I want to say a few words about our discourse around the events in Charlottesville, which has now become a simplistic rhetoric of “destroy the Nazis,” which is not very helpful, because there are three separate issues which we really should discuss separately.
First, there are white nationalists – white supremacists – neo-Nazis – call them what you will, who have arrived at the opinion that they have the support of Donald Trump. (Note that I don’t use the label “Alt-Right” which is extremely unhelpful in that it implies that these are just “normal” people on the political right.) They use the language of identity politics, claiming that what they care about is simply being sure that their ethnic group, whites, gets its fair share in the fight of identity groups for shares of benefits, political influence, cultural patrimony, etc.
And if that were all it was, well, there would be some basis for honest conversations about whether identity politics and “you [white people] are going to die out and we [brown people] will take over” is a dangerous game to play. (I briefly raised this post-election but didn’t get very far.)
But Sean Patrick Nielsen, the creep interviewed by the Washington Post in their video clip? He’s just a racist. The people posting on 4chan (from my brief foray onto that site) still buy into conspiracy theories that the Jews control everything (though to be honest, I couldn’t make much sense out of the site, in general).
Which means that this isn’t a matter of equivalence or what-about-ism. This isn’t about the rally; it’s about the beliefs that these groups hold. Whether or not there are other bad people in the world, these beliefs don’t belong in America in 2017.
Yet it’s not as simple as that: what about the people who hold these beliefs? These are not immigrants who we can imagine deporting to “where they came from.” We can’t wish them away. We also can’t send them to Room 101 to re-educate them. There are calls on facebook and twitter for every participant in the Unite the Right rally to be identified and fired from their jobs, which has now happened in one reported instance. But right now, America seems united in the desire to respond to hate with hate.
Second is the question of violence at rallies.
This is not the same issue.
Yes, in this case, the white nationalists were ready for a fight, though I have not seen any news reporting on the question of “who threw the first punch,” but it is the Antifa, the Black Bloc, which has been instigating brawls, starting fires, looting, etc., repeatedly, not just at white nationalist rallies but at more generic pro-Trump demonstrations or marches, or in the case of right-wing speakers at places such as Berkeley or the like.
Violence at demonstrations, either by demonstrators or counter-demonstrators, did not happen for the first time at Charlottesville. It’s been going on for a while, and there’s been a passive acceptance of this by police and government officials who either don’t have the resources to put a stop to it, or are to worried about being accused of running a “police state,” where they’re more worried about the negative press of police in riot gear than of people smashing store windows or even people’s heads.
Remember the Tea Party? Remember that they were accused of being racist, on top of being extremist? Yeah, was there violence at Tea Party rallies? I think not.
The violence at rallies has to stop, and it has to be stopped. I don’t think there are any “leaders” of the Antifa movement who can be prevailed upon to stop the violence because they exist to be violent. The white supremacist groups? I don’t know; they are claiming to be the victims of the Antifa but hardly seem willing to prove their nonviolent intentions by not fighting back.
In the case of Charlottesville, there are complaints that the police failed to do their job. As the Tribune reports,
Cable news replayed a seemingly endless loop of the early violence at Emancipation Park, where police in riot gear had surrounded the expanse on three sides, though seemed to watch as groups beat each other with sticks and bludgeoned one another with shields. Many on both sides came dressed for battle, with helmets and chemical irritants.
Police appeared at one point to retreat and then watch the beatings before eventually moving in to end the free-for-all, make arrests and tend the injured. The governor declared a state of emergency around 11 a.m. and activated the National Guard.
“The whole point is to have overwhelming force so that people don’t get the idea they can do these kinds of things and get away with it,” said Charles Ramsey, who headed both the District of Columbia and Philadelphia police departments. Demonstrators and counter demonstrators “need to be in sight and sound of each other but somebody has to be in between,” he said. “That’s usually the police.”
In fact, the white nationalists claim that the police inaction was intentional, wanting to allow fights to begin to give them an excuse to cancel the rally.
The third issue is that of the car-killer.
This is, again, not something that can be lumped in with the general violence at the rally or the white nationalist beliefs. We know that the driver, a James Fields, espoused Nazi ideology on his facebook page. We also know that his father was killed before he was born, his mother was a paraplegic, he was separated from the army after 4 months, reportedly because he takes antipsychotic medication. (Some of these details are here; others I can’t find a convenient link to at the moment.)
Yes, we can’t sweep racism-motivated violence under the rug. But we also don’t have a tradition of ideology-motivated suicide-killing in the United States, or in the West in general. Bombings, yes, but not suicide bombings.
My browsing of 4chan (though, again, I’m not sure that I was looking in the right places), found a mix of reactions to this event. Some said, “good riddance to leftist [people],” others said “he must have been framed,” and others posited theories that he was just trapped, Reginald Denny-style, and didn’t want to be attacked by the protesters. “If the brake is lit, you must acquit,” they wrote, because of the claim that he had braked, which proves that he didn’t intend to kill anyone.
So far as I can tell, these theories are nothing other than wild wishful thinking. But at the same time, what Fields did was, well, irrational. There is no way he could imagine that he would be able to ram into people, reverse, leave the scene, and go on with his day, is there? Was this an impulse, done so quickly that he didn’t think about the fact that he’d be in jail? Was he in fact genuinely mentally ill? It’s hard to believe that this was premeditated, which means that, no, we can’t just put this into the same “vehicle terrorism” bucket as in Nice. We can’t use this instance as a way to try to prove a point about Islamist-inspired terrorism being no big deal. But at the same time, the manner in which our justice system operates, and the nature of human beings, will mean that we likely won’t really know what was going on in his head; we’ll just hear the stories that his lawyers and the prosecutors want to tell, and even that, possibly not even for years, and only if the media cares to report it.
Having said that, it’s not unreasonable to ask whether the white nationalists are to blame for getting Fields riled up, and, if so, how we should respond in turn. But are we willing to apply the same rules when it’s an anti-Trump Democrat killing congressmen playing baseball?
Again: three separate issues.
And now, it’s time to log in and start work. Happy Monday, all.
Image: A Munich Neonazi demonstration, from Wikipedia, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/be/Neonazi_2.4.2005_M%C3%BCnchen_2.jpg