Charlottesville: History, myth and false equivalence

What happened in Charlottesville last week – and what followed – should be of significance not only to an American audience. After the Unite the Right congregation of neo-Nazis and white nationalists on Saturday and the torchlit march of the same which preceded the evening before, one counter-protestor, Heather Heyer, lay dead – murdered by those she came to oppose – and the world had witnessed slogans such as ‘Jews will not replace us’ and ‘blood and soil’ chanted in America in 2017.

It’s been with a growing sense of incredulity and disbelief that many of us have watched what has happened subsequently. In the US, where, thanks to the election of Donald Trump, overt racism and discrimination are legitimised by the very nature of the head of state, the self-serving responses to what happened in Charlottesville were coming from the right and those sympathetic to them were, perhaps, predictable.

Trump himself set the tone, first blaming ‘many sides’ for what had happened, then – following a backlash – specifically enumerating neo-Nazis and white supremacists, before finally – in an incredible press conference –  turning his fire back onto the so-called ‘alt-left’, who were somehow culpable in his view. Before the week was out, Trump had used the Barcelona terror attacks to (approvingly) peddle a myth regarding a purported war crime committed by a US general against a Muslim population, where they were supposedly executed with bullets dipped in pig’s blood. Trump? A white supremacist? Nothing to see here, claimed his defenders.

Some attempted to muddy the waters, trying to refocus attention on what was ostensibly behind the Unite the Right gathering; the local authority’s decision to remove the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from the newly-renamed Emancipation Park in Charlottesville. This was an assault on history, they said. The behaviour of the antifa and so-called ‘alt-left’ was as bad as the Nazis, they said. Freedom of speech must be protected, they said. Here in the UK, Nigel Farage – yes him – said ‘the left must not be allowed to rewrite American history‘.

The willingness of some to reproduce these arguments begs certain questions. One is simply the question of an honest lack of understanding. Is the person putting forward the argument really just – through no fault of their own – unaware of the implications of what they’re saying? Perhaps they don’t understand the difference between history  – a constructed process taking place in the present – and the past, the temporal range of past events which history seeks to interpret and recreate. For many who aren’t professional historians, historical sociologists, anthropologists and the like, ‘history’ is a term used fairly unproblematically, which is taken to have a fixed meaning. Perhaps the person putting forward the argument hasn’t interrogated the basic differences between commemoration, celebration and the place of an artifact in a museum?

That’s where we historians can and should play a useful role.

More worrying in some ways though are the more obviously contemporary questions. Does the person putting forward the argument that there is such as a thing as the ‘alt-left’ (fact check: there isn’t) not appreciate that they are unthinkingly reproducing a smear created by right-wing figures during the 2016 US presidential election cycle to slander left-wing Democrats? Did they not notice that Trump is now using that smear to distract from the actions of supporters of his own – the self-professed ‘alt-right’?

That begs the second question, of bad faith. Perhaps they do know the above. And, in the words of a history tutor of mine when I was a student, they aren’t really putting forward arguments at all – but rationalising their position, trying to put forward evidence that will make their preordained position seem rational to an outsider (this is a human foible that all of us engage in from time to time, though the stakes – ‘I had two cakes because she had two cakes’ – are customarily lower). The gap between the apparent rationalisation and a convincing argument is typically the space where you have to discern whether the person genuinely is acting in bad faith or not. Maybe it isn’t a rationalisation, just a poor argument.

In Farage’s case, it’s pretty straightforward. Whatever Trump does, Nigel seems to fawn over. Making a substandard argument about history is the least of Nigel’s worries. But this might not be true of everyone who’s made this argument, so by way of a response…

Taking down a statue has nothing to do with ‘erasing’ history – if by history you mean the recollection of the past. What societies choose to commemorate is a decision taken by the present in the present, for the present. It’s a decision taken continuously.

It says very little about the past in itself, and very much about the now. This is true of both sides in the debate over the Lee statue, and it is why it is so important that it is taken down. Commemorations are what historians call ‘sites of memory’ (after the work of Pierre Nora); in Britain as everywhere they take physical form, as in the Cenotaph (’empty tomb’) in Whitehall for instance. But the reason the UK undertakes remembrance rituals every November is not simply to ‘remember the fallen’, but to make a point of remembering-in-the-present. That is to say that present-day, contemporary UK society derives something itself from the act of remembrance. And the history isn’t inviolate in this process. Part of the reason remembrance rituals have become more central to national life since the early 1990s is due to the growing number of military campaigns that Britain has been involved in and the ability of the changed broadcast/ online media to personalise the nature of the conflict experience through revealing to a wide audience the implications of these conflicts, in particular, for wounded personnel.

That’s why, at a time when fewer people than at any point since the Second World War are either serving or know someone serving in the Armed Forces, remembrance rituals have taken on a revitalised significance (it’s significant that attendance at remembrance rituals and donations to the Royal British Legion et al. were growing in the decade prior to the First World War Centenary). Rituals and memorials originally created for a grieving nation – and that were originally very different in their character in the early post-First World War period – have changed and been repurposed for the needs of the present. That’s how commemoration, societal memory, works. Monuments remain, but the meanings associated with them can change or remain the same. The meanings are what people choose to place on them.

In Charlottesville, the Lee statue isn’t ‘history’ by itself, but as a commemorative focus is it a place where histories are constructed and meaning-making takes place – a site of memory. Unfortunately, much of that meaning-making serves to normalise the historical antecendents of present-day racism. The Lee statue was erected in 1924, the better part of six decades after the Civil War. It was not erected to cater for immediate ‘needs’ of mourning or mass grief as the Cenotaph was (first iteration 1919, immediately after the conflict). No; along with many other statues to Confederate figures, it was erected as the ‘myth of the Lost Cause’ was being enshrined, when the South, having been defeated in war, sought instead to enshrine the oppression of blacks through mythologising the war effort into one of states’ rights and ‘honor’, and disenfranchising blacks through segregation and Jim Crow. At the time the Lee statue was constructed, Ku Klux Klan membership was at its peak, with upper-end estimates putting it at around five million members.

For those of us in Britain watching these events and commenting on them, it’s worth remembering that white supremacy never died out in the South. Lynchings carried on through the Jim Crow era, not to mention church burnings in the 1960s and into the 1990s, and then, more recently, Charleston.

Two years ago this summer, on 17th June 2015, a white supremacist named Dylann Roof massacred nine black churchgoers at a bible study class in Charleston, North Carolina. The church, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, was picked as a target by Roof because ‘it was a historic African-American church.’ One of Roof’s victims was Clementa C. Pinckney, senior pastor at the church, and a state senator. Pinckney had campaigned for police to wear body cameras as a result of the shooting of unarmed Walter Scott by a police officer in North Charleston. Roof asked for Pinckney by name before he killed him. President Obama delivered a eulogy at Pinckney’s funeral, where he paid tribute through song:

Roof’s website featured pictures of him with the Confederate Battle Flag. Once this was known, a movement began to proscribe the display of the Confederate flag and to remove Confederate memorials. It began in the same state, South Carolina, where the state capitol stopped flying the Confederate flag, which had originally been raised in 1962 as a protest against desegregation.

There is nothing wrong with this movement – although of course there is always room to debate it – but there is no sense in which it is ‘erasing’ history. The point is that the racism and violence of the Reconstruction era, through Jim Crow, to the 1960s and the present, has never gone away. History is active, not some other ‘foreign country’ where people do things differently; racism in the American South (and, one might add, throughout the Western world) is an historical continuity. Sites of memory like the Lee statue and the Confederate flag flying over state capitols are still sites for meaning-making and racism in the present. And their presence is actually a politicised perversion of history – seeking to enshrine in the ‘Lost Cause’ myth a denatured version of the past, in order to permit its invocation in the racism of the present. It’s not for nothing that such statutes had two peaks in terms of their building – one during Reconstruction, and another during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. As notes:

A large share of Confederate statues are of nameless, generic soldiers, like the one the protesters took down in Durham. Towns erected them in the early 20th century, decades after the Civil War, because their Confederate mythologies helped to justify Jim Crow laws in the South that oppressed black citizens, Taber Andrew Bain, a librarian at Virginia Commonwealth University, pointed out on Twitter.

In Germany, in the 1940s, Nazi emblems were prohibited immediately on the Allied occupation of the country as part of the Allies’ policy of ‘denazification’. This did not happen in the Southern United States at least in part because that conflict was a civil war, and the federal government felt compelled to balance internal political dynamics in order to ensure the reforging of the Union.

But that failure to address the racist nature of the Confederacy at a cultural level has allowed Confederate symbology to play an active role in racism from the close of the civil war to the present day. Removing such symbols is simply a long-overdue clampdown on the espousal of racism in public space. And there is a world of difference between a commemoration and a museum exhibit, as a visit to the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool would tell you. Confederate memorabilia could, and probably should, be housed in museums – accompanied by clear, unambiguous descriptions of the moral disgrace it represented, and has continued to represent and inspire, since. Those bringing up book-burning to make another allusion of false equivalence are guilty at the very least of hyperbole, at worst of straightforward misrepresentation. No-one wants to erase the memory of the Confederacy. Quite the contrary. The question is simply that it be remembered for what it was, not be glorified in contemporary public space.

Perhaps many people don’t understand how memory becomes history, how popular memory is shaped, how knowledge is constructed – but most people aren’t stupid, and even if they haven’t engaged with academic history or psychology, have an understanding that the past is framed according to the present.

But the other myth doing the rounds – that of the ‘alt-left’ – isn’t old enough to be historical in nature. It’s ironic that neither the ‘alt-left’ or ‘alt-right’ should exist as publicly acceptable nomenclature; it’s also ironic that both are the creations of the right. The ‘alt-right’ was invented as a term to denature the toxicity of right-wing extremism – much like the Confederacy and the ‘lost cause’ were reimagined to make the racism of the South ambiguous whilst still celebrating it. Though many news outlets fell for it, the Associated Press didn’t, as they noted in their guidance to correspondents:

Avoid using the term generically and without definition, however, because it is not well known and the term may exist primarily as a public-relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience. In the past we have called such beliefs racist, neo-Nazi or white supremacist.

So, as AP rightly put it – call the alt-right what it is. Neo-Nazism, racism, white supremacy as appropriate. The alt-right was a way of making the rise of far-right extremism in the US look more palatable – and it worked. Senior alt-right figures worked in the Trump administration and helped develop his message. Racism went mainstream.

But gradually, the alt-right has become visible for what it is. Richard Spencer, the white nationalist head of the National Policy Institute, who became famous in the UK at least for getting punched in the face at Trump’s inauguration, led an earlier torchlit rally at Emancipation Park. And of course, he presided over this:

The alt-left by comparison was a slur, designed to ensure that anyone who opposed the self-described alt-right would be tarred by the same brush – delegitimised by the very act of opposition. In a sense, this is clever tactics from the far right, on a number of levels. With a public inundated with political change, quick soundbites such as ‘horseshoe theory’ and ‘alt-left’ can translate to ‘they’re both as bad as each other’, or the ‘left started it with antifa and Black Lives Matter’. On this last point, opposing BLM is somewhere where the far right sees fertile ground – whites who identity as liberal often identify with conventional structures of authority, and whilst BLM has highlighted the endemic racism within US law enforcement, and the terrible human cost of that racism, some whites in the US simply refuse to accept that there can be what (in a different police context) the Macpherson Report in Britain termed ‘institutional racism’ throughout US society.

As such, by invoking horseshoe theory, attacking BLM – note the ‘White Lives Matter’ chants at the torchlit rally a week ago Friday – and throwing their opponents in a skip called the alt-left, far-right extremism both makes opposition to it more difficult, and muddies the water sufficiently that its own messages are heard by a wide audience. This appeals to a section of the US population who, whilst they might not themselves be actively participative in white nationalism, are fearful of instability and crave order. The danger is that this is historically a section of the population – the anxious middle-class – that can involuntarily act (through its inaction or tacit acquiescence) as an enabler for the rise of fascism.

There’s also the issue of freedom of speech, another area where far-right extremists try to muddy the waters – as Trump put it, ‘they had a permit’. The US takes a very different approach to free speech than most Western European societies, as Michel Rosenfeld noted thirty years ago in the Harvard Law Review:

the constitutions and laws of the Western European democracies that adhere to the principle of freedom of speech all heed the warning of the “paradox of tolerance” and do not afford legal protection to extremist speech.

The UK arguably (in my view, as a genuine libertarian socialist) goes too far in terms of how much it circumscribes freedom of speech, and has a nebulous definition of extremism. But the point here is simply to point up hypocrisy – many arguing about freedom of speech in the UK in the context of Charlottesville are quite happy to support restrictions on it when it suits them (e.g. specific restrictions on language around extremism etc.). The ‘paradox of tolerance’ alluded to in Rosenfeld’s comment is referring to the work of the philosopher Karl Popper, who argued that for society to remain tolerant it was necessary not to tolerate the intolerant. This is a genuine paradox insofar as it offers specific limits to toleration (which is nominally an absolute concept). But Popper’s view was that society had not obligation to tolerate that which would use that toleration to destroy that society; as he ruefully mused in a lecture once, such was the fate of the Weimar Republic.

That’s commonly accepted in the legal and constitutional frameworks of Western Europe, which have in many cases suffered the fate of totalitarian occupation during the Second World War. The UK didn’t, but has increasingly adopted the principle. Ironically, I have my reservations about it, as I’ve noted – I agree with Popper’s view but am wary of the broad-brush way in which it can be applied (for example the UK government often refers to ‘extremism’ which is too broad). The key point however is that the invocation of freedom of speech often looks like a rationalisation, not an argument – citizens of a country that doesn’t have the same level of free speech protection as the US (and who are generally quite happy with that) defending a broader ambit of free speech abroad than they would advocate at home.

And of course, the truth is Charlottesville isn’t about free speech, and it isn’t about ‘saving’ history, it’s about – as one contributor to the recent VICE documentary put it – the far-right demonstrating their power in American society in the age of Trump. When they chanted ‘Jews will not replace us/You will not replace us’ and ‘White Lives Matter’ as they held their torches on Friday night, they echoed Dylann Roof’s words as he gunned down the churchgoers in Charleston – ‘You’re taking over’. They used the statue as a site of memory, invoking the ancestral racism associated with it. And then they added Nazi blood-and-soil fascism for good measure.

The US President then attacked those who stood up to oppose them.

I’m a British person who has the comfort of living several thousand miles away from all of this, but I used to live in the US, know a number of UVa alumni, and did a good chunk of my undergraduate degree in modern German history. When we speak about these issues, we should be aware of their nuances and their complexities. We should also be aware that for the black community, for the Jewish community, these issues have never gone away. As those communities know only too well, history is not some separate anterior reality, a theme park in which to play in, as some of us sometimes treat it. It’s a reality which is lived, and which, through the memory of slavery, racism and the Holocaust, never recedes. It never recedes because the forces which generated those horrors have never left this world, and last weekend those forces showed themselves in plain sight, using a site of memory – a statue – to anchor their bid for power in public space.

The people who oppose that evil are not equivalent to that evil; this is a slander and a lie, fostered by those who seek the opportunity to promote that evil. The evils of racism and fascism should not be compromised with on any level. It is our job as civil society to make sure that those who foster hate and division have to take responsibility for it. That’s precisely what the counter-protestors did in Charlottesville. That’s precisely what Heather Heyer did. And she died for it.

I hope that the rest of us, in the US, the UK, and around the world, will uphold her legacy.




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