While driving around, today, I listened to the second of two podcasts in Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History series that related anecdotes from black civil rights lawyers. This one centers on Donald Hollowell, and in its excellence, it left me saddened, frustrated, and discouraged.
The saddening part of the story is the obvious one: that humanity can create systems of such injustice. People — generally familiar seeming people in most respects, just doing their best to get through this life — can become such creatures of our moment that we fail to recognize that plain injustice and even perpetuate it.
What’s frustrating is our dogged reliance on the superficial aspects of universal lessons. Men and women like Hollowell were (and are) heroic. Yet, we seem to have a reluctance to allow them to be universally heroic. Rather than encouraging others to place them in a shared pantheon of emblematic lives, too often we seek to assign them to their categories — to your clan’s heroes and my clan’s heroes — as if some particular race or political platform is more profound than our shared humanity.
From that comes the discouragement, as well. Gladwell raises images of Hollowell standing strong against an entire system arrayed against him and those whose cause he championed. Somehow it seems our society proceeds from such images by locking them into their narrow context. Largely thanks to figures like Hollowell and Martin Luther King, it doesn’t take much heroism to do now as Hollowell did then, in specific terms. The system with the power to crush spirits has moved on to favor other superficial aspects.
After listening to Gladwell’s podcast, I finished my earlier post on a different topic and turned to the Internet to find… Charlottesville. The context that we cannot forget is that this extended clash and the automobile attack that appears to be related is an escalation, and yet instantly — in social media and in the more standard venues for commentary, including the mainstream news media — the reactions disallow deescalation.
The very first I heard of the incident came through denunciations of the president’s brief statement for not being specific enough. Such is our society at this time that we can’t even allow a single day for people to weigh an event against their experiences, their biases, and their beliefs. The tug-of-war must be instantaneous, and in that tug-of-war, it becomes critical to spin a president’s commentary in support of an agenda or its antipode.
These white supremacist activists are fools. When they revel in these moving street brawls, they’re dangerous fools. And when one of them drives a car into a crowd as a weapon, he’s psychotic. That’s hardly a controversial characterization. We’ve had decades of cultural opprobrium against such characters. The fact that we still have them suggests that opprobrium isn’t working to keep them at bay or to pull back those who might, in some degree, sympathize with their complaints, if not their hatred and aggression.
I’d be reluctant to credit President Trump for doing so knowingly, but if one steps back from the ritual of required condemnation, his statement contained elements that could help with deescalation. He asserted that hatred is not us — the country toward which all Americans should be patriotic — but rather that we must treat each other with respect and love.
He also noted that the violence and hatred has been pointing in multiple political directions. This gives one impression if you think the president’s audience is, or should mainly be, those who fear a surging white supremacist movement. That audience would include almost all of the national news and commentary class. It gives a very different impression, though, if you think the president’s audience includes, in large part, people who feel as if their government and cultural institutions hate them and think them unworthy of inclusion or rights to equal treatment. This audience is the one whose frustrations can draw them to major rallies of what was, not long ago, a laughable fringe.
President Trump’s mention of how well the country is doing economically seems almost inexplicable if one assumes that his intention was to make an obligatory statement without offending a distasteful portion of his base. But it makes a great deal of sense if one considers the possibility that his remarks were meant to deescalate. In those terms, not only is he saying that the neo-Nazis’ hate is “not us,” not only is he pointing us toward respect and love, but he’s also suggesting that a little time should ease the economic pressure that may be drawing some people to the sort of activism that begins to look more like right-wing terrorism.
I most definitely do not want to be misunderstood as trying to equate Donald Trump with the civil rights heroes with whom I began, although I also think those calling his remarks “unpresidential” are missing the mark. My point is this: We need to stop trying to freeze our national storyline in circumstances that haven’t existed in their full form for a half a century and start thinking in terms of deescalation and reconciliation. Our shared humanity is deeper than the circumstances of particular incidents.
I fear we won’t, though, because too many people are intent on victory over that which offends their sensibilities.