There are many sides.
In any conflict, big or small, there are always many sides. Many motives. Many shoulders that carry the blame. Shades of grey, not stark blacks and whites, typically rule the day.
Since the events in Charlottesville, Virgina, there has been an argument in the press, on social media, around dinner tables and over office water coolers about assigning blame. Were the alt-right thugs, the Nazis, the KKK and assorted other racists responsible for the violence? Were the counter protesters – called the “alt-left” or “ctrl-left” or “social justice left” depending on who you ask – the real culprits? Do both sides share the blame equally?
There were many sides in Charlottesville and everyone who chose the truncheon over argument carries a measure of fault. In a free society, free speech means those who hold views you despise are still allowed to speak or march. Your job is to carry your argument forward, not silence someone else by using your knuckles.
So let’s not be disingenuous about it. There were, and there are, many sides.
Yet we must not lose sight of a simple truth: the existence of many sides does not imply a moral equivalency among them. All sides may share blame and responsibility in any given conflict, but the weight is not carried equally.
Some are more responsible than others.
United States President Donald Trump has it made clear where he stands. Immediately after the riots in Charlottesville that were trigged by Nazis chanting white power slogans, Trump would not outright condemn any group more than any other. It took two days before he criticized white supremacy. But then on Tuesday, Trump held fast to his assertion that both sides are equally at fault, singling out the “alt-left” and even suggesting there were very fine people among the ranks of white supremacists.
This is not the first time he has done this.
When asked by former Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly why he respects Russian tyrant Vladimir Putin, Trump gave an answer that explained in full his moral vision.
O’Reilly: Putin’s a killer…
Trump: There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?
This was not a president reflecting on America’s past sins. It was a statement of moral certitude: when it comes down to it, America and Russia are the same. Everyone is at fault, so therefore no one is. Anything either side does is just part of the game.
This is the moral nihilism of Donald Trump, the alt-right and the white power movement nestled comfortably in its shadow. There is no right and wrong. No moral high ground. No lines that cannot be crossed. There is only the muck through which we sift and all that matters is who managed to climb to the top of the biggest pile of mud.
This is the only position that makes it possible to claim there are “good” Nazis and white supremacists.
Part of the justification here is that the good people were only “silently” protesting the removal of Confederate statues. They were standing up for “tradition” and history, he said. To move the statues is to “change history”, as though placing a statue in a museum is the equivalent of driving 88 miles an hour with Doc Brown. The fact that the Confederate States were built on a slave economy is also easily dismissed by Trump. George Washington had slaves, he said, as though that fact ends any objection to what the South stood for and why the Civil War was fought.
The good folks had a permit to march, Trump said. And their silent protest was ruined by club wielding, permitless alt-lefters.
Horrifying scene from CASABLANCA, where alt-left agitator Rick Blaine shoots Heinrich Strasser, a Nazi with a permit. pic.twitter.com/ksQaHksqYM
— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) August 15, 2017
Perhaps “silence” means something else in the Trumpverse. It is a matter of public record the marchers were not silent. They chanted the old Nazi slogan of “blood and soil” and warned that “Jews will not replace us.”
They carried Nazi flags and shields emblazoned with the symbols of white power groups. Some came in full combat gear and were armed with military style rifles.
As I argued in my last column, these white supremacists feel their time is now because Trump has tacitly told them it was time to step out into the light to “take their country back.”
Trump’s rambling, rage filled and bizarre Tuesday press conference drew open cheers from David Duke and other white power trolls because the president refused to take a moral stand against them. Trump’s insistence that everyone is at fault is being taken in Nazi circles as a sign of approval.
The Nazi march was designed to provoke violence. They came armed and marched in phalanx formation. Some of the counter protesters, the “alt-left,” played into their game by choosing violence. By arriving with their own shields, by engaging in fisticuffs, these people fed into the white supremacist narrative.
Indeed, the alt-left or whatever label one affixes to them have been feeding the alt-right, white supremacist narrative for years.
The far left steadily built an insular cultural ethos that allows only their view point. They created ironically named “safe spaces” on university campuses where dissent is not allowed. They riot on those same campuses if someone with a point of view they don’t like is scheduled to speak. (It is not just alt-right jesters like Milo Yiannopoulos, whose scheduled speech at Berekely was cancelled because of riots, that are silenced. Richard Dawkins, biologist and intense critic of religion was recently denied a speaking engagement because his views on Islam were deemed too offensive for the ears of students.)
In the minds of the alt-right, each of these offenses to free speech was further evidence that their lurid fantasy is correct: That these alt-lefters “hate” freedom, are motivated by Marixist ideology (even if they don’t know it) and, in some version of the story, will only be defeated in a massive conflagration.
In a very real way, the anti-fascist protesters who decided to meet hate with violence were played as fools and their blood in Charlottesville is just fuel for the white power movement they hate.
Still, while one can condemn violence as the wrong path to political change, as well everyone should in a democracy, we should not lose sight of the root cause of what happened in Virgina.
The violence was provoked, deliberately, by Nazis, purveyors of an ideology corrosive to everything democracy is supposed to be. A peaceful anti-fascist protester was killed by a murderous driver. And those Nazis only felt this was their time to march and wave the swastika because a U.S. president helped create a climate for them to thrive in.
Yes, there are many sides.
But some carry more blame than others.