Reflections on America in flames

The descent of the American Republic into one of the outer circles of hell is occurring before our eyes. Within a week an outrageous case of police brutality, enclosed within a police force and city government immune to reform and run by Democrats for years, has spiralled into violence, looting, and despair across dozens of cities in the ironically named United States of America, interspersed by occasional spasms of eloquence when people face choices that may define their moral lives.

I am a long way away from the imperial centre, where I live in quiet, if locked down, streets. Still, the events that I have seen are distressing, all of them: the original murder; the pain and grief of the family of George Floyd; the evasions of the local prosecutor and authorities; the peaceful protestors losing their platform to agitators with another goal; the absurd mainstream media reporters play acting as an Iraqi Information Minister telling their audience “everything is fine”, while in the background of their shot the city is burning or a passing protestor in as merry caravan throws a bottle at the reporter; the looting, so much looting that cannot be described as protest; the burning of businesses, libraries, shops, cars, police stations; the white kids intoxicated with ideology who threw molotov cocktails into a police car with four of their fellows, who were only saved from death by the naive terrorists’ incompetence; the cynical white Antifa hipster in a beard and turned up jeans paying black kids on bikes to go and fight his battles for him; the black woman from the Minnesota housing estate crying in despair that she has nowhere to shop for basic supplies and no bus service to go anywhere else because of the rioters, and she was afraid, and the riots had made her wish she was in the same better place that George Floyd was.

There have been moments of inspiration, of course. The Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms who spoke with true courage that “this is not a protest… this is chaos”, urged all the rioters to go home and stop disgracing the life of George Floyd and every other person killed in America. Killer Mike and her courageous white female police chief backed her up. There have been black protestors protecting shops from rampaging Valley kids radicals. There has been a white security guard who quickly disarmed some dumb white radical pretender who had taken an assault rifle from a burnt-out police car and was trying it out for size as if he were on the set of a movie about a PLO training camp.

But this virus of violence has spread in circles of crisis. The response to the over-rated coronavirus has led to a truly unprecedented economic crisis, with huge numbers of people locked out of their businesses and locked into their homes. The coronavirus crisis ran at the heels of the impeachment crisis that together exposed a political crisis, in which political actors conspired with the security state and the Big Tech/Media oligarchs to overturn a democratic election. And that political crisis was in turn provoked by the overturning in the 2016 election of a protected befuddled elite, who had grown too cozy with endless wars and bailouts of financialized elites to bear witness to the social crisis unfolding outside of their limousines and gated communities. The economic, political and social crisis nest within a cultural crisis – the decay and spurning of the infinite conversation that the Burning Archive laments – and for America specifically the crisis of a late empire that is overextended and unwinding, but still believes it has an exceptional ability to stare down the tide of history, to ignore the tragedy of its sins, and to march forever in the arms of progress towards its manifest destiny.

So many crises, and so many temptations to believe that the pace of human affairs may quicken in these dark days. But, perhaps these are just riots, the return of the disorderly mob, a feature of society from time immemorial. Sometimes celebrated. Sometimes feared. Sometimes mythologised. It may not be the Second Coming. There may not be any beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. It may just be one more brick falling from the wall.

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