Saturday, August 12, 2017

Learning the Wrong Lessons from History

As someone who is fascinated by history, I can understand why many white people in the south have felt passionate about preserving statues of Confederate figures like Stonewall Jackson or Robert E. Lee.  These are historical artifacts from a bygone time, and in their day, they were meant to honor how the south seceded from the Union and fought against what southerners called "northern aggression."  Today, our views are somewhat more nuanced: the generals may still have some fans among Civil War buffs, but most of us wish the war had never happened, and most of us are glad the Union was saved.  Today, the statues are a reminder of a difficult and contentious time in US history, and they reflect our changing attitudes about it.

Unfortunately, some southern cities placed the statues on the grounds of the state government or in a public park, which seemed to show support (or even nostalgia) for what the Confederate generals did.  Giving the statues such a prominent location may not have been a problem in the era of segregation; but it certainly sends the wrong message in 2017.  That said, it's not surprising there are traditionalists who get upset whenever there is a plan to move the statues to a museum (where they belong), or to tear them down (something that, as a historian, I oppose; I may not be fond of Confederate generals, but they were real people and we shouldn't pretend they never existed).

The people who show such reverence towards memories of the Confederacy (including the Confederate flag) often insist it has nothing to do with prejudice:  they simply believe they are honoring the history and heritage of the south. But what they are honoring means something very different to black southerners, who lack that same nostalgia for the era of slavery or segregation.  And in fairness, many southern whites (especially younger people) no longer feel positive about those old symbols either. Still, for a certain group of white southerners, some of whom identify as white nationalists (or white supremacists), the statues and the Confederate flag are something to celebrate.  And when the city of Charlottesville VA decided to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee and rename the park where it stood, some of these folks decided to take a stand.

On Friday night, a large group of angry protesters, many aligned with the Alt-Right, came to Charlottesville to express their outrage.  They carried torches (much like the Ku Klux Klan of years ago) and shouted neo-Nazi slogans.  They talked about "white genocide," and painted themselves as the true victims of discrimination. (Hint: they're really not.)  I believe in the First Amendment, and I do understand that even when protesters (on any side of the issues) are hostile or hateful, they have every right to express their views.  But I still found it disconcerting to see images of flaming torches, and to hear rhetoric from the era of Adolph Hitler.  Okay fine, it was only a few hundred white nationalists, but in my view, one is too many.  My father (of blessed memory) fought the Nazis in World War II; he would not be amused to see a resurgence of Nazi views here in America.

It got worse on Saturday, as the white nationalists held a "Unite the Right" rally, with more neo-Nazi and white power chants and more outrage; accompanying them were some members of all-white militias, carrying weapons.  They were met by counter-protesters, most of whom came from churches or local social service groups and held peaceful vigils; and a few of whom came from more activist groups and clashed with the white nationalists.  Meanwhile, some of the white nationalists were very vocal in their praise of President Trump; some gave Nazi-like salutes and said "Heil Trump," while the ever-present David Duke, former head of the KKK, basically reminded everyone that Mr. Trump was their inspiration, and it was time for white people to take their country back (I had no idea they'd lost it). In the midst of it all, a car intentionally slammed into the counter-protesters-- the people who were hit had been peacefully expressing their opposition to what the white nationalists were saying. One person was killed and at least nineteen were seriously injured.

I had hoped President Trump would forcefully condemn the white supremacists or speak out against neo-Nazi rhetoric.  He did not. He sent out a vague statement about how violence on "all sides" was wrong, as if the peaceful counter-protesters were as culpable as the folks carrying Confederate flags or banners with swastikas. He later read a statement about how we are all Americans and we should all get along.  I'm glad he said that; but given how quick he has been to specifically criticize Mexicans or Muslims or undocumented immigrants, I found it disappointing that he refused to criticize white supremacists or neo-Nazis.  Perhaps since they seem to be his supporters, he feels he shouldn't be too harsh.  But I wish he had been.

I know what some of my conservative friends are going to say:  "But what about ANTIFA? What about [pick some other example of alleged left-wing bad behavior]?"  Please, let's not go there. This is not the time for "whataboutism."  Some things are just wrong, no matter which side does them.  And in this case, the last thing I want to hear is folks defending the white nationalists or justifying their actions.  What they believe is contrary to what America is supposed to be about.  And while they have a right to hold those beliefs, we do not have to agree with them.  In fact, the last thing we need is tolerance for white supremacist or neo-Nazi views.  We tolerated them in the past, and it did not go well for us as a nation.  As I see it, Mr. Trump missed an opportunity to call these folks out, not with a vague statement, but by name and directly.  He should have told them they're doing more harm than good, and that he doesn't want their support.  But then again... what if he still does?