History Shows There’s Nothing ‘New’ in News from Charlottesville

Charlottesville Candlelight Vigil at the White House, Washington, DC USA/Photo: CC/Ted Eytan/Flickr

In 2002 I worked as a companion to the elderly, and was hired to take walks with a man who’d fought fascism in Spain with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a volunteer corps of Americans who helped end the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

Though physically healthy, he’d suffered a nervous breakdown in the months following the September 11, 2001, attacks: All the xenophobia and war-mongering that ensued seemed to entirely negate his life’s work as an activist, and the subsequent market crash completely swallowed up the life’s savings he’d planned to leave behind for his children and grandchildren. At nearly ninety years old, his fight had left him financially and spiritually impoverished. To him, all our dystopian news headlines were just reruns.

Later, I worked as an assistant to a prominent black psychiatrist and community leader who was old enough to remember getting her arm broken in a race riot in 1944. Just eight years old, she’d accompanied her mother to the voting booth on Election Day, where a mob of white men completely overturned the makeshift building in which they were lined up. More than seventy years later, she continued serving as a New York State Commissioner long after she could have retired, overseeing investigations of prisoner deaths and reforming mental health policy. She once told me: “I can’t quit, because I have yet to meet a person qualified to replace me.” She knew every trick in the racist cop playbook, and could step around every bureaucratic glue trap set with the intention of slowing public policy. During the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, she worked from afar to connect mental health professionals with local religious leaders, creating networks to care for all the innocent individuals caught in that war zone. I saw the exhaustion inflicted on her by these daily updates, but never once did she seem shocked.

It’s ironic, since news headlines like those pouring out of Charlottesville count on shock for their proliferation. However, there’s no possible spin you can put on these events to make them sound original. The momentary jolt we get from our content delivery system (including literal buzzes and alarms as tweets and notifications roll in) mustn’t deceive us into thinking they are “signs of the times.” We’re merely quoting ourselves from a year, ten years, fifty years, two hundred years ago.

We hear this from those who actually survived Japanese internment, like George Takei, who spoke out last year after the Trump transition team cited those tragic historical events as a “precedent” for their anti-Muslim policy.

“It had never occurred to me … that the actual question of internment would serve as anything more than a cultural parallel,” said Takei. “Instead, we found ourselves, as we do now, rehashing questions that should have long ago achieved national consensus. Here was a man who was willing to resurrect those dark times directly and breathe life into a terrifying idea – that in the name of national security, we do things we do not like to whole groups of people, based on mere suspicion and gross generalizations.”

Not long afterward, I spoke to AIDS activist David France about writing his unprecedented living history tome, How to Survive a Plague. “I keep going back to passages in the book and thinking, these should be used as warning signs about what could happen,” he said. “And we know how many hundreds of thousands of Americans died in the Reagan years because of ideology. Seeing this ideology come back in the fullest form, maybe even fuller than it was then — or maybe it just seems starker now, because it’s rolling back time, instead of cementing time.”

But not every historical document foretells doom, France insists: “I see it as a warning, and maybe as a blueprint for how to organize.”

All these warnings about the cyclical nature of time itself – and Americans’ painfully slow, awkward response to completely predictable events – were ringing in my ears this weekend, along with memories of the crowds chanting at the Republican National Convention, which (I swear) was only just about a year ago. Looking back at that spectacle, it’s crystal clear that President Trump’s failure to denounce the neo-Nazis amassing in Charlottesville is an appeal to his base. If anything, it represents the fulfillment of certain campaign promises. Looking at my notes from last year’s coverage, I found this:

“This freezing current of barely constrained hostility was a habitual reaction from the Convention audience. Anytime ‘diversity’ was mentioned as a positive, anytime civil rights issues diverged from the ‘All Lives Matter’ narrative they have used to divest themselves of interest in issues that affect the lives of minorities in much greater proportion, you could feel the hackles being raised in unison. Invariably, the earlier a speaker denounced ‘political correctness’ or took a swipe at the Black Lives Matter movement, the more warmly they’d be received, and the darker a speaker’s skin color, the more blatantly they were expected to placate the mostly white audience with proclamations about protecting the lives of police officers, or the perils of expecting handouts.

“Despite all the lip-service paid to party unification, this was exposed to be the pillar of Trump’s campaign: voters sick of apologizing for the damage wrought by their ‘sincerely held beliefs’ and who will not submit to being judged or shamed for them — or even challenged to examine them. Under such limitations, their only way forward is backward, to a time before such questions were never publicly raised in the first place; hence the infinite appeal of ‘Make America Great Again.'”

In other words, the crumpled bodies and blazing tiki torches we saw in Virginia over the weekend are more than just an obvious end-point of “All Lives Matter”; they’re yet another spoke in the endless cycle of our obsession with violent racism and nationalism, even rallying under the same old flags.

charlottesville-cc-flickr-smI watched in the aftermath on Saturday as alt-right fascists on Twitter bragged about managing to pull off this demonstration “without breaking a single window,” because they knew how the optics would affect those they’re trying to recruit. To “patriots” like these, it would be impossible for Trump to denounce white nationalists without also calling out the BLM and antifa movements by name – and he may as well have, since even the president’s followup remarks on Sunday refused to single out the organizers of the Charlottesville event (which was advertised under the name “Unite the Right”), instead simply condemning “all violence.”

People like these don’t see any “violence” in deliberately raising the specter of lynchings, or the physical threat of surrounding someone with hundreds of torches. They don’t see any irony in the lack of swift, militarized police response to their assembly, unlike the ones that met demonstrators in Ferguson. They don’t see their tactics as “divisive.” They don’t see cars crushing innocent pedestrians as “terrorism” – in fact, conservatives in several states have been lobbying for legal protections for those who hit protestors with their vehicles.

The prevalence of Nazi imagery and salutes in Charlottesville wasn’t a fluke, nor can it be waved away as the bad behavior of a few political provocateurs. No one understands this better than our historians, whose insights can help temper our shock as horrifying news reports pour in. Timothy Snyder, author of this year’s handbook On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century writes: “Democracies can collapse, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”

Knowing why takes its toll in the long run. Despite the repudiation of Trump’s response from Democrats and Republicans alike, we are nevertheless headed into yet another week where nothing has changed. Women will return to work (picking up where they left off in debates regarding their biological competence), having just watched the execution of one of their own by a Nazi driving a Dodge Charger; LGBTQ individuals who observed masses chanting “Fuck you, faggots!” will go about their business, already accustomed to the way major catastrophes tend to drown out the instances of everyday persecution (like gay students getting their yearbook quotes scrubbed) that we brace ourselves for every single day.

The same goes for persons of color, including immigrants and refugees from other countries, who persist in taking time away from other pursuits to shoulder the risks of organizing and educating newcomers to the resistance, pointing out the areas where improvement is most urgently needed – even as most Americans struggle to remain insensitive to them, groping their way blindly toward a future that’s just a fantasy version of the past.

Following Trump’s statement, Ava DuVernay tweeted: “‘On many sides.’ My God. Blessings to those who were/are on the wrong side of the whip, rope, gavel, badge, ballot.” Her list is impeccably organized by the level of engagement it takes to disarm these threats. If we turn out to defend others against the whip and the rope, but mind our own business when it comes to the gavel, badge, and ballot, how can we deny that the resulting atrocities have well and truly been committed in our name?

I’m the product of a small town, and have family members who will quietly refuse to disavow the kind of hatred we saw in Charlottesville – but think it has nothing to do with them or their political beliefs. Last fall, when I was looking up former classmates on Facebook to see if this year’s high school reunion was worth going to, I found several of them openly jonesing for this kind of revolt, and many others who were clearly heading toward that conclusion. These are poor white people to whom it’s become apparent that trading on their whiteness – reveling in it, voting for it, fighting for it – is finally socially acceptable.

For people like these, Charlottesville will likely only serve to normalize expressions of hatred as mere “political speech.” We need to have conversations with everyone we know about how wrong this is: The ideas are wrong, the goals are wrong, the tactics are wrong, the anger is misdirected, the facts are “alternative” at best, and the cause comes to us pre-lost. In our small town, we were taught about racism in public elementary school; today, teachers sharing CNN’s “Who Are White Nationalists and What Do They Want?” article will be accused of “pushing an agenda.”

We all need to reach out to teachers, as well as the historians and public servants who have spent their lifetimes documenting (and influencing) these cycles – not just to learn from them, but to take up their yoke, so that when the time comes we can ease them of their burdens, taking on our own important roles in whatever is to come. These are fields from which one really ought to be able to retire, even if resting easy will never be on their “agenda.”

As for those for whom all this is still very new, who are encountering this evil for the very first time and who doubt things can really be as bad as everyone says: I’m surrounded by ghosts who would assure you otherwise, if they could. Oh, just wait, they laugh from a modest distance, unshocked as ever. You’ll see.

Photo above: Charlottesville, VA, August 12, 2017: CC/Rodney Dunning/Flickr