About this time last year I was wrestling with, in the words I used at the time, “why the message of tolerance still isn’t getting through to some people who might be receptive of it, and what those of us who believe in it can do to proselytize better.”
What a difference a year makes. Today, sitting in a cozy local coffee shop listening to reggae piped over the sound system, I read that sentiment and erupted in bitter laughter. Today, at this moment, I don’t give a shit about who “might” be receptive, and I don’t give a shit about “proselytizing better.” I’m sitting in this cozy local coffee shop in advance of attending a vigil in solidarity with the residents of Charlottesville, Virginia, who over the weekend were subjected to an influx of Tiki torch(!)-wielding, racial-slur hurling white supremacists so secure of their place at the table of free discourse that they didn’t even bother with the white sheets and eyeholes. It ended tragically, with a woman dead and nineteen others injured when a neo-Nazi drove his car through a crowd of counter-protesters.
It ended badly for some of the white supremacists too, as a Twitter user wielded @YesYoureRacist to match names to the images of snarling young white men in golf shirts, at least one of whom lost his job and another of whom found himself disowned by his family. (I am more amused by this than is perhaps seemly.) And the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website, who celebrated 32-year-old Heather Heyer’s death as some kind of twisted victory and referred to her as a “childless slut,” became so toxic that Russia revoked the .ru domain name it registered after it found itself shut out by U.S. tech companies.
The national response has been about what one might expect in the current political climate. Wholesale, horrified condemnation of the white supremacists’ emboldening by a wide swath of individuals, including Republican officials both moderate and somewhat less so. Equivocation by the President, who said that after all both sides, protesters and counter-protesters alike, bore blame for what violence occurred, along with a bizarre side note about the counter-protesters not having a lawful permit to assemble (which was 1. Not necessary and 2. Not true). This garnered him heartfelt and very public thanks from former KKK leader David Duke.
The issues that keep coming up swirl around the historical value of Confederate statues that are increasingly falling out of cultural favor, the marginalization of whites, and free speech. Carved out piecemeal, they seem like deceptively temperate topics. But taken as a group they are suggestive, and there is an ugliness to them.
The Statuary in Public Spaces
Whether or not to retain monuments to the Confederacy has become a flashpoint subject on the news, in social media, and in the streets. I was recently pulled into a discussion by a well-meaning, curious acquaintance and found it illustrative of a disturbing trend. She was caught up in the notion, much-talked about of late, that removing Confederate monuments is an erasing of history, a form of censorship. Several of us pointed out the lurking specter of racism underlying their construction and display. One of her friends responded to her initial post only with, “Very well said.” Which of course my friend was pleased to hear, as any of us would be.
But I’ve seen similar cryptic words of praise before, on other threads, and much like the defense of those Confederate statues there’s often a darkness beneath. So I followed the commenter’s Facebook trail, and while her own feed was well-locked down her husband’s was not. And the first sentiment on display there? “Barack Obama is a cop-hating terrorist, and so is the #BLM movement.”
It’s an insidious tactic, appearing reasonable on the surface to gain a toehold in the public discourse. To pat someone on the head and say, “Good thoughts!” while not revealing your own. And so you’ve created another doubter, who might have been more certain, and more opposed, if they had known what motivated the praise. Another person who will say, “Well I don’t know, it’s complicated…” when they might have thought it considerably simpler had you aired your racism with your acclaim.
As for the statues themselves, I could argue that history is being erased by the very act of leaving them standing. Because it allows the portion of the population that venerates them to pretend that what those men stood for wasn’t a very great evil – the enslavement of their fellow human beings. They may not have marched their chattel into ovens, but they ruined their lives just as certainly. Auschwitz isn’t still standing because it was, after all, a marvel of efficient genocide. And commemorating men who fought to keep other men in chains – and make no mistake, if the plaques on those statues don’t label them as slavers and traitors then they are perpetuating a historical lie – cheapens the lives of the descendants of those slaves, who are forced to walk in the shadow of their ancestors’ oppressors every single day while hearing that they were “great men.”
And if you complain, “That’s not the intent!” I will point you at Charlottesville. At the torches, and the Nazi flags, and the racial slurs. And if you cry, “The North had slaves!” I will reply, “And they gave them up without going to war.” And if you murmur, “Well, it’s complicated,” I will insist that it is not.
The Marginalization of Whites
There is a meme popular among the liberal set that equality and prosperity aren’t pie, that giving them to some people doesn’t mean less left for others. In game theoretic terms, the claim is that equality and prosperity are not part of a zero-sum game, where gains in one place are precisely offset by losses elsewhere. People who subscribe to the belief that whites are being marginalized think that this is false, and that they are the losers in the game. Often this complaint appears with its corollary, “men are losing ground because boys are being ignored to lavish attention on girls.” Both are generally accompanied by diatribes against affirmative action, against diversity training, against salary equalization…well, you can read a capsule version of it written by a disgruntled (and now former) Google employee here.
(I personally know people who advance the “but whites are losing ground,” line. It would be easier to take them seriously if they weren’t lecturing from the backs of their leisure fishing boats or poolside in the yards behind their two story houses. If they weren’t wearing expensive watches and driving BMWs and assembling their collections of fine whiskeys. Surrounded by more than enough of my own creature comforts, I invariably wonder, What the hell else do you want?)
There can be, I appreciate, a mental difficulty associated with having to make space where it didn’t have to be made before. With discovering that other people don’t share your religious beliefs, so while they are happy to let you have your houses of worship they don’t want only your commandments graven into their public spaces. With being told that your restrictive views of a woman’s “place” are so deeply entrenched that someone needs to take you by the hand and walk you out of them so there is room for women to breathe and live. With having your child’s actuality measured against against another child’s potential because the latter was so systematically denied opportunities that we don’t know what, with proper access to remedial education, they might grow up to be.
But too often, instead of even attempting to have an honest discussion about these issues, defensiveness or, worse still, egregiously false justifications become the norm of discourse. Because you want me to confine my nativity scene to the steps of my old stone chapel, I am persecuted. Biology proves that women are too anxious and neurotic to handle leadership positions. Everyone knows that those people <insert what flavor of minority you like> aren’t getting ahead because they’re lazy and shiftless and prefer handouts to honest, hard work.
What these stratagems have in common is an effort to preserve one’s perceived advantage in the game by dismissing or demonizing one’s opponent. A particularly grotesque manifestation of this that has blossomed in the wake of Charlottesville, and been given life and legitimacy by the President, is the equating of neo-Nazism and white supremacy on the one hand and Black Lives Matter on the other. (The anarchic Antifa are another matter that I won’t get into here, though briefly I’d be prepared to argue that they aren’t equivalent to the white supremacists either.) And I know no minds will be changed by my saying this but I still believe it needs to be repeated again and again. There is a patently obvious difference between a manifesto that says, “We are Americans like you, we want opportunities like you, we deserve a place at the table and not just the graveyard,” and one that states, however drenched in “all lives matter” pieties, “No, you don’t, and we’re here to see to it you don’t get one.” Even in the regrettable circumstances when violence erupts, the aggressors and the defenders are clear.
These people can and should be judged by their own words. Not the innocent-sounding, oh-so-reasonable platitudes about “equality means equality” they mouth, but the truths that lie beneath them. And those truths were on full display in Charlottesville, coming out of every throat that shouted, “Blood and soil!” and every chant of “We will not be replaced!” Every angry face proclaiming that you can pry their pie out of their cold, dead hands, that this game is perilously serious and they’re more than happy to run you down, pick up your blood-spattered tiddlywinks and go back home whistling “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The common thread in these examples is bad faith. And the same bad faith can manifest in the very discussions of free speech itself, where too often statements of ostensible inclusiveness are in reality statements of erasure and negation. Christianity is the foundation of America and so of course other faiths must yield to it. All Lives Matter. I have a First Amendment right to shout in your face that I hate you, that as soon as I get my way your voice will be silenced.
And we stomach it because it is woven into the very fabric of our society. We try to stay as clear-headed as we can as our principles are gaslit, hope that as a society we step back from the brink before a tragedy occurs.
Several days later, the vigil has come and gone. It was about what I expected in San Luis Obispo. Mostly white (as the city is) and mostly liberal (plastic sandals, hemp clothing and Go Vegan t-shirts were not uncommon). Police presence was light and chill, a handful of officers leaning against mission walls and listening to the speakers. The police chief was somewhere in the crowd as a supporter. There was no sign of counter-protesters, although one man oddly decided to bring a large sign protesting the city’s contentious rental home inspection policy to the event.
There was a great deal of talk about faith, a smattering of insults directed at Trump, a soupçon of “whites aren’t doing enough” rhetoric. My favorite speaker was the Muslim Cal Poly professor who told stories of systemic discrimination and anti-immigrant sentiment even at a liberal bastion of a university (“If we can’t pronounce their names, we shouldn’t hire them”).
I learned little, and risked nothing, and refused to get caught up in the appeals to emotion (a long-ingrained habit first cultivated as a teenager at a Peter Gabriel concert watching an arena full of stoned whites throwing black power salutes during his encore rendition of “Biko” and the look of palpable disgust on Gabriel’s face as they did).
Still, my husband and I accomplished what we intended, serving as bodies to be counted for the news reports the next day, our own small rebuke to the people (some of whom I know personally) who want to paper over our existence by claiming that George Soros and Hillary Clinton need to bus protesters to these events. (They don’t. I had dinner beforehand at a little noodle shop across the street, and watched people parking their own cars.)
There was also a lot of talk of love overcoming hate. But the terrible dark feeling lurking in my heart as I listened was that I didn’t know if I believed it. If that’s true, why did Trump succeed Obama? World War II wasn’t won with positive feeling, it was won with blood and bombs. Because there is a side that doesn’t care about all of your love. A side that will take your rationality and twist it. A side that will weaponize your tolerance and use it against you. And how do you cope with that?
I will, I’m sure, work my way back around to rationality. I’ll harbor less confused emotions about the value of Antifa. I’ll stop idly wondering just how much computer science I’d have to dust off and study anew to join the ranks of Anonymous and wreak havoc among the peddlers of hate.
And perhaps that working around will start here, with this video of the incident at Charlottesville. Most of it made me sick to my stomach, but the one thing that brought me to tears was the sight of counter-protesters holding up their banners in the aftermath of the car crash to shield the injured from prurient eyes. There was basic human decency on display there, a thing apparently unknown to the men gleeful and gloating over Heather Heyer’s death.
Perhaps the haters do, in the end, break themselves on the relentlessness of decency. Perhaps we don’t have to surrender our souls because they have surrendered theirs. I hope that’s the truth. And for now I’ll just have to hope, and trust that eventually actual conviction will grace me with its presence again.