There should be no real difficulty in condemning Nazis, white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan. They are, for God’s sake, Nazis and white supremacists. This should not require moral courage. This is obvious. This is the moral equivalent of the text you type to prove you’re not a robot.
President Trump is always, terminally, at a loss for words, but it would be hard to think of worse words at a more vital time than his speeches in the aftermath of the racist, terrorist violence in Charlottesville on Saturday. First, Saturday’s mealy-mouthed speech about “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides.” And then Monday’s halting, teleprompted follow-up, in which (two days later) he barely managed to acknowledge that, well, racism and bigotry have no place here.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides,” he said Saturday.
On many sides.
It is important when you consider the situation of a man whose face has been crushed by a boot to wonder if any damage might have been done to the boot.
One man’s life has been threatened, but on the other hand, another man’s property has been threatened. (Where have I heard this before? What is this park we are standing in, again?) You must consider and weigh these two things against one another. The North showed considerable aggression against the South, you could say.
This is not good enough. At what point can we stop giving people the benefit of the doubt? “Gotta Hear Both Sides” is carved over the entrance to Hell. How long must we continue to hear from idiots who are wrong? I don’t want to hear debate unless there is something legitimately to be debated, and people’s rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are not among those things. They are self-evident, or used to seem so.
“It’s been going on for a long time in our country,” Trump said on Saturday. “Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama, this has been going on for a long, long time. It has no place in America.”
If only. If only it had no place here. If only these statues had sprung up out of the earth on their own.
What did they think the mob was doing, gathered with torches?
Of course they gathered with torches, because the only liberty they have lost is the liberty to gather with torches and decide whose house to visit with terror. That is the right that is denied them: the right to other people’s possessions, the right to be the only person in the room, the right to be the only person that the world is made for. (These are not rights. They are wrongs.) You are sad because your toys have been taken, but they were never toys to begin with. They were people. It is the ending of the fairy tale; because you were a beast, you did not see that the things around you were people and not objects that existed purely for your pleasure. You should not weep that the curse is broken and you can see that your footstool was a human being.
But to rejoice in that discovery you have to stop being a beast first, and they have not. Why would they? Trump promises to turn the world back and bring the curse again. That is implicit in his every speech, a dog whistle strong enough that every dog in America is deaf and in constant pain.
Here we are in the year of our lord 2017 and the president of the United States lacks the moral courage to condemn Nazis and white supremacists. And they are not even making it difficult. They are saluting like Nazis and waving Nazi flags and chanting like Nazis and spewing hatred like Nazis. Maya Angelou was not wrong. When someone tells you who they are, believe them. Especially if what that person is telling you is “I am a Nazi.”
Barely, after two days, he has managed to mumble that their ideology has (should have) no place in our society. Silence sells hats, I guess.
“We’re proud of who we are,” Trump also said, “so we want to get the situation straightened out in Charlottesville, and we want to study it. And we want to see what we’re doing wrong as a country where things like this can happen.”
“We want to see what we’re doing wrong as a country where things like this can happen.”
Hmm, what could it be that we are doing wrong as a country? What is it exactly that has allowed these horrible ideologies to come out of the shadows, waving tiki torches and bringing terror with them? Could it be, Donald, something you’ve said? Could it be the silence that has greeted all your statements, so far past the pale of acceptable discourse that you can’t even see acceptable discourse from where you’re standing? Could it be all the refusal to name a campaign that began with rants about “rapists” and promises of a wall and a Muslim ban, and continued with sexist taunts and promiscuous retweets of conspiracists for the horror that it was? It was silence then from people who wanted to win that got us to where this can happen — this attack and this president, who won’t denounce even the most egregious of groups at the time when they have been responsible for a hideous act of terror.
But we have always been a country where things like this can happen. It is just harder not to notice now. And it is possible, sometimes, to be angrier at the person who makes you notice than at the thing you are seeing.
A truth that murder mysteries get right about human nature is that even when you find a man stabbed before the soup course, someone always wants to finish the soup. All right, someone was murdered, but I didn’t do it, and can this possibly mean I don’t get my soup? There are few things that are harder to shake than the conviction that you have never done anything wrong. You can’t have. It’s you. All right: You are not a murderer. You are a good person. But that does not mean that what you have was not ill-gotten. That does not mean that you deserve everything you have. You have to look at your history and see it, all of it.
“My administration is restoring the sacred bonds of loyalty between this nation and its citizens,” Trump went on, “but our citizens must also restore the bonds of trust and loyalty between one another. We must love each other, respect each other and cherish our history and our future together.”
We must cherish our history. (Somewhere, a dog whimpers.) Can we be a little more specific about what history? Can we be a little more specific about any of this? The specifics are where the principles are. What will we cherish, and what will we disavow? What are we putting on a pedestal, and what are we putting in a museum? Not all history is created equal.
You want many sides? Then history is a good place to start.
Monuments are always misleading, because so little good is unmixed. History contains heroes, but no one is a hero entirely, and no one is a hero for very long. You can be brilliant in some ways and despicable in others. You can be a clean, upright, moral individual in your private life who never swears, treats women with respect, and speaks highly of duty and honor– and go out every day and dedicate yourself to a cause that makes the world worse. You can live a despicable life and yet give people a powerful expression of an idea that makes the world ultimately, slowly, better. It is possible to contain such contradictions.
Thomas Jefferson, presiding spirit of Charlottesville, certainly did. He wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights … life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but he also wrote in 1769 to the newspaper demanding the return of his property: a man named Sandy, a left-handed shoemaker, “something of a horse jockey.” This is one man’s inconvenient loss of property and another man’s freedom. Many sides.
“So important,” Trump said. “We have to respect each other. Ideally, we have to love each other.”
Maybe. But there is nothing more pathological than the desire to be liked by everyone all the time. If you are continually attracting Nazis and white supremacists, you shouldn’t say, “WOW, everyone LIKES ME! Great!” you should ask yourself, “Where in my life have I gone seriously wrong?”
Who would stand over the body of someone who died protesting a hateful, violence, racist ideology and say that “we have to come together”? That we have to find common ground? I am sure there is common ground to be found with the people who say that some are not fit to be people. The man who thinks I ought not to exist — maybe we can compromise and agree that I will get to exist on alternate Thursdays. Let us only burn some of the villagers at the stake. We can eat just three of the children. All ideas deserve a fair hearing. Maybe we can agree that some people are only three-fifths of people, while we are at it. As long as we are giving a hearing to all views.
Only someone with no principles would think that such a compromise was possible. Only someone with no principles would think that such a compromise was desirable. At some point you have to judge more than just the act of fighting. You have to judge what the fighting is for. Some principles are worth fighting for, and others are not.
Certain truths used to be self-evident, to quote a man whose words were often better than he was.
But to Trump, they aren’t. Trump’s words are no better than he is. They are terrible words. They are the worst words.