In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action
NPR recently interviewed the author of this book. Here we feature reviews or in this case criticism from both ends of the spectrum.
First there is the critique of Jonah Goldberg:
"Vicky Osterweil, the author of “In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action,” is getting her 15 minutes of fame thanks to a segment on NPR in which she said some really mind-bogglingly dumb, indefensibly evil and fascinatingly reactionary things.
We’ll come back to her in a moment.
One of my weird mental pastimes is to look at the world as if I were a visitor from the past. But rather than think of how a time traveler might marvel at the new technology and tall buildings, I like to wonder: What would someone from 500 or 1,000 years ago recognize as familiar?
Some things are obvious: a mother breastfeeding a baby or an old man tending a garden. “We do that too!” a time traveler might say on first sight.
But if you were a sophisticated and knowledgeable time traveler, you might recognize some deeper similarities.
My favorite example is North Korea, which is often called a “communist” or “Marxist” regime but would be instantly recognizable to a temporal tourist as an absolutist monarchy, even though the regime doesn’t use the word “king.” Divine power is passed down to the male heir of the previous ruler. Every de facto monarch is said to be of quasi-supernatural origin and endowed with superhuman abilities and wisdom. North Korea also has a hereditary aristocracy that lives off the hereditary peasant class, which is born into de facto serfdom.
I bring this up because sometimes we get too hung up on words and lose sight of the things underneath. And that brings me back to Osterweil.
“Looting is a highly racialized word from its very inception in the English language,” Osterweil said in the NPR interview. “It’s taken from Hindi, lút , which means ‘goods’ or ‘spoils.’ ”
How this is relevant, or even evidence that the word is “racialized,” is a mystery, given that maybe two in 10 million people know its etymology. Other words with Hindi origins: pundit, guru, khaki, cashmere and pajamas. The horror.
This is a good example of confusing words and things. Looting — mobs grabbing stuff that doesn’t belong to them — is an ancient practice dating back hundreds of thousands of years, before we even had the concept of dates. Pillaging, ransacking, theft — call it what you like — is how tribes acquired stuff before the invention of trade.
In short: Osterweil thinks she’s making some powerful neo-Marxist argument on the bleeding edge of theory, but what she’s discovered is tribal barbarism and put a fresh coat of paint on it.
She is fluent in all the latest buzzwords and campus jargon. The “so-called” United States of America, she writes in her book, was founded in “cisheteropatriarchal racial capitalist” violence. (I’m getting my quotes from Graeme Wood’s excellent review in The Atlantic, as I have no desire to saddle Osterweil with the guilt of profiting from her work.)
Destroying businesses is an “experience of pleasure, joy and freedom,” she writes. Osterweil also insists it’s a form of “queer birth,” and that “riots are violent, extreme and femme as f – – -.” Looting isn’t wrong, she claims, but rather a form of “proletarian shopping.”
“Looting strikes at the heart of property, of whiteness and of the police,” Osterweil explained on NPR. “The very basis of property in the US is derived through whiteness and through Black oppression, through the history of slavery and settler domination of the country.”
Nope. Notions of private property can be found in ancient China, the Islamic world and, well, everywhere.
Even the Korean grocers targeted by looting have it coming, according to Osterweil, because they’re working in the white man’s system of “ownership.” And ownership is “innately, structurally white supremacist.”
What Osterweil is really describing is revenge based on collective guilt. A Viking or Gaul from the past would instantly recognize it. So would countless non-white barbarians of yore, because that’s what humans used to believe. “Your ancestors did something to my ancestors, and so you have this coming.”
Books could be written about how wrong — historically, morally, logically — Osterweil is. But there is one place where she’s right. Rioting and looting are fun, which is why young people do it from time to time. Mobs are thrilling, which is why they’re so dangerous and evil. (Presumably rapists and murderers feel “joy” too, that doesn’t make them good; it illuminates their evilness.) That’s why civilized societies try to prevent them. Barbarians come up with clever word salads to defend them.
Then from the left - Bill Maher:
"Real Time" host Bill Maher blasted the media Friday night, claiming they offer various justifications for looting and rioting amid the civil unrest that has taken place in cities across the country.
During the show's panel segment, Maher began with a warning about the "craziness out there," pointing to the controversial book "In Defense of Looting" that was given a spotlight by NPR and "a lot of articles in the press" echoing a similar sentiment.
Maher explained that in "binary times," the "fringe" will always be associated with one party or the other, later insisting that this time around, Democrat Joe Biden will have to wear looting "on his back into the election" because it is being done by the left.
His panelists disagreed, arguing that Biden had been handling the issue of the unrest very well and that the issue has actually been hurting President Trump .
But none of that passed Maher's smell test.
"What about the property destruction issue?" Maher asked. He went on to assert that some defenders of looting justified the destruction because it wasn't assault or murder, and that property was "replaceble."
"I'm not down with this 'property's on the table' as something that we can just take because things are not right. To me, that's not the way to address our problems -- by throwing a brick through the window."
"But where is this massive destruction of property happening right now?" author Jessica Yellin, a former CNN correspondent, asked in an attempt to downplay the violence.
"Do you watch the news?" Maher replied.
"If you look at Portland, it's two square blocks!" Yellin doubled down, calling other examoples, like Kenosha, Wis., "moments of protest which we have throughout our history."
Maher pushed back, telling Yellin, "There is a view in the media -- please, I know you've seen it -- Don't look at me like I'm making this up, that this is somehow a justifiable approach."
"Well isn't it part of protest?" Yellin asked.
"So you're part of this. You believe this," Maher told her. "I saw this guy at a Papa John's franchise who was yelling through his broken glass, 'You're going to elect Trump and I'm just trying to feed my family!' I don't think his view is just like 'C'est la vie! It's just property!'"
Another panelist, Vanity Fair columnist Peter Hamby, acknowledged that "campus thinking" has "drifted into the "national press" and "Democratic politics."
Maher later defended Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who was harassed by protesters outside the White House despite his efforts to pass his police reform bill named after Breonna Taylor, as well as diners who have been accosted by demonstrators.
"You're allowed to eat dinner!" Maher exclaimed. "I can eat dinner and still be down with the cause!"
Yellin later referred to the subject of looting as a "sideshow" in the election, a remark that appeared to strike a nerve with the "Real Time" host.
"It may be a sideshow unless it's your business that got wiped out," Maher shot back. "I mean, if it's your business, then it's not a sideshow."