I am on sabbatical this month, finishing my new book on Belonging. Ironically this has put me in a position of being deep in research about polarization at a time when our culture is being torn apart before our eyes. Despite the fact that I am supposed to be writing, yesterday’s press conference by President Trump cannot go without a response.
There are two main points that the President made that I would like to address. The first is the question of moral equivalency between the Nazi, White Supremacist protestors, and the counter protestors. The second is the question of whether or not removing the statues of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and other Confederate leaders is the equivalent of removing those of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
First, the fact that there were some counter protestors (by all accounts a tiny percentage) at the rally does not make the two morally equivalent, any more than the fact that there was some violence at Black Lives Matter resistance events makes BLM equivalent to white people who support the murder of Black citizens by the police or white supremacists. As James Hohmann said in his op-ed in the Washington Post today, there is a difference between a heavily armed group of people, coming together in an organized way with every intention to strike terror into the hearts of their fellow citizens and threaten the peace of a city, and a group of people who stand up to stop that terror. As Hohmann writes, William F. Buckley, one of the founders of our modern conservative movement, and the founding editor of National Review, once put it:
“To say that the CIA and the KGB engage in similar practices is the equivalent of saying that the man who pushes an old lady into the path of a hurtling bus is not to be distinguished from the man who pushes an old lady out of the path of a hurtling bus: on the grounds that, after all, in both cases someone is pushing old ladies around.”
The people who reprehensively chose to bring White Supremacy, in all of it’s ugliness, to Charlottesville on Saturday did it with a clear attempt to harass, intimidate and terrify People of Color, Jews, LGBT people and others. The First Amendment of the Constitution grants “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” I support that right with all of my being, because the same mindset that has us say we can stop White Supremacists from marching peacefully can, has, and will be used by others to stop, for example, Black Lives Matter protests from happening. I have, in my own lifetime, seen people try to stop demonstrations that I personally participated in for Civil Rights, against the War in Vietnam, in support of Farm Workers, against the War in Iraq, and in support of the Air Traffic Controllers’ Union. In every case there were some who said that these protests should not be allowed, and in every case I was glad that the First Amendment was there. That is why I fervently agree with the quote (attributed to Voltaire, but actually by Beatrice Hall) “I may not agree with what you say, but I will fight to the death your right to say it”?
However, the clause in the First Amendment gives people the right to “peaceably assemble,” and nothing that was happening on Friday night and Saturday resembled peace. The Nazis and White Supremacists who were there were armed and, according to Virginia police officials, wearing better body armor than the police. They were consciously and willfully disturbing the peace by threatening and taunting bystanders. Governor McAuliffe and other state and local officials were acting exactly consistent with the Constitution when they determined on Saturday morning that this was not “peaceful assembly” and cancelled the permit.
The counter protestors who were there were acting consistent with the bold American tradition of protest against bigotry and hate. Historically they stand alongside the civil rights workers who sat in at the Woolworth counter, marched across the Edmund Pettis bridge, and were met with fire hoses and police dogs. They would not have been there at all if the racist, anti-Semitic protest was not happening. In the same sense, the Black Lives Matter movement is not “anti-white” at all. It is a response to the abuse of Black and Brown citizens whose lives do not seem to matter to some (including those marching on Saturday). The fact that some BLM protestors may not like White people (largely because they are sick of dealing with us!) does not change that. The fact that on Saturday, in response to the violence being demonstrated by the marchers, a few of them were violent, is a tactic that I find neither morally or tactically acceptable or appropriate, but it does not in any way equate to the hundreds or thousands of Nazis and Klansmen who came with that intent. I firmly believe in the right of people to express their views, however odious. But when those views include incitement to violence, displays of weaponry, and verbal and physical abuse of fellow citizens, a line in the sand must be drawn.
Similarly, President Trump’s equating of the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee to taking down statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson was morally bereft and historically inaccurate. Robert E. Lee, and other Confederate generals were only patriots if one believes that the Confederate states had a right to secede from the Union. However, that is a proposition that is neither legitimized by our Constitution, nor by history. They mounted an armed insurrection against the government of the United States of America for the expressed purpose of maintaining the right to keep other Americans in the bondage of slavery. They were traitors, plain and simple. They were tried and convicted of their crimes after the war. The canonization of Lee and others, despite the reality of their odious pasts, is not only offensive, but is historically inaccurate and it is designed to mask the historical truths about the causes of the Civil War.
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and many of our Founders were slave owners. They were flawed, indeed, however they were operating within the laws and social mores of their time. Debating how and where we celebrate their contribution and also acknowledge their flaws is part of our responsibility to our history. However, to equate people who rebelled against the most fundamental aspects of our democracy with them is simply absurd. If these statues were put in somebody’s front yard, or on private property that would be a different conversation. We could have an active debate about where free expression stops and public health starts. However, these statues are, for the most part, on public land, paid for by public funds, or funds solicited by public officials. That means that tax payers’ money is being used to pay for the propping up of traitors to our country as heroes. It means that people walking through the public spaces of their university campuses or city streets have to be exposed to the canonization of people who were hell-bent on keeping their ancestors enslaved. It is unacceptable.
It is time for us to learn what free speech really means, and we can only do that when we have a President who has some idea of history, what the Constitution is and means, and who leads with a commitment to the rights and freedoms of all Americans, not just the radical base that helped him get elected. In the meantime, every well-meaning American should stand side by side with those who are hurt by the parade of Nazi symbols, confederate flags, and hooded sentiments in khakis and say Never Again!
My family lost dozens of people in the Holocaust. And I cannot help but once again quote this critical poem by Pastor Martin Niemoller, because it rings as true today as it did more than 75 years ago:
First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me
Howard Ross’s new book, Our Search for Belonging: How Our Need to Connect is Tearing Us Apart, is scheduled for release by Berrett-Koehler in April 2018