I don’t know if I have anything important to say that has not already been said by the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of writers, commentators, pundits, Tweeters and others who are repelled by the overt alliance of the President of the United States with white supremacists and so-called alt-right neo-Nazis. Nevertheless, I must write about Charlottesville.
As background you may want to revisit my related post at https://shiningseausa.com/2017/05/09/visiting-holocaust-museum/
I am an old white man, the beneficiary of white privilege. A beneficiary of the reduced competition for jobs and other societal benefits by virtue of the systematic and relentless suppression of blacks and other minorities over the more-than-a-century since the end of the Civil War. I am the beneficiary of the sacrifices of millions of people, citizens, soldiers, doctors and many others who gave their time, their career opportunities, parts of their bodies and minds and, of course, their very lives to prevent the Nazis of 1930s-1940s Germany from dominating the world and destroying absolutely and finally what they believed were inferior cultures. If you reflect on this, you too should be aware of these “gifts” from past generations that have made your life of privilege possible.
These gifts were not intended to preserve America for white people alone, but to protect the country, and its culture, from destruction at the hands of a delusional lunatic who preyed on the fears of his countrymen to create a killing machine of unparalleled cruelty that still defines the phrase “crimes against humanity.” Despite that, it is also true that, at the time of World War II, the United States itself still practiced multiple forms of overt institutional and legally-reinforced racial discrimination. The country had not yet come to grips with its conflicted legacy of democratic values and abuse of non-whites. The post-War recovery, however, helped create conditions in which the discriminatory “rules” of Jim Crow were rejected and the American values expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution began to take hold.
The process was not peaceful. If you recall the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision abolishing school segregation, many whites resisted violently the idea that minorities, primarily Blacks at that time, would be given opportunities equal to those they and their ancestors had enjoyed all their lives. Violent resistance to the Civil Rights Movement was powerful but gradually, over years, the progressive forces favoring equal opportunity were successful in inserting the founding principles of the country into legislation and court decisions.
Slowly, the American creed, reflected in pledges of allegiance and other rituals that I recall from my earliest school days, became reality. Blacks and other minorities began to secure employment previously reserved to whites. They began to run for public office and to win elections. Eventually, the country elected a black man to be President of the United States.
Many liberals concluded that racism had largely been banished from American society. They were wrong. The election of Barack Obama seems to have been a turning point, inspiring a broad-based rejection of the progressive ideas he espoused. The leadership of the Republican Party made clear they would stop at nothing to prevent him from being successful in leading the country. They fought him at every turn. And the forces of conservative Republican hostility captured control of a majority of governorships and state legislatures.
And then they elected Donald Trump to the presidency. Trump is seemingly oblivious to history and incapable of making even rudimentary distinctions between dissimilar events. Charlottesville is just the latest example, but it establishes beyond doubt that Trump is, deep down, a racist. Or, if, as many of his supporters have argued, he is just playing politics to please his base and “really doesn’t have a racist bone in his body,” then he is a racist. You cannot play the role in real life and escape the label. Behave like a racist and you are one. No matter what you may “believe” deep down.
In Charlottesville, there were two different but related phenomena involved. One was the desire of some people to oppose through protest the removal of Confederate memorials that they claim to believe are legitimate and valuable elements of American history worthy of open public preservation. I disagree vehemently with that view but I can understand how some people of good will might disagree and hold an intellectually opposite, but honest view about how history should be acknowledged. For present purposes, I will assume that there were some (a very few) such people intermingled with the white supremacist/KKK/neo-Nazi marchers carrying torches and chanting Nazi slogans and giving Nazi salutes in Charlottesville.
But what is completely untenable and unacceptable is that the presence of the few presumed people with a legitimate, if ill-conceived, position on removal of Confederate memorials can change the fundamental anti-American nature of the protest. Anyone with a legitimate position to assert on removal of Confederate memorials should have removed themselves immediately from the field of play when the torches came out and the chanting/saluting began.
No amount of rhetoric from Donald Trump can lift up legitimate protesters in this crowd by saying there were “good people on both sides.” The good people, if they were there, bear responsibility for aligning themselves with the neo-Nazis. To a large degree, you are who you associate with. By trying to equate the “good people” with the Nazis, Trump has revealed for all to see that his sympathies are with the alt-Right neo-Nazis.
The other phenomenon is the neo-Nazis themselves who were there on pretext of protesting the removal of the memorials but were equating those efforts with an attempt to eliminate them from society. It should be easy for the President of the United States to distinguish between the legitimate protesters against removal of memorials (a tiny fraction of the total even under my generous assumptions) and the neo-Nazis.
Belief is, I suggest, a matter of choice. We believe what we choose to believe. Trump has made his choice and voiced it publicly, following a brief period of trying to acknowledge, under intense pressure, who the real bad guys were, and, again under pressure, reading a prepared script to try to overcome his racist rant from the day before. Ultimately, he could not stand aligning himself with the good guys. He likes what the neo-Nazis stand for and he has made that as plain as possible.
I have seen multiple references in articles and statements that the “President made a big mistake” and “it’s unfortunate the President wasn’t clearer about what he really meant” and so on. There is a word for this but I won’t use it here. Suffice to say that this was no “mistake.” To suggest that it was is to see the issue as one of political strategy rather than what it really is: a question of morality and societal norms. Trump often says he “tells it like it is.” Most of the time, that phrase is followed by a demonstrable lie, but in this case, it is clear beyond doubt that Trump has spoken his true mind. He approves of the Nazis. He continues to tweet about what he perceives as a loss of history and culture.
Well, Mr. President, (I choke on that phrase in your case), the only culture being affected by removal of these Confederate memorials is the culture that said it was acceptable for people to own other humans as slaves, that it was OK to treat people as mere property to be disposed of as the owner saw fit. If, as is now clear, that is what bothers you about removing the memorials, then you have, at long last, self-identified as a prototypical racist, and you cannot escape with scripted denials days after the fact.
The neo-Nazi point of view is as delusional now as it was when Adolf Hitler espoused racial purity of the Aryan race as the rationale for killing millions of people. You must be among the most illiterate or willfully stupid people on earth to be unaware of the distinctions between the social/cultural history of the United States at its founding and the situation today. You, like the admirers of Confederates who took up arms against the country, you, like the founders who resisted every effort to address the slavery question in the original Constitution, you, sir, are a traitor to what this country stands for. How dare you attempt to equate George Washington and Thomas Jefferson with the Nazis marching in Charlottesville? You are a disgrace to this country and you should resign immediately.
Apologies to readers for the length of this post. On my birthday, I get to do what I need to do.