The fight over confederate statues in my hometown of Charlottesville has some of the fighters feeling pretty traumatized. Here is Dahlia Lithwick, Slate’s Supreme Court commenter, who is also a local.
My little city in central Virginia has become the stuff of reality TV…. Now, when we come to meet in our town square, we are uncertain of whether we are suiting up for events that fete the Constitution or violent altercations for which we should park with an eye to high-speed retreats.
This is overdramatic. No, we’re not suddenly overwhelmed by fear and loathing in Charlottesville. The neo-Nazis who marched a few weeks ago are a very small group, most of them from out of town. The ringleader of that protest, junior gruppenfuhrer Richard Spencer, apparently lives in that hotbed of seething racial conflict, Alexandria, Virginia. (Note to the rest of the country: Alexandria is also where a lot of the bien pensant DC elites live.)
I’ll admit that seeing a bunch of neo-Nazis show up with torches in our very civilized little town was kind of a kick in the gut—even if the Nuremberg-style theatrics of the thing were undercut by its Tiki-and-Citronella implementation.
But here’s the thing: it’s not like we didn’t know they were out there. Ironically, it is the left that keeps telling us that everybody is a racist and keeps finding signs of entrenched and systematic “white supremacy” everywhere. So why are they shocked to the core when actual, real-life neo-Nazis show up?
How shocked? Dahlia Lithwick is so shaken by the experience that she begins to question the value of freedom of speech and the First Amendment.
Last week, I had come to a place where I was thinking—if not saying aloud—that maybe it was time for me and the First Amendment to see other people. It’s not me, to be sure, it’s the First Amendment—or at least what’s become of it. I am weary of hate speech, wary of threats, and tired of the choice between punching back and acquiescing. I am sick to death of Nazis. And yet they had arrived, basically on my doorstep….
Many progressives are sick and tired because they have found that their attempts to protect free speech have resulted in a world that is not flush with the reciprocal exchange of ideas, but one that is shimmering with the threat of imminent violence and the daily fear that comes when you live with the possibility of that violence.
Further irony alert: Dahlia Lithwick laments that “violence, these days, is almost expected” at public protests. You might want to ask who it is who pioneered that approach. For answers, try going back to that great era of the protest, the 1960s.
You can snicker at this and remark that the traditional “liberal’s” love of free speech turns out to be pretty loosely glued on. But I prefer to take this as an honest introspective report on the state of mind of a member of today’s mainstream, moderate, educated left. What strikes me is that they are in favor of freedom of speech—so long as they never have to encounter really bad people with vile views who actually use that freedom. But when white supremacists suddenly show up near their homes and neighborhoods, even for just a few hours, they panic and find themselves at a loss for what to do.
That’s a bad sign, because it means that the sector of American politics that most preens itself on its opposition to racism is not really prepared to oppose racism when they encounter it. Let’s put it this way. When you are confronted with racists and your first reaction is that maybe we should curtail freedom of speech and start punching people, that’s a confession that you have no other, better response prepared.
How did this happen?
Well, let’s start with the fact that the person who is so shocked to encounter actual racists is particularly shocked to discover them in downtown Charlottesville. But why would anyone be shocked by that in Central Virginia? This is not exactly Mississippi, but about fifty years ago, it was the home of Massive Resistance, a campaign of state and local government obstruction to prevent racial integration in the schools. I think we need to recognize and celebrate the enormous progress we’ve made since then. But it would be naive to think that the views behind Segregation and Massive Resistance are going to completely disappear in two generations. Even the most advanced society is still going to have people who cling to discredited ideas. (The resurgent popularity of socialism is proof of that.)
Yet for all of their insistence on the deep history of racism in America—when it suits them—the left tends not to actually encounter any strain of that history that might cause uncomfortable friction with their own worldview. Lithwick, for example, is a Canadian transplant who moved from Washington, DC, to downtown Charlottesville, a nice little enclave of well-off, educated white academics with unimpeachable “progressive” views. At least, that’s what it is today, during the time she actually remembers the city, long after the people who put up those statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson have passed on.
And here we have another irony alert: their campaign to expunge all evidence of the Confederacy from the public square fits in with the same desire to assume that all decent, respectable people agree with them, that the battle of ideas and values in the culture has been won, and all they need to do is wait for the old generation to die off.
By contrast, I’m a Midwestern transplant, but I didn’t settle down among the university types. I live in a rural area outside the city, where for the first ten years we were here, our only real neighbor was an elderly redneck with frankly stated racist views. He was poor and uneducated and didn’t even have indoor plumbing (yes, really), so he wasn’t exactly putting the “supremacy” in “white supremacy.” But even if that neighbor has passed on, he was a helpful reminder that racist views have not entirely passed on. That, in turn, can leave you a little more prepared to deal with them.
So why isn’t the left more prepared? Part of the problem, I suspect, is that they have engineered their lives to make sure they never meet an actual racist in the flesh—while still using racism as an all-purpose bogey man. So they have to manufacture a lot of trivial and imaginary targets for their “anti-racism” efforts. When you spend your time finding “racism” in the form of frat boys getting drunk on Cinco de Mayo or Kylie Jenner wearing a camouflage bikini, it’s no wonder you’re not prepared when genuine racists show up outside your front door.
The contemporary mania for fake hashtag activism gives the left the illusion that they are Social Justice Warriors constantly fighting the good fight against White Supremacy—without ever actually doing so. Decades of intellectual makework knocking down straw men have left them unprepared to confront the real thing. It has also left them with a disastrous lack of credibility when it comes to addressing potential allies on the right. Decades of trumped-up accusation of racism have caused a lot of people to reflexively ignore anything the left says about race, ever. Let’s put it this way: when you make out squeaky clean straight arrow Mitt Romney to be a crypto-racist, a lot of people are going to ignore you when you set your hair on fire about Donald Trump.
Lithwick does recover somewhat toward the end of her lament, and the most interesting half-admission comes in her description of a spontaneous debate at a later event at Lee Park, where people on all sides were not fighting but arguing with each other. She concludes:
What the fear and the calls for banning marches misses—what I doubted before I went to see it for myself—is that an actual conversation about speech, race, fury, and pain, happened in a city park…. If everyone had just stayed home last Wednesday in Charlottesville, there would have been no need to be afraid. There would also have been no dialogue.
The least charitable interpretation of this is that the left always talks about wanting a “conversation on race,” but they try to prevent one from actually happening, because a “conversation” has to have more than one side. But I’ll give this a more charitable interpretation and welcome this opportunity to discover that people’s views out in the rest of the world are more complex. For example, Lithwick describes a gay black man who opposes the removal of the statues because he regards this as a purely symbolic cop-out.
It’s an opportunity to move outside the bubble—and become more prepared to understand and engage in the real fight against racism.