Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Thoughts on Charlottesville

Like most other Americans, the events of this last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, made a deep impression on me and left me feeling profoundly discouraged. The image of hundreds of Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, and other assorted racists marching through the streets of an American town felt like the return of dark and vile creatures we thought had been cast into the ash heap of history. Infinitely worse, a brave woman there to protest racism, Heather Heyer, was killed by a white supremacist who intentionally ran over her with his car, a clear act of domestic terrorism. Several other people were injured. Two law enforcement officers helping contain the situation, Jay Cullen and Berke Bates, died when their helicopter crashed.

That the scene of this outrage was the town of Charlottesville pours salt into the wound, for it is no ordinary American town. It lies within sight of Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. It is also the location of the University of Virginia, the creation of which was the project of Jefferson's final years and the last of his many gifts to the people of America. Both the remarkable house and the great university are manifestations of Jefferson's vision of what America is supposed to be: a calm and civilized society in which issues were openly and respectfully debated and the freedom of the human mind was restrained by nothing. What happened in the town is precisely the opposite of what Jefferson thought America should be about. And of course, Jefferson's own story, in which his glorious vision was not matched by his own actions, is a window onto America's complicated history on racial matters.

I was extremely moved by a photograph I saw on the first night of the unrest. A large crowd of torch-wielding racists had encircled a much smaller group of counter-protesters, who had linked arms to form a human chain around the base of a statue of Jefferson, as if protecting it. This was quite fitting, for the counter protesters represent the genuine ideals of America as expressed by Jefferson, while the bigots surrounding them represent a dark, mutated offshoot of America that Jefferson would have abhorred.

Ostensibly, the purpose of the so-called "Unite the Right" rally was to protest the recent decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from a Charlottesville park. I myself have had mixed feelings about the removal of Confederate monuments. The monuments to individual army units that you see in courthouse squares all across the South, and on battlefields themselves, generally commemorate ordinary farmers who owned no slaves and had joined the army either out of a feeling of duty to protect their homes or because they had been conscripted (although some, such as the one in Denton, TX, are designed in such a way as to clearly express a racist message). Monuments to individuals need to be taken in the context of that particular individual. Confederate soldiers were not cartoon villains, but complicated individuals with complex motives, just like all of us.

Robert E. Lee is particularly problematic. Though his opposition to slavery and secession have been exaggerated by hagiographic biographers over the years, it is true that he was a man with many honorable qualities. Reading a young adult biography of him had a hugely positive impact on me when I was growing up, fixing in my mind the need to behave properly and conduct myself in a dignified manner. Lots of men could learn how to be better husbands, fathers, and sons by studying the life of Lee. At the end of the war, he ensured that the Confederate army would not attempt to carry on a guerrilla struggle that would have dragged the conflict out and cost thousands more lives. After the war, he urged reconciliation and refused to participate in any actions that might have stoked feelings of bitterness and resentment. There is much to admire about Robert E. Lee.

And yet, while we might admire certain Confederate individuals and respect the bravery of Confederate soldiers in battle, we cannot escape the fact that had the Confederate cause triumphed, the United States would have been shattered and the foul curse of slavery would have persisted. There is simply no getting around this, no matter how far you strain logic and how much you rewrite history. I may be the author of alternate history fiction set in a world where the South won the war, but the cause I believe in was born on Lexington Green in April of 1775, not at Fort Sumter in April of 1861. If you love America and despise slavery, as every decent American must, you cannot be on the side of the Confederacy. That has to be born in mind as we continue to debate how we should remember the sad chapter of our history that was the Civil War.

None of this, though, is really of any interest to the white supremacists who showed up in Charlottesville. Whatever they say, they couldn't care less what actually happens to the Lee statue. The issue was just a red herring to give them an excuse to spew forth their particular brand of hate. Indeed, their actions now virtually guarantee that the statue in question will be taken down in the near future and that there will be a renewed impetus to the movement to remove Confederate monuments nationwide. Even as I type this blog entry, the news is filled with stories of cities moving much more quickly to take them down. Who, after all, wants to be on the same side as Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan?

But the issue of Confederate monuments is, frankly, now a sideshow to the bigger problem exposed by what happened in Charlottesville. How can people still hold such sickening opinions in the America of 2017? It's usually a cliché to call something "un-American", but in this case it's entirely appropriate. The Neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and the rest of the villains who showed up in Charlottesville are deeply and profoundly un-American. They are traitors to the fundamental values upon which the American republic was founded.

Many of the racists marching in Charlottesville could be heard chanting "Blood and Soil!" This is a phrase stemming from European fascism and its intellectual antecedents in late 19th Century European thought. Its meaning is clear as day, defining nationhood entirely by race and territory. It was such thinking that led to nightmarish atrocities like the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, and the campaigns of ethnic cleansing during the breakup of Yugoslavia.

America is not defined by blood and soil. Indeed, America is not a nation in the traditional sense at all. We are, instead, a country founded upon ideas and moral principles, the only such country in the history of the world. The Declaration of Independence says that we are all equal and possess natural rights. The Constitution gives us all a balanced government designed to ensure a stable society in which individual liberty is protected. The Bill of Rights spells out the rights we possess. Those three parchment documents are the foundation of the United States of America. As our nation has matured, we have expanded these rights and protections to previously excluded groups, which is why the Declaration of Sentiments from the Seneca Falls Convention, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the "I Have a Dream" speech deserve equal places in our national lexicon.

America has no common ethnicity, language, or religion and our ancestors come from all over the world. To be an American is to pledge to uphold our moral and political principles. Nothing more and nothing less. If you do that, you're an American, whether your ancestors came over on the Mayflower or if you're a newly naturalized citizen who just took the oath of allegiance ten minutes ago.

The story of America is the gradual expansion of individual liberty and the creation of a diverse society held together by shared political values and a common constitution. We've made mistakes along the way and coming to terms with our original sins as a people was a painful process. But the story is far from over and, indeed, may only be beginning. Needless to say, though, there is no place for "Blood and Soil" thinking in this country. Such a concept is the antithesis of everything that America is about.

A few other thoughts I'd like to share. As a horrified nation watched the disorder and violence unfold in Charlottesville, there was a lot of chatter on social media about why the white supremacists were allowed to hold a rally at all. Shouldn't such demonstrations be banned by law, free expression be damned? This line of thinking must be halted at once. Our Constitution is sacred and untouchable. Amidst our justifiable righteous indignation, we must not lose sight of our principles and forget the fact that we are a nation of laws. If the First Amendment is to mean anything, it has to protect the speech of even the worst and most despicable kind, even that chanted by the worthless wastes of oxygen who marched through Charlottesville. The moment the government starts determining what sort of speech is allowed and not allowed, we will find ourselves on a slippery slope towards the loss of the right of free expression for everyone. The cure for bad ideas is not suppression; it's better ideas.

Similarly, I heard it suggested that the attorney assigned to defend the man who killed Heather Heyer and injured the others should resign from his post rather than take the case. This would be a grave mistake. Like freedom of expression, a foundational principle of America is that everyone, even the worst people among us, are entitled to legal counsel when arraigned in court. It was this principle that prompted John Adams to defend the British soldiers that carried out the Boston Massacre. Had SEAL Team 6 captured Osama bin Laden and taken him to the United States in 2011, rather than kill him, even he would have been entitled to a lawyer to defend him during his trial. I hope and expect the terrorist who killed Ms. Heyer to be found guilty and receive the punishment he deserves, but he has the right to the assistance of a lawyer as much as any other citizen. As with free expression, if we establish a precedent that anyone can be denied legal counsel, we will eventually deny it to us all.

I apologize if this blog post has been a little more rambling than what I usually write. I have not taken the time I normally take to complete it, for I have felt the need to get it out as quickly as possible. I think the best thing to take away from what happened in Charlottesville, aside from the obvious need to swiftly condemn hatred and racism, is a renewed focus on our common American values. We are the most diverse nation in the world, and there's nothing at all wrong with that, but there is also an ironclad core of beliefs that we all must share if America is to really live up to its stated principles. A challenge is an opportunity for us to live up to those principles. It's a challenge that will repeat itself again and again and we have to meet it successfully every time.