(photo by Ryan M. Kelly via cbc.ca)
Last weekend, in Charlottesville, Va., hundreds of white supremacists, Ku Klux Klanners, neo-Nazis and other racists and antisemites rallied and brought violence to the hometown of Thomas Jefferson.
The images that emerged are bone-chilling. Men (mostly) carrying torches, swastikas and Confederate flags, screaming the ugliest epithets imaginable against African-Americans, gays and Jews. When the city of Charlottesville eventually ordered the racists to disperse (the racists were authorized to rally until things got violent), one of them got in his car and rammed it through a crowd of counter-demonstrators, killing one young woman and injuring many. The violence could have been infinitely worse, it should be noted, as scores of racists in battle fatigues were seen carrying combat weapons on their way to the rally, as is their Second Amendment right in that open-carry state.
Anyone who spent any time on social media or watching cable news in the succeeding days knows that the events and the issues raised by the rally and the preceding march through the University of Virginia have been assessed from multiple angles. The delayed and impotent response of President Donald Trump has been singled out as among the more worrying aspects.
The president of the United States responded by blaming “many sides” for the violence, an appalling equivocation that diminishes the office even further than the depths to which he has debased it in the past eight months. Items of Trump paraphernalia, notably “Make America great again” caps, were prominent among the racist ralliers and some commentators think the president’s remarks were tempered so as not to upset a political base that includes the very worst elements in American society.
David Duke, the former head hood of the KKK, said the rally was a step toward fulfilling Trump’s promises and, after Trump’s bland statement on events, Duke crowed that, essentially, his guy is in the White House. Meanwhile, Maxine Waters, an African-American congresswoman and outspoken critic of Trump, dubbed it the White Supremacists’ House.
The American Civil Liberties Union advocated for the right of the racists to express themselves and, while Canada has different laws and customs around this, we would not contest the idea of racists expressing themselves peacefully, primarily because suppression can metastasize bad ideas the way mold grows in darkness. The answer to bad speech, we have been arguing in this space for decades, is not no speech, but more speech. Indeed, many Americans and others have been motivated by their revulsion at events in Charlottesville to recognize the racial and cultural problems it represents, and have engaged in the civil discourse on the side of good.
We admit, though, that free speech works best when decent people are in leadership. So, for instance, when white supremacists and neo-Nazis rally and murder, a U.S. president should arouse the country’s best instincts as the leading voice for unity in diversity and basic human decency. That didn’t happen after Charlottesville.
Also, police preparations may have been inadequate. When African-Americans have peacefully marched in recent years, militaristic counter-measures have been put in place, as in Ferguson, Mo., after the shooting death of Michael Brown. In Charlottesville, gun-swinging, fatigue-festooned, swastika-waving white people were met with limited police presence, to the extent that they were permitted to physically attack counter-protesters.
An additional factor – perhaps the only one not adequately hashed over – is the subdued reaction to the antisemitism permeating the event. The poster for the rally featured a Magen David about to be smashed by a sledgehammer. A recurring chant at the rally, premised on the idea of white culture being subsumed, was “You will not replace us … Jew will not replace us!” Seig heil salutes and chants of “blood and soil,” a Nazi slogan, were part of the show.
The president notwithstanding, most American leaders have condemned the racism of the event, but condemnations of antisemitism in particular have been far less prominent in the aftermath. Hopefully, people feel that their statements against bigotry encompass antisemitism; less optimistically, perhaps there is a feeling that, while other forms of hatred are anathema to American ideals, displays of antisemitism are less surprising and, therefore, less requiring of explicit denunciation. This is something that needs further consideration and discussion.
If, as former president Barack Obama was fond of saying (quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” Charlottesville may turn out to be a positive turning point in a long and tragic history of racism, antisemitism and xenophobia in America. Optimists among us hope that the political awareness of erstwhile apathetic Americans will be awakened by the sight of torch-wielding Nazis in American streets – and spurred to action by the fact that this reality doesn’t elicit swift and strong condemnation from the most powerful person in the country and, indeed, in the world.
As Canadians, we have our own shameful history of racism and antisemitism to reckon with and should not allow ourselves any smugness when assessing our neighbour’s current spasm of hate. The passing of German-Canadian Holocaust-denier and Nazi-sympathizer Ernst Zundel this month in Germany – to which he was extradited in 2005 and convicted for inciting racial hatred – and a scan of Canadian web commenters around these subjects remind us that we remain far from some bigotry-free beacon to the world.
Still, it is only when these things are out in the open that they can be challenged and debunked. So, as debilitating as it may be to see and hear these ugly ideas and actions, it gives us the opportunity to counter them – if, unlike the president of the United States, we choose to do so sincerely.