One striking aspect of America’s protests over the death of George Floyd is the way in which they have spread overseas. Take my native land of England, for example. England no doubt has its racial problems—although Englishmen of my generation tend to think of diversity primarily in terms of class, not race—but protesting the racial crimes of American policemen seems an odd thing to do on the streets of London, let alone Bristol, Birmingham, and Portsmouth. It seems even odder in view of what is happening on the other side of the world, in Hong Kong.
I remember keenly observing the events leading up to the transfer of Hong Kong from British colonial rule to China in the mid-1990s. In 1997 I watched the ceremony where Robin Cook, then foreign secretary in the Labour government, formally handed the colony back to the Chinese authorities. His understated departure in a tiny motor launch seemed to symbolize the way the British Empire finally ended—not with a bang but a whimper. Like everyone else that day, I wondered when the negotiated arrangement would come to an end, how long the moderate democracy of the new Hong Kong would last.
It seems we now have our answer. After years of steadily mounting pressure, the Chinese government has abandoned all pretense of wanting a two-system solution. A bold and brash Beijing is about to bring that world to an end, and probably with a bang, not a whimper. The basic freedoms that we take for granted in the West are set to vanish entirely. And the People’s Republic is already looking beyond Hong Kong to unfinished business with Taiwan. The future is bleak.
Yet Britain's news headlines are not dominated by events in its most recently ceded colony but by domestic protests about police violence in Minneapolis. Of course, the world is full of wicked injustice and there is only so much outrage to go around. One cannot protest everything; choices must be made in this as in everything else. But it is fascinating that young British people—and the anecdotal evidence indicates that it is young British people—have chosen the horrific death of George Floyd as the issue on which to take to the streets.
Political protest against injustice has always been selective. I remember a discussion I had with a socialist friend over coffee in my college room in the 1980s. I asked her why she was so exercised about apartheid in South Africa but silent on the Soviet Union. She answered that she thought a march in London concerning the situation in a former part of the British Empire would have greater effect than a similar march concerning abuses in a nation with which we had no common history. I happened to disagree, and suggested that her position had more to do with her instinctive left-wing sympathies for a socialist state, but even then I conceded that her argument in itself made sense. Yet its logic scarcely applies in today’s situation: Hong Kong was a colony less than twenty-five years ago. America renounced her colonial status rather a long time before that.
I suspect there are other factors at play. In a time when the old narratives of identity are in crisis—when many no longer see America as the land of the free on a trajectory of endless progress but as a nation built on exploitation and slavery, and when many European nations have long since had their identities eroded by mass immigration and shame for their warmongering and colonial pasts—younger people relate to the history of their nations, and thus to their own national identities, more by way of repudiation and rebellion than by appropriation and affirmation.
Moreover, social media has dissolved geography and thereby the traditional terms of ownership that geographical limits entailed. My sister can sit in the village where we grew up and watch a Minneapolis policeman squeeze the life out of George Floyd. And she can feel not just an empathy for the man as he dies but an immediacy to the event, which elicits a desire to respond. Two hundred years ago—even fifty years ago—this would not have been possible.
Yet this does not entirely explain why Minneapolis and not Hong Kong has grabbed the imagination of British youth. After all, Hong Kong is a much more recent part of the British narrative; one can watch the dismantling of Hong Kong’s constitution online and on the television; and an extremely good case can be made that the British government is more responsible for that mess and its potential amelioration than for the chaos in the Minneapolis police department. After all, the British can actually do something about it—as Boris Johnson’s pledge on immigration to the U.K. from Hong Kong indicates. So why Minneapolis, not Hong Kong?
I suggest that this is the result of two complementary cultural pathologies, both with rather worrying implications. First, the issue with Hong Kong lacks cultural appeal because it involves the importance of democratic freedoms—and democracy is increasingly seen by the burn-it-to-the-ground right and left (Exhibits A and B: Trump and Sanders) as part of the problem, not the solution. Fighting for democracy in the West is simply not as trendy as it was in the days of the Cold War. Now we take democratic freedoms for granted even as we decry the components of democratic culture—e.g., freedom of speech, freedom of religion, respectful civility toward those who disagree with us—as oppressive instruments of privilege.
Related to this, identity has become the most important factor in contemporary politics. Strange to tell, it was only a month ago that the nightly news was seasoned with inspiring stories of communities coming together in countless acts of kindness toward the vulnerable and needy in their midst in the face of COVID-19. The identity chaos of recent years seemed suddenly to have vanished. How naïve and paper-thin that renewed community now seems. In a world where the traditional anchors of identity—nation, family, religion, place, geographical community—have been attenuated or redefined virtually out of existence, personal freedom and self-determination have become gods. And fighting for such has given a rootless generation a cause in which to believe and find meaning.
In a context where democratic freedom is seen as part of the problem and identity is about self-assertion, then democracy and its concomitant institutions will seem a failed deity, a fallen idol, an impediment to freedom rather than its necessary facilitator. And in that situation, police brutality in Minneapolis will speak more powerfully to people in Portsmouth than will state-sanctioned violence in Hong Kong. The aesthetic imagination that shapes the public performance of political values in the West is now gripped more by the aspirational freedom of individual identity than by the actual liberty of liberal democracy.
And that is worrying. Though the protests against police brutality are important, if the underlying cultural forces behind them indicate an impatience with democracy and the notion of society it assumes and promotes, the horizon reveals a dark cloud. That cloud may be at the moment merely the size of a man’s hand, but it is a dark cloud nonetheless, and one that looks ominously like a clenched fist.
Carl R. Trueman is professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and senior fellow at the Institute for Faith and Freedom
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