By now, everybody knows what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend. We know that a group of angry white supremacists showed up, ostensibly to protest the removal of a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee. We know that they carried Nazi flags (which Lee would have hated), wore t-shirts with Hitler quotes and shouted angry, racist rhetoric. We know that one of their group plowed through a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a 32-year-old woman.
And what about those counter-protesters? We know they included the same militant leftists that have been marauding around the country for the better part of a year. We know this element waved the Communist flag and came ready to fulfill their long-stated pledge to punch Nazis.
As a libertarian, there’s something supremely uninteresting about Communists and Fascists fighting each other (outside of the fact that the last time they did, 100 million people died). But, for better or worse, I’m always as interested in the reactions to major news stories as I am the stories themselves. And the reaction to this story has been perplexing.
Now, obviously, I find the use of Nazi banners and the shouting of white supremacist jargon as abhorrent as anyone else. But I also assume that those sentiments are in the vast minority of opinion in the country. That a couple hundred white guys held a rally doesn’t prove that they represent an ascendant movement. Yes, they deserve every ounce of denunciation and ridicule they receive, but believing that they have or can attain any real power is fanciful. This isn’t 1860 or 1933. Nazism, slavery and white supremacy have been thoroughly discredited in the eyes of any normal person, and these opinions are not likely to be changed by provocateurs holding tiki torches. The avalanche of moral outrage that has consumed social media since last Saturday proves this point, even if it’s overwhelmingly a case of people who already believe in the bankruptcy of these ideas trying to convince each other of the point.
In these enunciations of outrage, terms get thrown around loosely. We hear of fascist this and alt-right that, without any clear explanation of what these words mean. The Alt-Right, for example, is a notoriously ill-defined term that simply cannot apply to all the people it’s been tied to. As best I can tell, the radical Alt-Right, the so-called white nationalists, want to create a totally white society because they think that multiculturalism is undesirable or untenable. But the term Alt-Right has also been used to describe traditionalist conservative Paul Gottfried, because he believes that Western Civilization is at a point of crisis, and libertarian hero Ron Paul because – well, I’m still trying to figure that out. It’s also been used to describe a multitude of right-leaning people who depart from the left’s official positions on immigration, sexuality and economics.
When people denounce the Alt-Right, who are they referring to? Do they know? And if they don’t, do they see the problem of using imprecise terms to condemn people?
Obviously, of the above groups, the white nationalists have (from my perspective as a Christian and a libertarian) the most despicable views. But it’s been interesting to see so many people denounce this side of the conflict and give savage leftists like Antifa (the anti-fascists who like to use fascist tactics) a completely free pass. The militant left has committed more violence in recent months than the militant right, beating and burning their way on a crusade to destroy anything that they don’t like about American history or culture (whether or not their understanding of that history and culture is accurate). One would think that the denunciations which have deservedly descended upon the white nationalists since Saturday would flow with similar intensity on these Communist Flag-waving revolutionaries.
But they haven’t, nor has the relationship between the militant left and the militant right been explored. Most people have shown remarkably little interest in what motivates white nationalists and drives people into their ranks. That the theory of blowback, which libertarians have repeatedly used to explain the rise of Islamic terrorism, could explain domestic disturbances has been largely ignored. That repeatedly telling white men that they’re what’s wrong with society might result in white men becoming angry and radicalized – just as bombing innocent civilians in foreign countries creates radicals there – hasn’t been considered.
This, of course, is not to excuse the opinions and behavior of the white nationalists. But pretending that their existence has no political context, that it is not at all a response to the radicalism of the other side of the political spectrum, is delusional and severely limits our ability to combat them.
I understand and endorse the impulse to denounce people who openly shout racist sentiments. But if we’re interested in solutions, and not simply condemnations, we need to pause and understand exactly who we’re condemning and why. We need to confine our condemnations to those people who are truly espousing hateful ideas, and not people who simply have different opinions on various policies. We need to condemn all groups who are attempting to secure their ends using violent means. And we need to understand what circumstances radicalize people and, as much as possible, work to mitigate them.
As a Christian, I oppose the Charlottesville protesters, whose views I find offensive and gross. There’s very little that attacks the image of God that imbues each individual like racism. But I also do not think the answer is for the country to lose its mind and start telling decent people to repudiate ideas that decent people repudiated long ago. Nor do I think it’s helpful to ignore the barbarity of one group of people simply because of the barbarity of another. Call me crazy, but I think it’s possible to oppose both Nazis and Communists.
This country has many problems to solve for. But solutions will only come with patience, humility and understanding, traits that the radical right and radical left lack entirely.