The other day I was reflecting about various aspects of the world, and it dawned on me that I’d never seen, heard of, or read about a mob rioting in support of anything moderate.  Obvious as that may seem, every incident of mob violence deals with extremism or a reaction to extremism, especially if one especially if one considers hunger, discrimination, or civil repression of form of extremism.

But what lies behind that observation goes much farther than that. One of the greatest “mob” events in U.S. history was the Civil War, and it was generated because the states of the Confederacy insisted on the “right” to enslave other human beings, certainly an extremist belief and behavior. Not only that, but the New York riot in reaction to the first national draft, for the Union army, still ranks as one of the most violent in U.S. history. A great number of mobs and riots in recent U.S. history have also occurred as a reaction to perceived extremism, such as those that followed the death of Martin Luther King or the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King.

Yet… there is a reason behind such “extremism,” and it seems fairly simple to me.  The most obvious example is that of the Civil War.  Slaves were property, and they represented a huge percentage of the wealth of the south.  Those who opposed the abolition of slavery felt that the federal government would confiscate their property – and they “rioted” to keep it, regardless of the ethics of enslaving human beings.  A huge percentage of the various civil rights riots in the United States, and more recently in France and elsewhere in Europe, resulted from resentment that the government and property owners were using their powers to economically oppress others in various ways.  Gun rights’ advocates fear government oppression, regulation, and confiscation – a loss of property and freedom.  Male extremist religious leaders violently dislike anything that will reduce their power – and increase the power of women and educated males, and this is certainly a factor behind anti-American mobs across the Middle East.

Extremism, of course, isn’t always exactly rational, either. Supporters of the individual right to own and bear arms have gotten consistently more violent and rabid in their assertions of those rights, and there’s been a lot of press about whether this represents a trend of some sort.  I’d venture that it does, but it’s not the kind of trend that I find particularly encouraging, not when the reaction is for gun supporters to start toting weapons everywhere and declaring that they’re under siege. Oh?  Despite all the political rhetoric, there are fewer restrictive gun laws today than in half a century, and yet we’re seeing a mob-type reaction to a few modest proposals on assault-type weapons and ammunition clip sizes…which may not even be enacted.

Abortion is another issue that generates great emotional reactions, and even though something like seventy percent of the American people believe that at least some form of abortion should be legal, those who oppose its legality create violent protests and have even murdered doctors.

Yet in most of these cases, those who struggle to keep their “rights” and “property” – or to gain them – seem to be in the position of asserting that their “rights” trump everyone else’s.  Property owners declare that they don’t want to sell to people of another ethnic group, even if the buyers meet their price.  Extremist gun owners seem to want the right to own and use pretty much any form of weapon ammunition or magazine that is available, despite the death toll on others.  Religious extremists insist that their views trump any other rights that might conflict with their views.  And the “civil rights” rioters think that their “grievances” allow them to trample all over the property rights of others.

It seems to me that a little more moderation on all sides would be in order, but then, that would be rational, and mobs don’t seem to form on a rational basis. I certainly don’t see any mobs forming to support moderation.  I wonder why not.


12 thoughts on “Mobs”

  1. Bob Walters says:

    While I would not call it a mob Jon Stewart had the “Rally to Restore Sanity” in Washington DC. Which at the time was a breath of fresh air. On a side note, and I mean no offense by this, it would be nice if there were a way for both you and your loyal readers to correct any mistakes we find after the fact. I know I hate when I find the inevitable mistake after I hit the “submit Comment” button.

  2. Frank says:

    A few comments:

    Back in the ’64 election, with Goldwater vs. Johnson, I remember a “tag line” being used by both sides: “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” This was the first time I remember participating in the creation of political cartoons. The Liberal version showed a guillotine, replete with dripping blood, and the line captioned below. The Conservative version showed a picture of the Declaration of Independence, with the line captioned below. I guess it depends on your perspective.

    Another thought would be that I wonder what Jews living in pre WWII Germany would have thought about extremism if they could have foreseen the future that Hitler had in store for them. Rioting, in that case, or outright rebellion, may not have been “extremism,” although it would certainly seem to qualify. I guess it depends on your perspective.

    I actually agree with the gist of your comments, although I think that the reactions need to be measured against their cause, and that the relative meaning of extremism vs. moderation is, in fact relative. I think it depends on your perspective.

  3. Alan says:

    Rare as it is that I disagree with the general statements or underlying spirit of the arguments you put forth, I find I have to this time. In the details, at least.

    Moderates, in any disagreement between two sides, will generally find themselves in the minority. Tugged either which way, without sufficent support to establish and build the middle ground for a reasoned agreement between the two sides. One side shouts loudly that it is right, so the other shouts even louder. All the while anyone who was between the two poles will be embattled.

    Take the gun issue, for example. My bias as a card carrying NRA member and soldier aside, there are those who assert that the public does not need a single gun. One extreme. The other extreme is that I should be allowed to own any gun I please. Do I personally believe it is realistic for everyone to have uzi’s and bazookas? Hardly. But what inevitably happens is that there are so many people who pull toward all guns are allowed, or no guns are allowed, that those who would support moderation in some guns being allowed feel they have to push as hard as they can. So a person who might be in the middle now goes hard left or hard right to try and balance the scales.

    On a personal note, the notion of reduced magazine size is ridiculous. Come out shooting at the range with me or any other ‘gun nut’. We’ll show you. Reducing magazine size simply means I carry more magazines. It does not significantly reduce the amount of ammunition I carry or increase the ammount of time required to put hundreds of bullets downrange. Feinstien even went so far, in her address, as to say reducing magazine size would give additional time for police response. In a country where the average police response time is fifteen minutes nationwide, what does the additional five seconds required to change magazines more frequently do to the ability of a criminal to shoot some one?

    Additionally making a magazine, of whatever size, is remarkably simple and can be done at home with minimal training, tools and materials.

    People I know, in the abortion case, come down hard on the prochoice side of the fence. Not because they’re rabid about protection of women’s right to do what they want with their bodies. But because those who are bound and determined to take away that right are so voracious in their demands.

    I never asserted that my rights as a gun owner, or in any other area of life superceed anothers. I simply believe that they should not be allowed to dictate any sort of curtailing of my existing freedoms. I believe that this is the argument which supports most of those struggles for ‘rights’ and ‘properties’. Not that my position is superior, but that yours is no more superior, there for you should not be able to take what I already have from me.

    As for the Civil War (or for the Southern Folks the War Between the States or War of Northern Agression), there were several factors playing into it. They’re generally acknowledged as the root causes. Northern history education in the classroom seems to focus on the slavery issue as the most important portion. Southern schools seem to focus on the rights of the states within the existing frame work of the constitution. Namely the right to succeed from the union as well as the relative strength of the federal goverment to over rule the laws of the states. Other sources of tension were the election of Abraham Lincoln, the vasy economic difference between the north and south as caused by the agricultural dependance of the south versus the industrial strength of the north.

    If you read reports of Congress and Senate house meetings of the time, those were very mob like. With physical fights, shouting matches and very nearly murder committed in the capital building. Neither side covered itself in glory.

    I think that one of the defining characteristics of the mob mentality is that you aren’t doing anything wrong. The more people who are with you, the more right you must be. The more your sense of outrage grows and you’re no longer a thinking individual. More than one historian has remarked on that status applying to the Civil War. That people didn’t think, they just reacted. Again and again, in a brutal and violent manner, supremely convinced they were doing nothing wrong.

  4. I don’t think there’s much disagreement here, except for the fact that the “states rights” issue in the Civil War was merely a cover for the “right to slavery.”

    1. Therman says:

      Sir, I really think you are way over simplifying this to make a point. The union didn’t even use slavery as a pretext until the British looked like they might support the south and NJ didn’t actually free all it’s slaves until ratification of the XIII ammendment in 1865. Not saying that slavery wasn’t a component but it certainly wasn’t the only one.

      1. Bob Walters says:

        Our country has long viewed the antebellum south and the CSA with rose colored glasses. When we think of the CSA we think of stately mansions filled with refined southern gentleman and lovely southern belles we do not think of the affect the infrastructure necessary to procure, process, and control a slave population, that in some states exceeded the number of free citizens, has on a society. Nor are we taught how the CSA justified the enslavement of a race by institutionalizing them as animals who were not human.

        There are people who proudly display the confederate battle flag and say they admire what it symbolized. There was another country not too long ago that stood for many of the same ideals and whose soldiers also fought valiantly against heavy odds yet display of their symbol is meet with horror in its country of origin. Many Americans balk at the comparison of the CSA to Nazi Germany yet the similarities are there if one chooses to view the facts without the blinders that have placed on ourselves.

    2. R. Hamilton says:

      Just because an assertion (“states rights”) is abused, doesn’t make it invalid in all circumstances; it only makes it invalid in those in which it’s being abused.

      But inevitably, the reaction goes far beyond the areas of abuse, creating problems of its own.

  5. Steve says:

    In the past I would have argued that the Civil War was fought for states rights. I also flew a confederate flag to represent the “Dixieland” heritage of my Southern Utah roots. (There is a small area in Southern Utah called Dixie.) I was wrong to do both.

    The South succeeded to protect the right to enslave. The institution of slavery in 1860 surpassed railroads and manufacturing in economic value. Taxes and tariffs on the South were lower than any time since 1816. When the North exercised their states rights and abolished slavery in their states AND did not enforce the return of escaped slaves, the South succeeded to protect their wealth and income.

    The North went to war to stop the succession, not to free the slaves. Lincoln publicly stated that he would not have freed the slaves if he felt that would have stopped the succession.

    Arguing a point or flying a flag that even appears to glorify or support something as abhorent as slavery is ridiculous.

    Thankfully times, and people, change.

    1. Bob Walters says:

      Good for you!

  6. Jack says:

    This all seems to be an argument about water under the bridge. The practice of slavery was a legal institution. The southern power structure had a huge investment in a captive work force, and was too greedy and shortsighted to see the evil of their ways. The north offered no way out for the southerners, whose money was tied up in slavery. Being asked to throw away that money was too much for them to stomach, even though it was the right and moral thing to do. They chose an evil means to secure their own power. There were breakdowns in communications on every side to the issues of the day, leading to a catastrophic war. Mr Modesitt, I disagree with you that it was an act of mob violence. Mobs are defined by their lack of organization. War is a well orchestrated means of overcoming ones perceived enemies.

    A legal institution does not equate with a moral practice. Slavery is the quintessential example of that. What are the issues of today of that cloud peoples judgement. You touch on several: Abortion, gun control, property rights. Will any of these blow up in the face of those who insist on there side? Can they be handled in the courts of law, public opinion, and legislatures? or will they be solved once and for all at the end of a gun?

    Mobs won’t be the answer, in any case. Hopefully those who seek to ban practices will sit down and discuss these issues with their perceive opponents.

  7. Mobs have often been the answer, historically, and the question is whether they will be again.

  8. Wine Guy says:

    I have to disagree with a statement made by Alan about moderates.

    He said “Moderates … generally find themselves in the minority.”

    I believe that moderates are the majority, they just don’t yell loudly enough, make neat enough graphs, or have catchy enough slogans. There is passion there, but not enough to inspire mobs. After all, who wants to get beat up and arrested for “Do what you want if it doesn’t hurt anyone else” ?

    And, to answer Mr. Modesitt’s not-question: of course they’re going to be the answer to future problems. The real question is whether or not they will solve the problem, make it worse, or create additional problems to the one they originally got all up in arms about in the first place.

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