The top headline at Huffington Post screamed: “GOING BIGLY ON BIGOTRY: Trump Blames Alt Left For Charlottesville Violence In Craziest Press Conference.”
The Guardian was much more restrained, but the perspective was similar: “Republicans denounce bigotry after Donald Trump’s latest Charlottesville remarks.”
Furthermore, the Guardian described his press conference as ‘extraordinary’. And an opinion piece in it was entitled “The President of the United States is now a neo-Nazi sympathiser.”
Trump was criticised left, right and centre, according to the BBC’s report “Charlottesville: What made Trump remarks so offensive?“ It ended with a short paragraph which asked the question “Has anyone come out in favour of his words?” and gave the answer “Yes, a small fraction, most notably former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and the spokeswoman of the Republican National Committee.“
After that, one hesitates to stick one’s head above the parapet. Yet, strangely enough, I think Donald Trump has got it about right.
It all began with a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, organised under the banner “Unite the Right”. The purpose was to protest the decision of Charlottesville City Council to remove a statue of American Civil War general Robert E Lee from a public park in the city. In the words of Jason Kessler, one if its organisers, “We’re trying to do a pro-white demonstration,” Kessler said. “We’re trying to show that folks can stand up for white people.” Hundreds of people joined the rally, though they were outnumbered by counter-protestors. Clashes between protesters and counter-protesters culminated in a man driving a car into a crowd of counterproposal, killing one of them – Heather Heyer – and injuring 19 other people.
Donald Trump appeared on TV and made a statement, in which he said
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump. Not Barack Obama. It’s been going on for a long, long time. The hate and the division must stop right now. We have to come together as Americans with love for our nation.”
His comments echoed an earlier Tweet that “ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!”
As a result, Trump was widely criticised because he had spoken of “many sides” – without explicitly condemning the white extremist groups involved in the rally.
In other words, Trump had given the impression that hatred, bigotry, and violence was equally shared by different sides, whereas his critics took the view that the blame lay almost entirely with one side. He later issued a statement, undoubtedly as a result of the criticism, in which he said “Racism is evil and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists.” Which, I think is pretty obviously true.
Then last night, he spoke again, and, more or less, reverted to the “many sides” position of the first statement, and said:
When you say the ‘alt-right’, define alt-right to me. You define it. What about the ‘alt-left’ that came charging at, . . . as you say, the ‘alt-right’, do they have any semblance of guilt? They do. What about the fact that they came charging swinging, they had clubs in their hands. Do they have any problem? I think that they do. As far as I’m concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day. . . . That was a horrible day. I will tell you something. I watch the shots very closely. You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent, and nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say that right now. You had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit, and they were very, very violent.
Which is basically why I thought Trump actually got it right first time.
Actually, it takes two to tango
To start with, I don’t have any sympathy for the views of the KKK, neo-Nazis, or white supremacists – nor for the actions of the protesters at Charlottesville. I think that they were wrong to organise the rally, and that the organisers of the rally bear much of the responsibility for the violence – and Heather Heyer’s death.
However, I don’t believe it ends there, much as many people would like to think that it does. If the counter-protest had not taken place, the violence – including the death and the injuries – would not have taken place. Indeed, it is clear that many of the counter-protesters came to Charlottesville intent of violence.
But even if all the counter-protesters were committed to non-violence, I think they were still mistaken in their action. There was absolutely no necessity for the counter-protest. Indeed, it seems to me that the correct response to the Unite the Right rally was probably to completely ignore it. Why take seriously a tiny group of people who represent nobody? Yes, there may have been a few hundred people there, but they travelled for miles, from an area with a population of millions. By all means take their views seriously – but why act as if a tiny number of rather sad individuals are somehow important? The KKK is a small, despised organisation, and neo-Nazism is a totally insignificant political force. But somehow, these tiny, irrelevant groups seem to have a lot of people utterly spooked. (On this subject, this short video by an African-American lady is spot-on. She reckons that the blame for the panic lies largely with . . . you guessed it . . . the media.)
A better way
In fact, there is something else that people can do. A Christian Blues musician in America, Daryl Davis, has an unusual approach. In his spare time, he befriends white supremacists. Lots of them. Hundreds. He goes to where they live. Meets them at their rallies. Dines with them in their homes. He has been meeting with white supremacists for three decades. He never tries to convert the Klansmen. He simply becomes friends with them and they give up the KKK on their own.
It’s a wonderful thing when you see a light bulb pop on in their heads or they call you and tell you they are quitting. I never set out to convert anyone in the Klan. I just set out to get an answer to my question: “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” I simply gave them a chance to get to know me and treat them the way I want to be treated. They come to their own conclusion that this ideology is no longer for them. I am often the impetus for coming to that conclusion and I’m very happy that some positivity has come out of my meetings and friendships with them.
Davis has been criticised by fellow blacks:
Some black people who have not heard me interviewed or read my book jump to conclusions and prejudge me … I’ve been called Uncle Tom. I’ve been called an Oreo.
I had one guy from an NAACP branch chew me up one side and down the other, saying, “you know, we’ve worked hard to get ten steps forward. Here you are sitting down with the enemy having dinner, you’re putting us twenty steps back.”
I pull out my robes and hoods and say, “look, this is what I’ve done to put a dent in racism. I’ve got robes and hoods hanging in my closet by people who’ve given up that belief because of my conversations sitting down to dinner. They gave it up. How many robes and hoods have you collected?” And then they shut up.
It goes beyond that. I don’t expect anything in the way of responsible behaviour from the Unite the Right protesters; and I suppose that one shouldn’t expect a huge amount of responsible behaviour from the individuals who took part in the counter-protest. But I would expect a little more from the members of the Charlottesville City Council. If they had not decided to remove the statue of Robert E Lee, which had stood in Charlottesville since 1924 without doing much harm, none of this would have happened. Those who voted to remove the statue – instead of leaving well enough alone – also share responsibility for the violence.
But at every stage, somewhat did something that angered someone else, and the tension was ratcheted up, and finally spilled over into violence. And then everyone involved rushed to blame someone else. And nobody that I have heard of said “Well, I guess I am partly responsible.”
Self-righteousness exists in all of us. And the Bible tells us that Jesus was not slow to address it:
“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.'” (Luke 18:10-12)
We don’t tend to appreciate the illustration today, since most people tend to think of Pharisees as being nasty people. What we hear, when we hear that parable, is not what the people of Jesus’ day would been heard. The Pharisees were, in the eyes of society, good, virtuous people – and very much respected. The tax collectors were seen as corrupt. And the way that society saw them was actually pretty accurate. In terms of the way they behaved the Pharisees were good people – like the sort of people who would be members of Charlottesville City Council – and the tax collectors were, on the whole, scoundrels – like the sort of people who would be Unite the Right protesters
But we find it so difficult to see ourselves as Pharisees.
Which is why Jesus said on another occasion,
“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.” (Luke 6:41-42)
Basically, it is our natural tendency to demonise our opponents, and to whitewash and excuse our own behaviour. Of course, in this case, there can be little doubt that the main responsibility for the violence belongs with those involved with the Unite the Right rally. But those who voted to remove the statue should have taken account of the fact that their action would upset some people, including some people who were prone to violence. There was a recklessness in what they did. Had they not decided to remove the statue, Heather Heyer would be alive today.
In that, by the way, there is nothing unusual. Politicians often take action with very little thought of the possible consequences. As a result, a lot of decisions taken by politicians end up achieving the opposite of what was intended. Failure to learn that lesson, and to think these things through carefully, is not just reckless, but, like reckless driving, is not acceptable. You may not have meant any harm, but if you cause harm through recklessness, you bear at least part of the blame.
Trump the Nazi?
What about the accusation that Trump is a neo-Nazi sympathiser – or at least soft on Neo-Nazism?
The simple response to that is that it is clearly total nonsense. Trump’s own statements on Charlottesville, make that clear. But there is another thing that makes it obvious that Trump has not sympathies in that direction. In 1999, Trump launched an attack on Pat Buchanan, saying among other things,’Look, he’s a Hitler lover. . . . ‘I guess he’s an anti-Semite. He doesn’t like the blacks, he doesn’t like the gays. It’s just incredible that anybody could embrace this guy.”
What Trump said about Buchanan strikes me as being complete nonsense, and to his credit, Trump did apologise to Buchanan a few years later. But I see no evidence that Trump’s basic views on prejudice against blacks, gays, and Jews have changed in the last 18 years. Trump can be faulted for many things. But being a neo-Nazi sympathiser? No. It seems to me that Trump’s views on neo-Nazism are probably much the same as those of Heather Heyer.
Very fine people
And yet, one thing that Trump said about Charlottesville was rightly criticised.
Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me, not all of those people were white supremacists. By any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue of Robert E Lee, and you take a look at it, many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E Lee. So this week it’s Robert E Lee, I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down, I wonder is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You all, you really do have to ask yourself where does it stop … You had some bad people in that group, but you also had very fine people on both sides.
Those final words are astonishing. As Congressman Julian Amash tweeted, “Very fine people” do not participate in rallies with groups chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans and displaying vile symbols of hate.”
I agree with Amash. I think that while both the protesters and the counter-protester were a pretty mixed bag, with some very violent people on each side – it also seems to me that many of the counter-protesters were decent, well-behaved individuals who meant well, whereas anybody who chose to take part in the Unite the Right rally had serious problems, and that Trump’s comment that some of them were “very fine people” is truly bizarre.
Which is why I didn’t say that I thought Donald Trump has got it right, but said that I thought he got it about right.
But that does not make Trump a neo-Nazi apologist or sympathiser. For a start, it seems to me that Trump’s idea of what constitutes a very fine person would not be mine. He and I have very different views about what is right and what is wrong. Not to put to fine a point on it, I suspect that Trump would set the bar for “very fine” pretty low.
But more importantly, I think that it is fair to say that Trump routinely says things that are so wildly exaggerated that that they can’t be taken too seriously. He doesn’t exactly choose his words with care. And I think that is what is going on here. In this case, he probably means that some of the people involved in the Unite the Right march were fairly harmless, law-abiding citizens.
The statue in question
Let’s get back to the root cause of the problem: the Lee statue. The statue has been there for about 100 years without causing any problems. But in the last few months, there has been a move to take down statues in public places associated with the Confederate side in the American Civil War. This move was sparked by the shooting of 9 people at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina by Dylan Roof, a young white man who had posted photos of himself on the internet posing with emblems associated with white supremacy and with photos of the Confederate battle flag.
Why, exactly, people feel that the statues need to be removed varies. Some people may think that the statues contribute to racial tension (though it seems to me that removing them probably stirs up more tension than just leaving them alone.) Others see them as intrinsically evil, and having no place in a decent society – a perspective that seems to me to be remarkably similar to that of the Taliban.
Be that as it may, I guess that if one is going to say that some responsibility for the violence lies not only with with those individuals who acted violently, but also with the organisers of the march, the organisers of the counter-protest, and the Charlottesville City Council, then one could also say that some blame must also be shared by those who put up the statue in the first place.
We learn from Wikipedia that the man responsible was Paul Goodloe McIntire, who commissioned the statue. Apparently,
McIntire was a generous philanthropist. Virginia historian Virginius Dabney notes that he gave nearly $750,000 to the University of Virginia in named gifts, in addition to gifts to the city of Charlottesville and other anonymous donations, and that by 1942 he had given away so much of his fortune that he “was struggling to live within his annuity of $6,000.” He is best remembered for his $200,000 gift establishing a school of commerce and economics, today the McIntire School of Commerce.
However, he now has the blood of Heather Heyer on his hands. After all, he didn’t have to commission that statue. Charlottesville didn’t need it. It was utterly pointless.
And, that, it seems to me, is the tragedy of this whole episode. Just as the statue was ultimately pointless, trivial, and unnecessary – so was the decision to remove it. And so was the decision to protest against its removal, and counter-protest against the protesters The whole saga is a testimony to human silliness. People got worked up about something utterly trivial, and a young woman died. And America has been talking about it all week.
(Meanwhile, almost nobody in America seems to be getting worked up about the fact that America has been aiding and abetting Saudi Arabia’s killing spree in Yemen. But that’s another story.)
Lee the racist?
And then there is Robert E Lee himself, the man in the statue. Anybody who knows anything about Lee knows that he had a reputation for being one of the most honourable figures in 19th century American history, and someone who was not exactly enthusiastic about slavery.
In a letter to his wife, written a few years before the Civil War, he wrote: “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country.” Indeed, I am unaware of any statement made by Lee which shows him to hold particularly racist views.
On the other hand, if one goes through the statements of Abraham Lincoln, who, I suspect, is regarded as a hero by most of the counter-protesters, one finds such things as
“I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is physical difference between the two which, in my judgement, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favour of the race to which I belong having the superior position”?
“Our republican system was meant for a homogeneous people. As long as blacks continue to live with the whites they constitute a threat to the national life. Family life may also collapse and the increase of mixed breed bastards may some day challenge the supremacy of the white man.”
The heart of the matter
And with Lee and Lincoln, I think we are getting to the heart of the matter. Lee was a soldier – a man of battles. Lincoln was a politician – a man who is remembered for being the American President during the civil war. And the truth of the matter is that while there are times when soldiers start wars, or when their political influence may lead to war, the general pattern is that wars are started by politicians.
Many people have a fatalistic view of history, and believe that its conflicts were inevitable. And in particular, they think that the American Civil War was inevitable, and the only way to end slavery in America. My suspicion is that if Britain (and the rest of the western world) was able to end slavery peacefully, that it was not beyond the wit of America to do the same. Indeed, I suspect that political stubbornness and refusal to compromise, combined with clumsiness, led America into an entirely avoidable war, and the unnecessary violent deaths of over 600,000 people.
Basically, there was a ratcheting up of tension, which in the end spilled over into outright war. Both sides refused to back down. Both sides believed that they had to respond to the moves of the other side. Both sides believed that they had to be talk tough, to be tough, and to not back down.
And, it seems to me, that was basically what happened in Charlottesville. The city council started it. They meant well, but what they did was not only unnecessary, but also provocative. The organisers of the protest felt the need to respond, and to respond with a show of strength. They didn’t need to respond at all, of course, and certainly not in the way that they responded, but they wanted to. The organisers of the counter-protest likewise felt the need to respond strongly. Again, they didn’t need to do anything of the kind, and it would have been better for everyone if they hadn’t – but, it was a case of “We can’t just allow this to happen! Something must be done!” And the blood flowed. Fortunately only one person died.
People thought that what was needed was action – in other words, escalation. In actual fact, what was needed was de-escalation.
Which brings us back to the Bible – this time to the Book of Proverbs (30:33). “For as churning cream produces butter, and as twisting the nose produces blood, so stirring up anger produces strife.” And even if the stirring up of anger is entirely unintentional, the anger that it stirs up and the strife it produces is just as real.
Or, if one turns back a few pages (Proverbs 15:1) “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” The problem is that soft answer is seen as exactly that: soft. And softness is seen in politics as fatal.
I think that there are a few lessons here – about politics and diplomacy and words. And I don’t think they just apply to Charlottesville, and the many sides there. I think they apply to relations between nations. Including, for example, America’s relations with Venezuela, Iran, and North Korea.