What happened August 12th is nothing short of domestic terrorism, which needs to be addressed with swift, sure and passionate justice. The White Supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville embrace an ideology that is nothing short of evil incarnate.
Do not get me wrong on this point. Do not think I miss this crucial reality.
The question is, how do we fix this in a democracy?
There’s a saying about marriage: in some situations, you have to ask yourself, is it more important to be right, or to stay married?
As I write this, Trump addresses the country.
As I listen to Trump, I’m struck by the lukewarm condemnation, the stumbling through the disavowal of White Supremacists. For me this has “public relations speech-writer” written all over it. And yet, I’m not surprised. I think there’s a good bit more talking about how abhorrent racism is, rather than actually doing something to address it.
I’ve lived in the Deep South, widely (and rightfully) criticized for its history of racism and atrocities based on race. I’ve lived in New England, where racial tension is unacknowledged but painfully palpable. So, I’ve seen racism in many forms. As I always say, if a middle-aged lady from the Deep South can see it, it must be there.
I’ve seen it as “benign neglect” in the all-white businesses and neighborhoods where I’ve lived. I’ve seen it expressed unawares in the ignorant jokes and speeches of drunken party-goers and fellow dinner guests. I’ve seen it ignorantly uttered in epithets from the mouths of people who, in practice, respect the inherent value of each human being of any color, but who were not raised to understand the violence of their words. I’ve seen it in the momentary lapse into anger at the person who may do wrong, but whose color offers a convenient outlet.
I’ve also seen the adamant opposition to racism by many middle-class liberal suburbanites who then refuse to confront local officials whose comments and policies institutionalize racism. I’ve seen arm-chair anti-racism in people’s outward gestures that publicly embrace the “correct” position, without having to dirty their hands with the nasty business of stepping on toes or confrontation for the sake of real progress.
Everyone is in an uproar right now and rightfully so. What bothers me is what I will not see three months from now. Most people will have moved on to the latest social media uproar, having jumped on the most recent Social Media Outrage bandwagon. A few hangers-on will remain, mostly venting their spleen on social media at the first commenter they can imagine as the opposition.
There is no vision about how we can go from this moment into the long-haul, the painful day-to-day drudgery, debate, confusion and sacrifice that will result in true, permanent, fundamental evolution into economic equality and social peace.
As I write this on August 14, I see no one in “authority,” be it CNN, the White House, the media, etc., has envisioned a way forward. There is no Kennedy. There is no King. There is no one to lead us from the momentary outrage that at once vents our fear and anger and simultaneously helps us congratulate ourselves on being on the right side.
We all agree that racism is abhorrent. We all agree that the White Supremacist ideology is an evil scourge.
But just saying that, either as 1 or 100,000 voices on the streets or social media, isn’t going to move us forward. At some point all the demonstrations and marches are just preaching to the choir. It’s true, it’s accurate, but it isn’t going to move us forward. If we just march around with signs about how right we are and how wrong they are, we’ll be stuck on this hamster wheel of antagonism and violence forever.
I’ve long been fed up with my fellow leftist liberals sitting around on social media, or restaurants, or cable channels, wringing their hands about how awful it is. I want them to think of something, make a suggestion, do something peaceful, constructive, productive.
President Obama stepped forward, out of the fray and said what needed to be said.
In a way, he reached out beyond the outrage and grief to point the way forward, however subtly.
It is not through brow-beating or contention. It is through teaching; it is through communication.
Does anyone think a White Supremacist is going to suddenly blink three times and shout “I see the light!” disrobe from his white sheet, throw down his sign and skip along the diversified path with you because you protested his rally? Because you called him or her out on social media, being every bit the hateful troll you accused someone else of being? That fringe racist knows the mainstream hates him, knows that you consider him social refuse, and that just feeds his rage more.
Has anyone ever really listened to what some of these people are saying? I don’t mean the atrocious words coming out of their mouths, but the actual perspective coming out of their heads? Some of them feel left behind by our economy, left outside by our changing culture. So they blame race. They blame an Other: Other people, other races. That’s why I’m no longer relevant, or economically viable.
Yes, there are some people who genuinely hate other races and always will. Other people, though, can be taught.
What Trump’s camp knew, whether explicitly or intuitively, was that there was a simmering subset of the American people who harbored resentments of being excluded, forgotten and reviled. They knew that these people were ripe for the picking, and by embracing them, that campaign gave this group exactly what they were craving: acknowledgement of their value as citizens, and as human beings. It was more than morally wrong, but it spoke to a vulnerability in our culture that the morally superior political organizations failed to address, to their doom.
Several hours before the tragedy, I’d been sitting behind a trio of middle-aged white people, in the restaurant of my hotel in another country. An English-speaking country.
As I sat behind them in my booth, they started talking very loudly about Trump. Now, I abhor Trump and I’ve been clear about it, but I wasn’t in the mood to munch on my whole-grain bagel and Canadian smoked meat, on the second day of my vacation, and endure the very loud pontifications, on a subject I find a little unsettling. My plan had been to relax with nothing more intellectual than kitten videos, only to be interrupted by panda videos.
Instead, one woman’s inescapable commentary filled my ears: “You can’t be a decent person and support him,” and “If you still support him, it’s just for selfish reasons …” Now I knew where the stereotype of the “loud American” comes from: four feet dead center behind me.
I was awe-struck by her contempt for total strangers. I don’t want to cuddle up with a Trump supporter on a Saturday night, but unless I know them personally, I’m not willing to dismiss them as fellow human beings. For her, Trump supporters weren’t human beings, they were a group of inferiors. As the conversation continued, her companion (louder and closer) coerced talk of climate change into a ten-minute session of name-dropping and tales of globe-hopping glamour. I came to have little respect for these people, whose views I agreed with on paper, but whose attitude toward “the opposition” seemed repugnant in practice.
I asked to be moved. The waiter graciously agreed.
In social media, I’ve seen the dialogue we should have devolve into destructive antagonism and personal insults, that were, ironically, their own form of bigotry: whether by region or gender or presumed politics.
Is this how we’re going to move forward? Dehumanizing people we disagree with? The opposition to Trump is right, but has anyone bothered to see how that kind of contempt, its own form of hate, just feeds our opponents’ own sense of persecution?
The point is: we’ve let this issue become so emotionally charged that it’s impossible to move forward unless even those who are right set aside their outrage long enough to dialogue. It’s distasteful, but the reality is that cornerstone of our democracy is not just diversity and equality, but also the agreement to disagree peacefully. As the story of Derek Black teaches us, it’s also possible, but only if we view the other side as fellow humans, not inferior entities or targets of our own frustration.
There’s that saying about marriage again: in some situations, you have to ask yourself, is it more important to be right, or to stay married?
I think at this point some of us need to ask ourselves, do we want to focus on proclaiming how right we are and risk deepening the divide just to pat ourselves on the back? Or, do we want to find a way forward that will end violence while creating a society of economic and social equality?