One year and thirty-six days after Micah Johnson shot five white police officers to death in Dallas, we witness Charlottesville. How, after all our nation has experienced for over one hundred fifty years, could we have a second civil war based on the wicked, false belief that people with light colored skin are superior to people with darker skin? If you add suspicions, ignorance and resentments nurtured in regional cultures, religious beliefs and prejudices, and ethnic origins, you have enmities that will not die.
Everyone needs to belong. Families and friends, community and work groups, neighborhoods and clubs don’t seem to be enough. We want to be part of groups larger than those. How do you define a group? By being aware of the people outside it. How do you know who is outside your group? The people you hate: those are the people outside your group. How do you know the people you should hate? The people who don’t look like you do, who have a dissimilar culture.
I know, we lament simplified, sociological explanations like these for conflicts we can’t resolve. We even joke about them. Kingston Trio’s Merry Minuet ends its chorus: “And I don’t like anybody very much!” The rest of the song refers to the misery we cause ourselves because no one likes anyone very much, except naturally if they look like you do. Then you can say, “I like you, because you like me. I like you, because we both know who we don’t like.”
Look, let’s take for granted that large numbers of us will hate each other. That’s how people are. If familiarity breeds contempt in families, it apparently does so in whole societies as well. Moreover hate comes easier than love – you need not work so hard at it. In fact, when you feel put upon, betrayed, ignored, ridiculed and mocked, your natural response after a while is to seek some sort of redress, which means motivation for revenge, which means hate. Yet hate does not entail violent behavior, unless you lack discipline. Nor does it warrant violent behavior, unless you lack reason.
Interestingly, people most likely to mock white nationalists are also white: educated, upper middle class whites who did not wince or object when Clinton made her now infamous remark about her opponent’s supporters. Notably, protesters in Charlottesville did not denounce Clinton or any other political person when they came to Virginia. They denounced Jewish people, black people, brown people, any people without European ancestry. They even mocked the white woman they murdered. Richard Spencer, leader of this mob, pronounced the whole operation a success.
Significantly, this second step in our progress toward civil war, thirteen months after Johnson’s revenge massacre of police officers in Dallas, arrives in another southern city. On a height of land outside Charlottesville, a revered founding father built his home, a Virginia aristocrat who owned slaves and stood for freedom. He wrote that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” A man of his time, he eloquently wrote ‘all men’, but he would not have included his own slaves in their number.
Whatever you might say about the groups who skirmished on Saturday, they do not stand for freedom. They both reject that fundamental value and principle of our republic. Only one side committed murder, then celebrated it.
Prospective removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park occasioned this confrontation. Movements exist to remove all commemoration of the Civil War from every public space throughout the South. To be consistent, activists have to remove every mark of honor for every soldier who fought to defend the Confederacy. That represents a lot of statues and monuments.
I’m sure if Atlanta’s city council wanted to remove a large statue of General William Tecumseh Sherman from Atlanta’s public square, groups north and south, left and right would line up around that issue rather differently. A more analogous situation would occur if the South today charged the North with aggressive war, and insisted Lincoln’s statue be removed from his tomb in Springfield, Illinois. If activists say we must remove all monuments that honor leaders who defended slavery, why should we not remove all statues of leaders who waged aggressive war on the South?
From Lee’s point of view, Virginia had a perfect, meaning a legal right to secede. It merely wanted the North to leave it alone. Lee reluctantly left the United States Army, to defend his home against invaders. Just as Lincoln aimed to preserve the union above all, Lee aimed to preserve Virginia’s freedom to break from the union. Slavery indeed served as the war’s moral kernel. Social justice warriors insist on removal of all monuments to the Confederacy and its leaders. They maintain no defender of slavery deserves any kind of honor at all. By this argument, all defenders of slavery deserve only defamation and denunciation.
In practice, the movements to remove rest on power, on who won the war. Winners punish, and no one compels them to justify their severity. If you want to reopen wounds of the first civil war – wounds that have obviously not healed – I cannot think of a better way to do it. Mixed with Unite the Right’s ugly, hate-filled, divisive and dangerous language is another sentiment: “Just leave us alone. You weren’t satisfied to mock us in private. Now you want to humiliate us in public. We used to be proud, though you will not leave off telling us how deplorable we are.”
The country is super-divided. The same culture of political correctness that campaigned to have Cecil Rhodes’ statue removed from Oxford, wants to go after statues of General Lee, and every other Confederate soldier commemorated in bronze. The social justice movement has had its opponents on the defensive for decades. Some, though not all of their opponents are sympathetic to the white nationalists who came to Charlottesville. Now, at last, these groups feel an opportunity to shove back. Both sides want a showdown, and they will have it if they want it. They do not mind the cost. For white nationalists, movements to take down the statues amount to a second invasion.
As for President Trump, he needed to say something different after Heather Heyer’s death in Charlottesville. If Lyndon Johnson had said on November 23, 1963, “There’s plenty of blame to go around,” he would have been right, but the nation would not have appreciated his sentiment. Similarly, Trump might point out that both sides – not many sides, but both sides – have inclined toward violence as they pitch toward their showdown, but no one appreciates that kind of “let’s settle down” sentiment when a woman lies dead in the street, with many others injured, some critically. Once again, do not look to this man for leadership.
When Trump finally comes out with some traditional words of sorrow and unity-in-grief two days later, Richard Spencer calls it a lot of “kumbaya nonsense”. Mainstream media may with indignation expect a man like Trump to act presidential, but people fighting this conflict know what they are about. They want blood. Micah Johnson wanted blood. Both sides in Charlottesville wanted blood. Death did not seem imminent, until James Fields ran Heather Heyer down at high speed. As soon as his car hit the crowd, we had a vision of more mobs, more death. Whether the killer is a black army veteran in Dallas, or a white neo-Nazi in Charlottesville, the people who lose their lives have been innocent.
We have a long way to go in this war. Media pressured and persuaded Trump to talk about healing and unity, but they must know the conflict has progressed way beyond statements about who we are as Americans. As we have proven many times, we are not “better than that.” The 2016 election did indeed roil our unhappy melting pot. Feelings, ideology, and a strong impulse toward anger driven action outweigh words. We do not have leaders present who can alleviate this anger.
To close: if I sound like a person who preserves more even handedness toward this conflict than seems justified, consider that moral superiority almost always warns of danger. Each side may declare we have reached a time for choosing, but if we make our decisions based on rallying cries, or even on our need to belong, we compound all of our social and political mistakes. To understand sources of my own beliefs, sample from my other articles on coercion and conflict, violent or otherwise. I have no use for restrictions on speech, or for any kind of unnecessary interference with individual autonomy. I have no sympathy with any group who wants to use coercion, intimidation or violence for political or any other aims.
In the 1980s and 1990s, I saw political correctness grow on campuses where I taught. Its foremost aim is to control speech, and therefore thought, though I’m entirely aware it claims ends higher than that. It uses proven tools of social control, similar to those used in Mao’s China. When talk turns toward culture wars, now an almost anodyne phrase, the current maelstrom reveals both sides know their strongest weapons. Those weapons do not include persuasion. Both sides favor coercion and its companion, hate, in all their pernicious manifestations.
Because of my background, I believe forces of political correctness have had the upper hand for a long time, that they have misused their advantages, and that their ideology is mistaken. That does not make me sympathetic to bigoted white nationalists. Both sides in this conflict seem bitter, which foreshadows a bitter fight. White nationalists may think they have elected a fellow traveler to the White House, and likely they have. Pity our culture wars should have taken a turn this deadly, this irreversible, and this fundamentally based on feelings of superiority.