Friday, August 18, 2017

Charlottesville and America

WE LIKE TO THINK we learn from history; that is one of humanity’s more charming self-deceptions. Every so often over the past four generations, we — the students, the curious, the media — have looked back into the genesis metastasizing years of one brutal regime or another, usually through a fresh survey of imagery common to the era, the photographs and newsreels, the ones that still burn, and soar, and hurt. There: the nascent Nazis, the Brown Shirts, burning the books in a Berlin square. Those same Brown Shirts roughing up the locals or singling out someone in a crowd in the street, pushing them around because power.

And there: the authorities, harassing citizens with dogs, birdshot and high-pressure water hoses, roughed up on the street by other, different everyday people who pushed them around because power. We look at these photographs and newsreels, marvel at the ease with which brutality could be dispensed back then, and take some quiet solace in how far we’ve come, we postmodern, enlightened, educated, yoga-flexible, 21st-century souls. It can’t happen here, we think. It can’t happen here.

Like events in Germany of the 1930’s, the townships of South Africa in the 1940’s and 1950’s, and the Jim Crow South in the 1960’s, the brutal alt-right pogrom that took place on Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia, was proof of an institutionalization of racial and ethnic mayhem, and one with deadly results. One woman was killed in the space of the protests themselves, run over after apparently being struck, with others, by a raging white supremacist behind the wheel of a gray sports car with Ohio license plates. Two Virginia state troopers were killed in a helicopter crash while working in a protest-related assignment.

It is the first high-profile spasmodic racial event of the presidency* of Donald Trump, and his first comments about it were not exactly inspiring. Their deliberate ambiguity, their studied, toxic nuance would become a huge problem not just for political consumption, but in the wider sense of American identity. But that should have been no surprise: American identity —and who gets to decide what it definitively is — were at the root of the madness on Saturday.

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History set the fuse for this current event. White supremacists were intent on hosting a “Unite the Right” rally, meant to show their support for leaving intact a Charlottesville statue of famed Confederate general Robert E. Lee — one of the bronze symbols, scattered throughout Virginia and around the South, celebrating the Confederacy and, by definition, the millions of human beings whose enslavement made the Confederacy viable.

The rally was to be a kind of right-wing Woodstock, with alt-right darling Richard Spencer and others concealing defense of white American identity in an ardent, muscular denunciation of the nation’s mosaic demographics. The night before, white supremacists marched on the campus of the University of Virginia … marched en masse carrying … Tiki Torches probably containing citronella-scented mosquito repellent, and just as probably acquired in bulk at the Lowe’s store on Woodbrook Drive.

The derision machine cranked up on Twitter, big time. @TheFaceofBoe87: ““I find it ironic that a bunch of racist[s] are using tiki torches. Y'all can't even hate without appropriating another culture #Charlottesville.”

@SmashracismDC: “Did fash bros use their bed bath and beyond coupons for the tiki torches littered on UVA campus last night?”

That was Friday. That was as light-hearted as this could get. Then it got serious. Then it got ugly.

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ON SATURDAY, James Alex Fields Jr., a 20-year-old Ohioan, a man whom his former high school history teacher told a TV station was “infatuated with Nazis,” was in his gray 2010 Dodge Challenger. Fields had … issues. “Once you talked to James for a while, you would start to see that sympathy towards Nazism, that idolization of Hitler, that belief in white supremacy,” said Derek Weimer, the teacher. “It would start to creep out.” In an interview with The Associated Press, Weimer said Fields also told him he’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia as a child, and was also prescribed anti-psychotic medication.

A potpourri of white supremacists showed up; Klan members, skinheads, neo-Nazis, and members of Vanguard America, a group that deeply believes in an essential, fundamental whiteness of the United States, a group that Fields was apparently a member or supporter of. They faced off against the anti-racist protesters. Punches and screams, pepper sprays and projectiles; it was a distillation of the fight between democracy and extremism. There might have been more or less than the same for a while: a battle in the streets, but one whose weapons were evenly matched.

Then the car, a gray Dodge Challenger, came barreling down the road, a few blocks away from the statue of Robert E. Lee. Fields is believed to have driven at high speed into the crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer, 32, as she crossed the street. At least 35 19 other people were reported injured. Fields was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. In the course of surveilling the demonstrations, a helicopter manned by two Virginia State Police troopers, Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen, 48, and Trooper Berke M. M. Bates, 40, crashed. Both troopers were killed.

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It was a horrible day for America, and the man in the White House didn’t make things any better. When President* Donald Trump spoke about the incident, he did even more damage to his biography with a speech that desperately sought to establish a false equivalence between the white supremacists and the counter-protesters. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides," the president* said while on vacation in Bedminster, N.J. Then, repeating for emphasis (as if the fake equivalence wasn’t already clear enough), “on many sides.”

In the days to follow, the weight of the incident and Trump’s reaction to it jumped the oceans. German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized Trump’s initial comments, saying: “It’s racist, far-right violence and that requires determined and forceful resistance no matter where in the world it appears.”

British Prime Minister Theresa May, similarly condemned Trump. “I see no equivalence between those who propound fascist views and those who oppose them, and I think it is important for all those in positions of responsibility to condemn far-right views whenever we hear them.” May said Wednesday in Portsmouth, England.

Trump’s comments blew back on him in ways closer to home. Within days of his initial comments — remarks he’s both walked back and doubled down on since — the CEOs of Merck, 3M, Campbell Soup and Under Armour resigned their positions on the Manufacturing Jobs Initiative, launched by Trump on Jan. 27.

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IT’S A GIVEN of the 21st-century American presidency: When an expansively tragic national event occurs, the president is called upon to be the empath in chief, the anodyne presence on the national stage, a bridge over troubled water. It’s not in the oath of office, it’s nowhere in the Constitution, but it remains a real and present responsibility for anyone who’d lead this country. There's maybe no other time when a president is more the avatar of a nation then when he presides over a nation in pain.

President Obama knew this, and lived this capably and eloquently in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the Aurora theater shootings, the Sandy Hook massacre, the Tucson shootings, the slaughter at Fort Hood … and far too many incidents of racial injustice, incidents in which someone died. The 44th president rose to these horrific occasions and did what he could to both transmit our grief and our resolve to move past it.

In this unwritten task, as it relates to Charlottesville, in the need to reinforce American values in a moment of national shock, Donald Trump has failed utterly and miserably. And in that failure may lie the biggest tragedy in the Charlottesville disaster: Our nation has lost its top unifier. The ability to speak painful truth to redemptive power has been replaced by dissipated, desiccated emotions served up 140 characters at a time. The brutality of a given event has met its match in the rhetorical brutality of the one reacting to it, minimizing it, from the White House. It couldn’t happen here. Until it did.

Image credits: Charlottesville car attack: Ryan M. Kelly/Daily Progress. Racist protesters (2): via The Root. Fields: Alan Goffinski via Associated Press. Trump: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters.

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