Crown Heights chanting “Kill the Jews”, the agitator behind the whole thing is praised by the Attorney General.
Ownership is the difference between the looter and the owner. Both the looter and the owner have power, but only the owner has chosen to take ownership of that power and responsibility for that power. The looter treats his power as a force beyond his control, a hair trigger that can go off if he’s provoked or if he has nothing to do. He exercises it carelessly and then complains when things don’t go his way.
Law is responsibility. To riot is to proclaim that the law does not apply to you. That you are beyond, below and above the law. It is a rejection of ownership for individual behavior and the larger society. That attitude can be seen in an administration which conspicuously loots and wastes money because it does not think of the money or the country as belonging to it. It can be seen in the street level rioters for the same reason.
Refusing to take ownership makes life easier by eliminating responsibility. Those who dabble in magical thinking never take responsibility for anything. Not even their own actions. They have abandoned their stake in the society while constantly demanding their share of what they insist is coming to them. And if the rioters succeed in destroying the ownership society and replacing it with the looter society, in which no one owns anything and no one, except their scapegoats, are responsible for anything, then civilization dies beneath their flames and slogans.
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