I’ve been struggling for the better part of this week to put something, anything, down to words regarding the recent tragedy in Charlottesville.
First, if you haven’t watched the VICE News documentary HBO posted online, please do so. You really can’t understand a lot of this without witnessing it. And since we’re supposed to put “trigger warnings” on stuff now, there are some incredibly disturbing and violent images within that doc, but again I would strongly recommend every American watch it. Those of you gazing at the angry fulminations emanating from my social media platforms will know how I feel about this. But what does this actually mean?
Next, I feel some basic things about this event must be stated, and repeatedly. A group of white supremacists/nationalists and neo-Nazis marched across a college campus with torches chanting “You/Jews will not replace us,” and finding their rallying base around a statue of a Confederate war general. This happened in America in 2017. The next day, during clashes at a protest people were injured, and after police ordered everyone to disburse a car driven by a supremacist sympathizer rammed over several dozen peaceful protestors, killing 32 year old Heather Heyer. The President of the United States has still been unable to issue any kind of statement making it clear where the majority of the violence on this tragic day was to be found. As of this writing, a week after this all happened, while almost everyone he brought with him to the White House is gone, he still has not issued any kind of statement to correct the record. This is how the President of the United States thinks, in 2017.
Third, these things are all irrefutable. And yet I find myself immersed in social media discussions in which many people out there cannot seem to understand, let alone morally grasp, the terms of this “debate.” This is rather unnerving because we Americans take it as a point of major pride that we helped Russia triumph over the Nazi menace during the Second World War. And yet even that type of speech is now considered by some people to deserve equal footing with anti-racist slogans and agendas. How did this decoupling of morality and consequence occur? Well, it sure didn’t happen one week ago.
We live in an age right now in which we are asking gigantic questions about society that seemed solidly in place even years prior. But many of these changes were accelerating in the first part of the great “War on Terror” with Dubya. This is a time that a lot of young people have no memory of, or if they do remember it’s filled with war. It bears repeating that the United States has been at war in Afghanistan for longer than any other war in its history. The lies came fast and furious after 9/11, and many precedents for Trump were set right here. “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” “enhanced interrogation techniques,” “reality-based community.” Just three examples of words twisted beyond recognition by an administration bent on war and reaffirming the supposed world order of things by any means. And of course there were other egregious cases, such as pretending a great southern city (New Orleans) didn’t really exist in its time of most dire need. These are all things that are barely a decade past us.
Obama came, but we saw very little change in substance when it came to the militarization of our populace. While the Nobel Peace Prize-winning President got a lot of great press for supposedly winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in reality our nation got ever more enmeshed in the Middle East during his tenure, and Obama became known as the “Drone President” for how much he shifted military reliance on this technology. But the twisting of language didn’t stop under this man, as words like “imminent threat” became used to justify the preemptive assassination of American citizens abroad who were suspected of terrorism.
And there’s that word again. The word that has lost all meaning to today’s populace. The acts of James Alex Fields were certainly those of terrorism, especially as the media loves to define it today (car being driven over multiple pedestrians). And yet never more was the establishment media at pains to describe this as exactly what it was: an act of terrorism, perpetrated by a domestic terrorist. This debate has been worn out in the years after 9/11, but it’s hard to pretend as if most people don’t see it precisely this way: “terrorism” is stuff done by “those” people (i.e. anyone not white, but mostly Muslims). Again, the terms of the debate shifted steadily under the Bush II administration, but Obama did very little to quell this. And the GOP was literally using their racist bases’ impulse to go against that president through groups like the TEA Party.
This all leads us to where we stand now. Everyone wants to bemoan the state of “polarization” in our politics today, but very few seem to grasp the roots of our outrage. Could it be because:
The United States has never been forced through a truth and reconciliation process over any part of its horrifying racist past? Talking about the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, KKK, the list goes on. There is a reason why somebody born after 9/11 could still be indoctrinated in this type of evil mindset. Because generations before never had to be fully confronted with the malice of their deeds. And the rest of us were apparently OK with this for our generations.
Most of our US populace has become inherently deadened by the Neoliberal regime initiated by Reagan and Thatcher in the 80’s and was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt in the 2008 financial crash to be the largest financial swindle in history. This pernicious ideology has led vast swathes to view the entire world as a transactable thing, and leaves little room for other considerations. This alone has led to pain and suffering throughout the world that has the convenient excuse (still today!) of pretending as if it is an unchallengeable ideology (it isn’t). For more on this topic, I’d highly recommend Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.
Or perhaps it’s just a simple lack of education, with our elite betters exploiting it against us at every turn. Millions of people turned up in the streets to protest the Iraq War, but it still happened. Thousands of leftist, anti-racist and antifa organizers turned up at the Charlottesville protest, but somebody still got murdered. And the President sided with the murderers. Hard to think of a more concise example of the stark terms of the situation.
So yeah, this is war. In some ways it’s a war that never got resolved, much in the way the Korean peninsula situation threatens to spiral out of control because the war fought there by our nation a half-century ago led to much death and destruction but very little verdict. These things occur, and then pass us by as our populace becomes more and more inured to the catastrophic future awaiting us through climate change and political instability.
All of these things being predicate, how did we get here in 2017? I have no idea if the concepts I’m laying out here do justice to that question. But, as with the Boston Marathon bombing four years ago, these types of terrorist attacks have a large piece of context that never quite gets discussed in the media even when they happen.
Surely there is a reason these types of attacks are occurring on what appears to be a daily basis. Why is it so easy for most of us to throw around the “terrorism” label when it’s happening over there, and yet have such an inability to realize that it is our own foreign policy providing large amounts of “terror” to the world population? This kind of cognitive dissonance was a large part of what Trump was able to exploit to “win” the election, and continues to balance on moronic statements like “both sides.” It becomes apparent that this is racist balderdash is what the President truly thinks, and why wouldn’t he if his chief news sources are Fox News and Alex Jones? Our cherished belief to insulate ourselves in filter bubbles is only making these problems worse, and for those already massively uninformed, downright dangerous.
That’s essentially what we saw in Charlottesville: a large group of amazingly uninformed people acting on those beliefs in a violent way. Now, one could argue that’s the general thrust of American politics (as Tina Fey pointed out recently on Weekend Update, it was actually us who stole all of this land, another convenient fact to forget), but that is leaving off the hook those other problems I mentioned. And until that type of stuff is resolved, this all is only going to get worse.
The Right wants to paint all of this as “political correctness” gone awry, and while there is a grain of truth to some of that argument, I would argue that the statement of murdering a young woman in cold blood for no reason kinda of puts a lot of that to the side. Doesn’t mean we should go after these people with violence, but I’m finding it very hard to feel bad for some of these guys who are so internet savvy on the alt-Right but didn’t think about how a public doxing of their own might ostracize them from their communities. There should never be a single law against any type of speech in this country, but many courts have rightly made exceptions regarding violence to others. Again, some of this becomes blurry in our age of American insanity, but if the next rallies get worse be prepared to watch all of this take on a larger significance.
For those reading this, I wish I could come to a better conclusion than this. But there are solutions to many of the problems plaguing the nation. Single-payer healthcare, massive investments in alternative energy and basic infrastructure, and gigantic tax increases on the wealthy would significantly help a lot of what ails our country and the planet. But we cannot get there until we wrangle ourselves together as a populace who wants to make things better. The way some of the discussion has tilted in the wake of Charlottesville, I don’t think we are remotely there yet. But there is still time left (not in climate change terms, as we’ve now reached decade zero).
And it is time to get angry. For people like me, who stupidly didn’t understand the current electorate and the powers that seek to manipulate it, and for people who weren’t angry enough even after the bigot-in-chief was sworn in. People are now literally dying in the streets for these principles. It is incumbent upon all of us who reject white supremacist ideology to make our feelings known, online and in letters/calls to our representatives, and especially in the streets and through activism.
Because all of this, I fear, is only the beginning.
John Abraham-Watne is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.