Anyone who thought the jury’s verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse case might prompt some reflection among the political and media classes will have been rudely disabused over the last five days. The teenager was convicted in the court of elite opinion long before he set foot in the Kenosha County Courthouse and that sentence isn’t about to be overturned. The response underscores how far American liberals have drifted from liberalism and how their total surrender to progressivism has rendered them incapable of understanding events except through the prism of ‘anti-racism’.
Newsweek told its readers that ‘emboldened white supremacists and neo-Nazis have celebrated the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse in far-right channels online’. A Guardian op-ed pronounced: ‘The Rittenhouse verdict is proof that it is reasonable to believe that the fear of Black people can absolve a white person of any crime.’ Another termed the verdict ‘the latest in a centuries-old American tradition of protecting white terror and vigilantism’ and said the jury’s decision meant ‘it is now open hunting season on progressive protesters’. The University of Chicago historian Kathleen Belew suggested the not guilty verdict could be ‘a much more significant moment’ and could ‘set off renewed activity by the white power movement’. Late-night scold Stephen Colbert was almost thoughtful by comparison when he opined: ‘If he didn’t break the law, we should change the law.’
What is striking about these reactions is not that the side of US politics most associated with sentencing reform was yearning for a teenager to be tossed in a penitentiary, nor that American progressives now see racists like Joe McCarthy saw communists. It’s that journalists, commentators and academics have abandoned all neutrality. Not in the sense of being partial and critiquing the jury’s verdict, but in seeing themselves as part of the prosecution. Like latter-day Dirty Harrys, they didn’t need trials or judges or juries to tell them that Rittenhouse was guilty. He was white. If the pigment fits, you must convict.
The insistence by the mainstream, progressive media that Rittenhouse was a white supremacist gun nut who opened fire on black protestors was so absolute that it survived even the verdict. ‘Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement,’ Lenin wrote and progressivism’s revolutionary theory about racism has thoroughly captured a great number of American journalists, to the exclusion of evidence, reason and truth. So much so that, if you followed Rittenhouse’s trial on Twitter or Reddit, you will likely have been better informed about the facts of the case than if you relied on the reporting of the most august news outlets in America.
Progressivism has not so much marched as sprinted through the institutions and neutrality has been the first casualty. At the first sign the Rittenhouse trial was not going well for the prosecution, media outlets that routinely fret about conservative criticism of the judiciary began a spate of broadsides against the presiding judge. ‘In Scrutinised Kyle Rittenhouse Trial, It’s the Judge Commanding Attention,’ wibbled the New York Times. ‘Judge in Kyle Rittenhouse trial faces backlash from “Asian food” joke,’ tutted the Washington Post. ‘The Kyle Rittenhouse Judge is the Actual Worst,’ huffed Vanity Fair.
The divisions separating the political from the personal, the professional, the educational and every nook and cranny of life blessedly unconquered by ideology were not felled during the Rittenhouse trial. Their demolition has been under way for some time, but the pace accelerated over the past 18 months.
Some of this is laughably mad stuff, like the (temporary) cancellation of Cops, streaming services pulling a 1988 episode of the Golden Girls in which two characters wear brown face packs, and the elevation of Ben & Jerry’s, purveyors of frozen diabetes, to the ethical guardianship of American liberalism. Some of it is more serious and imperils the integrity of important professions and institutions.
Last June, almost 1,300 health professionals signed an open letter in support of gathering during the pandemic, provided the reason was to protest racism. ‘[A]s public health advocates,’ the letter declared, ‘we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for Covid-19 transmission. We support them as vital to the national public health’. In fact, these experts went on to endorse the protests for ‘tackling the paramount public health problem of pervasive racism’. The response ‘must be wholly different from the response to white protesters resisting stay-home orders’ and ‘infectious disease experts must be clear and consistent in prioritising an anti-racist message’. At a time when public confidence in health messaging was a matter of life and death, these practitioners put their professional reputations in service of their political preferences.
This collapsing of autonomous institutions into an insurgent movement bent on repudiating and replacing liberalism is exactly why liberals cherish neutrality. Societies in which political power is limited and citizens owe affinity to a variety of small, neutral spheres — workplaces, churches, schools, sports clubs — will always be freer than those in which loyalty is demanded to an ideology of unlimited reach and an insatiable appetite for dominion. Twelve men and women in Kenosha got in the way last week. Their fulfilment of their civic duty without regard to ideology – their neutrality – was admirable. It will only make progressives more determined to do away with this kind of thinking and the institutions and processes that encourage it.