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.
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.)