So, yes, this is an Orwellian moment. It’s not a moment of reform but of a revolutionary break, sustained in part by much of the liberal Establishment. Even good and important causes, like exposing and stopping police brutality, can morph very easily from an exercise in overdue reform into a revolutionary spasm. There has been much good done by the demonstrations forcing us all to understand better how our fellow citizens are mistreated by the agents of the state or worn down by the residue of past and present inequality. But the zeal and certainty of its more revolutionary features threaten to undo a great deal of that goodwill.
The movement’s destruction of even abolitionist statues, its vandalism of monuments to even George Washington, its crude demonization of figures like Jefferson, its coerced public confessions, its pitiless wreckage of people’s lives and livelihoods, its crude ideological Manichaeanism, its struggle sessions and mandated anti-racism courses, its purging of cultural institutions of dissidents, its abandonment of objective tests in higher education (replacing them with quotas and a commitment to ideology), and its desire to upend a country’s sustained meaning and practices are deeply reminiscent of some very ugly predecessors.
But the erasure of the past means a tyranny of the present. In the words of Orwell, a truly successful ideological revolution means that “every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.” We are not there yet. But unless we recognize the illiberal malignancy of some of what we face, and stand up to it with courage and candor, we soon will be.