A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 83

Political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville.

Monday and Tuesday, June 1 and 2

The nationwide demonstrations against police killings of black youths—accompanied by wild scenes of looting and mayhem—appear to be escalating. But why…how? 

Social scientists have long attempted to figure out why some events trigger rebellion, while other, even more outrageous occurrences do not. The 18th century French population put up with years of oppression from its monarchs and aristocracy—until the dam broke in 1789. Other years notable for such explosions include 1848, a year of revolution across Europe; 1914, the year of the Russian revolution; and 1968, when Paris exploded in a wave of student/worker protest. All things considered, there weren’t very many.

None of this is to say that I imagine we’re now in a revolutionary period. But even if we are not, the level of protest is truly breathtaking. It’s not just one night—but night after day after night of marches, demonstrations, and street violence.

The press tends to quote participants who say the equivalent of “enough is enough”—as if outrage upon repeated outrage has prompted the rebellion. I don’t know: Trump lives to pile outrage on top of outrage, and he has been doing it for years without provoking anything like the current level of protest.

A conventional social-science analysis refers to crises of rising expectations: People tend to rebel, the theory says, not when the population is overwhelmed, but just as things seem to get a little bit better. The first observer to offer this analysis was probably 19th century writer Alexis de Tocqueville in his book L’Ancien Regime et la Revolution. When the weight of oppression is lightened just a bit, that is the moment when people rise up, he said. “The evil, which was suffered patiently as inevitable, seems unendurable as soon as the idea of escaping from it is conceived.” The people are able to imagine an alternative.

So what would that rising expectation be in the current moment? The possibility of Trump’s electoral ouster? The fact that an increasing number of big-city mayors and progressive-state governors are denouncing police killings? The fact that we might be seeing light at the end of the pandemic tunnel? 

Or could it be all of these things together?

These are matters to ponder as I make my weekly trip to the recycling center. 

Tonight’s dinner: Korean barbecue-style meatballs, spicy wok-charred snow peas, and rice.

Entertainment: The Belgian policier The Break.