Yesterday, I wrote about an "epistemic coup" that Shoshana Zuboff believes has been carried out by the major internet platforms that dominate our online world. The article on which I commented ran in The New York Times on January 21, 2021, the day after Joe Biden's inauguration as President, and at a time when the events of January 6th, pictured above, were on everyone's mind.
Many believe that what happened on January 6th was an effort to carry off a "coup," an "insurrection" that threatened American democracy in a very immediate, direct, and dramatic fashion. We are, of course, in the midst of a Congressional investigation of what happened on January 6th, and will have to wait to see what the Committee investigating these events ultimately concludes, and what facts it brings to light. In the meantime, there is definitely not unanimity about what happened.
Hillsdale College, for example, publishes a monthly magazine, Imprimis, and that publication printed an article in its September 2021, edition titled, "The January 6 Insurrection Hoax." "Hoax" is a pretty strong word - but Hillsdale College clearly stands behind that characterization. The author of the Imprimis article was Roger Kimball, who is the Editor and Publisher of The New Criterion, an arts and literary journal. It is Kimball's judgement that the events of January 6th were just "a political protest that got out of hand," as Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson has said. Kimball takes the position that there is simply no foundation for the idea that there was any serious attempt to overthrow the government on January 6th. Calling what happened an "insurrection" is not just a misinterpretation of the events, he claims, but a politically-motivated and intentional distortion, a "hoax."
As another example, an article published in the November 20-21, 2021, edition of The Wall Street Journal was titled, "The Impossible Insurrection of Jan. 6." In that article, columnist Barton Swaim argues that there was no effort at an "insurrection" or a "coup" on January 6th, saying that "the right couldn't stage a coup because liberals dominate nearly every institution of American politics and culture." Swaim, incidentally, turns out to have a connection with Hillsdale College, which I discovered when I looked him up online, but Hillsdale College, and its associates, are far from the only ones arguing that there was no attempted "coup" on January 6th. That is pretty much the position of all Republican Party Members of Congress (Wyoming Congress Member Liz Cheney excepted).
The Washington Post is on the side of those who think that the January 6th events were, in fact, an attempted "coup," saying that the attack was "neither a spontaneous act nor an isolated event." Its story outlines evidence tending to show that the assault on the Congress was a planned and coordinated effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Many Democratic Members of Congress - exposed in the assault - agree with this perspective, and take the position that there was, in fact, a serious effort to overthrow the government on January 6th. To my mind, The Post makes a pretty good case.
Given the different perspectives on what happened on January 6th, we should perhaps view the events of that day as a kind of "Blind Men and The Elephant" problem. There is, after all, a pretty fair argument that what happened was "a political protest that got out of hand," just as Tucker Carlson says. Several thousand people came to Washington, D.C. to protest an election that they thought had been compromised. They almost certainly did not come with the intention of overthrowing the government, but many of them ended up in the crowd pictured above, and some pushed past the Capitol police and entered the Capitol. As to those people, Tucker Carlson's statement may be true - this was just a protest that "got out of hand." Carlson's characterization of the events, however, may not be the only thing that is true about what happened on January 6th.
Though we need to see what the Committee investigation finds before making any final judgment, it seems pretty likely to me that there were a significant number of people who came to the Capitol on January 6th with an agenda that was, indeed, to overturn the election results, to let Donald Trump continue in office, and who were willing to do whatever might be necessary to achieve that result. I would like to think that Barton Swaim is correct, and that any such effort would have had no real possibility of ultimate success, and that a coup would be "impossible." Still, even if Swaim is right, and that any coup attempt would have failed, that would not excuse those who made the attempt; the events of January 6th would have been an "insurrection."
It is often true in politics, as in discerning the nature of an elephant, that more than one explanation is not only plausible, but is, in fact, "true." But "true" only in some aspects, not in all. As John Godfrey Saxe says, in his wonderful poem about the dispute of the blind men, "each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong!"
I think that this may well be the case as we try to contemplate what really "happened" on January 6th. The intentions and objectives of those involved are pertinent - and there were almost certainly differing objectives and intentions among the thousands who participated in the events - but the intentions and objectives of the participants, whatever they were, are less important, in the end, than in what those involved actually did.
I would like to hope that we might all agree that whatever the intentions of those who participated in the events of January 6th, those who actually broke into the Capitol Building need to be held accountable for their actions. Even if what happened was just a "political protest," and not either a "coup" or an "insurrection," what happened most definitely did "get out of hand." When things get out of hand in that way, when people are injured (killed, in one case), and when property is damaged, and when all the normal functionings of government are made to pause, as rioting people swarm the halls of Congress, all of those involved should be responsible for what they actually did.
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