ACLU, American Civil Liberties Union, anti-semitism, Charlottesville, civil liberties, Civil War, Confederacy, Constitution, David Duke, Founding Fathers, free speech, Im-Politic, neo-Nazis, racism, Robert E. Lee, secession, slavery, treason, Trump, Virginia
It’s as tempting to offer timely thoughts about today’s Charlottesville, Virginia violence and the reactions it’s generated as it is difficult – for new developments keep taking place, and incontrovertible facts are hard to come by. That said, here are what strike me as as points worth making at present.
First, as I’ve previously written, the triggering complaint of the white nationalist/neo-Nazi/confederate revivalist/call-them-what-you-wish protest and the narrowest-gauge cause it represents should be unacceptable to all Americans who truly love their country. Confederate statues and other monuments to the rebellion (e.g., street and high school names) have no place in our national life. And removing them has nothing to do with erasing history. The history of the Civil War must of course be taught in the most intellectually honest way possible. But statues and street names etc are unmistakable efforts to honor and memorialize.
And whether you view the secession as motivated by intertwined racism and slavery issues (where in my view the bulk of the evidence points) or more legitimate federalist and states rights claims, the decision to revolt violently against the federal government was a simple act of treason, which should always be condemned in the harshest possible terms.
Moreover, please don’t respond with observations that the Founding Fathers’ ranks included slave-owners (like Washington and Jefferson) or that many subsequent American leaders were racists (like Woodrow Wilson). For slavery was, tragically, legal under the Constitution until emancipation. And as I’ve written (in the post linked above), most of the historical national figures with inadequate records on race were, first, to great extents products of their time and, second, known for playing many other roles and making many other contributions to the nation and its success.
As for the protesters’ broader supposed grievances about repressed and endangered white rights and even safety, I have no doubt that economic stresses and anxieties are at work in many cases. But feeling the need, or advisability, to fly the Confederate flag or wear the swastika simply signals a form of derangement that our society has rightly decided is beyond the pale politically and morally speaking. So public figures should decry this message and reject any association with those sending them.
Which brings us to the question of the Trump response. It was, as critics have charged, far too weak. What I can’t figure out is the “why”. Is the president a racist? He’s had too many African-American friends and supporters for that charge to stick. He and his advisers and aides also have too often argued for restricting immigration by pointing to the benefits U.S. blacks would reap.
Related anti-semitism make even less sense, given that Mr. Trump’s daughter married an orthodox Jew (who he has anointed as a top White House aide) and then converted herself to Judaism. I know that the “some of my best friends are….” argument can be and has been abused by anti-semites (as well as racists). But insisting that “some of my children and grandkids….” is much harder to dismiss.
The only explanation that makes even some sense to me (meaning of course that I’m not totally convinced) is that the president worries that a substantial part of his (largely white) base either covertly or (much likelier) subconsciously sees itself as racially repressed or marginalized, too, and would suddenly desert him if he went after the David Dukes and Richard Spencers of this country. In other words, Mr. Trump’s troubling words reflect a political calculation, not a shared bigotry.
If so, his position is not only timorous, but pathetically mistaken. Because for every hater he retains by his silence or anodyne words at times like this weekend, he risks losing many more moderates and independents who have no use for the identity-politics obsessed, and therefore intrinsically divisive, Democrats but who are disgusted by overt racists – much less neo-Nazis. In fact, Duke’s tweets today show that this arch-racist and anti-semite is infuriated by the president’s Charlottesville remarks.
More important, the president will earn much more durable support from independents and moderates – especially those who have actually lost economic ground or fear such losses – by keeping the campaign promises he made to restore living wage jobs than by even minimal pandering to prejudice.
Finally, the role of the Charlottesville police and any other law enforcement authorities tasked with handling the protests needs to be scrutinized thoroughly – along with our notions of protesters’ rights. I’m pretty certain that most Americans would agree with the right of Nazis and the like to stage a protest over the treatment of Confederate memorials (or any other reprehensible) cause, and to display symbols that should disgust all people of good will. And of course, these are Constitutionally protected rights.
But I’ve long thought that the right to protest also entails the right of protesters to be protected from those seeking to disrupt their events. In other words, once counter-protesters started physically interfering with the Nazis, the police force present should have stepped in and started making arrests. Even better, they should have taken much more effective measures to keep the counter-protesters physically apart from the protesters, to reduce the odds of violence breaking out to begin with. To my knowledge, law enforcement authorities have never been sued for such failures (not even by the American Civil Liberties Union, which admirably supported the Nazis’ etc right to demonstrate in Charlottesville). I hope the organization will consider bringing such a case in the wake of Charlottesville, if the circumstances merit this action.
For failing to establish protesters’ right to security could easily turn into an open invitation for harassment that could crimp free speech rights yet further. And what would induce the Nazis – and violence-prone lefties – to start licking their chops more eagerly?