They say tragedies always come in threes, and so far 2020 is notable for a total, months-long shutdown of the country due to a global pandemic that was followed by violent riots sweeping across more than seven hundred cities. With half the year still left, I am not anxious to see what the third panel of this Bosch triptych is going to be.
Nonetheless, it feels odd that many people don’t seem to realize these two events are directly related. During the best of times, hell-raising is a national pastime in America, and after not being allowed go outside and have any fun for a few months it was only natural the place would explode. “Locking the country down filled the room with gas,” noted radio host Vincent Coglianese. “George Floyd lit the match.”
It’s a real tribute to our success as a nation that we typically do a great job of channeling our reckless and defiant instincts such that they are a great strength, rather than something that tears us apart. After all, hijinks and questioning authority are literally America’s reasons for being.
The Revolutionary War, which defeated the most powerful empire on the planet, could be plausibly described as monkeyshines that got out of control — secret societies in the back of taverns, tarring and feathering snitches, and donning costumes to dump tea in the harbor. And over two hundred years later, Americans triumphed over perhaps the most evil empire the world has ever seen. How did we do it? Shortly before the fall of the Berlin wall in 1987, David Letterman observed that “communists are no damn good at … laying rubber in front of the Dairy Queen.” It was obviously a joke, but from afar, our culture of hell-raising probably seemed pretty intimidating to the Russkies.
Speaking of laying rubber, recall when, back in February, there was briefly a dumb controversy about President Trump’s appearance at the Daytona 500 and whether or not this constituted using taxpayer dollars for a campaign event? Forget we have campaign finance laws for a moment. Just step back andcontemplate how deeply weird and amazing this spectacle is in historical terms.
In America, we build machines that race each other in excess of two hundred miles per hour in close quarters, and this sometimes results in cars hitting each other and sending vehicles airborne, flying end over end, on fire. It also bears mentioning that NASCAR’s multibillion-dollar racing league evolved out of rural bootleggers tricking out their cars to outrun cops and federal agents. Decades later not only is this a celebrated bit of Americana, but the president himself shows up to endorse this lawless insanity. What a country!
My dad was no bootlegger, but even he’s got quite the story about the time he almost outran a cop as a teenager. (After evading the cop, he sped ahead and pulled into a driveway — the cop drove right by before noticing my dad had still had his foot on the brake, leaving the brake lights on.) Dad was no delinquent — he was high school valedictorian and went to the Naval Academy. Playing cat and mouse with the local PD was all-American behavior for a teenage boy in the 1950s. I’ll spare you tales of my own exploits, except to say that if they had camera phones in the Nineties, my friends and I would be rotting in jail cells from here to Tijuana and back.
Of course, we now live in an era where everybody does have camera phones recording our every move — we even voluntarily submit to facial recognition technology and fingerprinting in order to use them. The other day on my neighborhood social network, a bunch of my neighbors publicly said that they hoped the local government would install speed cameras on nearby streets. By contrast, it was heartening to see that when feckless New York Mayor Bill de Blasio set up a hotline to encourage New Yorkers to rat on neighbors who are allegedly violating the city’s social distancing rules, it was immediately flooded with pictures of genitals and middle fingers. Still, mild rebellions we’ve witnessed in response to the sillier lockdown rules are probably an exception, rather than permanently recapturing the unruly American spirit of an earlier age. If American independence hinged on a revolt over small excise taxes, the surveillance American citizens now assent to probably has the Sons of Liberty spinning in their graves with the kind of RPMs normally found on a NASCAR tachometer.
Aside from the political crackdowns, there’s not much good news on the cultural front, either. It used to be that if you scratched the surface of any beloved American cultural expression, there was almost always the element of rebellion. Probably the most famous modern rendition of the National Anthem belongs to Jimi Hendrix, a lanky African-American kid from Seattle whose family endured some notable episodes of discrimination. Hendrix served time in the Army, because it was either that or jail for stealing cars.
Afterwards, he got famous for mastering a bizarre new instrument invented only fifteen years before his famous Woodstock appearance, by a guy named Leo Fender who had no formal electronics training, couldn’t play music, and called the improbable guitar a “Stratocaster” because it sounded like something out of the space program. Fender and Hendrix were at least simpatico on the idea that a certain uniquely American style of music, purportedly invented when someone sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in the Mississippi Delta, sounded really cool when amplified somewhere in excess of 120 decibels. And, quite improbably, filtering the stodgy and nearly-impossible-to-sing “Star Spangled Banner” through thismélange of questionable influences has become a truly iconic expression of patriotism.
Yes, Hendrix met an indulgent end, and it would be unhealthy to define patriotism according to rebellious archetypes such as race car drivers and rock stars. But it’s also unhealthy to suffer a sustained cultural assault on the defiant and dangerous characters we used to celebrate. According to the New York Times, Ford v. Ferrari, last year’s Oscar-nominated film about legendary American racecar driver and innovative car designer Carroll Shelby, is just “telling the same-old stories about white men.” Similarly, I’ll be the first to admit that as an undergraduate fraternity bros aren’t always my favorite people, but the way we went from Animal House defining a large cohort of young males to presuming they’re all rapists seems alarming.
Indeed, in certain circles there seems to be a general wariness of any expression of male aggression these days, regardless of whether it’s actually symptomatic of being a predatory jerk. But if “well- behaved women seldom make history,” as the bumper sticker on the Prius in front of you says, the same sentiment is true of otherwise decent men. In the meantime, ladies, please forgive us — and trust me when I say America’s real enemy isn’t men, it’s The Man.
So in the face of threats such as mass surveillance and political correctness, how do we, to quote one very stable genius, “keep America great”? Risk-taking is a skill that must be learned and practiced like anything else, and America has been exceptionally good at transmitting this ability from one generation to the next. In this respect, the fear that younger generations aren’t kindling the flame of healthy rebellion seems to be real.
Our rebellious streak has only served us well because it has historically stood in opposition to our deep puritanical inclinations.
The pandemic is forcing America’s children to stay at home, but in troubling respects it hasn’t altered their behavior much. When I was a kid, the terrifying parental pronouncement was, “It’s 10 p.m. on a Friday night. Do you know where your children are?” At the time, there was the ever-present fear we were off getting frisky with each other at keggers, and, well, we were. As a forty- something father and school board member, I regret to say that for contemporary parents the answer to that question is often a pretty depressing game of Clue: in their rooms, on Instagram, fretting about getting enough “likes.” A flurry of mental health studies in the last decade suggest we’ve reached a tipping point where social media has become a worse adolescent plague than drunk driving and teen pregnancy.
Naturally, letting anyone, let alone teenagers, do dumb and risky things is usually a terrible idea. In the middle of a pandemic I would obviously encourage people to wear masks and discourage TikTok videos of people licking random items in the produce section while shouting, “FREEDOM!” To the extent defying authority is permissible, it relies on making sure Americans have a solid moral foundation to begin with — which is something we have been failing at as of late. Our rebellious streak has only served us well because it has historically stood in opposition to our deep puritanical inclinations, which seem to have complementary benefits and drawbacks.
Still, regular rebellion has allowed us to preserve our liberty by regularly testing the legitimacy of our laws and governance, while we harnessed the vigor of youth, made the impossible seem possible, and ultimately trusted that our collective wim would reward the right risk-takers and punish those who were truly dangerous.
But 2020 seems to be a time when we’ve ricocheted between two unacceptable excesses. First, the pandemic revealed a disturbingly obeisant compliance to lockdown orders that now seem egregious and painful both in terms of the economic damage done and ancillary public health issues created by myopic worry over the coronavirus. Then we saw such a complete breakdown of law and order, such that people were dying in riots in places as unlikely as Davenport, Iowa.
And as this was all happening, the media and every elite institution in the country lined up to punitively shame anyone who dared to suggest gubernatorial orders prohibiting the purchase of garden supplies was excessive, before the same self-righteous clerisy turned on a dime. They promptly started lecturing us on how thousands of people in the streets flouting social distancing rules while burning bookstores and churches was somehow a legitimate response to racial injustice.
It seems to me that 2020 is a year in which we’ve lost a sense of ourselves. American culture has always celebrated rebels, but the point is to venerate rebels with a cause, be it the Geronimo or Martin Luther King. Hell-raising is a great thing, and it’s fundamental to who we are — but as 2020 demonstrates, too much or too little of it will simply turn America into hell.
Mark Hemingway is a writer in Alexandria, Virginia.