The last few days have made it very difficult to feel pride at being an American. The violence and hatred at a racist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, capped off by a terrorist attack by a Nazi killing and wounding innocent people, should horrify any thinking person. Add to this the deep and disturbing failure by President Donald Trump to denounce the Nazis and their toadies until it was too late to do any good, and what we have in the past few days is a picture of an America that is totally unacceptable. I haven’t been able to talk much about what happened in Charlottesville, but this is an issue of such importance that we all must speak out. Silence is consent, and I do not consent.
We can’t let these vile and hate-filled people take over our country–and they are trying mightily to do exactly that. They also think they’re succeeding, and that’s a problem. Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, misogynists, anti-Semites, GamerGaters, the “alt-right”–virtually to a man they see Donald Trump as a hero, someone who can advance their agenda of marginalizing people of color, women, the LGBT community, or really anyone who isn’t white, straight, male, conservative and thinks like them. The fact that Nazis were able to march in Charlottesville in what they perceived as triumph is itself an alarm bell for what’s happened to our country and our political discourse. Furthermore, these people want the kind of conflict with counter-protestors that got so much coverage this weekend. If someone dies, it’s good for them. Their ideology, just like the Nazism of the 1930s in Germany, is held together with blood. All of us must make sure that these people fail utterly and completely in their sick project to transform America into something evil.
President Donald Trump clearly emboldens Nazis and other racists to push their agenda. Most members of the “Alt-Right” adore him and support him to the end.
I feel that those of us who study and talk about history have a particular responsibility to speak out here. The roots of what happened in Charlottesville were deeply historical. Ostensibly the Nazis’ march was to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from a public square. The public role of Confederate symbols and personalities has become a flash point before, and history has a tendency to be “weaponized” by far-right ideologues, who, for example, distort the history of the Crusades in order to justify hatred of Muslims. But sometimes you must separate history from what’s happening around us. The historical meaning of a Confederate general or a flag is of little issue to the broader ideological struggle that was going on in the streets of Charlottesville this weekend, which is nothing less than a struggle of democratic ideals versus those of fascism, hatred and oppression. We have to recognize that this is what’s happening.
As Americans, we can’t escape the legacy of racism and hatred. We have to recognize that racism is deeply ingrained in our society and our history. The colonies that ultimately became the United States were built on slavery; that’s America’s original sin. I myself deeply admire the ideas of Thomas Jefferson–founder of the University of Virginia, the epicenter of the Charlottesville events–and while I celebrate his language of freedom, his democratic ideals, and his love of wine, I also recognize that he was a slaveowner who built his life and fortune on the horror of slavery and a man who held his own African-American children in bondage until the end of his life. One of my favorite metal bands is Pantera, who in the 1990s often incorporated the rebel flag in their imagery. In these ways, subtle or unsubtle, conscious or unconscious, I have participated in the architecture of racism. All of us have done that to one extent or another.
This is what the United States did to fascism in 1945. Since then we’ve become a lot friendlier to it, and that’s scary.
But the ubiquity of racism in America, its utter inescapability, is not an excuse to surrender to it. The KKK, who marched alongside the Nazis in Charlottesville this weekend, has been with us for 150 years, but that doesn’t mean that they deserve a seat at the table when it comes to formulating what America is and what it stands for. The First Amendment means that we can’t put Nazis in jail for speaking their hateful ideas, but it doesn’t mean that we, as a society, cannot utterly deny these sick ideas the slightest shred of legitimacy when we start talking about what American society should look like going forward. Even after 400 years of our racist legacy, I still believe we can make America what we want it to be, if we try hard enough. Making it diverse, inclusive, equal, safe and peaceful isn’t an unreasonable or unrealistic goal. It’s still worth fighting for, now more than ever.
Ultimately the best historical lesson for how to think about Charlottesville comes not from the Revolution or Civil War era, but from World War II. Between 1941 and 1945 the United States mobilized its entire society to destroy–literally destroy–the fascist and racist ideas of Adolf Hitler and his criminal abetters and allies, who sought to turn the world into the same sort of hellish prison camp that the “alt-right” of 2017 wants to make of it. Americans died at Anzio, on the beaches of North Africa and Normandy, at Guadalcanal and Okinawa and in the forests of the Ardennes to destroy Nazis, fascism and those who agreed with them. We, as a society, made the choice that the existence of fascism was incompatible with our survival as a country and as a people. It’s time we make that choice again. I can’t think of a clearer message that the Charlottesville tragedy is sending us.