Many people — and especially those who live in Bristol — have discovered Newton’s Third Law of Statues. Put crudely, it amounts to ‘you wreck one of ours, we wreck one of yours’.
Last weekend, Black Lives Matter and Antifa knocked philanthropist and slave-trader Edward Colston from his plinth and dumped him in Bristol Harbour. This weekend, persons likely affiliated with far-right National Action poured a bleach-based reagent over Bristol’s statue of Alfred Fagon — a son of the city and distinguished British-Jamaican playwright — turning him white.
Protests during the week followed the same pattern. Last week Black Lives Matter and Antifa disgraced their cause, first by infecting each other with Covid-19, then by assaulting police and creating a public nuisance. This week, National Action and friends did the same thing. Fortunately, neither outfit engaged in serious confrontation with the other — small mercies — because even without running street battles, they managed to damage themselves both physically and spiritually.
One American Antifa dingbat failed to dodge a falling Christopher Columbus statue in time and is now in a persistent vegetative state thanks to a smashed skull. Onlookers told reporters how they saw ‘bits of his brain’. Meanwhile, in London, one far-right fellow dispatched to defend Police Constable Keith Palmer’s memorial was later photographed urinating right beside it. PC Palmer, recall — though unarmed — stopped a knife-wielding terrorist from entering the Palace of Westminster during a 2017 Islamist attack and died from his wounds at the scene.
I also think we need a new category of ‘Darwin Award by Proxy’. Because in turning up to a BLM, Antifa or National Action demo in the midst of a pandemic, you risk spreading coronavirus, particularly to the elderly. That is, you indulge in a woke virtue-signal or pretend to defend Winston Churchill and in doing so end up killing grandpa. Bonus points for sheer stupidity if gramps migrated from the West Indies or lives in a remote Aboriginal community. After all, Covid-19 kills older black men at a rate that dwarfs deaths among other groups.
From the beginning, any protest outside the US reeked of entitlement and thrill-seeking. Everyone involved desperately needs to look up ‘negative externalities’ in the dictionary, although ‘doing something you like while shitting on other people’ is a useful definition. Antifa especially combines monstrous privilege with what philosopher John Gray calls ‘the problem of being lightly educated’.
Of course, it’s not possible to have a bit of Newtonian statue destruction without the trans-cult sticking its oar in. So, in between BLM, Antifa, and National Action’s sterling efforts, J. K. Rowling and her detractors had a red-hot go at burning down the internet. More than anything else, this (ongoing) spat reveals the extent to which wokeness is competitive. They vandalise Colston, you vandalise Churchill. They cancel Cecil Rhodes; you cancel William Gladstone. They get Little Britain pulled; you gun for Fawlty Towers. They attack Gone with the Wind, you attack Paw Patrol. Finally, everyone tries to grab the big brass ring, the only author on the planet with a net worth north of a billion US dollars. If Rowling can be cancelled, no one short of popes or presidents is safe.
Much of contemporary wokeness turns on the elevation of victimhood and ‘lived experiences of oppression’, and in a long and thoughtful piece on transgender issues, Rowling — a Remain-supporting, Labour lefty — played into this. She told in compressed form the story of her own experience of domestic violence and used it to make a compelling point about statistically superior male strength and size. However, because she took issue with a Woke Sacred Cow™, this was all for naught. Her opponents used the resources of the Sun to ferret out her Portuguese ex for ‘his side of the story’.
Yes, they went to the Sun, a paper deservedly toxic in Liverpool (and more widely on the left) for stating as fact that working-class fans during the Hillsborough disaster ‘picked pockets of victims’, ‘urinated on the brave cops’ and ‘beat up a PC giving [the] kiss of life’.
Publications on the other side of the pond joined in. The Washington Post, for example, ran a piece attacking Rowling’s literary skill. It read rather like a chihuahua facing off with a timber-wolf and concluded with the bonkers argument that Rowling should shut up and give Harry Potter to the people. The only crumb of comfort in this buffet of media horrors was Rowling’s ex-husband’s honesty. His admissions to the paper would satisfy a charge of assault occasioning bodily harm, even if they did not match Rowling’s allegations entire.
After reading it, I was aware for the first time that the Venn diagram of ‘outraged when Christians wanted to ban Harry Potter because of witchcraft’ and ‘let’s ban Harry Potter because J. K. Rowling did a wrongthink’ would be a circle.
Then, of course, there was social media. There’s a tendency these days to recast Twitter trolling and pile-ons as the justified rage of the disenfranchised and voiceless, a noble kickback against power. Maybe. It does strike me nonetheless that telling a woman who’s suffered domestic abuse she should suck your ladycock does not make you Rosa Parks.
Why are we here?
This is a new aristocracy of the spirit. An aristocracy in the proper sense is based on the idea that people should have power because they have virtue — it’s ‘rule by the best’. Historically, it was tied to landowning and ‘a stake in the country’.
But we have a rising generation of young people who have little in the way of assets and are not likely to acquire any soon; stagnant earnings, and a lot of (superficial) education — more than any previous generation. This means the idea that moral virtue equals status — even an expectation that one’s views will be given weight in public policy — is seductive.
There is also a deeply Protestant tendency to be so anxious about the strength of your belief that you must continually declaim it from the rooftops. What you do doesn’t matter as much as what you believe. Life in 2020 is a bit like the 17th century: plague sweeping the land and marauding Puritans destroying icons, except the Puritans had cooler hats.
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Helen Dale won the Miles Franklin Award for ‘The Hand that Signed the Paper’, and read law at Oxford. Her most recent novel is ‘Kingdom of the Wicked’.
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