If we lived in better times, the recent events in Charlottesville would have presented opportunity for honest exchanges striving for mutual understanding and growth. Of course, if we lived in much better times, those events would never have happened, but history proves that violent clashes and individual atrocities are simply part of the human condition in a fallen world. Nonetheless, we can, I believe, set conditions for discourse that allows us to advance rather than spin our wheels or even regress.
Within an ideological subgroup, though, some of that opportunity remains (at least on the right), so I’ve been carefully reading the thoughts of those with whom I normally agree who seemed to have a different view of President Trump’s remarks on Saturday. Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe makes an excellent point, here (emphasis in original):
Is it necessary to forthrightly condemn left-wing violence and punish its fomenters? Absolutely. But it is much more important at this moment for Trump to personally break with the right-wing fringe and to decry its ugliness without hesitation or euphemism. Of course violent thuggery on both fringes is intolerable. So why focus on the alt-right? Because that’s the side that claims to act in the president’s cause.Trump and his allies didn’t spend the past two years playing nudge-nudge, wink-wink with progressive bigots and haters. Antifa zealots didn’t engage in menacing online intimidation and harassment of Trump’s critics. The president’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, never boasted that his website was the platform for the alt-left.
I’d suggest that the term “alt-right” meant something different when Bannon associated Brietbart with the movement. In the past year, those who took the label then but were not racists have largely abandoned it, such that it is now as critics said it was then. As much as I think progressives make egregious errors, I would not equate them all with Antifa. But if progressives began abandoning the label to avoid association with their extremists, then it could be that in a year from now the two labels could be conflated.
That said, the bigots’ self-proclaimed support for Trump does give him a special obligation to disassociate from them. There’s no “but” to that statement, but… there are complications that might bear on any particular statement. Chief among them is the underlying meaning of many in the commentary media who insist that there is no equivalence between white supremacists and any other kind of group in American society. To be sure, there is no identical group (because then they’d just be white supremacists), but if the traits we’re condemning are bigotry against particular groups and the willingness to engage in political violence, Antifa would qualify for equivalence and would not be alone.
The underlying meaning behind demands that there is and can be no equivalence is that white Americans are uniquely capable of evil and uniquely culpable for the evil of people with whom they share certain demographic qualities. That itself is profoundly racist.
Another complication is that the bigots are still human beings and, yes, Americans. The relevance of this point was made most clear in a tweet from EWTN’s Jason Calvi in noting that Catholics are coincidentally commemorating St. Maximilian Kolbe, whom the Nazis murdered on this day in 1941: “On his feast day, may he pray for all of those filled with hate.” Ultimately, we should want our fellow human beings and fellow Americans to be saved from the prisons of their own hatred.
For these reasons, I’d continue to argue that it would be reasonable for people to come to different conclusions about how to talk about particular incidents in particular statements. Yesterday, for example, a journalist was attacked in Richmond, Virginia, covering an anti-Confederate-statue rally. In this environment, it’s at least reasonable to be wary of elevating one group’s violence above another’s (unless we subscribe to the “uniquely capable of evil” notion).
What puts Charlottesville over the top, though, making it necessary for President Trump to issue his follow-up statement today to explicitly condemn the white supremacists, was their spin of his initial statement. As Guy Benson argues on Town Hall, “Even if Trump intended exactly the opposite, his words were imprecise enough to allow this interpretation [among the white supremacists that ‘he didn’t attack us…really, really good’] to take root.”
If the president’s intention was as I hoped it was, on Saturday, he couldn’t let the that misinterpretation stand. Going forward, it would be helpful if high-profile opponents of President Trump would explain what other groups would have to do in order to be equivalent to those that he condemned.