Bruce Thornton Is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
In the last couple of weeks we have witnessed people, most of them white, kneeling before black protestors and activists as a supposed gesture of repentance for their crimes of “white privilege” and tolerating “systemic racism.” The kneeling penitents include not just ordinary people, but police officers, National Guardsmen, and, in a shocking self-debasement of the world’s greatest democratic republic, a gaggle of House Representatives adorned with “culturally appropriated” African kente cloth scarves.
White progressive racial masochism is nothing new; Tom Wolfe skewered it brilliantly nearly a half century ago in essays like “Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers.” But the current manifestation is more significant and dangerous. It has taken place amidst violent widespread rioting and looting and assaults, and so these acts of kneeling are a form of tribute exacted by the sheer power of destruction wrought by the rioters and their “peaceful” abettors. As such, they undermine the very foundation of citizen self-rule and political freedom: Government by laws, offices, and free deliberation rather than by the whims and failings of one man; and by accountability to the sovereign people and their laws, instead of submission to violent coercion.
Kneeling specifically appears in Greek literature as an emblem of political slavery that follows an absence of rule by law and accountability. In the Histories, Herodotus’s narrative of the Persian wars continually contrasts the free, self-ruling Greek with the slavish, unfree Persians. One cultural practice in particular epitomized for the Greeks the political enslavement of the Persians who were ruled by the quasi-divine Great King Xerxes bestowed with absolute power over the lives and property of his subjects. Hence the law that anytime someone came into the presence of the King, he had to kneel before him, then bend over and kiss the ground as an act of submission. The Greek word for this was proskunesis, an act of “obeisance” suitable only for acknowledging the gods.
Herodotus illustrates this principle when two Spartan ambassadors meet with Xerxes and the King’s guards try to physically force them to bow down. The Spartans resisted and said that “even if the guards were to hurl them headlong down on the ground, they would never do such a thing, for it was not the Greek way to prostrate oneself before another human being.” This episode follows a conversation with their Persian escort Hydarnes, who asked the Spartans why they did not submit to the King and become rich as he was. They replied that he knew only half of the question: “Although you know what it’s like to be a slave, you have never experienced freedom.”
These two anecdotes together make the political point: true freedom is political freedom, which in turn is founded on the equal right a citizen has to participate in governance. A rule founded on radical distinctions among universally flawed and radically contingent human beings, with only one or a few deemed capable of governing, will require unjust force and compulsion. And given human flaws and passions, such a regime then is hostage to the weaknesses and lust for power that lies latent in all men. Such a rule will be a tyranny, which Aristotle said “no free man will endure.”
We have been witnessing for decades now the erosion of that foundational principle central to our own political order. Progressivism has relentlessly worked to create a technocracy that concentrates and centralizes power in an elite, weakening the checks on ambitious power provided by federalism and divided government. Hence the diminishment of the states, civil society, churches, businesses, and individuals––their freedom circumscribed and lessened by a regulatory regime that, as Tocqueville foresaw, “covers the surface of a society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform.” This dismantling of the Constitutional order was accelerated by the Obama administration, but was slowed by the Democrats’ loss of the House and then the Senate. The election of Donald Trump has marked a vigorous pushback, which is why the bipartisan managerial elite is striving so mightily to prevent his reelection. The riots and protest mark the latest front in that war.
The riots, moreover, are another assault on the nexus of political equality and freedom. Identity grievance politics is predicated on inequality: selected victims of history and fantasies such as “systemic racism” are “more equal” than others. They have the right, bestowed by sympathetic state governors, mayors, denizens of federal agencies, media, academics, activists, and the Democrat Party, to vandalize and loot, obstruct police attempting to restore order and protect other citizens, and do so with minimum accountability at best. As a result, surreally stupid policies such as defunding police departments are being bruited, even though that would give power to criminals and thugs, not to mention whatever activist groups that would take the place of the police. Our equal right to life that government should protect would exist only for an elite wealthy enough to buy their own security.
Furthermore, unalienable rights enshrined in the Constitution, rights bestowed by nature and nature’s God, are under assault as well. The quintessential political freedom, that of speaking openly without fear of reprisal or censorship or subjective “norms” or “decorum,” has been attacked during the riots. Any challenge to the illiberal doctrines of the protestors and their enablers are condemned as “racism” and silenced, at times with violence.
Worse yet, an esteemed institution like the New York Times has fired, with an accompanying barrage of groveling apologies, an editor for publishing a Republican Senator’s op-ed calling for the military to restore order, a legal power of the Chief Executive. Nothing in Senator Cotton’s essay was false or even exceptional. But Senator Cotton is not as “equal” as the thugs in the street whose violence and mayhem are deemed an expression of “free of speech.”
Then there are the inequalities in who gets to enjoy the First Amendment right to assemble during the lockdown. Churchgoers, who are also protected by the First Amendment’s phrase denying the feds from “prohibiting the free exercise” of faith, are not allowed to go to church because of the lockdown. They are not as “equal” as the violent protestors who have “assembled” in the tens of thousands, frequently packed together in violation of the six-foot social distancing rule.
What we are seeing here with these unequal applications of Constitutional rights is the expansion of tyranny, authority, and power not given by free citizens in elections, but seized by force with the help of state and federal office-holders desperate to keep Donald Trump from being reelected. Only then can they take up again their concentration and expansion of power that our Constitution was explicitly designed to prevent. And the wages if they succeed will be less freedom and less autonomy for those citizens who like being politically free and exercising autonomy over their lives.
The ritual of public kneeling, then, is just not virtue-signaling or moral preening or an act of cowardice. As Herodotus showed 2500 years ago, it is a sign of submission, a mark of inequality, and a surrender to tyranny. We should remember the Spartans who risked their lives to assert that they were free men who bow to no man. We need to do the same.
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