We need to talk about Charlottesville

We need to talk about Charlottesville. The national conversation following the violence in Charlottesville is appalling. I was working so much when it happened and the days following that it has taken me some time to get up to speed on what actually happened. One of my disappointments is that everyone seemed to want to talk about what Donald Trump said, more than they wanted to talk about the actual event. My bigger disappointment is that the mainstream take on Trump’s comments is so blind and unthinking. The mainstream opinion that Trump is wrong to blame anyone except the alt-right for the violence in Charlottesville will set this country up for more scenes of political violence.

Let’s leave aside for the moment what you think of Trump as a man or as a president. Many people seem to be convinced that he does not hold sufficient anti-racism in his heart. They seem to think that they can divine the contents of his heart from his comments on Charlottesville. In the future, I may caution against attempting to read hearts, but for now let’s simply set it aside. There are actual words and deeds that we must judge, and judge righteously. If we can’t rightly judge words and deeds, we will certainly never judge hearts.*

*Don’t judge hearts. That’s God’s job. If he wanted you to pronounce a judgement, he’d have to give it to you first. You can’t do it without him, don’t even try.

I hate Nazis. I love the scene in the Blues Brothers where Jake and Ellwood drive their car into a crowd of Nazis on a bridge. It’s hilarious. So yeah, I hate Nazis, and I hate Illinois Nazis. But driving into a crowd of people turns out to be a lot less funny in real life. Maybe that’s because in the movie nobody gets hurt. In real life, actual violence results in actual injuries and actual death. Not funny.

One of the things I detest about fascists is their legacy of using force and intimidation in politics. The “brownshirts” were no laughing matter in Germany in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Unlike fascism, America has a tradition of responding to speech with speech, and responding to force with force. This is a noble tradition and a necessary one if we want to have self-government in a free society. As a general rule, we don’t suppress political speech by force. We also have a tradition of of denouncing brutal regimes who respond to speech with force. Tiananman Square, anybody? I hate that kind of thing, and I hope you do too.

This is why I find the mainstream criticism of Trump’s comments so troubling. They amount to an implicit defense of political violence. That’s right, in the past few weeks I have witnessed mainstream America implicitly defending political violence.

You’re likely aware of the criticism leveled against Trump. It is claimed that he defended the neo-nazis and white supremacists of the alt-right. Most articles I’ve seen from mainstream news sources were careful not to state that he defended them, but that is the gist of the criticism against him.

Trump defends Alt-Right – celebs react with shock The problem with that critique is that it is patently false.

Below I quote a couple of the pertinent paragraphs from the transcript of Trump’s comments made on the day of the fighting.

But we’re closely following the terrible events unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia.  We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides.  On many sides.  It’s been going on for a long time in our country.  Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama.  This has been going on for a long, long time.

It has no place in America.  What is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives.  No citizen should ever fear for their safety and security in our society, and no child should ever be afraid to go outside and play, or be with their parents, and have a good time.

I just got off the phone with the Governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, and we agreed that the hate and the division must stop, and must stop right now.  We have to come together as Americans with love for our nation and true affection — really — and I say this so strongly — true affection for each other.

He condemned the hatred, bigotry and violence on the part of the protestors and the counter-protestors. This means he condemned the hatred, bigotry and violence of the alt-right in Charlottesville. If you condemn A and B, you condemned A. You can draw a diagram to make sure the logic holds, if you like. No doubt about it. This is not vague, this is not equivocating.

The appropriate question then is, was that the right thing to do? Was it a reasonable thing to do? Apparently large numbers of people in this country think it was not the right thing, not even a reasonable thing.

I expect that many people are not aware that there actually was significant hatred, bigotry and violence on the part of the counter-protestors in Charlottesville. It would be easy to assume based on the national conversation that the counter-protestors were all non-violent, level-headed and reasonable. That assumption would be a big mistake, however.

Hatred, bigotry and violence: WARNING! Offensive language! link to youtube video

Here’s a very brief video showing the fight that broke out when counter-protestors tried to block the fascists from entering the park in which they were scheduled to demonstrate.

It is pretty clear that some individuals among both the protestors and counter-protestors came looking for a fight. It is also clear that they found one. In light of the evidence, it is obvious that we can’t criticize Trump’s original comments for being factually incorrect.

Perhaps they are politically incorrect? This is the conclusion that troubles me. If violence against Nazis, white supremacists and other bad guys is going to be defended by mainstream American society, I would expect to see more violence, not less. We simply can not do politics this way.

If we sanction the use of force to silence political enemies, we are setting ourselves up for destruction. If we implicitly defend those who engage in political violence because we hate the targets of their violence, we have abandoned civil discourse. We will have conceded that violence is an acceptable means of pursuing politics.

It would be foolish to think that the precedent would stay confined where we like it. Violent protestors and ruthless opportunists should be expected to push the limits. Imagine the next pro-life rally suffering this type of intimidation and violence. Imagine people showing up at a gay pride parade not only chanting “punch a homo in the mouth,” and “make homos afraid again,” but actually attacking them with sticks and launching projectiles. We can not do politics this way.

Anyone who, like me, has a problem with indefinite detention of terrorism suspects, on the grounds that anyone can be “suspected” if the police say so, should be equally worried about the implicit defense of political violence. If you believe that political speech should be free from government interference, as it traditionally has been in America, you presumably do not believe it because you believe that all political speech is virtuous. The enormously liberal American tradition of free speech is based on a judgment that tolerating horrible opinions is a wiser course than sanctioning coercion, intimidation and force. I agree with this judgement.

If we do politics by violence, we can expect the country to be controlled by whoever can most effectively organize the violence. That reminds me of this guy.

Hitler and Göring [1932]

Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-02287 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

tiny lantern

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s