If it’s a civil war, pick a side: Donald Trump, white nationalism and the future of America
Sometimes America feels like the movie Groundhog Day: a place where we keep waking up again and again to the same shit, hoping against hope that this time — no really, this time — things will be different.
So this time, the videotape of the police officer shooting the unarmed black man (or child, in the case of Tamir Rice) will lead to that officer’s conviction and imprisonment. And then the alarm goes off and we are awakened from our dream state, just like we were the time before and the time before, forced to reckon with a seemingly endless repetition of horribleness.
Or this time, as we watch tens of thousands stranded in New Orleans during Katrina — disproportionately black and poor — the nation as a whole will finally come to understand what those left behind had already known, and for a very long time: namely, that black lives really don’t matter, and won’t until we demand they do. And again, the alarm disturbs our slumber. And again, we hit the snooze button.
Or this time — when yet another white kid shoots up his classroom, or another white serial killer murders a dozen people, buries them under the house or cannibalizes them — we will have our eyes opened to the fact that pathology and deviance are far from the exclusive purview of persons of color. So too when rich white men nearly bring the economy to its knees with financial chicanery so egregious as to make the most industrious of black or brown street criminals seem like rank amateurs by comparison. But then comes the alarm, a clarion that shakes us from our stupor, allowing us to go right back to fearing the usual suspects all over again.
And now, with the white supremacist terrorist attack in Charlottesville we hope that out of such a tragedy we may finally come to appreciate the sickness of racism, and the indelible stain still besmirching the soil and politics of our nation so many years on. But in order for people to learn they typically require teachers who are qualified to lead them to enlightenment. Events alone rarely do the trick and wisdom infrequently emerges fully-formed from the well of good intentions, let alone fervent aspiration. Some assembly is required. Sadly, we are in a classroom, so to speak, being taught by a man lacking even the most rudimentary pedagogical skills, devoid of content knowledge too, and without the temperament to convey even the most obvious of lessons. A lesson one might think we had learned by now, but no: namely, that white supremacy is a death cult—a truth attested to by the bodies of millions of people of color through the years, not to mention several hundred thousand whites who died either fighting that cult or defending it, from the Civil War to World War Two. This cult cannot be accommodated. It cannot be excused. It must be condemned and it must be defeated as a mentality, as a movement, and as a structurally ingrained social and economic reality. And if its adherents cannot be de-programmed, well then, they must be defeated to, without the least bit of sentimentality.
But the teacher does not understand the lesson, and so here we are. Instead, he has reverted to type, providing succor to the most extreme elements of the far-right fringe. Whether for reasons of true affinity, or the perception that such forces represent a substantial portion of his base without whom his approval ratings would fall even further, or because condemning them forthrightly would appear to him — a man who apologizes for nothing and is loathe to admit he has ever made a mistake — as weakness, matters not. The results are all the same, no matter his intentions.
To say of those in the so-called “alt-right” who descended upon Charlottesville, that “not all” of them “were white supremacists,” and that there were “some very fine people” among them, as Trump did yesterday, is to miss the point by such a wide margin as to call into question whether this is a man even remotely in charge of his faculties. For even if one were to allow that some among them were not Nazis, not supporters of organizer Richard Spencer’s calls for the creation of a “white ethno-state,” and not enamored of the rabid anti-Semitism that characterized the event from beginning to end, it was, after all, a rally to “Unite the Right.” In other words, to put aside whatever picayune differences might separate mere opponents of economic globalism from those who quite openly joke about pushing Jews into ovens, all in the name of reactionary solidarity.
Which is to say, it was an event intended to blur the very distinctions that the erstwhile leader of the free world would now have us make. It was an event to say, loudly and proudly, that among the right there should be no infighting, no rancor, no division. In short, it was an event intended to convey the message that even the ones who aren’t Nazis are willing to make common cause with those who are. As the Proud Boys — a mostly misogynistic group, dedicated to “Western chauvinism” — have put it, there should be no “punching right,” among their side’s members. They are all one thing, not because I’m saying so, but because they are.
Not fine people, let alone very fine people, but rather, rotten fruit from a poisoned tree.
If I were a fine person and found myself at a march where, to my shock and horror, Nazis and other bigots were featured — and I could see them with their swastikas, and their “National Socialist Movement” banners, and I could hear them yelling “fuck you faggots” at clergy and other peaceful protesters, and hurling racial slurs about blacks, and chanting “Blood and Soil” (the direct English translation of a Nazi slogan) — I would immediately leave, taking with me my profound embarrassment at having been so misled, so duped into believing this was just going to be a nice rally for conservative principles. That is what a very fine person would do, and even then, only after having ripped the swastikas from the hands of those holding them in disgust.
In fact, ya know what “very fine people” would do to Nazis? They would yell at them. They would defend themselves from them if need be. And yes, they might even mace them or punch them in the mouth. Very fine people detest Nazis. In fact, detesting Nazis might be a bona fide requirement — the de minimus definition — for being considered a very fine person.
This is not to say that I always find the tactics of antifa to be helpful or strategic, because I don’t. But to suggest, as the president did, that they are in some way the moral equivalent of those they were protesting — or perhaps even worse because at least the Nazis had a permit! — is an act of moral inversion so putrid as to boggle the imagination. Whatever one thinks of antifa tactics, there is simply a difference, and it is not a small one, between people who call for the purging of people of color and Jews from a nation, and those who fight back against people who call for those things. And if we say there is no difference between advocating genocide and oppression and resisting those who advocate these, then we are headed quickly to a place that puts equal moral condemnation upon the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising as upon those whom they were fighting. We are suggesting that the enslaved, who often resisted their owners violently, were no better than those who held them in bondage. We are suggesting that the kidnapped who slits the throat of their captor in the middle of the night is no better than the one who took them. And this is a perversion.
Keep in mind, the white supremacists said they would be coming to Charlottesville with weapons. Virginia is an open carry state and they announced beforehand they would be prepared to take advantage of this fact, either for self-defense (their insistence) or to intimidate those who might stand against them. As such, and knowing that the fascists would be armed with guns, with knives, with clubs and other implements of war, for antifa not to have brought something with which to fight back would have been to court an especially one-sided disaster. But however much mace stings and urine filled balloons may stain one’s clothes, to suggest they are equivalent as tools of terror to semi-automatic weapons or vehicles, is to confuse spit wads for atom bombs.
No, there is no left equivalent of Richard Spencer’s call for the ethnic cleansing — purging really — of non-whites from the U.S. There is no left equivalent of the Daily Stormer’s call for white supremacists to protest and disrupt the funeral of Saturday’s martyr, Heather Heyer. We do not march around campuses with torches shouting racist slogans, nor surround our political adversaries — as the white nationalists did on Friday night at UVA (very much without a permit, I might add) — and then wade into their numbers and beat them.
There has been a string of far right murders just since the election of Donald Trump, which has no left or progressive equal, and an even longer history of disproportionate reactionary terrorism with no parallel on the other side: at least 12 times as many fatalities and 36 times as many injuries from right-wing terrorists as from those who could potentially be considered “left.” And not merely because right wingers are more talented at their craft, but because there are simply far more incidents in play.
But of course these pesky facts — things most teachers seek to convey to their students — are mere trifles to the instructor in this case, who by his immunity to them conveys a casual indifference to truth that cannot but deepen the roots of the present crisis. Committed to an alt-reality of his own making, the president sought to elide the differences between Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jefferson, as if calls for the removal of statues to the former would, by necessity, lead to the call for the removal of those in homage to the latter. In effect, he wondered, where will it end—all this political correctness, which seeks to erase historical figures from the national memory?
But statuary to confederates are not intended as history texts, and those who erected them — mostly in the early 1900s, long after the war, and during a time when lynching and the re-assertion of white supremacy in the South was at its zenith — never intended them to be so. These are altars of worship, where the faithful come to drink of the blood and taste of the flesh of their Great-Great-Grandpappy Beauregard, whose perfidy and characterological rot they still refuse to face. To defend these statues on the grounds of historical memory is perverse, for they misremember that history entirely and the cause for which Lee and others were fighting.
Yes, Jefferson was a slave owner, and this fact should be understood and not sanitized or considered a mere time-bound failing on his part (as it often is at the University of Virginia, for instance). But still, there is a difference between someone who said “all men are created equal” even if his actions suggested he didn’t mean it, and those who said (as did Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens) that white supremacy was the “cornerstone” of their new government. One provided us with a flawed yet visible exit from the national nightmare in which he himself was implicated. The others — including leaders in the states who issued declarations of causes for their secession, and in each case named the maintenance of slavery as their purpose — would have extended that nightmare in perpetuity, and without hesitation. Whether Jefferson intended it or not, he gave us a blueprint, however blood-spattered, for building a functioning democracy. Lee and his cohorts had no interest in such things, nor the vision to even imagine them. And that matters.
When Southern whites made the choice to go to war with America they did so because however much racism had been embedded in the nation from the start, they didn’t find our commitment sufficient. And that’s saying a lot. They chose a side. It was a side of even more oppression, even more mistreatment than that the North had been helping dish out upon black bodies and upon indigenous peoples for many a generation by then. It is the same choice the white nationalists are making now. In a nation where they as whites already have half the unemployment rate of people of color, one-third the poverty rate, and 12 times the median net worth of black and brown folks, they are choosing to go all in for even greater dominance, even greater hegemony. They look out a nation beset by profound institutionalized inequities and rather than ask how we might fix them — or rather than even shrugging and saying “oh well,” as so many are wont to do — are quite literally saying that those disparities are not large enough. And as with the differences between Jefferson and Lee, so too, this suggests some rather profound dislocations between white nationalists and most of the rest of us.
Or does it? Because see, now it is time for us to choose a side if we haven’t already, and to recommit to the fight if we have. And by “we,” I mean those of us called white in this place. When David Duke and Matt Heimbach say that this movement of which they are a part is “speaking for white people,” they are trying to draft us into their army quite without our consent. When Andrew Anglin says that this movement will “take over the country,” as he did this weekend, he is advocating the overthrow of the government. Yours. Mine. Ours. And if you are white, and don’t resist this draft with every fiber of your being — don’t decide in fact to burn your draft card openly and insist that you will choose a different way to live in this skin — then you will have confirmed that they are right. That they do speak for you. And you will have revealed yourself as an enemy of all that is good about this land.
Please know: history will not remember you well for it.
Tim Wise is an antiracism educator and the author of eight books on racial inequity. He tweets @timjacobwise