A South politician preaches to the poor white man
“You got more than the blacks, don’t complain
You’re better than them, you been born with white skin, ” they explain
And the Negro’s name
Is used, it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
— Bob Dylan
Let me be clear from the start that I in no way condone the viewpoints, menacing intimidation, and/or violent deeds advanced in the so-called “Unite the Right” demonstration that was slated to happen in my beloved sometime-hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia today, or by any hate group in operation today.
But I am concerned about how we got to the August 2017 white nationalist rally in Cville as far as recent history goes, and where we go from here.
Oddly, as an “extreme moderate,” if you will, and an avowed history buff, Virginiaphile — and if I might be allowed to add, American patriot — I disagreed with the recent vote by Charlottesville City Council to plan for the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue adjacent to its Downtown Mall in what was formerly Lee Park, but which has been renamed Emancipation Park.
I was an advocate for historical context, and the inclusion of a larger story, meaning more voices and perspective. I do not favor shunting uncomfortable history off to museums alone.
But I still say “oddly” because it might appear that, given my essay title above, “Sympathy for the White Nationalist Devil,” AND the passionate white supremacist condemnation of Council’s statue decision — and the subsequent rallies reacting to the planned statue removal — that I am on the same “side” as these white nationalist/supremacist/hate groups, or at the least that we make strange bedfellows in mutually opposing the Lee statue’s removal.
Let me be clear again. We’re not on the same side.
I do not believe, embrace, or support a single thing the white nationalists stand for. I don’t even agree with their reasons for wanting to keep the Lee statue — standing up for whites against everybody else — because racism is repugnant to me.
Plus, they’ve got their history wrong!
I have my own reasons to keep the statue, which are hard to explain quickly, but boil down to respect for Lee as a man, love for my home state of Virginia, and an interpretation of the Civil War that is more complex but I believe more accurate than dismissing Lee as simply a “fighter to preserve slavery.” That latter simplistic view is popular today, making it easy for ideologues to define leaders from the Civil War and throughout America’s past as either “white hat” or “black hat.” But it’s a form of presentism — using and abusing the past to suit the needs of somebody’s argument today — that I am uncomfortable with.
Suffice it to say here that my reasons for wanting to keep the Lee statue don’t include any support for white supremacy or any attempt to insult blacks or other people of color.
In fact, I find that the white nationalist “side” has put my “side” (the forgotten minority I call “actual students of history”) in a tough position — that of barely being able to get out the message of preserving and expanding history. Today it feels like you can either be on the Right, or on the Left, but there’s no apparent place in contemporary American culture for knowledge, research, or nuance.
So even though neither I, nor the white nationalists, wanted the Lee statue removed, it is only the white nationalists and their opponents on the Left that anyone is paying attention to. Their conflict makes for good copy, good TV, and good Facebook fights.
That leaves me and the other advocates for history out in the cold.
But I’ll save for another time my deeper viewpoints on why the statue should have remained, and focus today on what has come about since Charlottesville Council’s vote: That is, the unintended consequence of rousing white supremacists to not only condemn the removal of the statue (on racist grounds that wrongly use Lee as their totem), BUT also to rally their troops multiple times in an attempt to raise their profile, all at innocent little Charlottesville’s disturbed expense.
“In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand at the mongrel dogs who teach
Fearing not that I’d become my enemy in the instant that I preach”
— Bob Dylan
The last time the white nationalists’ KKK pals were in town for a rally, a few weeks ago, I happened to be visiting my daughter (a UVA student) and ran fleeing from the city, not only out of fear of the open carry, gun-wielding demonstrators, but also because of the police helicopter circling the usually peaceful city’s Downtown pedestrian mall. That copter just wouldn’t let up. It’s hard to imagine that these rallies aren’t really hurting Charlottesville tourism.
But it would be simplistic to NOT admit that an excess of identity politics on the Left, fraught as it is with real grievances, yet mixed with a troubling case of presentism (today’s standards being applied to historic phenomena), and a vehemence of their own on the issue of “confronting hate,” hasn’t contributed its own simmering emotions to the current taut state of affairs in Jefferson’s humble burg.
The Left has spread its fair share of knee-jerk reactionarism, both in Charlottesville and well beyond. To that end, I fear that if we start with targeting Lee and Jackson we’ll end with ripping out Washington and Jefferson. This is a wrongheaded path.
I’m not blaming the Left at all for the violent tragedy perpetrated by the white nationalists in Charlottesville. Nor even for sincere attempts to confront racism, in spite of the fact that on the statue they did so in a somewhat clumsy and unhelpful way.
But I do hope that my progressive friends can acknowledge that it takes two to tango, and that there’s a pretty furious dance going on right now.
In contrast to Charlottesville’s statue fiasco and its fallout is Richmond’s more evenhanded and patient process, under black mayor LeVar Stoney. Even some of the things he’s said on the Civil War are too strident for my tastes, and emit the whiff of liberal presentism, but he’s at least an advocate for adding historical context, and not for ignorant destruction.
Untangling all the knots in this issue is not the work of a pithy, quick bit of commentary. ADHD Nation can’t hold the winning cards simply because it can’t pay close enough attention to get down to the heart of matters.
So please bear with me, because again, today’s essay isn’t about my viewpoint on the statues (I’ll write about that soon).
Today’s essay is about the poor, bedraggled men (mostly) who claim the misguided mantle of white nationalism and white supremacism, and who rally specifically for so called “white heritage” and for what they call the “pro-white movement.”
In large part, this is driven by the illogical and disgruntled blogger Jason Kessler (who looks like a sad and impotent reincarnation of Hitler), and his group Unity and Security for America, along with a smattering of other designated hate groups who share the same perceptions and beliefs about so-called white oppression and so-called white discrimination and the loss of so-called white identity.
All of which are fictions.
But all of which are also violently destructive powder kegs if for no other reason than the vehemently held beliefs of their adherents and the reactions of their opponents.
There’s violence implicit in the white nationalists’ stances, hungered for in their aims, and born out in the history of kindred groups similarly driven by a roiling racial animus.
And then there’s the violence just waiting to be unloosed when demonstrators and earnestly intentioned counter-demonstrators meet on the field of their mutual loathing.
The white nationalists live for those counter-demonstrators, what they call the “Antifa,” or anti-Fascists. It’s almost fair to say they’d be nothing without their leftist opponents who appear, on cue, to “fight” the hate and racism, but who, in the end, risk contributing to the very problems we so sincerely wish to eradicate.
In the case of the Charlottesville rally, and its tragic aftermath, it’s a fact that IF the statue had not been voted on at an impatient pace and in an emotional hue, that we would not likely be witnessing Charlottesville as the new staging ground for alt-right propaganda. It’s also a fact that no matter how many statues you rip down, that won’t get to the root of racism, and in many ways sweeps it under the rug, avoids truly confronting it.
Charlottesville City Council cast its vote, for good or for ill. But that choice DOES play a role here. That’s not the same as me saying that the removal vote is to blame for any specific outcome. It is simply saying the events are, in fact, related.
In the wake of that vote, and in response to the alt-right’s targets being set on Cville, certainly the local social-justice Left, and a broad swathe of ordinary Charlottesvillians, have united in spirit and in presence to oppose the rallies. Much of that work has been good and peaceful — prayer, silent vigils, meditation, speaking up for community unity — and some has been confrontational, including the pepper spray incident on the UVA campus during the unsanctioned and grossly symbolic torch-wielding episode by the white nationalists on the eve of their rally.
That temperatures are running high is an understatement.
Love is as Love Does
In a Daily Progress story about the Charlottesville faith community’s own rallying efforts, and by that I mean their meetings to unify and bolster one another in love and togetherness, one minister spoke passionately about the truth and the power of love. From the article,
“This is a pivotal moment in our nation,” said the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. “I am here to show up on the side of love. This is a time when violence, fear and radicalized hate have been given permission. It is important for people of conscience to say that love and equity is our future.
“Faith calls us to see the humanity in one another,” she said. “The Christian scriptures call us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus says that even our enemies are our neighbors. That is the kind of radical, unconditional love that we are called to live out as people of faith towards one another.”
What I didn’t hear from her, or anyone in the Charlottesville community, was what efforts they were going to take to show the white nationalists some love. That doesn’t mean those practical answers weren’t presented, or that they didn’t happen, but they weren’t included in the article.
Prayer, “holding space,” and other efforts to drown out the effects of the rag tag white supremacists are earnest, worthy, good, and meaningful.
But they aren’t radical acts of love. They aren’t faith-in-action except as self-protection on the one hand, and distant prayer power on the other. Neither of which are negligible. But neither of which are a flower in the end of a gun. A student in the face of a Tinanamen Square tank. A game changer.
Maybe it would’ve been gifts of chocolate chip cookies and milk. After all, there’s probably not a lot of gluten-free vegans among the white nationalists.
Maybe if a team of white-haired grannies fearlessly walked up to these Neo Nazis and gave them bouquets of yellow roses, the symbol of friendship, demonstrators and counter-demonstrators alike might have been shocked enough to be momentarily jarred from their prior headspace, and open to something new, tensions ratcheted down.
Maybe these guys need some love. Not from afar. From up close. Because the bottom line is, what’s currently happening — pitched battle lines — isn’t working to build bridges, tamp down tensions, or move minds.
Carrying a Torch for Racism
I couldn’t help but think on the morning of the rally about what would lead a person to believe that any thing resembling so-called “white culture” ever existed in history? There’s no authentic historic precedent for a “whiteness” based culture. There are cultures that are mostly white, but that has never been the basis of their identity.
I couldn’t imagine how someone could so willfully or so “naturally” miss the point on #BlackLivesMatter when it’s painfully obvious from American history that the only reason such an assertion would need to be made is because black lives in our country have not, for all practical purposes, purposes of justice, fairness, and everyday citizenry, mattered. Simply having to say #BlackLivesMatter was its own proof. Every thinking person knows this.
We know “blue lives matter” because the dominantly broad honoring of, and respect for, our police has never been in question.
We know “white lives matter” because we bear the legacy of white privilege that’s baked into the very system on which our nation was founded (even if many whites at the origin faced deep inequality in comparison to the rich and landed).
These things were never in question. The question is still alive for blacks in the American state, even if spiritually there is no question. That means it’s a question that’s still alive for all Americans.
But white nationalists, steeped in historic, cultural, and spiritual confusion, flailing about in existential purposelessness, lost in a fringe racist view — which, in spite of seeming appearances, is repugnant to the overwhelming population of America — and mired in philosophically violent aspirations, hasn’t seemed to apprehend either their unchecked social privilege or the reasons why historically marginalized folks would need to assert the validity of their rights again and again and again.
So what is happening within the hearts and minds of white nationalists that they so monumentally miss the point? How were they treated growing up? Who indoctrinated them in such beliefs? What did they witness, internalize, and come to claim as their own?
Now, not all folks who were raised in racist households embrace the beliefs of their parents. But for those who do, why? Why does it stick? And are they in some difficult to understand way, actually victims?
For those who embrace overt, extreme racism later in life, not from their childhoods, why do they do it?
What are they experiencing that they externalize their fears, frustrations, and anger, turning them outward, onto an enemy, positing themselves as maligned and forgotten victims, and lashing out in hopes of both recognition and validity?
Are they hoping to grow their numbers? Are they hoping to assuage their sense of powerlessness by attempting to build power and influence? Do they just want to be seen and affirmed as worthy? Do they long to distract themselves from having to turn within, to see what’s inside?
And it’s fair for all Americans to ask most pointedly now, were white nationalists frankly validated by a GOP candidate-turned-president who fanned the flames of white nationalist aspirations, and which built on the power of presidential advisor Steven Bannon’s white nationalist platform at Breitbart?
What role do all GOP voters who pulled the lever for Trump, and who continue to “dance with the one that brung ya,” play in all this? They saw his behavior before. They’re seeing the fruits of its influence now. And they helped make it happen.
Still, for all the loathsomeness in the white nationalist view, the one thing the alt-right is not doing, by and large as a bloc, is committing a crime. Speaking out (except when inciting violence), writing blogs, starting websites, holding rallies — all of these are our noble rights, double-edged sword that they are.
We don’t have these rights if not to exercise them. It’s tough work being an American and integrating all these uncomfortable contradictions.
I wonder what would have happened if, during the church-centered internal Charlottesville community bolstering program prior to the rally of August 12, a “Welcome Dinner” was held instead, with an open invitation to the white nationalists? You could invite some anti-racists too, just for balance, though you’d have to set up some ground rules about civility to keep things calm.
I wonder what would happen if the (mostly) men in attendance from the white nationalist side were acknowledged not as the indisputable opposition to all that is moral, upright, and good that we know to be true about their stance, but were instead seen as the broken, fearful, sad, impotent men that they so obviously are, and so tendered in radical compassion?
Even death row inmates are offered a last supper.
The philosophies of white nationalists don’t hold up. There’s no historic or logical case for their positions or arguments. There’s only blind passion, calcified indoctrination, and intense belief, belief that rests on the ground of nothingness. They clearly are hurting, even if it looks like they’re the ones doing the hurting. They are doing hurting, but where does it come from?
I recall once during my time working in online political discussion at washingtonpost.com, when radical Islamic terrorism was increasing, reading articles about how the greatest recruitment tool for terrorist groups was the disaffection, purposelessness, and even unemployment of men between the ages of roughly 15 and 55. Men, people, need a purpose. Without one, they are prey to the whims of efforts less noble than a good day’s work.
The old proverb applies: “Idleness is the devil’s workshop.”
Some theologians define sin as “missing the point.” For the faith community, or at least gifted and experienced faith leaders, it must be obvious that the white nationalists are lost in sin, wandering in the desert of their own misdirection. This is only made worse when the Bible or Christianity are used to defend racism, creating obstacles to punching through the misapprehension.
Yet racism arises from somewhere. It is the roots that should concern us more. They are what must be eradicated.
What is the origin of such sad, benighted, hatred and hostility? And who are those wounded men underneath their angry, hostile, blame-filled, threatening veneer?
One things for sure, it is neither the fault of General Lee, nor even of the South during the Civil War. The story is far more complex than that and implicates the North as well. We REALLY need to know our history.
There are no simple answers for America’s shadowed legacy of racial oppression. But I remain convinced that one of those answers is not for two groups, pitched in spiritual and practical battle, to stand across from each other, armed with signs, beliefs, or guns, shouting past one another, one determined to advance hate, one often hatefully denouncing it, prayer warriors as allies.
This isn’t just a job for religion. It’s also a question for political and civic groups.
Changing Hearts and Minds
I also wondered what would have happened if, “someone held a rally and no one came,” which is a line from a Frasier episode. Two hundred and fifty angry guys getting NO attention for their hate party means a lot less energy given to them for their outburst. A lot less potential for danger.
If at the same time that the white nationalist rally was held, across town, far away, maybe at IX Art Park, a love and pride festival was held celebrating diversity, unity, and togetherness, without reference to the hate mongers, the energy of love would be directed toward its own efforts, instead of in response or resistance to someone else’s. This isn’t avoidance. It’s the age old practice of practical shunning, and it has immense power!
In one way we believe that shining a bright spotlight on the hate groups will make them go away, that counter demonstrations right up in person on the front lines show greater strength in numbers and a refusal to bow in the face of terror.
Sadly, just as easily, such spotlights bring the hate groups into sharper view, broadcasting their message to other broken people, equally vulnerable to a troubling call to arms. To add to the woes, even well-intentioned counterdemonstrators can let emotions run amok, leading to confrontations, fisticuffs, and being in the wrong place at the wrong time, innocent victims of emotions that boil over.
One’s front line doesn’t necessarily have to be in the fever pitch of battle.
So what do we do?
In the end, love is, in my view, the only answer.
But it just may be that love gets dirtier than can happen in the church on our knees in the pews in prayer, focused in the lotus at the temple, with a candle at the altar, linked arm-in-arm on the front lines in opposition to the face of determined hate, in counter-marches of one’s own, or even throwing love fests.
Blaming the other isn’t fixing it either. People are dying.
It just might be that the only love there is risks it all — safety, comfort, certainty — and steps into the fray to serve without judgment. “Turn the other cheek” is a difficult posture to hold. “Put up your dukes” is a lot easier. Knowing the difference is the toughest of all.
The devil is said to flee in the presence of love. Perhaps the most radical act of all would be to feed the white nationalist dinner, listen to his story, look into his eyes. See if he wants seconds. Give him some dessert. Share your own story, and share how troubled you are about how things have come to be.
Look for common ground. Maybe find it in macaroni and cheese.
Stuffed, comforted, at long last tired, we all might just be somewhat changed for the surprising acceptance of “the other” even in the face of opposition — meaning accepting what we can not ourselves will to change in another.
Our guests just might go forth and sin no more.
And the small, niggling devil, with no more division to feed on, would find the exit door on his own.
But like I said, there are no easy answers. Maybe it’s time we started asking better questions. Like how did we get here? And what are we going to do now?
To that end, exploring rather than hiding our history might be a good place to start.
— Lindsay Curren, Average American