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The Politics of Vengeance

(AP Photo, File)

Media coverage gives the impression, perhaps only coincidental, that suspects or convicted persons claiming some political identity receive either greater leniency or more severe treatment depending on their position in the pantheon of woke correctness. For example, the Department of Justice recommended zero jail time for a transgender individual who vandalized the St. Louise Catholic Church in Bellevue, Wash. But for differential treatment to exist would not be unusual. In many societies there are social hierarchies and individuals with higher social status are customarily treated more leniently by the justice system than those with lower status, a phenomenon known as “privilege”.

In feudal times aristocratic immunity included exemption from certain types of punishment, such as fines or imprisonment, and the ability to substitute a public service or donation to charity for jail. Privilege exists to this day. Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes reportedly told a Walgreens consultant that “They don’t put pretty people like me in jail”.  If cultural engineering alters social status markers, privilege changes to match. The current inversion of status markers suggests that we may be in the midst of a social revolution.

During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a worker or peasant pedigree became highly valued. Intellectuals pretended to be “proletarians” to avoid persecution. Recent surveys show something similar; U.S. academics now try to “pass as woke” to avoid discrimination. “Conservative academics take increasing levels of care not to offend those in positions of power like department heads or to let their views become known to people in their field who will be evaluating their applications or paper submissions.”

In fact, faking wokeness has become a big business, widely practiced by ad agencies. Why? Because companies believe it expands their share of the youth market, despite the fact their advisers sometimes get public reaction catastrophically wrong.  Nevertheless “trying to make their toilet paper save the world” is now part of commodity activism, a form of social action that tries to improve society through consumption. Buying Dove soap is a way of righting wrongs and, more importantly, marking the posts and lintel of your abode with the sign of the rainbow so that the Angel of Woke will “pass over” your terrified self.

Out-Heroding Herod has long been a form of insurance. During the Great Purge in the USSR, displays of revolutionary fervor were often used as a way to protect oneself from being accused of counter-revolutionary activities and targeted for persecution. This often took the form of public displays of enthusiasm for revolutionary causes, such as attending mass rallies and parades, participating in political education classes, and denouncing real or imagined enemies.

Not that one could escape the deadly cycle of revenge. After the fall of Maximilien Robespierre in July 1794, his followers were targeted by their political opponents, who accused them of being responsible for the Reign of Terror.  After the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards were disbanded and many of their members were sent to rural areas for “re-education.” In the years that followed, many former Red Guards faced various forms of punishment, particularly if they had been involved in violent activities during the Cultural Revolution.

The Terror remains a powerful symbol of the damage that radicalism can inflict on society. After the Chinese Cultural Revolution, bureaucrats realized that “he who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount”. The experience of political persecution and counter-persecution created an atmosphere where people clung to power because they knew the dire fate that awaited the loser.

The absence of a Terror has for many years been a singular feature of American politics. This made transitions of power generally peaceful. Perhaps it was because the fight with Britain did not involve the kind of sweeping social and political changes that characterized the French Revolution; perhaps the American colonies, unlike pre-revolutionary France, had a relatively democratic political system with a tradition of representative government; perhaps because the American Revolution was largely a conservative movement, aimed at preserving traditional liberties and rights or leaders like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, committed to the rule of law and the protection of individual freedoms.

For whatever reason, by the standards of the Russian war between the Whites and the Reds and the Chinese fight between the Kuomintang and the Communists, even the American Civil War was remarkably free of reprisal. After defeat, Jefferson Davis was imprisoned in Fort Monroe, Va. Initially, he was forced to wear fetters and given only a Bible and his prayerbook to read. Due to public outcry, the fetters were removed after five days; within two months, the guard was removed from his room, he was allowed to walk outside for exercise, and he was allowed to read newspapers and other books. Soon his wife Varina was permitted to live with him in a four-room apartment. In December, Pope Pius IX sent a photograph of himself to Davis. Never tried, he was released on bail after two years and subsequently pardoned by Andrew Johnson. Robert E. Lee: the former Confederate General-in-Chief was not arrested or charged with any crime and lived out the rest of his life as a private citizen in the South. John C. Breckinridge: the former Confederate Secretary of War was not arrested or charged with any crime after the war. He fled to Cuba and later went to Europe but returned to the United States in 1868 and resumed his law practice.

What makes the contemporary Cancel Culture and the Cold Civil War so seemingly alien is the willingness of its participants to inflict as much political revenge as possible upon their foes at the slightest possible provocation. Our hatreds, like triggers, seem all out of proportion to the offense. For example, Donald Trump faces a maximum sentence of 136 years in prison if convicted of 34 counts of falsifying business records brought by Democrat Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg —which is way more than Jefferson Davis faced for an arguably greater crime. Predictably, Rolling Stone reports that Trump already has a plan to get revenge on Alvin Bragg. Today it means war if there’s cheese in vegan pizza. This trendy new militance is all very chic but may prove less beneficial than the old custom of live and let live.

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