The American Experiment Matters, Too

In March of 2012, a teenager was shot in the streets of Sanford, FL. Seventeen-year-old Treyvon Martin was shot by George Zimmerman, a member of a neighborhood watch organization. Zimmerman claimed that he fired in self-defense after Martin attacked him. The case exploded into the national news, igniting an outpouring of activist anger, along with a series of demonstrations. In the aftermath, three women launched a website, forming an official platform for a viral hashtag: #blacklivesmatter. Their names were Opal Tometti, Patrisse Cullors, and Alicia Garza, and their organization has now expanded far beyond its humble beginnings.

Black Lives Matter now  receives multi-million-dollar donations from corporations and private individuals across the country. Politicians and CEOs bend over backwards to show their approval. Mike Gonzalez, Senior Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, believes that Black Lives Matter is in fact a sinister organization, which poses a real threat to the American way of life. He makes his case for this in BLM: The Making of a Marxist Revolution.

The Reality of the South

The book unfolds in three segments. The first is broadly historical, while the next discusses Gonzalez’s research on Black Lives Matter. In his concluding remarks, Gonzalez issues a kind of call to action, offering readers talking points that he hopes they will use in countering the narrative of Black Lives Matter.

Historical debates have become quite heated in America lately, which often happens when a society is wrestling with core questions about its identity and character. Is the American political tradition rooted in racial hatred, and intended to enshrine social privilege? Or are we as a people defined by our love of liberty, our commitment to justice, and our conviction that “all men are created equal”?

Gonzalez argues vehemently for the latter position, contending that slavery and segregation were deplorable deviations from the American ethos, not proper expressions of it. He notes, correctly, that America’s Founders (or at least the most influential among them) wanted very much to end the institution of slavery. They recognized that it was deeply unjust, and that it ran contrary to their own Enlightenment ideals. Unfortunately, they also understood that the Constitution stood no chance of being ratified, unless some accommodation was made for Southern states that depended heavily on slave labor. Accordingly, they compromised, praying that “time, patience and enlightenment” would eventually bring the practice of slavery to a peaceful end.

That never happened. In the decades following the Founding, slavery became still more entrenched in the American South. With the invention of the cotton gin, the value of labor grew along with the slave population. Time and patience were not having the desired effect. The issue became so fraught that it eventually dragged us into a civil war.

For a writer like Gonzalez, this is a sticky point. He wants to present America’s birth as a kind of transformative moment when tyrants and oppressors quailed at the sound of the “shot heard around the world.” It seems, though, that this shot was ignored across much of the United States, which continued to practice and defend a form of chattel slavery that European nations refused to allow on their home soil. Gonzalez tries to rescue his narrative by blaming the entrenchment of slavery on malefactors who “thwarted” the original intentions of the Founders. In defense of this position, he mentions the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (which banned slavery to the north and west of the Ohio River), and cites historical research suggesting that a sizable number of slave owners voluntarily freed their slaves in the years immediately following the Revolution.

These are interesting data points but set against the entire social and economic trajectory of the American South, they seem comparatively trivial. Slavery’s longevity was not the work of a few stubborn saboteurs. Fundamentally, it endured because the South was unwilling to give it up. The Founders truly wanted to find a cure for the “hideous blot” of slavery, but their Enlightenment ideals could not deliver this, nor could their Constitution. It took cannons, and with them a serious breach of the limited-government ideals that earlier generations of Americans had held dear. The Southern states were literally forced to submit to a political arrangement that they had never, at any time in the nation’s prior history, deemed acceptable. In the eyes of embittered Southerners, this trampling of state-level autonomy made the warnings of the anti-Federalists, nearly a century before, seem rather prescient.

In a profoundly ignorant era, Gonzalez’s willingness to defend the American Founders is pleasing. He may ultimately weaken his case, though, by trying to prove too much. Americans do have a real love of freedom and equality, which is quite arguably unmatched by any people that existed prior to 1776. We have struggled mightily to realize those ideals, which is one reason the fight over slavery was so fraught. It is appropriate to take some pride in this, but it will not do to oversimplify the narrative. The Founders did not bequeath to us a fail-proof recipe for freedom and prosperity. They themselves were unable to resolve many of the tensions in their conflicting commitments, and their descendants have inherited the bitter fruits of those failures, along with the bounties of their triumphs.

Ideological Contact-Tracing

At first glance, these historical forays might seem tangential to a discussion of Black Lives Matter. In fact, they are crucially important. Gonzalez devotes time to early American history because he wants to present Black Lives Matter as an alien invader, insinuating itself into the American mainstream using a distorted historical narrative for cover. Its goal is to infect healthy American tissues with a dangerous pathogen. That pathogen, of course, is Marxism.

Gonzalez’s entire political paradigm seems to be built around the idea that Americans are engaged in an ongoing struggle to protect the righteous vision of our Founders against the lies and false promises of radical socialists. The latter come to us in different guises, but all sing the siren song of the proletariat, in a steady attempt to undermine capitalism, democracy, and freedom. Black Lives Matter is a relatively new organization, but in many ways it is just the latest front for an old ideological battle.

In 1776, the American Founders hoped that “time, patience and enlightenment” would eventually bring racial reconciliation. At the time, this hope was unrealistic. Today it may not be. Patience can be difficult however, and activists never like to wait. If conservatives truly love liberty, we may need to be the patient ones.

Gonzalez devotes multiple chapters to tracing the connections between BLM leaders and other nefarious influencers around the globe. Like policemen in front of an evidence board, we are shown an intricate web of personalities, organizations, and donors.  This may be a bit tedious for readers who were more interested in understanding what Black Lives Matter is currently doing (or planning to do). To Gonzalez though, this mapping is critically important, because it shows us where Black Lives Matter stands in the larger struggle between ordered liberty and its detractors.

Some of the associations he documents are personal. Melina Abdullah was a true “red-diaper baby” whose parents regularly entertained Black Panthers in their home. Opal Tometi likes to pal around with Nicholas Maduro and other global comrades. Patrisse Cullors has studied under Eric Mann, a former member of the Weather Underground. Alicia Garza has worked closely with communists and Maoists in her activist endeavors.

Other connections are ideological. Here, Gonzalez truly rises to a twenty thousand foot view. Consider, for instance, his explanation of the malevolent influence of activist Angela Davis. Gonzalez writes:

In Davis, the BLM revolutionaries had a link not just to the Panthers and to such harsh practitioners of communism as the East German state, but to earlier dark forces. Cullors, Garza, and the others had learned from Davis personally, and she had been taught by Marcuse. He himself had been a disciple of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger at the University of Freiberg in the 1920’s. Heidegger, the director of the Friedrich Nietzsche Archive, later became a member of the Nazi Party. He was a close friend of Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth, a virulent anti-Semite. And Nietzsche was well known not only for his nihilism and relativism but also for proclaiming to the world that “God is dead”.

Gonzalez is fond of this type of ideological contact-tracing, and the picture he ultimately paints will likely unsettle any conservatives who were inclined to support Black Lives Matter. But it may not be as helpful for answering two further questions: How serious a threat does this organization pose? How should we respond?

Conservative Patience

In the introduction to the book, Gonzalez describes BLM as an “incipient insurgent” group, which sounds terrifying. Happily, the body of the book presents no significant evidence that BLM chapters are doing the sorts of things that would signal a serious turn towards violence: building bombs, stockpiling weapons, forming terrorist cells. As a Minnesotan who witnessed the violence of 2020, I tend to see street-level civil unrest as the most serious threat posed by activist groups like BLM. I was actually somewhat relieved, therefore, when Gonzalez’s expose culminated in a discussion of the role BLM has played in inserting Critical Race Theory into schools. Indoctrination can certainly be harmful, but arson frightens me more, and it appears in any case that activist-educators are already encountering significant resistance in the public schools. If Black Lives Matter ever decided to pour its many millions into Weather-Underground-style mass murder, the consequences would indeed be horrific. Perhaps that is still a possibility, as the seeds Critical Race Theorists sow mature into a bitter harvest. Still, if Gonzalez himself is correct, these ideological battles have already been raging for quite some time. I have more confidence in Americans’ ability over time to reject the lies of lobbyists, PR firms, and progressive academics.

If this battle is, at present, being fought primarily on a level of ideology, it may be helpful to infuse more nuance into our view of Black Lives Matter. Undoubtedly, modern-day activists have been influenced by Marxist thought, as Gonzalez contends. Most people (and movements) combine many different influences, however, and it may be helpful to develop a more precise diagnosis. Socialism in the modern era has had strong appeal whenever people have felt alienated, marginalized, or lacking in purpose. It offers political solutions to spiritual problems, and while history very strongly suggests that these promises are false, it may still be a mistake to try to counter that narrative with an alternative political ideology, without adequate attention to deeper cultural and spiritual problems that go beyond politics.

Gonzalez wants his readers to evangelize their neighbors, friends, and PTA boards. He loads them down with statistics about incarceration rates and median black household incomes. He urges them to have the courage to tell progressive activists, “Absolutely, black lives matter. They just don’t matter to you.” In his view, people who truly care about black lives should support the police and decry an ill-considered welfare state that destroyed the black family.

These arguments have long seemed persuasive to conservatives, but as talking points for the skeptical, how effective are they likely to be? In the Reagan years, conservatives preached all of these messages, sometimes to good effect. In our time though, Americans are intensely eager to understand the concerns and experiences of historically marginalized groups of people. This may not be our preferred battleground, but it will likely be hard to engage our fellow citizens if we open the conversation with batteries of statistics, or glib dismissals of the entire social justice movement.

Perhaps it would be better if we could address the oft-repeated claim that “people are hurting” with less derision than Gonzalez is inclined to show. Is it not true? Why are so many Americans today demoralized and drifting? It seems obvious that a large share of our citizens are despondent in part because they are struggling to build ordered, meaningful lives. If conservatives can speak to that problem in ways that resonate with young adults, it might have a real chance to rebuild itself. Mere statistics probably will not be enough, however.

It might help, as well, if conservatives were more frequently seen in the public square discussing the nuances of our nation’s history, without self-flagellation, but also without defensiveness. We can honor our forebears for their achievements, without denying that historical injustices can also have far-reaching consequences. We are not a nation of oppressors; indeed, oppressed people have come from all corners of the earth to take refuge here. At the same time, America is a young nation, in which racial discrimination was an obvious social reality until very recently. Sometimes the wounds are slow to heal.

In 1776, the American Founders hoped that “time, patience and enlightenment” would eventually bring racial reconciliation. At the time, this hope was unrealistic. Today it may not be. Patience can be difficult however, and activists never like to wait. If conservatives truly love liberty, we may need to be the patient ones. Black lives matter. The American experiment matters too.