The Inanity of The Defense of Looting
Vicky Osterweil isn't making a powerful argument. She just rediscovered tribal barbarism and put a fresh coat of paint on it.
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 U.S. 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.