I had planned to break my long writing hiatus with some thoughts about the Maine Legislative session that finally came to a close on August 2, roughly 6 weeks behind schedule. But that will have to wait again, because of what happened Saturday, in Charlottesville, Virginia, when white nationalists, white supremacists, Nazis, and other racists organized and executed a gathering designed to foment violence and hatred, during which murder and other brutality ensued.
Before I was fully aware of what happened in Charlottesville on Saturday, a friend called me to talk about it. She was overcome, to the point of tears or so it sounded, by the organized, mass expression of hatred and overt incitement to violence that was occurring, and by the brutality and murder that has ensued. She was heartbroken to think she lived in a nation capable of such cruelty, that she shared her country with people who would militantly advance the idea that fellow human beings were, by virtue of their lineage alone, unworthy of sharing rights, privileges, and opportunities that these white citizens claimed for themselves only.
She worried, too, about the direction we were headed as a nation, especially given our heritage of gun ownership and use. Could we devolve into civil war? The news that a car had been used to maim and kill those rising in protest against the hatred reminded her of conversations with friends with “rightist” views, including someone who had declared that he would “run over liberals” with his own vehicle. Not that she believed he would actually do so, but that the statement of such passionate disgust for a progressive and inclusive worldview bore a chilling resemblance to the actual assault and death in Charlottesville. As one of the many who had awakened with a shudder last November 9 to realize we had a president who seemed sympathetic and encouraging to such sentiments, she was horrified anew by the thought that crowds were now organizing and marching in the explicit names of division and oppression.
And then, in response, she heard (as I did on social media), friends on the left begin to say that one war against the Nazis, and one against the confederacy, might not have been enough, that they were prepared to fight again for equal civil rights for everyone, for the end to oppression and invidious discrimination, for a society worthy of, and possessing the promise of,fulfilling the American dream.
I’ve heard from other friends as well, all reacting with revulsion but also with terror. Terror that, with a President unwilling to name the cause of the hatred, insisting on false equivalency between the partisans of violent oppression and the protestors against it, our nation truly could lose the central threads of democracy and inclusiveness. Echoing Orwell’s warning that laws and institutions are no defense against tyranny, that only commonly held beliefs in civility and freedom can preserve it, they watch an angry crowd effectively engendering violent chaos and fear for our collective future. The fear commingles with shame: another friend wrote that he was removing his American flag from his motorcycle, “because it now stands for white nationalism.”
Yet this fear that we are no longer safe, and that our democracy is unraveling in a tide of hatred, is exactly the response aimed for by the worst of the extremists gathered in Virginia – not the rank and file, but the organizers: men who have crossed a dark moral chasm to incite and instill bigotry, resentment, and rage in others, for their own political and economic gain. This demonstration was designed to be terrifying. Its greatest achievement would be to plant fear and despair in the hearts of those who stand for freedom and justice.
As I listen to the alloy of fear, grief, and righteous anger in my friends’ voices, I want to offer another perspective. To my friend grieving and outraged on the phone, to my friend suddenly ashamed of his flag, I want to say this: we cannot lose heart and we need not lose heart. The voices and the actions of an organized group of white nationalists, Nazi sympathizers, and others opposed to the multiracial, multi-ethnic society that we have become, are hideous, damaging, and deserve our resolute, unceasing condemnation. But viewed in historical perspective, it is clear that these are mere reactions by a desperate few to social and moral progress that we need not, cannot, and will not permit to be reversed.
It is worth remembering what the ostensible excuse for this racist gathering was: a plan to dismantle a statue honoring Robert E. Lee, a military leader who fought to continue the inhumane exploitation and oppression of blacks for economic gain, who fought against his own nation’s government to preserve slavery. As Al Tompkins and Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute wrote on Saturday, this was not the first dismantling of a Confederate military statue in the South, nor will it be the last. There were protests in New Orleans when 4 Confederate statues were removed this spring. There were deep divisions of opinion surrounding the decision of the South Carolina legislature, with the support of then-Governor Nikki Haley, to end the official display of the Confederate battle flag at the capitol of South Carolina. But that flag came down.
I don’t intend to suggest we put on our rose-colored glasses and relax: we cannot pretend that the progress of these symbolic changes is anywhere enough – the corrosive residue of slavery, and various corollary forms of economic and social oppression and prejudice, against other minorities and against women, have yet to be eradicated, nor is it fair to say we are at all close to that goal. Moreover, the Trump administration is making disturbingly effective inroads on recent social progress in that direction, attacking everything from women’s rights to affirmative action to prison reform – and more that space does not allow me to catalog here.
But the impediments and reversals only slow progress; they cannot stop it. Most of us – really, almost all of us, on a good day – know too much about our common humanity, experience it too regularly at work and play, live it in our neighborhoods. And the willingness of southern authorities to take down statues of the militant uprising to preserve racial oppression a century and a half ago may be coming awfully late, but that they are occurring is not trivial: it shows us which way the social winds are blowing.
So, my Facebook friend should not remove his flag, and the friend who called me should not despair. An angry mob can wave our flag while shouting the unthinkable, but they cannot claim it as their own without our concurrence, which we will deny them. They have their symbols: the swastika, the Klan hood. When they attempt to appropriate the symbols of a nation founded on principles that we are still seeking to realize, but that unambiguously include equality and justice, we must not surrender them.
We have a president who did not have the courage to directly denounce the bigotry and hatred that was present in an organized and intentional form and directly caused the outbursts of violent conflict. He instead had to focus on the fact that the violence itself was not passively received by those against whom it was directed and thus pretended that the fault lay on “both sides,” when this is plainly untrue. With such a leadership vacuum in Washington, and with sympathizers for this reactionary movement in highly placed positions in the president’s administration, we can neither be silent nor at ease. We must call out racism and hatred wherever we see it..We must assure those with less extreme views that freedom and equality are the best sources of security, and help them resist the call to hatred
We must continue, as we have since November 9, to vocally resist and place our bodies in visible opposition to actions and words that seek to impede or reverse progress toward a just and fair society. But let’s not allow any white supremacists, white nationalists, or racist oppressors the satisfaction of seeing us devolving into the terror that they savor. We cannot and need not be afraid, we must be resolute instead. As we respond with hearts and voices to the organizers of domestic terror, let’s do so urgently, yet also with the certainty of American Transcendentalist Theodore Parker, who wrote, sometime before the Civil War, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”