While one thinks of Charlottesville, Virginia, as being in another world from Davis, the two cities are really not all that different. Hosting a world-class university in the University of Virginia, Charlottesville voted about 80 percent for Hillary Clinton last fall, not that different from Davis.
While Davis does not have the statue of Robert E. Lee that has galvanized dissension between the citizens of this sleepy college town and hordes of outsiders who arrived on Friday to protest – it was not that long ago when Davis was ground zero for the dispute over a Gandhi statue, nor was it was such a distant place when Nazis and anti-Nazis last summer violently clashed in front of the state Capitol.
There are so many dimensions to what happened in Charlottesville on Saturday that it will be difficult to do them all justice here.
At its core this is a battle about what the Confederacy means today. The city has made plans to remove the statue. The white nationalists arrived to protest the removal of the statue while the counter-demonstrators were there to oppose them.
I found things getting more interesting in my discussions with mainstream conservatives on Facebook arguing against the removal of the statue. For them it seems that this is nothing more than an attempt to sweep Confederate history under the rug or to scrub history – as though removing statues honoring Confederate war heroes somehow meant we were wiping them out of history.
What these defenders of the statue and, before it, the flying of the Confederate flag seem to be forgetting is that (A) the Confederacy was an act of treason against the United States that required a very long and bloody Civil War in order to restore the union; (B) while we can dress this up as a “states’ rights” battle, the reality is that it was a fight about the states’ rights to white supremacy; and (C) the Confederate flag has become the symbol of not only defending slavery but also the Old South’s system of racial oppression and white supremacy.
Dress this up any way you want, but mainstream conservatives – at least some of them – are fighting a political battle on the side of white supremacists.
As the New York Times put it this morning in a pointed op-ed: “Their resentment of the removal of public symbols of the Confederate past — the genesis of this weekend’s rally — is fueled by revisionist history. They fancy themselves the victims of the so-called politically correct assault on American democracy…”
The Times adds, “Each feeds on the same demented lies about race and justice that corrupt true democracy and erode real liberty. Together they constitute the repulsive resurgence of a virulent bigotocracy.”
By honoring the Confederacy, we are honoring a legacy of white supremacy and suppression. We seem to forget that blacks were stolen from their homeland, forced to toil on American soil for wealthy white masters, and it took a Civil War to legally free the blacks – and another virtual civil war to end Jim Crow that arose to take the place of the original slavery.
As the Times puts, “The bigotocracy is angry that slavery is seen as this nation’s original sin.”
This arrangement becomes all the more messy when you add in the auspices of the election of Donald Trump. Critics during the election charged that Donald Trump, if not himself a white supremacist, at the very least did an insufficient job of keeping the true supremacists away from his campaign and ultimately the administration.
On Saturday there was David Duke in attendance, declaring that the alt-right unity fiasco “fulfills the promises of Donald Trump.” Then there are the charges that advisers like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller are in fact white nationalists.
As if these connections are not enough, the president was criticized yesterday for soft-pedaling his response.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides,” he said adding, “This has been going on for a long, long time.”
“Mr. President — we must call evil by its name,” tweeted Senator Cory Gardner, Republican from Colorado, who oversees the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm of the Senate Republicans.
“These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism,” he added.
This allowed Democrats to suggest that the president has been unwilling to alienate the alt right – and the portion of his base that embraces bigotry and ultimately sees this as a worthy battle – even if the white nationalists may be seen as an inconvenient ally.
His comment made no mention that the violence in Charlottesville was in fact initiated by people who are seen as white supremacists, as they brandish not only Confederate flags but also anti-Semitic placards – and, yes, a few Trump campaign signs.
Ultimately what I find most fascinating here is the interplay among the three themes. Not that long ago a march like this would have easily been dismissed as a few extremists clinging to a lost cause. Various KKK and neo-Nazi planned rallies have not materialized because of threats from counter-protests.
No more. The true link between the Trump election and Charlottesville is that not only are the alt-right and the fringe white nationalists groups emboldened, but the mainstream right can no longer cleanly break from them as they once could.
The president refused to denounce the violence and actions of the white supremacists by calling it terrorism (yes, driving vehicles into crowds has been a tactic of ISIS), but instead added the qualifier “on many sides.”
Finally there is the mainstream conservative view that, in fact, agrees with the white supremacists – that the statue should remain up.
As the NY Times put it, “It is disheartening for black folk to see such a vile and despicable replay of history.” But it is “more dispiriting still to realize that the government of our land, at least in the present administration, has shown little empathy toward victims of white bigotry, and indeed, has helped to spread the paralyzing virus of hatred, by turning a blind eye to what is done in their name.”
And I would add that, worse yet, it is even more dispiriting that the mainstream right embraces the symbols of the Confederacy as readily as they do.
These are troubling times and it is difficult to see how this nation emerges from this unscathed.
—David M. Greenwald reporting