Evaluating the violence in Charlottesville and the reaction to it from public officials and commentators requires basic levels of reason and decency. To botch it reveals some terribly unflattering trait: It could be related to political or partisan obsession, ego, honest-to-goodness insensitivity, vacuity, or some other deficiency of the heart or mind. It should be easy for the people who occupy public office and the media, be it professional media or social media, to get this right. And yet.
White nationalists are bad. Neo-Nazis are worse. The ones moved to violence are worse still. If you are curious about flirting with their worldview, a piece of advice: Don’t do that. If you are not a neo-Nazi, or a white supremacist of any kind, but want to march with them for the common cause of preserving a Confederate monument, don’t do that, either. If you’re stomping around with people chanting “Jews will not replace us” and don’t want to be associated with Nazism or white nationalism, step out of formation. Better yet, don’t show up in the first place. There is no ambiguity here. And yet.
President Trump says “you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists,” including “very fine people.” And “what about the ‘alt-left’ that … came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs?” he asks.
Well, the “alt-left”—specifically individuals associated with antifa—aren’t necessarily swell. As Peter Beinart writes in the Atlantic, “for all of antifa’s supposed anti-authoritarianism, there’s something fundamentally authoritarian about its claim that its activists … can decide whose views are too odious to be publicly expressed.” There have been many occasions on which to condemn the movement—it “has time and again plunged volatile situations into violence,” observes Ben Shapiro, “from Sacramento to Berkeley.” Don’t forget Portland, either. But there’s no reason to mention antifa in the context of white supremacists marching on Charlottesville. White supremacists were the instigators there. Their most extreme members, neo-Nazis, are the worst subgroup on both sides by an inestimable degree. There is no reason to compare or equivocate these people and Marxist militants. It’s okay to censure the “alt-left,” especially when its activists turn violent, in a different and proper context. And it’s okay for critics of the president to just leave it at that. And yet.
“Watching ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ a movie about a group of very aggressive alt-left protesters invading a beach without a permit,” tweets Atlantic editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg. That one got about 10,000 retweets. This one will fly past 40,000:
What is cute about this? We have wondered what the grandparents of neo-Nazis who may have fought in World War II would think of their grandkids. What would World War II veterans think of being compared to a group that features disorderly anarchists? Those men who landed on Normandy fought in actual muck. There’s no excuse to drag them into the muck of our personal politics.
The same goes for the nation’s shameful history of race relations and its generational efforts to improve them. The United States has evolved into a pluralistic society. You can imagine how Americans whose ancestors did not live in such times would be disturbed by the images captured and chants shouted in Charlottesville. And how those same people would be troubled when the president’s response to the events earned praise from men like Richard Spencer and David Duke. Two of those people, a black Republican named Gianno Caldwell and a black Democrat named Wendy Osefo, teared up on Fox and Friends Wednesday morning while discussing the last five days. Said Caldwell, the Republican, “Last night I couldn’t sleep at all because President Trump, our president, literally betrayed the conscience of our country, the very moral fabric in which we have made progress when it comes to race relations in America.” It’s tough criticism. But given the circumstances, it at least deserves respect. It ought to be received openly. And yet.
Here are several of the responses to a tweet from Mediaite linking to the video: “Lol, pathetic. I think they need their binkie.” … “ah a snowflake moment” … “Such Drama! Need an Emmy for that.” … “This was absurd! I left the room.” … “Were they upset when then President Obama said nothing to condemn BLM over the Dallas police officers who were killed?” … “Spare me the alligator tears.” … “Everyone needed to use a barf bag while watching this male guest while he insulted @realDonaldTrump. Did he take acting lessons from #Obama?” … “Think they’ve been holding back those tears since January 20thwhen they lost their beloved Obama.” … “oh please, where do they get these people?” … “THEY are sad because he OUTED THEM as PART OF ANTIFA!” … a .gif of Judge Judy rolling her eyes … and a .gif of Jimmy Fallon with the caption “ABOUT TO UGLY CRY.”
One of the most depressing lessons of the last two years is that a significant chunk of Americans has zero desire to understand each other. Sometimes this is rooted in ignorance. Sometimes it is rooted in a lack of common sense. And sometimes it is rooted in a lack of empathy. It is not a symptom of the right or of the left. It is not a symptom of a political movement at all. It is a symptom of a people terrified of being challenged, of not having all the answers to all of society’s ills, of the possibility of being wrong, of accepting vulnerability, of appearing weak. Sometimes the strong thing to do is to say the right thing. Sometimes it’s to say nothing at all. And sometimes it’s simply to be a good neighbor. No one is ever going to find that in a political pamphlet. They’ll only find it within themselves.