can there be middle ground after Charlottesville?

In the wake of the the weekend's events in Charlottesville, I have seen a couple of points being made with some frequency. Generally speaking, they amount to the idea are that now there can be no mistake about the true nature and intention of white supremacists. In a common refrain, people will say that "there is no middle ground" or "you're either with them or against them." A related point comes up from time to time as well, when people say that "from now on, call these things what they are: racist."

I admit to some confusion and even trouble with most of these points, especially as they are thrown around as being fairly obvious. Whether or not they are correct, I do not think that they are obvious. Those things that are obvious do not require arguments to support them. In my view, however, progressives actually do need to walk through the events that happened this weekend in order to explain and justify their reactions to them. Without those explanations and justifications, the speaker is merely preaching to the choir. Those who already agree with these points will cheer, the others will walk away. And I think we want more substantive reactions to our views on white nationalism.

Artist: Kasia Babis

Artist: Kasia Babis

  • First, I'm not sure that Charlottesville revealed anything about the true nature of the alt-right, or even white supremacy, that we did not know before. James Alex Fields, Jr. who killed Heather Heyer and injured 19 others with his car, appears to be very troubled. His murder of Heyer was clearly the headline event of the weekend, but it does not for that reason define the movement or the intentions of those who organized the "Unite the Right" rally. (Remember that James Hodkinson, who shot up a Congressional baseball practice, was a fervent Bernie Sanders supporter. He was also a nut. His actions told us very little about the true nature or intentions of the Sanders movement.) It is impossible to say what the weekend would have looked like had that not occurred. It seems to me as though it would have started an argument about whether the alt-right or progressive forces had been more violent. (This is not to engage in moral equivalence on my part: clearly the right-wing forces were more violent. Unfortunately, the progressives cannot claim to have been completely non-violent themselves. And as long as that is true, Trump supporters would have muddied the waters and obscured the facts.) That would have been a frustrating and inconclusive argument and everyone would have forgotten about it in a few days. But given the facts as they actually did occur, what specifically leads one to say that white supremacy is on the march? Was the rally particularly large? Did it get positive news coverage? Were non-participants showing up in droves to sign up? Did they say things in Charlottesville that they do not usually say? Any of these things could actually be true. And even if they were not, I understand why people would be frightened at the notion of these groups showing up in their neighborhoods. But the declaration that something is the new reality and the implication that anyone who doesn't "see" it is a moral coward are big claims, and big claims require evidence to be compelling.
  • Second, I'm very skeptical of any account that says we know what a movement stands for or what a person truly thinks without showing some attempt to address how the issue looks from that person's or movement's perspective. Doing that well usually requires quotations. If you want to perform a detailed intellectual excavation of a movement or person and you do not use a large number of quotes, you're just projecting your own views on to them.
  • Third, my progressive friends and colleagues all seem very upset at the idea that some people are working really hard to stake out some comfortable middle ground here. Who are these people? Jimmy Fallon, of all people, criticized President Trump for his response to Charlottesville. I have not seen any journalists or politicians, with the admittedly large exception of the president, engage in this sort of thinking. In that environment, I'm not sure that condemning this contemporary manifestation of white supremacy actually does require a whole bunch of moral courage. It seems possible to me that progressives are imagining that people are not taking this seriously enough so that (I hate to say it, but it has a grain or truth) they can feel morally superior to them. That's not a good look, lefties.
  • Finally, the notion that underlies these exhortations is that anyone who doesn't subscribe to this interpretation of events is either a) a complete idiot, or b) lacking moral courage. I don't think either of these things necessarily follows. Sometimes, perhaps often, people simply reach different conclusions. In that case, the best course of action seems to be trying to convince them that their view is wrong. Drawing Manichean lines designating the in-group and out-group is unlikely to achieve that goal.