Reflections on Charlottesville
In his impromptu remarks in the Trump Tower lobby on August 15, Donald Trump spoke with passion about the violence that engulfed the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA.
He declined to fix blame solely the alt-right, who had sponsored the rally, apparently hoping that violence would ensue. He insisted instead that there was blame “on both sides.”
“What about the alt-left that came charging at, what you say, the alt-right?” Mr. Trump asked. “Do they have any semblance of guilt? What about the fact they were charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs, do they have any problem? I think they do.”
Sometime during the 2016 presidential campaign the term alt-right broke into the political discourse. At first it was a descriptor for a confederation of websites where such as 4chan and 8chan, where anonymous internet trolls could gather to air their views of white supremacy, antisemitism, antifeminism, homophobia, and xenophobia of every stripe.
It grew into a meme that encompasses much of the extreme right of American politics: the Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazism, InfoWars, and Breitbart News. Its internet tools have become a widespread part of the meme: triple parentheses to call out (((Jews))) online, the avatar Pepe the Frog, and the phrase “dindu nuffin” to ridicule the deaths of black men, such as Eric Garner and Michael Brown, at the hands of white police.
The alt-right seems to be what Hillary Clinton referred to as the “basket of deplorables.” Steve Bannon, the deplorable advisor to Trump, seems to be proud of the label, calling Breitbart News, the internet site he once ran, as “the platform for the alt-right”
It there an alt-left, though, and did they come charging out with clubs at the participants of the rally, peacefully assembled but girded for war? The answer to that question is more complex that a sound byte can convey. It is really three questions: Is there an alt-left? Is it somehow equivalent to the alt right? Did it, swinging clubs, charge peaceful demonstrators in Charlottesville?
Is there an alt-left?
The short answer is no.
While it has no central organizing body, the alt-right is a loose confederation of ideologies defined by its use of internet trolling and public assembly to promulgate a jumble of conservative ideas (economic nationalism, isolationism, Trump support, et. al.). Some of these ideas are bristle with hate (racism, misogyny, antisemitism, etc.). They distribute them with a dissonant casualness that often bears a structural resemblance humor, but is seldom funny. They use terms that intentionally hurtful or shocking (“cuckservative”, or simply “cuck”, to conflate traditional conservatives and cuckolds, and the chant “blood and soil!” to combine their ideas of racial purity and geographic identity, as the Nazi’s did during the Weimar Republic.) They use these devices to foment violence, even war, against a government they have declared invalid, with the goal of replacing it with a racially “pure”, all white, cis-gender male dominated “ethno-state”.
There is no remotely comparable entity on the left.
There is, however, a long history in America of political violence on the left, beginning with the American Revolution itself. In the 18th century here, much violence and death occurred before the conservatives, British sympathizers and Tories, were subdued or driven into Canada. The revolutionaries fully realized that this action against the government was treason. “We must all hang together,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, “or most assuredly, we will all hang separately.”
In 1849, Thoreau published Civil Disobedience, which urged people not to let governments to overrule their consciences, or allow their moral sense to atrophy; he advocated passive resistance, but stopped short of condoning violence. In 1859, abolitionist John Brown attempted to incite a slave rebellion by attacking a US arsenal and distributing its weapons among blacks. During the Civil War itself, the liberal ideas of abolitionism and union overcame the more conservative aims of slavery, feudalism and states’ rights. The treason of the Confederate rebels was granted formal amnesty by President Johnson for the sake of national unity
In the late 19th and early 20th century the anarchist and socialist ideas that convulsed Europe, coalesced with workers’ movements here to produce a national zeitgeist that rained violence and destruction down on labor disputes across the nation, from the Great
Railroad Strike of 1877 to the Herrin Massacre of 1922. Temperance and radical feminism, too, had their violent sides, personified by Carrie Nation, Emma Goldman, and others. The 1970s, protest against Jim Crow and the Vietnam War brought a resurgence of violent demonstrations, with groups like the Weather Underground, the Jewish Defense League and the Symbionese Liberation Army taking to the streets.
Today the left is quite different. The active left has faded since its heyday in the 70s, when powerful personalities like Bobby Seale, Abbie Hoffman, Gloria Steinem, and many others led a left wing that, though jumbled, was always powerful, and sometimes violent. Without such leadership today there is no sense of unity, and the radical left has foundered. Though the violence has abated, the principles of civil rights, equal justice and economic fairness still prevail in such groups as the Occupy movement, and the followers of independent Senator Bernie Sanders.
The ideas of Thoreau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King began to permeate the left in the ‘60s, Currents of non-violence run through the crowd now whereever the left congregate. Not all on the left have adopeted non-violent tactics, however. The organized antifascist group Antifa, for instance, see its role as resisting the message of the alt-right. They come to right wing rallies armed, some of them (the Black Bloc) in black hoods and riot gear. They defend against violence at right-wing gatherings with violence of their own, often pre-emptive, arguing that in the threatening horrors of chattel slavery, the Holocaust, and the subjugation of women, are real and immediate. Physical violence to forestall these ideas is not only ethically justifiable, but also morally required.
Is Violence on the Left Somehow Equivalent to Alt-Right Violence?
Trump has denied claiming ‘moral equivalence’ between the left and right factions as he sees them, yet he seems to have invented the ‘alt-left’ as a rhetorical device with the sole purpose of implying such equivalence. It provided him with a place to shift the blame, from his supporters on the right to a proxy for his avowed enemies, the progressive Democrats and the liberal press. He created Crooked Hillary and the Fake News in the same spirit, as rhetorical vessels for emotion unencumbered by fact.
In fact, the sides were not equivalent at all.
First, there is the matter of numbers. While there were tens of thousands of right-wing demonstrators that day, and a similar number of counter demonstrators, there were only a few Antifa, and far fewer of the Black Bloc. The president is correct in asserting, “there were good people on both sides,” but purely in terms of tactical advantage, the violent left was outnumbered ten to one.
Then there is the matter of motive. The spectacle of a column of people, all white, carrying torches reminiscent of the KKK, shouting slogans recycled from the Third Reich, wearing homegrown riot gear emblazoned with Nazi iconography, and openly intimidating dark-skinned people they encountered on their way with slogans and gestures invoking Jim Crow and Hitler, was disturbing to many Americans everywhere regardless of their
ethnicities. To incite violence in support of the creation of a supposedly racially pure ethno-state threatens many patriotic Americans, including most whites, and is offensive beyond words to the many Americans who themselves, or whose fathers and brothers, fought and died to free Europe from this very horror. To the Europeans who remember the cruel oppression of Hitler’s vermin, watching the U.S. convulse in this way must be excruciating.
The left, by contrast, justifies its violence in the name of defense. Sometimes, they argue, the evil of violence is required to avoid a greater evil. The hydra of white supremacy, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia and gun worship must be slain at all costs. If that means fighting back, the violent on the left argue, then bring it on.
I have no doubt that it is the violence itself that attracts many into the fray, yet in terms of the assertion of moral equivalency that Trump has implied and then tried to deny, there is no fair comparison been the alt-right and those who stand up against them.
Did the Left Attack the Alt-Right in Charlottesville?
Did these self-appointed guardians of the left attack the right-wing demonstrators without provocation, as the president had charged? The abundance of whirling, garbled cell phone video from the scene, showing only mutual, chaotic affray, does little to answer this question; clips can be isolated to accommodate almost any spin. Ironically, though this aspect of the events at Charlottesville are the best documented, it may remain the least understood.
Witness accounts conflict. The many slants applied by so many activists with so many agendas who were there obscure the facts themselves. The political leaning of the corporate news media do not help. It may not be “fake news,” as the President insists, but neither is it neutral.
Jason Kessler, who organized the “Unite the Right” march, complained about the policing. “Police stood down and refused to separate the counter-demonstrators, and now people are dead,” Kessler said in video Saturday. “They were not prepared. Their No. 1 priority was shutting down the alt-right.” Alt-right leader Richard Spencer also faulted the police. “We came here as a demonstration of our movement,” he said. “And we were effectively thrown to the wolves.”
Theologian Cornel West, Harvard professor and activist, also faulted the police, saying that he had survived only through the intervention of militant leftists. “The police didn’t do anything in terms of protecting the people of the community, the clergy,” he told The Washington Post. “If it hadn’t been for the anti-fascists protecting us from the neo-fascists, we would have been crushed like cockroaches.”
Charlottesville’s synagogue received threats of destruction and death before the march, prompting them to request extra police protection on rally day. They were denied, and had to hire private security instead.
Alan Zimmerman, president of Congregation Beth Israel, describes what happened on Unite the Right day:
“For half an hour, three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the temple. Had they tried to enter, I don’t know what I could have done to stop them, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them, either. Perhaps the presence of our armed guard deterred them. Perhaps their presence was just a coincidence, and I’m paranoid. I don’t know.
Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, “There’s the synagogue!” followed by chants of “Seig Heil” and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols.”
No act of vandalism or personal violence occurred at the synagogue that day, though less than 200 feet away a man of professed Neo-Nazi beliefs plowed his Dodge Charger into crowd of counter demonstrators on a narrow street where they were lawfully assembled, killing one and injuring many more. The most serious injuries of the day, and the only fatality due to crowd violence, were intentionally inflicted, without specific provocation, by a member of the alt-right.
We may never know the details, but this much is apparent: most of the violence originated on the right, motivated by the most heinous ideas. Much of the violence on the left was in defense of self, others, or the Union itself.
There is no equivalency there at all.
The Robert E. Lee Statue
Since the rally was ostensibly about the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a public park, Trump reinforced his equivalency rant with an assault on other statues. “I wonder,” he said, “is it George Washington next week? Is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
It is true that both men owned slaves. Washington, by all accounts, treated his slaves with a severity bordering on cruelty, even by the standard of his times. His ambivalence showed in his will though, which directed that those slaves which he had the authority to emancipate should be free, and those who were too young or frail to work should be supported by his estate. Some Washington slaves were encumbered by liens, primarily to Martha’s estate, preventing their emancipation. The rules of chattel slavery seem bizarre to us today, but such was the tenor of those times.
Thomas Jefferson was a more complicated man. He owned slaves, yet was troubled by the moral implications of slavery. He brought slaves to serve him in the White House, where he signed a law prohibiting the importation of negro slaves into the US. When his wife Martha died, he took into his bed her fair, mixed race half-sister, Sally Hemings, who is said to have borne an uncanny resemblance to Martha. Sally bore him six children, two of whom he allowed to ‘walk away’ from his plantation without formally freeing them; they were all emancipated in his will. Slave life at Monticello was apparently easier than at Mount Vernon, though it was still slave life.
Lee’s views on slavery were stern and paternalistic. He believed that slavery existed because god willed it to, and that God had made the Negro the white man’s burden in order to prepare him for emancipation in some uncertain future, when he was ready.
“… In this enlightened age”, Lee wrote his wife in 1856, “there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.”
Both Washington and Jefferson were American patriots and men of the Enlightenment, whose vision saw far into the future. They believed that all men are created equal. They were aware that this was not true of the society in which they lived, but the principles, which they enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and which they fought fiercely to defend, created a new society where such things were possible. And they succeeded.
Black slaves were freed by the Civil War, and then enfranchised by the Constitution, in law at least, if not in practice. Society takes much longer to change than law, but even that was happening under the rules the Founding Fathers established. From Reconstruction in the 1860s to the civil rights legislation a century later, with painful slowness, many mistakes, and much violent resistance, all men were becoming equal. Women were enfranchised by law in the early the 20th century, and not until the 21st century did they begin to make their influence felt in the halls of government, corporate boardrooms, and professional roles. Full ethnic and gender equality has yet to be achieved in America, but, with the guidance of men like Washington and Jefferson, we are moving in the right direction.
Lee, too, was a brilliant and complicated manm though his vision peered not into the furture, but deeply into a disintegrating past. He was a political and military genius who fought to preserve a society and an economy that relied on chattel slavery and the subjugation of women, even if that meant making war against his homeland. Our homeland.
That is the very definition of treason.
After the War Between the States, Lee would not support the dedication of any CSA memorials, including statues of himself. Today his descendants, and those of Gen. Stonewall Jackson, favor the removal of their ancestors statues, if doing so will prevent a national schism. As president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) Lee forbade the display of Confederate iconography on College grounds. Even then he felt that such memorials were too divisive, too likely to reignite passions that ought to have been settled by the war.
“We have fought this fight as long and as well as we know how,” he wrote. “We have been defeated. For us as a Christian people, there is now but one course to pursue. We must accept the situation.”