A bunch of “alt-right” neo-Nazis decided to stage a torchlit mini-Nuremberg rally in my town. Or maybe it was supposed to evoke a Ku Klux Klan rally instead of Nuremberg. It’s kind of hard to tell the difference. Ostensibly, they were protesting the proposed removal of statues of Civil War heroes Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee from a couple of parks in downtown Charlottesville—but really, they were white nationalists there to assert the “European identity” of “white people.”
Personally, I think this reinforces the case for not expunging all evidence of history. Knowing the torch-bearing imagery of the Klan or the Nazis, for example, will help us recognize it when some idiot tries to get the band back together. It will also help you to realize when they’re repeating history as farce, toting around very fearsome-looking Citronella tiki torches.
there is nothing more alt-right than trying to intimidate people with citronella tiki torches pic.twitter.com/PoelK8V4d0
— Erin Brr, sir (@erinscafe) May 14, 2017
It’s Nuremberg by way of Pier One Imports.
Laugh if you like, and goodness knows we need to find the humor in this where we can, because the bigger picture isn’t really funny.
The 100 years following the Civil War can be viewed as a very long, slow, low-intensity counter-insurgency war. Reconstruction attempted to force the former slave states to accept a new order of voting rights and legal equality for blacks. The war’s losers undermined and defeated this attempt, eventually re-imposing second-class citizenship on blacks, legally through the Jim Crow laws and extralegally through acts of terror and intimidation. They even managed—by way of that great Progressive hero, Woodrow Wilson—to inject racial segregation into federal government policy. It took the struggles of the Civil Right Movement to quell this backlash and eliminate Jim Crow. The integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962, which required 30,000 US troops and federal marshals to enforce a federal court order, is sometimes called the “last battle of the Civil War.”
Counter-insurgency wars are won partly with military force and partly with cultural persuasion, and they usually end with a series of compromises that allow everyone to move beyond the old grievances and leave them in the past. Historian Shelby Foote once described the “Great Compromise” that allowed North and South to put aside their animosity: “It consists of Southerners admitting freely that it was probably best that the Union wasn’t divided, and the North admits quite freely that the South fought bravely for a cause in which it believed.” I think we’ve since moved beyond this to a better kind of compromise, in which the South celebrates the Civil War as a part of its history, but only as history, while also incorporating the Civil Rights Movement into that history, inducting heroes of that movement into its pantheon. You can see this in country music songs that treat Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King as fixtures of Southern culture. Or if we’re talking about statues, consider that forty years after James Meredith required an armed escort to enroll at the University of Mississippi, the campus now features a statue of him to commemorate his struggle.
My wife, whom I regularly consult as my in-house expert on art and the history of art, pointed out something really extraordinary about the context of this controversy. What other country has fought a brutal civil war—and then let the losing side build statues to their leaders? In the ancient world, an enemy’s sculptures would not only be cast down but sometimes carted off and incorporated into a victory arch, as a way of proclaiming the victor’s dominance over the defeated people and their gods and heroes. But not here.
In some ways, it’s a healthy sign of a free society that in America the losing side was not simply crushed or expunged but eventually re-incorporated into society and subject to a slow process of cultural change. Tearing down all of their statues, by contrast, sends the message that no room will be allowed for anything but the One Approved Narrative.
The danger at the end of a counterinsurgency is that there are always factions that resent the final compromise and want to overturn it and revive the conflict. Sometimes that includes the winning side seeking revenge against the losers and attempting to expunge them totally—for example, by tearing down their sculptures. On the other side, there are always bitter dead-enders who try to use this as an excuse to revive their Lost Cause.
Which brings us to the push to take down Charlottesville’s Civil War sculptures, and this weekend’s torchlit rally by neo-Nazis. Before last weekend, there were reasonable arguments on both sides of the debate. What Richard Spencer and his white nationalists did was calculated to drown out any such arguments. What he wants—what serves his purposes—is for the debate to now be framed as the fanatical enforcers of Political Correctness versus the neo-Nazis. And everyone will be told to pick a side between these two odious alternatives.
My concern is that this is not just a leftover echo of the Civil War or the Civil Rights Movement—that it’s an attempt to create a permanent new conflict in American politics where the only alternatives are the racial politics of the far left versus the revived racial politics of the so-called alt-right. And both sides will seek to portray these as the only alternatives.
Don’t like Political Correctness? Well, don’t you think that’s better than being a white supremacist? Believe me, if you try to discuss this, particularly on social media, you will get that argument and its exact counterpart in the other direction, over and over again.
Some people are already calling it Weimar America, a replay of the pre-Nazi Weimar Republic in Germany, with its running street battles between Fascists and Communists. Both sides had an interest in making everyone think these were the only two choices, and in drowning out any better alternatives. We’ve already gotten a preview of that in the lame campus brawls between alt-right thugs and black-clad Communist “antifa” rioters. This sort of thing is not going to end well.
Charlottesville has responded reasonably well, with a candlelit rally the next day that almost amounts to a kind of ritual purification of the site. But I’m also hearing a lot of assurances that the white nationalists were imported from out of town, because we all know Charlottesville is a good progressive community, and It Can’t Happen Here.
I’m not so complacent. Reasonable people need to do a lot more work to make sure that we preserve the cultural conditions that help us transcend the history of bitter racial politics and deal with these issues in a rational and civil manner. That is going to involve rejecting those on both sides who have an interest in giving a whole new life to old racial conflicts.