Our Post-Charlottesville Narrative Is A National Embarrassment

Our Post-Charlottesville Narrative Is A National Embarrassment

Why have the tragic events of Charlottesville transformed so many people into irresponsible, violent, censorious, and hysterical lunatics?
Daniel Payne
By

Pundits, journalists, politicians, clergy, law enforcement, sociologists—all may agree or disagree to varying degrees about what the Charlottesville mayhem of August 12 means for our country. Any number of interpretations could be useful and instructive. But above all Charlottesville has shown just how profoundly broken and destructively useless our media industry and political establishment really are. It is a genuine national embarrassment.

I do not say that lightly. I love this country; I love its rich history, its political traditions, its culture, its people. I love its religious backbone. I do not love the historical flaws of our country, but I love the ways we have righted them, and the great gifts we have given the world along the way: our priceless treasure trove of abolitionist literature, the Gettysburg Address, Letter From a Birmingham Jail, our brilliant Supreme Court decisions on any number of civil rights.

I love the United States. But I am deeply embarrassed for it, and I want it to do better than it has over the past few weeks.

It is not unsurprising that the events of Charlottesville—an awful combination of hatred, racism, toxic politics, paranoid factionalism, and political ineptitude—would stir our emotions and cause some people to do crazy things. But the responses from the media, politicians, countless individuals, and institutions has been nothing short of shamefully disastrous. However painful it may be, we should analyze what has been going on in the days since that terrible afternoon to learn from it and commit ourselves to doing better if and when, God forbid, this happens again.

The ‘Both Sides’ Hysteria

Last week I wrote about the media meltdown surrounding Trump’s claim that “there is blame on both sides [for Charlottesville].” That was entirely true: eyewitness testimony, from sources including a New York Times reporter and a student counterprotester, affirm as much. There is simply no question that both white nationalists and leftist “Antifa” protesters both engaged in unjustifiable violence that day.

Yet here’s a small sampling of the responses to Trump’s accurate statement. Mitt Romney responded by tweeting: “No, not the same. One side is racist, bigoted, Nazi. The other opposes racism and bigotry. Morally different universes.” Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat minority leader of the House of Representatives, issued a statement asserting Trump’s “both sides” claim “ignores the abhorrent evil of white supremacism.”

At The New York Times, Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman claimed that Trump “gave white supremacists an unequivocal boost” by “equating activists protesting racism with the neo-Nazis and white supremacists.” Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine declared on Facebook: “This was not ‘both sides.’ White supremacists descended on Charlottesville to promote hate and intimidate this Virginia community.”

But it was both sides. That is a fact. Yet these leaders seem willing to excuse political violence simply because it was directed at neo-Nazis. These politicians and journalists appear to be saying violence is okay when it’s committed against people we don’t like. All you have to do is say “There were Nazis!” to justify it.

This is shameful and humiliating for America: elected officials and members of our press are apparently tacitly advocating mob rule and vicious, primitive might-makes-right public discourse. The world should look at us and laugh for such crude and shocking behavior coming from the nominally elite and educated members of our political and media classes.

Further Justifying Violence

The justifications for the violent behavior we saw in Charlottesville did not just stop at such sly, underhanded approvals. Some public figures openly endorsed political violence against their opponents.

The biggest meme related to this phenomenon rocketed around Twitter like wildfire: people began comparing the violent progressive activists in Charlottesville with the soldiers who stormed the French beaches as part of the Normandy invasion during World War II. CNN contributor and former Hillary Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon, CNN anchor Christopher Cuomo, Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg, Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell, author David Simon, actor Joshua Malina, and countless others compared the Charlottesville vigilantes to D-Day soldiers.

It is astonishing that one even has to explain the difference between the two phenomena, but here we go: the Nazis of the Third Reich were part of a brutal war machine that had burned across Western Europe, was threatening the free world, and was fighting for a government that had declared war on the United States. The Charlottesville Nazis, meanwhile—loathsome as they were—were exercising a well-established and perfectly legal constitutional right.

Might there be a little difference between the two? Might “violence” (i.e. legally authorized military action) be justified against the Nazi war machine, while mob violence from unauthorized citizens might not be so justified against American citizens engaging in constitutionally protected free speech? Might there also be any difference between soldiers acting under legal orders as part of a legally declared war and lawless mobs attacking rally attendees without any grant from any legal authority?

More generally, people openly advocated that American citizens assault other American citizens: comedian Patton Oswalt, for one, favorably compared the violent activists to movie hero Indiana Jones punching a Nazi, while CNN reporter Jake Tapper wordlessly endorsed violence against neo-Nazi protesters.

Politicians, journalists, actors, writers, and other media figures openly and gleefully encouraged their fellow citizens to harm each other. This is the stuff of violent hellholes, not the United States of America. Shame on these people for advocating such violence, and shame on everyone who shared such disgusting sentiment.

Anti-Free-Speechism

America has the greatest free speech regime on the planet. Still, plenty of people in this country would like to see your free speech rights greatly attenuated. In the wake of Charlottesville, many of them spoke out in favor of censorship.

As CNN reported, the American Civil Liberties Union—a longtime defender of every American’s right to say anything—“took heat” for supporting the free speech rights of the neo-Nazi protesters. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe blamed the ACLU for suing Charlottesville over its handling of the neo-Nazi rally. At The New York Times, a Berkeley instructor, K-Sue Park, claimed that “the ACLU needs to rethink free speech.” In a viral tweet, Virginia ACLU board member Waldo Jaquith resigned in protest over the ACLU defending Nazis’ free speech rights.

It is astonishing to witness American citizens seizing on the hysteria of a moment to condemn precious American freedoms.

A protester in Charlottesville, meanwhile, punched a neo-Nazi in the face during a press conference then told The New York Times: “Free speech does not protect hate speech.” So far as I know, that person received no condemnation from anyone for punching a man who was simply speaking at a podium.

At HuffPO, ACLU member Burce Hartford came out in favor of criminalizing “hate speech,” claiming it has to be “fought and suppressed.” On CNN, attorney and former DC Democratic Party chairman A. Scott Bolden declared “Hate speech is not free speech,” and nobody in the room—not the host, Ana Cabrera, or former South Carolina lieutenant governor Andre Bauer, or presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, or Washington Post journalist David Fahrenthold—pushed back against this destructive and illiterate concept.

Similarly, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors claimed on MSNBC that “hate speech…is not protected under First Amendment rights.” Skidmore professor Jennifer Delton argued in favor of restricting free speech in the Washington Post, claiming that since we once did it to American communists, we can do it to the alt-right today (seriously).

It is, frankly, astonishing to witness American citizens seizing on the hysteria of a moment to condemn precious American freedoms. It is a political mercy that we have decades of Supreme Court precedent to stand as a bulwark against these authoritarian impulses. Just the same, who’s to say that these censorious sentiments will not eventually spread even further?

Generalized Hysteria

The general atmosphere of hysteria during the post-Charlottesville fallout has been jaw-dropping. Above are excellent examples. Yet what happened last week in Boston is even more so—a case study in the growing delirium taking ahold of American politics, especially progressive politics.

Activists in Boston organized a free-speech rally to advocate First Amendment rights. It was an event concerned with freedom of expression, nothing more. Indeed, one of the rally’s speakers, Gavin McInnes, affirmed that “The rally on Saturday in Boston couldn’t be farther from the rally [in Charlottesville]…We are socially liberal, fiscal conservatives who think America has a lot to be proud of. . . . We are pro-gay, multicultural, pro-Israel, pro-family and anti-Nazi.”

One young man follows the Trump supporter around screaming bizarre threats at him:’“I hope you liked having a job. Everyone you have ever known is going to see you.’

Another organizer of the rally, Louis Sender, said that the purpose of [the rally is] just to do free speech…That’s all it’s ever been.” The organizers even planned to begin the rally with a moment of silence to Heather Heyer, the victim of Charlottesville’s white nationalist terror attack.

No matter. Boston turned out thousands upon thousands of protesters. Fifteen thousand protesters showed up to rail against the free speech organizers—15,000, in comparison to a few dozen rally attendees. Fearing for their safety, the rally organizers eventually fled Boston Common with a police escort. In a genuinely eerie display of threatening intent, the protesters began to chant: “Make them walk! Make them walk!”

During the brief rally itself, attendees were subject to vicious verbal and physical abuse. One astonishing video shows a “Trump supporter” walking through Boston Common wrapped in an American flag while the crowd is screaming at him. “Get the f-ck out of our f-ckin’ town!” yells one guy. “F-CKING RACIST!” screams another.

One young man follows the Trump supporter around screaming bizarre threats at him: “I hope you liked having a job. Everyone you have ever known is going to see you…I will have your identity, and in your name I will be donating to everything you stand against! Thanks for the great picture! Your employers and family are gonna love these shots!”

When asked, “Why are you here?” the Trump supporter responds: “I want to show that people shouldn’t be afraid to voice their [views] and voice their opinions. You shouldn’t be afraid to go outside and say you’re conservative. It’s pretty sad that things like this happen.” For this, he was slandered, threatened, and harassed.

All approached the idea of free speech as if it were an alien concept written in an extraterrestrial language.

Another video shows an older woman holding up an American flag as protesters walk by. Suddenly, a protester grabs the woman’s flag and attempts to pull it out of her hands. The woman does not let go, so the protester drags her and the flag until the woman trips and falls. Later, a few dozen protesters were arrested after violent clashes with police.

More shameful still was the media’s approach to covering the rally. The organizers of the rally explicitly affirmed that it was an event in support of free speech. Yet major media outlets treated this explanation as if it were a smokescreen, couching the term “free speech” in “scare quotes:” CBS News, NPR, the Washington Post, Slate, the Boston Globe, Reuters, CNBC, USA Today, Politico, Yahoo, the Daily Beast, the New York Daily News, countless others—all approached the idea of free speech as if it were an alien concept written in an extraterrestrial language.

Some outlets took it to an even more desperately shameful level: the New York Daily News, for instance, claimed that the protesters “chase[d] away white nationalists” without mentioning the rally organizers and speakers who explicitly disavowed white nationalism, while the Chicago Tribune heavily implied that the rally was a white nationalist gathering, with an enormous headline screaming: “Massive counterprotest against white nationalism upstages ‘free speech rally’ in Boston.” What a disgraceful abuse of media power.

Why Is This Happening, America?

Why have the tragic events of Charlottesville transformed so many people into irresponsible, violent, censorious, and hysterical lunatics? There are any number of explanations: shallow political opportunism, Selma envy, outrage addiction, low-grade despotic impulses.

We could easily meet these challenges with calmness, dignity, grace, and careful thought.

We are a strong country. We have survived much worse than half-bright basement-dwelling Schutzstaffel wannabes and violent leftist activists. We could easily meet these challenges with calmness, dignity, grace, and careful thought. We are simply choosing not to, reaching instead for public lunacy and unhinged mob mentality and widespread intellectual dishonesty.

We should not do this. We are better than this. We can move forward from Charlottesville without destroying this country’s precious ideals and customs, and without turning on each other with vitriol, hatred, and specious nonsense.

The politicians, journalists, and media outlets above are betting on you responding to the Charlottesville crisis with anger, irrationality, and unthinking acceptance of the narrative. Do not fall into this trap. You can help reverse this tide before it gets any worse—or you can contribute to it, and by doing so further erode the well-being of this incredible country to which you are heir. Please, for the love of God, make the right choice.

Daniel Payne is a senior contributor at the Federalist. He is an assistant editor for The College Fix, the news magazine of the Student Free Press Association. Daniel's work has appeared in outlets such as National Review Online, Reason, Front Porch Republic, and elsewhere. His personal blog can be found at Trial of the Century. He lives in Virginia.

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