Under the pretense of protesting the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue, white nationalists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on Friday night. Richard Spencer, a white nationalist thought leader, organized the “Unite the Right” rally.
By Saturday afternoon, three people were dead and many others were injured. Spencer insists that the protest was peaceful and that counter protesters and inactive police were responsible for the violence.
Spencer’s coy “Who me?” act should convince nobody. The man led a group of white nationalists with lit torches through a southern city at night. He glowed with pride on Saturday after being maced by police. Spencer and his flunkies got exactly what they hoped for: a media circus and the chance to play the helpless victim.
Americans of all parties can agree that this is an assault not just on American values but also on human dignity. But in our zealousness to fight evil, we are at a high risk of succumbing to another evil ourselves.
‘There’s No Place For You Here’
A phrase that’s been repeated throughout the last few days is that there’s “no place for” racism, hate, bigotry, et cetera in our country. In a statement Saturday, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said to the alt-right protesters, “There is no place for you here, there is no place for you in America.” What he really means is that America should have a zero-tolerance policy towards racism. But his words point to a larger phenomenon: the social alienation of many of America’s young men.
Our world is experiencing an epidemic of unanchored masculinity. Rudderless young men—from jihadis to school shooters to white supremacists—are increasingly finding antisocial ways to lash out at a world where they feel irrelevant. Tom Nichols aptly refers to them as “the lost boys” in this excellent piece.
Widespread fatherlessness, a struggling economy, polarizing media, irresponsible political rhetoric, and an overall lack of purpose should all be recognized as partial culprits for this disease. While many accusations against Donald Trump are hyperbole, he has tacitly given white supremacists a wink and a nod by playing dumb and failing to instinctively disavow them at every turn.
It can be tempting to dismiss these men as “losers” or uneducated, but that’s not necessarily true. David Duke—former Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan—is college educated. Richard Spencer has a master’s degree. We have to acknowledge the complex factors that have created this problem, but we also can’t dismiss these men as foolish hicks. They know what they’re doing.
But exclusively sociological or economic terms will fail to describe the events of Charlottesville. We must acknowledge the ideology of Richard Spencer, David Duke, and their followers for what it is: evil.
The Gated Community of the Alt-Right
At its core, the group assembled in Charlottesville on Saturday bears the ethos of a “Gated Community.” They huddle in the echo chambers of the like-minded and reject all those who disagree. All their logic boils down to “us vs. them”—and there can be no peaceful coexistence in between. Their sin is ultimately one of pride: others are inferior because they are not “like me.”
The Gated Community allows no dissent and, therefore, is always threatened. It is founded on the premise that the world would be a better place without “them.” And “them” can be whoever poses a threat to the truth of the community’s worldview: Jews, Blacks, capitalists, aristocrats, immigrants, Christians et al. The group uses censorship, the gulag, the guillotine, and the lynch mob to perpetuate itself. It uses inhumane treatment to dehumanize its enemies.
But this is where we must be careful. The behavior of “Antifa,” or anti-fascist counterprotesters, did not look all too different from that of the white nationalists. I wholly agree with them that the beliefs and actions of people like Spencer are repugnant and a scourge upon the earth. But I also suspect that, as a believer in traditional marriage, gender distinctions, and protection of the unborn, many Antifa protesters would find me morally repugnant, as well. Their ideal world probably does not include people like me.
Social media woefully shows not just Antifa activists, but everyday Americans celebrating the battering of fellow human beings. It’s easy to take moral satisfaction in seeing racist protesters experience the violence they incited. The problem is that we’re equally eager to brand others as irredeemable and degrade them as sub-human. We find white supremacists revolting because they hate traditionally marginalized members of society. We’re able to rationalize our hatred of them only because they’re perceived as the majority.
If it seems wrong to equate us with them, just ask yourself: does it really take greater hate to run over someone with a car than it does to bash them in the head with a stick? If so, the difference is only in degree, not in kind.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s Beloved Community
The “us vs. them” dichotomy is the foundation of white supremacy movements. Its members make no pretenses about their disdain for universal human dignity. But if our reaction is just to hate the hateful, we’re opposite sides of the same coin.
The counterbalance to The Gated Communities of the extreme Right and the extreme Left is a society that reinforces the worth of every human being—regardless of race, religion or ideology. This is the aspiration that Dr. Martin Luther King called “The Beloved Community.”
Where the Gated Community rejects, the Beloved Community welcomes. In the Gated Community, there is room only for the powerful, but in the Beloved Community, even the weak have inherent worth. The Beloved Community seeks reconciliation with those who are different—not their destruction.
We know that a perfect Beloved Community will never exist here on earth, but that should never stop us from trying. After all, our country was not founded as a “perfect union,” but a “more perfect union.” The struggle for a more just America must be characterized by discipline, not tit-for-tat malice.
In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King confidently declared that justice would prevail, “…because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”
We must condemn racial hatred in all its forms—not because we think racists are losers who should be eliminated, but because we believe in justice. Our words and behavior must underline the righteousness of our cause.