THE RACIAL JACOBINS haven't eased up in their post-George Floyd ferocity; if anything they are growing more indiscriminate in their determination to enforce political conformity and to punish anything they regard as thoughtcrime. Their targets haven't been limited to statues of American heroes, editors of prominent newspapers, or professors at leading universities. The toll of those who have been defamed, fired, or otherwise "cancelled" now includes an alarming number of people who have no power or public platform, who are not celebrities, and who in many cases did nothing wrong.
Take the case, for example, of Emmanuel Cafferty, a Hispanic employee of San Diego Gas and Electric, who was fired for making a "white supremacist" gesture while driving his company-issued truck. Except that he wasn't making any gesture at all, and didn't even know that such a symbol existed.
Here's the story, as reported by San Diego's NBC affiliate:
It all started about two weeks ago near a Black Lives Matter rally in Poway when Emmanuel Cafferty, a San Diego Gas and Electric employee, encountered a stranger on the roadway. The stranger followed Cafferty and took a picture of him as his arm hung out the window of his company truck.
The picture made the rounds on Twitter, accompanied by a claim Cafferty was making a "white power" hand gesture made popular by white supremacist groups.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, the gesture — made by forming a circle with the thumb and index finger, and extending and separating the other three fingers — has been used in recent years by white supremacists to form the letters W and P, but has also long been used as a sign signifying "OK" . . . . Therefore it shouldn't be assumed to be a white supremacy symbol unless there is other evidence to support those claims, according to the ADL. Cafferty claims he was just cracking his knuckles.
Soon after the encounter, a supervisor of Cafferty's told him he was suspended and that further action may be taken after an investigation. A few days later, he says he was fired.
Cafferty was astonished when his employer told him what he had been accused and found guilty of. Not only had he been denounced and fired for a supposedly racist act, his judge, jury, and executioner were all white, and he isn't. Yascha Mounk dug further into the case for The Atlantic:
[Cafferty] said he explained to the people carrying out the investigation . . . that he had no earthly idea some racists had tried to appropriate the "okay" sign for their sinister purposes. He told them he simply wasn't interested in politics; as far as he remembered, he had not voted in a single election. Eventually, he told me, "I got so desperate, I was showing them the color of my skin. I was saying, 'Look at me. Look at the color of my skin.'"
It was all to no avail. SDG&E, Cafferty told me, never presented him with any evidence that he held racist beliefs or knew about the meaning of his gesture. Yet he was terminated.
Meanwhile, the guy who took the picture of Cafferty's fingers deleted his tweet, admitted that he may have "misinterpreted" what he saw, and said he never intended for Cafferty to lose his job. But these days, the merest suggestion that someone is a bigot, or insufficiently antiracist, can trigger the instantaneous destruction of his or her reputation, career, and income.
Mounk describes the fate of a liberal statistician working for a left-wing firm:
David Shor, for example, was until recently a data analyst at a progressive consulting firm, Civis Analytics. . . . Shor's job was to think about how Democrats can win elections. When Omar Wasow, a professor at Princeton, published a paper in the country's most prestigious political-science journal arguing that nonviolent civil-rights protests had, in the 1960s, been more politically effective than violent ones, Shor tweeted a simple summary of it to his followers.
That was all it took to wipe out Shor's job, writes Mounk. Various agitators on Twitter demanded that he be terminated. He had done nothing more than flag a piece of research raising questions about the effectiveness of violent protests. Yet within a week of posting an accurate tweet about the findings of Wasow — a black PhD in African-American studies — Civis Analytics fired Shor. Even Wasow's wife was appalled by the crazed attack on a fellow progressive who had done nothing to deserve such a fate.
Then there is the attack on a middle-aged woman named Sue Schafer who attended a Halloween party in 2018, wearing blackface and a tag reading "Hello, My Name is Megyn Kelly." It was a mocking reference to the former TV host, who ran into a buzzsaw after she suggested that wearing blackface wasn't always racist or in bad taste. Two young women at the party approached Schafer — who was not famous, not running for office, not influential — and berated her for her costume. She left the party in tears. Which would have been the end of it, except that The Washington Post, for no discernible reason, ran a 3,000-word article about the incident this month — a story, wholly devoid of news value, about a clueless woman at a party two years ago. As soon as the story appeared, Schafer was fired by her employer.
Even children are being targeted as racist, with the encouragement of adults who explicitly call for the destruction of the kids' future prospects.
Skai Jackson, a former Disney Channel star, urged her young social media followers to expose their classmates or peers for posting racist comments or videos. "If you know a racist, don't be shy! Tweet me the receipts," Skai tweeted on June 4. On Instagram, she posted a similar threat, saying she would spotlight "Caucasian teens" who say or write something inappropriate: "Let me say this: If I see you post it, I WILL expose you!! If you think you're big and bad enough to say it, I will most definitely put your own words on blast!!"
What followed, predictably enough, was a flood of submissions from informers eager to publicly accuse young people of racism, sometimes expressed in online remarks years ago. Jackson readily publicized the accusations, making sure to include the targets' full names and social-media handles. And for going out of her way to ruin the reputation of people for being young and foolish, she was extolled as a heroine. Entertainment Tonight hosts applauded Jackson's "bold move" in ensuring that "justice can be served." Essence magazine commended her for "using this time to reverse the blatant racism she's seen on social media."
"I am so proud of you, @skaijackson," tweeted actress Yvette Nicole Brown. "The good work you're doing exposing all these 'baby' racists will ensure that their names, faces & deeds will be known as they enter the work force down the line. Which will protect everyone from the havoc racists cause in the workplace."
This is chilling and dystopian, the perversion of a legitimate goal — overcoming racial bigotry — into a frenzy of character assassination and public humiliation.
Boston attorney Joseph Welch memorably confronted Senator Joseph McCarthy in June 1954: "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"
"Some of the targets of these campaigns may have spoken or acted clumsily, but apologists for cancel culture can find reasons to stigmatize or banish anyone," observed the Wall Street Journal in an editorial last week:
We doubt most Americans agree with this unforgiving and punitive approach to cultural change, but the revolutionaries are now in charge with a vengeance. They won't stop by themselves because their campaign is essentially about power and control, and they need new villains. But . . . they are also laying waste to liberal values of free speech, democratic debate, and cultural tolerance.
A backlash to the Jacobins' brutality will come sooner or later.
It was 66 years ago this month that the tide finally began to turn against Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin senator whose anticommunist crusade was marked by a similar willingness to blow up reputations and shred careers. The moment came during the McCarthy's televised hearings on supposed communist influence in the US Army, when he gratuitously singled out by name a young Boston lawyer, implying that he was a secret communist and a security threat to the United States.
Joseph Welch, a Boston attorney who served as chief counsel for the Army during the hearings, seized on McCarthy's smear to turn the tables:
"Until this moment, Senator, I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness," Welch said. He praised the young lawyer who had been slandered, then rebuked McCarthy with words that still resonate:
"Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"
Like resistance to communism, resistance to racial bigotry is a worthy and legitimate cause. But there is nothing legitimate about demonizing the powerless and destroying lives with reckless accusations. What has been done to Cafferty and Shor and too many others is stomach-turning. Have those who target such powerless people have no sense of decency? At long last, have they left no sense of decency?
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'A finger of the Almighty hand'
Each year as Independence Day approaches, John Adams's famous letter of July 3, 1776, to his wife Abigail is recalled and widely quoted.
Adams was writing from Philadelphia, one day after the Continental Congress voted unanimously to declare independence from Great Britain. To his wife back home in Braintree, Mass., he overflowed with elation:
"The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epoch in the History of America," Adams exulted.
I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.
As it turned out, of course, the "great anniversary Festival" would be celebrated not on July 2, the date of the vote for independence, but on July 4, the day when Congress approved the final text of the Declaration of Independence. The earlier date was the more logical choice, but when the declaration was engrossed on parchment for signing, the words "In CONGRESS, July 4, 1776" appeared prominently on top.
Adams was right about the "Pomp and Parade" and "Bonfires and Illuminations" that would be indelibly associated with Fourth of July festivities. The tradition of setting off fireworks began with the very first organized celebration of Independence Day on July 4, 1777. "The evening was closed with the ringing of bells," reported Philadelphia's Evening Post on July 5, "and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks . . . on the Commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated."
But what about the "solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty" that Adams foresaw as a mainstay of the holiday? Those haven't lasted as a July 4th tradition — a development that would likely have distressed not only Adams, a devout churchgoing Congregationalist, but perhaps even his less worshipful contemporaries, such as Thomas Jefferson. For the last thing any of the founders of the American republic wanted was a society in which religion would be disregarded, or in which references to God would be seen as unwelcome or out of place.
Jefferson, for example, though famously skeptical of much religious dogma, nevertheless believed in a benevolent creator God to whom humans owed gratitude. "The god who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time," he wrote in 1774, and the Declaration of Independence refers to God not once but four times. Its opening sentence invokes "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God." Its final paragraph begins by "appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of our Intentions." It closes "with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence." And in the most quoted passage in our history, the Declaration of Independence puts God at the very heart of the American Idea:
We hold these Truths to be self-evident: that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
In linking religion to American liberty, Adams and Jefferson were not simply bowing to the political correctness of their time, or verbalizing empty sentiment that no one was expected to take seriously. They were articulating a core principle of American nationhood: Religious faith — and the civic virtues it gives rise to — is as indispensable to a democratic republic as freedom of speech or the right to own property. Religion can survive in the absence of freedom. But freedom without religion, they knew, tends to become dangerous and unstable.
Over and over, the Founders said so. "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity," George Washington reminded the country in his farewell address, "religion and morality are indispensable supports."
Even Benjamin Franklin, arguably the most cosmopolitan and scientifically minded of the Founders, argued that American independence had to be grounded in religious faith. "I have lived, sir, a long time," he said during the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, "and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth: that God governs in the affairs of men." In his autobiography, Franklin wrote that in his younger years he became a "thorough deist" — i.e., someone who believes that God exists but plays no active role in the universe — yet that view clearly changed over time. Disturbed that the Philadelphia convention's sessions weren't being opened with prayer, he introduced a motion to begin doing so. In a private letter to Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale, Franklin summarized his religious creed:
I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we render to him is doing good to his other Children. That the soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion.
Many of those who were at the center of America's struggle for independence were sure that it was being guided forward by more than their own mortal efforts. In an influential sermon in 1776, the Rev. John Witherspoon — James Madison's teacher at Princeton and a leading member of the Continental Congress — argued that God's hand could be discerned in the gathering storm and in the chain of events that had led to it. "It would be a criminal inattention," he said, "not to observe the singular interposition of Providence hitherto, in behalf of the American colonies."
An epitaph Benjamin Frankli proposed for himself.
At a very different moment 11 years later, reflecting on the remarkable unanimity achieved by the Constitutional Convention — a body that should have been riven by bickering factions — Madison likewise saw divine intervention.
"It is impossible," he wrote in Federalist No. 37, "for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of the Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution."
Liberty with faith, a secular state nourished by a religious society — that was the formula the Founders devised. They sought to combine the Enlightenment's emphasis on reason, learning, and pluralism with the Judeo-Christian ethic of responsibility, justice, and goodness. What resulted was a nation that proved to be, on the whole, more diverse, more free, more tolerant, more successful, and more religious than any before or since.
Religious attachment is not as strong in America as it used to be. According to Gallup, just 72% of Americans say that religion is important in their lives, down considerably from the 95% who said so in 1952. Might there be a connection between that decline and the acrimony, mistrust, and unhappiness that have grown so pervasive in American life?
The men and women of 1776 have long since gone to their reward, but there is enduring wisdom in their conviction that while liberty is the purpose of a just government, the survival of that liberty requires the steady cultivation of virtue. Self-government is the most difficult method by which human beings can organize a society, and to do so successfully depends on recognizing that each citizen is created in the image of God, and is entitled therefore to political autonomy and freedom of conscience. "The rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God," declared John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address. That has always been a core American value.
Much has changed in the 244 years since John Adams wrote in jubilation to his beloved Abigail, but it remains our responsibility to pursue today what they and their contemporaries fought so long ago to achieve: one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all.
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Terry Teachout's gallant gal
Like countless readers, I have long been a Terry Teachout fan. I've never met him in person; I know him only through his writing as the Wall Street Journal's theater critic and Commentary magazine's critic-at-large. (I have also read parts of his book on H.L. Mencken, one of several biographies he has written.) He is a truly gifted writer; his essays, whatever the subject, are invariably graceful, humane, thoughtful, and informed. I wish I could write so well so consistently.
Terry and Hilary Teachout
In the June issue of Commentary, Teachout eulogizes his wife Hilary , who died on March 31 of complications from a double lung transplant. It is a beautiful essay, affecting in its description of the Teachouts' profound love, suffused with Terry's gratitude for having awakened to such an intense devotion in middle age "after having been unlucky in love for most of my life," and filled with admiration for the partner with whom he was so happy, and without whom he now aches, his wounds, as he says, "open, red and raw."
From the very start, illness cast a shadow over their life together:
When I met Hilary, my wife-to-be, we were of mature age — we both turned 50 three months later — and she was living under sentence of premature death. I found out within days of meeting her that she had only recently been diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, a rare, slow-developing disease of the lungs and heart, and that she could expect to live for no more than two or three years. This was all the more shocking because I had fallen in love with her at first sight — and she, I later learned, with me as well. As if that weren't fraught enough, I was myself seriously ill at the time, though I didn't realize it, having been too willful, as so many men are, to go to a doctor. Yet all that mattered to me was that after having been unlucky in love for most of my life, I had met, purely by chance, a woman with whom I found myself to be suddenly and overwhelmingly in love, but whom I could not hope to have in my life for more than an agonizingly brief time.
I assume there are men who would approach such a dilemma by running the romantic equivalent of a cost-benefit analysis. I am not one of them. I knew at once that if I could get Hilary to go out with me, I would then do everything in my power to persuade her to marry me, no matter how long she had left. That was what happened, albeit after a certain amount of intervening slapstick. My own as-yet-undiscovered illness landed me in the hospital a month after our first meeting and three days before what was to have been our first date. Instead of going to see Waiting for Godot with me — a too-good-to-be-true detail I would never have dared to make up — she visited me in my hospital room, bringing a fat deli sandwich for me to eat in place of the hospital food she loathed. Two nights after that, a nurse came into the room and caught us kissing ardently, unfazed by the oxygen cannula in my nose.
He recovered but her sickness was incurable, and they married knowing that they might have only a very few years together. In the end, they were blessed with 15 years — a short marriage for a happy couple, but enough time for Teachout to figure out what it was about his wife that so captivated and uplifted him.
I knew myself to be in the presence of a woman who was smart, funny, generous, and, I soon discovered, gallant. Her devastating illness frightened her — she eventually admitted to me that she had at one point considered suicide — but it did not stop her from finding joy in the moment. As newly developed palliative measures slowed the inexorable course of the disease, she leaped headfirst into every fresh experience I offered her, some of them imprudent to the point of lunacy (we actually went on an overnight windjammer cruise in Maine one summer weekend, even though she could no longer swim) but all made wondrous by her enthusiasm. Unable to work, she traveled throughout the country with me to the regional-theater productions that I reviewed for the Wall Street Journal, refusing to let her fragility stop her from living as intensely as she could.
Like many (most?) happily married couples, the Teachouts were entirely "capable of exasperating each other almost without limit." Both of them, he writes, were stubborn and set in their ways, and she had a "sharp and clever tongue and unhesitatingly used it to prick my pomposities." But quarrels never detracted from love, and the Teachouts never lacked for shared interests — old movies, music, the art they collected.
And — above all — we talked. In the end, a happy marriage is more talk than anything else, and Hilary and I never ran out of things to talk about. Her joint pain forced her to take daily doses of opiates, but her mind stayed agile and unpredictable, and I never spoke with her, no matter how brief the conversation, without smiling at her wit.
Some people are blessed with great good fortune and are too dense or foolish to appreciate what they have. Others suffer great pain, whether physical or emotional, and in its shadow lose sight of the blessings they were formerly graced with. No one can say those things about Terry Teachout, whose loss is great, but whose thankfulness for what he had seems even greater.
It is a mystery to me how people carry on after the death of a beloved spouse, though I know they do so. I suppose it is a mystery to everyone — until it happens, and they force themselves, as they must, to figure it out. On the night Hilary died, Teachout wrote a few lines on his blog, quoting the French philosopher Raymond Aron: "There is no apprenticeship to misfortune. When it strikes us, we still have everything to learn." In his Commentary article, he writes:
Now I am alone again, far more so than when Hilary and I first met. Her final illness coincided with the arrival in New York of the coronavirus pandemic, and when I went back to our apartment after she died, I returned to a lockdown that has yet to be lifted as I write these words. I have not touched a human being since I kissed Hilary for the last time.
"I will turn their sorrow into joy, and will comfort them," said the prophet Jeremiah. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. May it be so for Terry Teachout and for all who must, after years of happiness, face life without their cherished soulmate. And may the memory of those they have lost be a bright and unwavering blessing to all who knew them.
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The last line
"Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!" — Patrick Henry, Address to the Second Virginia Revolutionary Convention (March 23, 1775)
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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