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Crisis in the context of history

Looking at the coronavirus and racial protests through America’s past


Protesters demonstrate outside of a burning Minneapolis 3rd Police Precinct on May 28, 2020. Associated Press/Photo by John Minchillo (file)

Crisis in the context of history

Author Lance Morrow was a Luce-ist for years and at age 81 is still a lucid essayist. Morrow wrote 150-plus cover stories for Henry Luce’s Time and often explained ideas by describing binaries, dueling visions. In this book he connects 2020 protests to the 115-year-old debates between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. Morrow describes two schools of thought on how to use money to do good—philanthropy and charity, or government. He notes two schools of journalistic history-writing—Thucydides vs. Herodotus—but overlooks the apostle Luke.

Morrow even shows how “money and literary intellect would evolve into feuding parallel cultures”: Harvard professor William James sometimes played golf with John D. Rockefeller and called him “a man ten stories deep, and to me quite unfathomable.” Here, reprinted by permission from Encounter Books, is an excerpt from God and Mammon, an honorable mention in WORLD’s 2020 Books of the Year list. —Marvin Olasky

It has been a strange, cold, and eerie May. There continues to be news of the mounting deaths from the coronavirus and of the immense financial devastation that the lockdown has caused. More than forty million jobs have disappeared.

By now, more than one hundred thousand Americans have died as a result of the pandemic. The country has been under quarantine, and in New York City, people locked up in their apartments week after week have started leaning out of their windows in the evening when hospital workers (nurses, doctors, technicians, and all the rest) get off work. The people cheer and bang pots and pans in gratitude.

Across the country, there have been cries to reopen the economy, because the losses in jobs and money have also destroyed lives, and there are angry demonstrations against the continued restrictions. Some of the demonstrators carry guns, even AR15 rifles.

Two devastations are in play—the disease itself and the stunned, paralyzed economy.

Then, on Memorial Day weekend in Minneapolis, a black man named George Floyd, forty-six years old, is arrested for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill to pay for cigarettes at a convenience store. Four policemen subdue him (Floyd is 6’6” tall and weighs 242 lbs.) and hand- cuff him and force him to lie face down on the pavement. One of the policemen puts his knee on Floyd’s neck, and keeps it there for almost nine minutes. Floyd dies. His death—or, to be precise, the video of his death—sets the country on fire.

The coronavirus is forgotten. It is as if it never happened—except for the strange detail that people continue to wear masks. The national drama has changed. America has gone off on a different subject.

Demonstrations and riots break out in seventy-five cities. There is looting and arson and the burning of police cars. Police in Minneapolis abandon their precinct house when it is surrounded by a mob, who then ransack it when the cops are gone.

Black-clad provocateurs are at work among the ordinary looters. The proceedings, morally speaking, might be assigned a slot somewhere between Kristallnacht and the Boston Tea Party.

Many of the mass marches have been peaceful enough, fervent in their atmosphere; the lines of march have been swollen with young whites joining in such numbers that the demonstrations begin to take on a generational aspect—as if the white young mean to announce, We have transcended race.

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven.

Wordsworth’s lines in “The Prelude” referred to the French Revolution. They still sound foolish.

People watching the events in 2020 think of 1968, which is apt enough. Some venture that this is a “second Civil War.” But in 1968, we also referred to what was going on at that time—the nightmare procession of assassinations, riots, and surprises—as a second Civil War. Perhaps, for clarity, the 2020 version should be called the “third Civil War.”

On the other hand, the Civil War analogy being used seems too linear, too coherent—a cliché, even. The outbreak of protests and riots going on now, superimposed upon the pandemic, feels like a sudden event of physics or meteorology, a perfect storm of perfect storms, multilayered and interpenetrating and simultaneous.

The motives at work in the disturbances are mixed. So are the moods—a wind shear of psychologies and attitudes: hysteria, grief, anarchy, frolic, spectacle, revolution, a fest of selfies against a backdrop of flames. Anarchists out of Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent trade germs with angry blacks and young whites on skateboards or $2,000 bikes. The deadly serious and the deadly unserious appear side by side in the performance. But a crowd on the march does anger better than it does grief. An angry crowd tends to become a mob, and a mob tends to smash windows, to loot and burn. Whatever blameless emotion may have prompted the protest in the first place gets corrupted into mere power. A mob will imitate the abuse of power that the demonstration was called to protest in the first place. But if the intention is to destroy American society, there is no problem. Everything is on track.

Diverse, pent-up energies break loose simultaneously—decades and even centuries of racial grievance; anxiety and frustration after months of pandemic and lockdown; and the sudden implosion of the economy. The country woke up to dégringolade, a tumbling down of the familiar world. The George Floyd disturbances become part of the avalanche.

The country woke up to dégringolade, a tumbling down of the familiar world.

The disturbances have been called forth by the deaths of Floyd and of Breonna Taylor and of Ahmaud Arbery—a cluster of atrocities. The disturbances are even about the incident between a white woman referred to as a “Karen” and a black man who is a Central Park birder. The birder asked the woman to put her dog on a leash, lest the animal disturb the thrushes, and she called the cops on him, saying a black man was threatening her life. The disturbances are about Donald Trump, too—paying him back in his own idiom, as his enemies believe—and about the irreconcilable differences between Trump’s America and the one that is so passionate about making him and his deplorable kind go away and leave the country to people who think like themselves.

A friend from Minneapolis e-mailed: “The protesters are idealistic and their commitment to justice admirable, but many of them seem to share a generational sense of entitlement. When it’s clear that one is right, immediate compliance must follow. Well, they’re right about the raw deal blacks have, and the need for that to change, and that the cop barrel has a lot of bad apples, but they have no sense of the fragility of social order. The cautionary cushions of tradition, faith, patience, and the need to persuade others are missing from their consciousness. Something will snap, and the combination of pandemic, disruption by protest, and imminent joblessness for millions of workers will lead to a place hard to see precisely, but very probably very bad.”

A quote from the Enlightenment slave owner Thomas Jefferson would resurface in the mind, as it did at the time of Watts and Newark and Detroit during the sixties: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

The bravest people I knew when I was young were the civil rights workers in the South—the generation of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, the trio murdered as they tried to register black citizens to vote in Neshoba County, Mississippi, in the summer of 1964. They were the Freedom Riders, clubbed bloody and senseless in Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama. They were the ones (John Lewis and Hosea Williams and the rest) who tried to cross the Alabama River on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, 1965.

I think of them—of their physical courage and moral discipline, of the satyagraha (nonviolence) that they had learned from Gandhi and from King—as I watch the spectacle in the late spring of 2020. It was an entirely different country then, of course, but it was, in some respects, the same.

It was an entirely different country then, of course, but it was, in some respects, the same.

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis is the sort of thing that took place frequently in that earlier America. But there were no cell phone cameras with which onlookers might record such deeds in those days, and no Internet and social media that might, in an almost metaphysical flash, project upon millions of the world’s screens the spectacle of a black man’s slow dying on the pavement under the knee of a white policeman.

In Providence, the violence after George Floyd’s death was as bad as in other cities. After one night’s riots, Rhode Island’s governor, Gina Raimondo, held a news conference in front of a shuttered mall. “What we saw last night,” she said, “was an organized attack on our community at a time we are already vulnerable.”

“They weren’t even pretending to protest. They showed up in the middle of the night, angry, with crowbars and flares and buckets of gasoline with one purpose: to set our city on fire and hurt people.”

John Brown was an eminently respectable and civilized man in his own time and his own world, a leader of the family who helped to found the city of Providence. He played a role in the origin of the American colonists’ rebellion against the British crown. It was Brown who organized the Gaspee Affair in 1772—a middle-of-the-night attack upon a British revenue ship that had been sent to interdict the vigorous coastal smuggling trade in which the Browns, among other prominent merchant families, engaged. He and his co-conspirators wounded the British captain and burned his ship. Everyone knew Brown was behind the deed, but his fellow citizens protected him from British investigators who, if they had known the truth, might have ruined him and his family.

John Brown was one of the leading merchant patriots whose quarrel with the mother country boiled down to matters of money. The Brown family—the brothers John, Joseph, Nicholas, and Moses, who were the fifth generation of Browns in the New World—founded the school that became Brown University. John and Moses started one of America’s first banks. Moses, in the words of the brothers’ biographer, Charles Rappleye, “established on the shores of the Blackstone River the first mechanized cotton mill on this side of the Atlantic, allowing American weavers to compete on equal footing with England and inaugurating the Industrial Revolution.”

The brothers were active and important in creating the country—representative Americans.

Rappleye writes, “Each emerges as an American archetype—Moses as the social reformer, driven by conscience and dedicated to an enlightened sense of justice; John as the unfettered capitalist, possessed of the prerogatives of profit and defiant of any effort to constrain his will.”

The conflict between John and Moses Brown—an early study in the relationship of America’s God and Mammon—first crystallized in the 1764 voyage of their slave ship Sally, of which I shall tell in a moment.

“Their religion is trade and their god is gain,” said the governor of Rhode Island, John Collins. He was referring to the flourishing merchant class of Newport and to one great source of their “gain”—the African slave trade. By the time of the French and Indian War, fully 70 percent of the American ships engaged in the triangle slave trade sailed out of Newport on vessels carrying rum as they headed east to the African Coast, carrying slaves as they traveled westward from Africa to the slave markets of the Caribbean or to ports like Savannah or Charleston, and carrying sugar and molasses as they sailed north on their way back to Rhode Island. Out of that last cargo, Newport had learned how to make superb high-octane rum that was a prime medium of exchange on the African coast.

The merchant Stephen Hopkins, another leader of Providence, emphasized the crucial role played by rum and slaves in the fortunes of the colony:

This little colony … has annually sent about eighteen sail of vessels to the [African] coast, which have carried about eighteen hundred hogsheads of rum, together with a small quantity of provisions and some other articles, which have been sold for slaves, gold dust, elephants’ teeth, camwood, etc. The slaves have been sold in the English islands [of the Caribbean], in Carolina and Virginia, for bills of exchange . . . and by this trade alone, remittances have been made from this colony to Great Britain, to the value of about 40,000 pounds yearly . . . From this deduction of the course of our trade, which is founded in exact truth, it appears that the whole trading stock of this colony, in its beginning, progress and end, is uniformly directed to the payment of the debt contracted by the import of British goods; and it also clearly appears, that without this trade, it would have been and always will be, utterly impossible for the inhabitants of this colony to subsist themselves, or to pay for any considerable quantity of British goods.

Slavery and the slave trade, here explained and accepted as an economic necessity, became an evil that blighted the God-Mammon relationship in the deeper dynamics of the country’s moral life. It is impossible to write about that history without referring to God—and to sin. The most influential anti-slavery document of the 19th century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is an essentially religious text: melodramatic hagiography. Every syllable of The Battle Hymn of the Republic proclaims the connection: “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.”

From God and Mammon by Lance Morrow. Copyright © 2020. Published by Encounter Books. All rights reserved. Used with permission.


Lance Morrow Lance Morrow is an American essayist whose op ed articles appear regularly in the Wall Street Journal. He is the Henry Grunwald Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

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