After an anti-Trump protest in San Jose descended into mob violence last week, Emmett Rensin, one of Vox’s crypto-Marxist editors, suggested people should indeed stage riots if Donald Trump comes to their town. “All violence against human lives and bodies is categorically immoral,” he wrote. “Property destruction is vastly more negotiable.” To Ezra Klein’s credit, Rensin was promptly suspended from his position at Vox.
One imagines Rensin might feel differently about property violence if the property in question were his own, but presumably he’s hoping it won’t come to that. Maybe his building’s doorman will be able to turn the mob away.
By claiming that “property destruction” is a “negotiable” aspect of civil society, rather than a purely criminal one, Rensin is engaging in a shallow kind of intellectualization of violence, one as reckless as it is self-serving. It is entirely probable that Rensin has never and would never personally participate in a riot; he is doubtlessly aware that rioters often get arrested, charged, and convicted, something he likely wants nothing to do with. Better to slough the responsibility off on “poor, Latino folks.” They don’t have a busy explainer website to edit.
To look at rioting as anything other than useless cynical mob violence is to look at it from on high: if you’re fine with riots, then you’re almost certainly not among those people who have had their buildings torched or cars destroyed in the course of a riot. Any innocent victim of rioting will surely be aware of the pointlessness of it all. But for a fellow like Rensin, the prospect of a riot must seem dashing, romantic, exciting. His is a case of, in the parlance of my colleague Hans Fiene, “Selma Envy:” the desire of privileged, activist-minded millennials to relive the American civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century.
It may also include an element of mini Marxism, since a disdain for and attacks on private property fit with the idea that it should ultimately be abolished. Rensin himself has suggested he supports abolishing private property.
Trying to Justify a Riot
But one can’t readily justify putting the torch to the property of innocent bystanders—not without a lot of mental gymnastics, anyway. So Rensin must resort to demonstrable falsehoods in order to make his case: “Destruction is not violence,” he claims. “[P]roperty destruction and seizure…has never been violence,” he writes elsewhere. This would surely be news to the Jews of Kristallnacht who watched their businesses and synagogues go up in flames. If only Vox had been around back then to clue them in!
This kind of sophistic rationalization is not unheard-of on the Left. Violence against innocents is either justified or explained away as often as it arises. During the Baltimore riots, Drexel University professor George Ciccariello-Maher claimed to have found “the real lesson from Baltimore.” What was that lesson? “Riots work,” notwithstanding the “paltry $1 million” in damage that resulted. (Whose $1 million? Not Ciccariello-Maher’s, that’s for sure.)
Ta-Nehisi Coates compared the Baltimore riots to “a forest fire,” as if riots just, you know, happen, without any objective human input. Jamelle Bouie implored us to “[try] to understand what drives riots rather than give cheap moral condemnation.” The director of a burned-down youth center in Baltimore last year said the violence against her establishment was “understandable,” which would make sense if youth centers had anything to do with police brutality.
If Rioting Works, It Will Happen More Often
All of these lofty-sounding explanations miss the point spectacularly. Namely, there is no point. Rioting is never undertaken in an effort to effect systemic change; if rioting served such a purpose (and if it “worked”), it would happen far more often than it does. Mob violence isn’t even “outrage,” properly understood. When one is truly “outraged,” one punches a wall or screams into a pillow. One usually doesn’t throw a trash can through an innocent person’s storefront.
What the soi-disant experts and sympathizers of mob violence know very well is this: rioting is both useless and objectively ruinous. Riots are stupid, needless, pointless destruction of a kind that is almost purely self-serving.
In an almost painfully poignant example of this self-evident reality, a protestor in Baltimore last year complained to a journalist that there were “other people from different cities coming in [to Baltimore] and messing up even more…they’re not doing it for the cause. They’re doing it for themselves!” Do tell.
The Left needs to stop intellectualizing violence and explaining it away with pathetic exculpatory justifications. Rioting is bad. It is never good, and whatever shallow short-term gains it accomplishes come at the expense of innocent people who have done nothing wrong.
We will assuredly have more riots in this country. They are, sadly, a constituent part of American civic and political life. But the least our self-appointed elite thinkers could do is stop encouraging such needless violence. If they’re going to offer their sympathies and their outright encouragement to mob violence, the least they could do is get out there, take part in the whole mess, and get themselves thrown in jail.