We’ve seen this all before, but that makes it no less striking. Confederate and Nazi flags being vigorously waved in the air is not exactly a new phenomenon, but it is uncommon in America today. Yet there we were, eyes glued to the television, watching in disbelief as our country’s societal norms were challenged by hate and malice, while the leader of our country did nothing to halt the approach of that malignance.
We overwhelmingly agree with the statements being made by the morally sound citizens that inhabit the United States. Statements such as “We are better than this”, “Nazi’s are evil”, “White supremacy is evil”, “Hate will not prevail”, and so on. But what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia re-raises many questions that cause friction among us all. How far do the bounds of the First Amendment stretch, to what lengths should we go in order to discourage hateful rhetoric, and when does the “preservation of history” turn into the emboldening of hate and evil?
Each of these questions poses their own moral and logical challenges, and given the delicate and tensioned rhetorical and racial environment our country finds itself in, there is little consensus. However, these questions must be answered, because if left unchallenged, they will fester and percolate through our society like acid, until there is nothing left to show for our years of hard-fought innocuity.
To look at the events that transpired in Charlottesville with an accurate lens, one must first understand its background in racial ideology. We are all aware of the specter of racism. It has loomed over us since our country’s inception, and has caused a great divide in American society; a divide not easily navigated across. There are still those who view this divide as a prophesized inevitability. That view entails that there is only one remedy to the divide: the struggle we find ourselves in, some believe, is only fixed if there is only one side that remains when the struggle has ceased. And that struggle is devoid of intellectual discussion and compromise, and filled with violence and bloodshed.
“Blood and soil”, they chanted on that Friday night in Charlottesville, the tiki-torches they wielded illuminating the dark sky, as if the flame was to symbolize their own perceived purity amongst all that is darker than them, in skin color at least. Their leaders, like former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke, stated their intentions to “take their country back”, as if the grass and pavement we walk on each day was a prize to be won in gladiatorial combat, and not public goods that we all share.
And they had every right to come to Charlottesville and rally around these buzz words and battle cries, many of them even emblemizing our President in both their wardrobe and their rhetoric. The Supreme Court, in fact, has long held onto the prerogative that hate speech is protected under the First Amendment, as long as it does not promote imminent violence. One may interpret “Blood and soil” however they choose, but the message seems pretty clear. The words that resonated over that crowd of monstrously hateful humans was not implicit in its meaning.
This legal protection, though, clashes extraordinarily with the moral backbone of this country. It is morally impermissible to allow that speech to be perpetuated or legitimized, and yet our laws and judiciary make sure that such speech is able to puncture through with its
coarseness, vulgarity, and malevolence. Therefore, to discourage it would make active objectors to that language subverters of the law.
However, this legal history is juxtaposed next to our racial history, which presents itself in a much more obscure and subjective light. Although our laws, while flawed – as was just exemplified – may be explicit in their language and enforcement, our history in reconciling our racist past is less so. To some, the past must not be demonized, but left in memoriam; untouched, unfazed, and even excused. To others, what unjustly prevails are those instances where society was at its most denigrated and harsh, and that which honors such denigration, inadvertently or otherwise, must be done away with.
Before Charlottesville, we met another conundrum in Columbia, South Carolina, when then Governor Nikki Haley (and now somehow America’s UN Ambassador), ordered the lowering of the Confederate flag from the state’s Capitol Building. This sent shockwaves throughout the country, with many both praising and condemning the action. That flag, to some Americans, was a symbol of rebellion against the United States and support for the subjugation of an entire race of people. To others, it was a symbol of southern pride and states’ rights, and to lower it from view was to erase the heritage and symbolism that came with it.
Charlottesville was birthed out of a similar scenario: the statue of Robert E. Lee situated in Lee Park. For almost two years, the Charlottesville City Council had deliberated as to the fate of the statue depicting Robert E. Lee, commanding officer of all Confederate forces during the American Civil War, seated triumphantly atop his horse. In May, the council decided, in a 3-2 affirmative vote, to remove the statue and rename the park. This decision sparked a point of turmoil among many alt-right groups, including white supremacists and Neo-Nazi’s, culminating in the largest hate group rally of the past two decades; a rally they believed to be a patriotic defense.
They marched, they yelled and screamed, and they killed. All of that, over the removal of a statue, which they believe is a sacrosanct memorial of American history and heritage that should not be dispatched with, but instead honored and left untainted by inferior races. But the truth of the matter is that it is neither a memorial, nor a piece of history. And their defense of it is not patriotic; it’s cowardice and ignorance.
Robert E. Lee was a racist who harbored a great deal of distaste in his heart and mind for blacks. Yes, it is true that he fought for the Confederacy not as a willful participant of a budding, rebellious nation, but as a principled Virginian, whose state – without his explicit consent – decided to secede from the United States. However, this does not erase his actions or his ideologies. As an owner of slaves, Lee was infamous in his practice of splitting up slave families. Wives and husbands torn asunder, mothers and children separated in perpetuity. In addition to the inhumanity he practiced, he also preached in similar tones, writing once in 1858 for the New York Times that enslaving blacks was a kind of “discipline they are undergoing, [that] is necessary for their instruction.”
And the statue in Charlottesville aggrandizing this leader of racist rebellion was not instituted as a matter of patriotic remembrance of that war to save the Union, or the brave men on both sides of the conflict who died fighting for their principles. It was placed there in 1924 by the city government, which at that time was controlled strongly by the Ku Klux Klan – as were many other local and state governments during the height of the Klan’s national influence in the early 20th century – who wished to use Lee as a symbol of their race’s superiority.
But things have changed. The Klan is no longer in power and our moral compasses have by and large reoriented themselves. This statue serves not as a reminder of a rich national heritage, but instead as a virulent exemplar of the gross and misguided hate of a time long past.
The rally-goers were not defending history in Charlottesville. They were offending the American ideals which we hold dear and true and will not relinquish. Those who aggrandize the statues of the men who worked against the preservation of America are not patriots.
Some Americans’ memories may be short, but America’s memory is resolute in its commitment to realizing and preserving its past. While some Americans’ ideals remain stagnant, stuck in an archaic time of great injustice, America’s idea of itself is ever-evolving. And though our laws and our statues may embolden white supremacy, America’s unshakable commitment to equality emboldens our moral supremacy. That is what will keep the great darkness of hate and violence from penetrating our society as it did in Charlottesville.