[What follows is a chat between Russell Johnson and David Barr, creators and main contributors to For the Sake of Arguments. Check out our About page for more.]
Russell (RPJ): There’s lots to say about the events of Charlottesville; let’s focus for a second on the public discourse that has happened since. For the rest of this chat, let's talk about how people are talking about Charlottesville, specifically trying to clear up some misunderstandings we have seen in blogs, news media, and social media in the past week.
David (DAB): We should start at the top. President Trump has been roundly criticized for his comments in response to the weekend’s events. While many people from across the political spectrum found these comments problematic, a lot of other people have been fine with them. It hasn’t always been clear what’s at stake and why people are talking past one another. Where do you see the misunderstandings?
RPJ: Let’s take the negative reactions first: people found President Trump’s remarks insufficient for a number of reasons, mainly that his initial comments ignored the ideological dimension of the protest. By focusing solely on the violence, Trump did not say anything specifically about the racism and hatred expressed by the Unite the Right protesters. That is to say, even if the UTR protest had been completely peaceful, it would still have been anathema to American ideals and Trump failed to express that forcefully enough. Marco Rubio and Mitt Romney expressed this criticism well on Twitter.
DAB: Since then, I’ve seen a lot of people confused about why anyone was upset. Some people seem to think the furor over his comments was just because he forgot to say a few keywords like “white supremacy” or “terrorism” when it's obvious (to them) that the president opposes the agenda of hate groups. These folks see the anger as mainly the result of liberals nitpicking a president who will never satisfy them, no matter what he says.
But, the real problem with Trump’s statements isn’t in the details, it’s that he fundamentally misunderstood what was morally significant about the weekend. It wasn’t that he failed to meet some technical requirements of what a president is supposed to say, it was that he seemed unable to recognize what mattered. His equivocating statements revealed that he thinks this was just a nasty scuffle between two groups with opposed ideologies that unfortunately turned violent.
RPJ: “Unfortunately turned violent” is in the passive voice. Who was actually violent, and what did they do?
DAB: Well, that’s another problem with what Trump said: he used “violence” in a very vague way. Saying both sides were violent or bear some responsibility for the violence is technically true, but misleading. Several different things that happened in Charlottesville this weekend fit the label “violence.” As examples, there was: (A) the severe beating of DeAndre Harris by white supremacists in the entrance to a parking garage, (B) the car attack that killed Heather Heyer and injured several others, and (C) the clashes between some of the protesters. Yes, antifa people and other counter-protesters had a role in causing (C). Members of the hate groups committed all three. If all you say about the violence is that both sides bear guilt for there being violence, you assign guilt equally for what were radically different acts committed for radically different reasons.
I think of it this way: Trump saying there was violence on both sides is like me saying “they’re both tall” when asked to describe you and Shaq. This is true, but it matters a lot that I only mentioned one of the few traits you share, that I neglected to mention the differences, and that I described someone who is 6’3” and someone who is 7'1" both simply as “tall.” You would be right to conclude that I was deliberately covering up the relevant differences. Showing up with clubs and mace to fight white supremacists is categorically different from the vicious acts of terrorism we saw on TV; using one generic word to describe both blurs this reality and covers up the seriousness of what the one “side” did.
RPJ: For a lot of people, the “both sides” in question are not so much the protesters and counter-protesters in Charlottesville but between groups like Unite the Right and groups like Black Lives Matter. Some people see these as parallel violent movements on the right and the left. Is that a false equivalence?
DAB: Yes. They could not be more diametrically opposed in both means and ends.
RPJ: Agreed. BLM is taking a stand against discrimination by police officers and unfair sentencing by the U.S. legal system. That is, it is a movement aimed at remedying a systemic injustice. Some people have used the movement’s rallies as opportunities to lash out violently, but the movement’s leaders have expressed a commitment to nonviolence. The groups gathered at the Unite the Right rally, by contrast, expressly want people of color in America to be disempowered, exiled, or exterminated. That is, they form a movement aimed at vilifying and scapegoating ethnic groups. When people associated with that movement resort to violence, their acts are in keeping with the ideals expressed by that movement’s leaders.
DAB: Yes! If anyone is inspired to violence by Black Lives Matter, they are acting contrary the group’s repeated, clear, and insistent commitment to nonviolence. People committing violence inspired by hate groups are doing exactly what they’re told.
The idea that “both sides” are racist is completely baffling to me. Black Lives Matter‘s entire mission is anti-racist. To say “black lives matter” is just to repudiate those who act as if black lives don’t matter. One may question some of the commitments of people who associate themselves with BLM, but it is inescapably a movement for all Americans and against the current condition of racial injustice.
RPJ: In response to a petition, the Southern Poverty Law Center investigated whether or not to label BLM a hate group. They concluded that the group isn’t, writing: “Many of its harshest critics claim that Black Lives Matter’s very name is anti-white, hence the oft-repeated rejoinder ‘all lives matter.’ This notion misses the point entirely. [One needs to say] black lives matter because they have been marginalized throughout our country’s history and because white lives have always mattered more in our society. As BLM puts it, the movement stands for ‘the simple proposition that ‘black lives also matter.’”
DAB: I don’t want to just move on from this point. We need to really think about what it would mean for BLM to deserve the same sort of condemnation as the hate groups we saw this weekend. Marchers in Charlottesville were waving Nazi flags. They were communicating their support for a party primarily known for perpetrating the holocaust. That is, they embraced the symbolism of an attempt to exterminate entire races from the earth. These people weren’t just making some statement about white lives mattering. They cannot invoke the holocaust and then claim they meant anything less than support for racial genocide (a word invented to describe what the Nazis did). I don’t want to say everyone who was there wants to start building concentration camps, but I do want to give them the courtesy of taking what they actually said seriously and waving a Nazi flag says genocide.
When a pundit on TV looks at people celebrating the attempted extermination of entire ethnic groups and says, “yeah, but Black Lives Matter,” I’m at a complete loss. The statements “don’t kill black people” and “we should kill black people” do not express equal and opposite sentiments.
RPJ: One of the reasons we might assume there are two sides is we are so accustomed to seeing issues through the “liberals vs. conservatives” lens. But this should be an issue on which conservatives and liberals can see eye to eye, and many self-identified liberals and conservatives do. Whatever we think of the particularities of party politics in the U.S., there is nothing inherently racist in either conservatism or liberalism as political ideologies. I don’t think either of us agree with all of the points in this article from The Federalist, but we certainly echo its claim that the “idolatry of origin as somehow definitive of a person’s worth runs directly counter to the foundational principles of the Right, animated by the spirit of conservatism.” The best insights of liberalism and conservatism oppose racism in all its forms.
DAB: I couldn’t agree more. The most pressing worry from this weekend, obviously, is the threat white supremacy represents to people of color, Jews, and other groups. Without taking anything away from that, I am also worried about the fate of conservatism in U.S. politics. Trump’s “both sides” and “alt-left” talk reaffirms the association of white supremacy with the right, just when he should be disavowing it in the strongest possible terms. Republicans are lamenting the damage this is already doing to the GOP brand. I know this won’t worry a good number of our readers, but it should worry both conservatives and those who value a viable conservative presence as a balancing force in American politics. This seems like an obvious case where placing all groups onto a one-dimensional political spectrum is particularly dangerous.
RPJ: Definitely. One of our goals here at FTSOA is to overcome apparent political impasses by showing common ground. On the right and the left, we see shared commitments about human dignity and the universality of human rights. Hence, even though there is a range of attitudes about systemic racism--which will be the topic of our next chat--the threat of white supremacy is not a right versus left issue.
DAB: Right. Not only does blaming “both sides” misrepresent what happened in Charlottesville, it obscures possibilities for seeing common ground moving forward. “Both sides” of our political system have a clear path to being on the only side that matters when it comes to racism.