On Monday afternoon, the Sunrise movement, a progressive environmental group, staged a protest outside the White House, ostensibly about climate change. One of the featured speakers was progressive Congressman Jamaal Bowman, who said, “They occupy our streets. They mass incarcerate us, but they leave us food insecure, in transportation deserts, and our buildings and schools falling apart. F*** that!”
It’s not clear whom he meant by “they,” but the crowd loved Bowman’s contemptuous tone. It’s a tone common among performative activists on the left these days. On Saturday, during the Olympic trials in Oregon, American athlete Gwen Berry turned her back on the American flag and proclaimed herself “pissed” that the National Anthem was played during a ceremony in which she was awarded a bronze medal in hammer-throwing. Berry held up a shirt that read “Activist Athlete” and told reporters “it was real disrespectful” that she had to stand and listen to the anthem. “My purpose and my mission is bigger than sports,” Berry said. “I’m here to represent those … who died due to systemic racism. That’s the important part. That’s why I’m going.”
In fact, the “important part” of Olympic trials is determining which athletes should represent our country in the foremost international athletic competition. Berry just barely qualified for the team (her throw was only two inches better than the fourth-place finisher and a full seven feet behind the first-place finisher, DeAnna Price, who broke two records at the event). Instead of proclaiming herself “bigger than sports,” maybe Berry should work harder at improving her performance in the one in which she’s chosen to compete.
If the nation for which Berry competes is as systematically oppressive as she claims, how did it allow her to rise to the level of Olympic competition? Like Bowman’s, Berry’s ridiculous stunt and its accompanying generic expressions of contempt are representative of a growing nihilism on the progressive left.
Asked by reporters about Berry’s expressions of contempt for the flag and the national anthem, Biden administration Press Secretary Jen Psaki gave a weasel-worded non-answer. Joe Biden “has great respect for the anthem,” Psaki insisted (that wasn’t the question). And yet, “part of that pride in our country means recognizing there are moments where we as a country haven’t lived up to our highest ideals,” Psaki continued. Thus, the Biden administration backhandedly endorsed of Berry’s disrespect for the flag.
Protesting the flag and the national anthem is everyone’s right—the First Amendment guarantees that. But there’s a thin line between acts of protest against what Psaki described as America’s discrete moral and political failings and general expressions of contempt for one’s country. The activist left is increasingly comfortable with the latter, even as it spent the Trump years excoriating the right for engaging in similar behavior.
Consider a recent report by the National Archives’ “racial task force” (which was created in the wake of George Floyd’s death). That organization declared the Rotunda of the Archives, which houses the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, an emblem of “structural racism” that “lauds wealthy White men in the nation’s founding while marginalizing BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and other People of Color], women, and other communities.”
The report also called for “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” to be placed in the Archives’ exhibits and complained that Thomas Jefferson was too flatteringly described on the National Archives website, among other questionable conclusions. The “racial task force” prescribed “reimagining” the Rotunda to include “dance or performance art in the space that invites dialogue about the ways that the United States has mythologized the founding era.”
Far from mythologizing the founding, the Rotunda has long been a site for democratic engagement with it. It is open for free to the public, year-round. And for years, the Archives has hosted a sleepover that raises money for the institution. My children and I were lucky to attend one of these events when they were younger. After the Archives closes to the public, a small group of parents and kids get to stay behind and spend the night in the Rotunda, spreading out sleeping bags on the floor directly in front of the nation’s founding documents while archivists discuss the nation’s history. It’s a wonderful experience.
Our slumber party group was a racially and ethnically diverse lot from the D.C. area. All the kids were clearly excited to be so close to a tangible part of their historical inheritance. The experience provided them with respect for the past that is difficult to convey through a mere textbook. The participants left the next morning feeling more appreciative and protective of their country’s founding documents. It made the founding and our country’s history more concrete, not more “mythologized.” And it hasn’t prevented them from understanding that, like all of us, our Founders were also flawed human beings.
The progressive left would see such forms of engagement destroyed by government-empowered “racial task forces”—klatches that blithely brand paying homage to our country’s Founders just another form of structural racism, not a healthy expression of national pride. Self-styled “activist athletes” like Berry, who have earned the privilege of participating in an elite competition as a representative of their nation, don’t want to encourage thoughtful debate about American ideals. They want to posture about their “mission” while expressing contempt for their country that makes it possible.
That is their right, of course—a right that exists thanks to the genius of the Founders, whose ideals they hold in such low esteem. But as we approach the annual celebration of our nation’s independence, it’s worth considering that, while criticism and debate have always been crucial to a healthy and thriving democracy, the performative activism and censorious wokeness of so much of the progressive left undermines rather than encourages debate and discussion. They resent nuance, and so they, therefore, reject the depth that leads to a fuller understanding of any subject. Expressions of contempt, both about our country’s founding principles and about our fellow Americans with whom we disagree, might feel revolutionary. But they are ultimately corrosive.