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Charlottesville and statue-dismantling

Have we lost our heads?

August 2017

Recent political and media history suggests that rational public thought may be in rapid retreat in the US. Current reactions over events in Charlottesville, and the rush to censure public statuary, fit right in with this flight to folly.
The United States has always been an experiment. The question was asked from the beginning: Can a large and diverse nation hang together as a democracy; can the people govern themselves without a strongman at the center to keep the people in line? The verdict is still out. This previous week has seen the idiot side of our society come to the fore, with the media, the president, and politicians competing to sink to the lowest level of public discourse.

"Charlottesville" has entered the canon as a trigger word that can set off a fight in a bar. To recapitulate briefly: A truly disgusting collection of sociopaths managed to get a judge's injunction to allow them to demonstrate in a park in Charlottesville, Virginia. These misfits are usually labeled 'extreme right' by the media, but this is an error – they don't belong on the political left-right scale. In fact the media's extreme right is just about indistinguishable from the extreme left; both are dedicated to destroying democracy by silencing opposition, preferably by force. This ragtag group of losers – pretend-Nazis and -fascists, Ku Klux Klan thugs and similar racial 'supremacists' – claimed they were in town to protest the planned removal of a statue commemorating General Robert E. Lee, the 19th century commanding general of the Confederate States Army. (More on this business below.)

No doubt their demonstration would have been an ugly affair. Ugly but legal. But it never happened, because another organized group of losers – sometimes called 'antifa' from anti-fascist – decided that the objectionable words expected from the first group must not be uttered, and they were patriotically prepared to exercise violence to stop such speech. No surprise that the 'antifa' succeeded in baiting the first idiot group – who make it a point of pride that they'll explode in violence at the least affront – to bring forth the violence they sought, though it was limited to shoves and punches. Hardly worth reporting on, even in the local press.

But the chief of police – who had previously denied a permit to the 'fascist' demonstrators and may have been looking for a reason to send them home – rather than taking the sensible step of separating the two groups of idiots as he should have, allowed the violence to begin, then declared an illegal assembly on the basis of the shoving and punching, and sent everyone home. Governor Terry McAuliffe lost his head and declared a State of Emergency. This is usually reserved for vast natural hazards or war, but to McAuliffe this was apparently an opportunity to show his cool head in a crisis. Of course there was no crisis, and McAuliffe wound up just panicking. In any case, that was that. The jerks all went away, each having received far more attention than they deserved.

Later in the day an idiot from the first group of idiots ran his car into a crowd of 'antifas' who were celebrating their success, killing one and injuring several. A stupid crime of uncontrolled rage of the sort that seems to stew just under the surface in the extremist environment of the demonstrating group. It was a horrid event, one of about 43 horrid murders (on average) committed the same day in the US.

The national media, always on the look-out for a good story, picked up this murder as the crime du jour, tied it to the attempted demonstration, and tied all that to President Trump by faint suggestions like 'they probably mostly voted for Trump'. There was no need for the president to issue any statement on the Charlottesville killing nor on any of the other murders, and certainly not on the minor scuffle and non-demonstration, but the national media demanded some words. The president (and believe me, I'm no fan of this boorish and dangerously misplaced man) denounced the violence and quite properly blamed both the 'fascist' demonstrators, so given to violent speech and action, and the counter-demonstrators who came for the purpose of causing violence. He was right in spreading the blame, because while the 'fascists' certainly carried in them the seeds of violence, the 'antifa' intentionally watered those seeds and caused them to sprout.

Mr.Trump's words were lambasted in the national press, which is spring-loaded to mock Mr.Trump at every opportunity, for not confining his critical words to only the original demonstrators, and for not taking the opportunity to denounce their entire social philosophy. The press knew that the first group were nasty, racial extremists, with only a marginal right to speak, while the 'antifa', though eager to provoke violence, were at heart good people, fighting for our democratic rights. The fact that they were doing this by trying to throttle those whom they didn't want to hear was not problematic; it was just a question of methodology. It didn't take long for the politicians and opinion writers to join in: Mr.Trump's words were not sufficiently comforting for a grieving nation (apparently grieving for the one murder in Virginia, not for the other 42). The country needed moral leadership in this time of crisis, they wrote, and Mr.Trump failed to give us that in our hour of need.

What poppycock! Not to belittle the sorrow of the bereaved for the terrible death and injuries in Charlottesville, which deserve every bit as much national attention and sympathy as the other 42 killings and hundreds of other violent injuries, the 'demonstration' in Charlottesville was a non-event. Nothing of consequence happened, there was and is no crisis, no comforting words by the president were needed, and the few words he was pressured to utter on the occasion were unexpectedly appropriate. That's not to say there aren't related crises. The more than 15,000 murders in our country each year represent a deep crisis of crime and violence, which we continually fail to confront. And the level of public discourse, press integrity, and political thought, speech, and action in the nation represent another crisis, not unrelated to the first. But that the Charlottesville non-event was a crisis requiring a State of Emergency and comforting presidential words? I say again, balderdash! It was a constructed 'crisis' spun up by the press to a serializable, money-making story that also had the side 'benefit' of getting in a few more digs at the president.

Now, about the putative purpose of the 'fascist' demonstration, the proposed removal of a statue associated with our Civil War in the 1860's. The supposed idea is that those who fought for the Confederacy – the South – fought for slavery, and ought no longer to be honored. Again, Mr.Trump in his Charlottesville remarks, hit the right point, and again he was roasted in the press. He asked, if we refuse to honor our forefathers who fought 'for slavery', must we not also refuse to honor those who owned slaves? He mentioned presidents Washington and Jefferson, but in fact ten of our first twelve presidents had owned slaves. The press was aghast: 'Trump draws moral equivalence' between President Washington and General Lee, the latter a traitor to his country. But of course Mr.Trump said no such thing. He simply brought up what was just stated: must not condemnation of fighters for slavery also extend to slave owners? And if not, why not? They obviously supported slavery, at least for their personal benefit. While the president didn't make this connection explicit in words (we all know he is clumsy with words and shouldn't be held to his precise formulation), it is clear to anyone who thinks logically and historically, though the press uniformly chose to misrepresent it.

So did General Lee and other leaders of the Confederacy simply fight for slavery? There's no question but that slavery was the heavyweight issue behind the secessions from the Union that began in 1860. The southern states feared that their 'way of life', which was based on slavery-supported agriculture, would be threatened by the continual addition of non-slavery states, which would dominate the Congress, particularly the Senate, where the South had held its own up until the 1850's. But the question of the sovereignty of the states, which we are still wrestling with, went well beyond the question of slavery. Because the South was less populated and less industrially developed than the North, they feared – not unreasonably – that northern federalism would result in Congress arrogating to itself, unconstitutionally in the eyes of the South, power that properly belonged to the states, thus further diminishing the influence of the southern states.

When the state of Virginia seceded in April of 1861, President Lincoln offered Colonel Robert E. Lee of the US Army promotion to Major General with command of the defense of Washington. But Lee felt he could not fight against his home state of Virginia. Resigning his US commission, his most fervent wish was that there should not be any military confrontation between forces of the US and the new country, the Confederate States of America, the CSA. As we know, his wish was not fulfilled.

Before the Civil War, there had been talk of secession in the South for over 50 years. In finally seceding and forming a new country, the southern states relied on the words and the sentiment expressed in the Declaration of Independence, to the effect that a sovereign people have the right to change their government, which is what each of the sovereign seceding states had decided to do. Since the US Constitution does not forbid secession by a state, the eleven seceding states felt justified in their action. Of course, President Lincoln took the view that states could not secede, that the CSA was not a country but merely states in rebellion, and war ensued. We need to remember that the question was an open one, the Constitution's failure to address the question of secession was interpreted differently by different actors, and those who fought for the South in the war fought ultimately against an invader, and for the sovereignty of their own state. It was that, not love of slavery, that brought hundreds of thousands of young men to enlist in the Confederate Army. The CSA is a part of America's history; its heroes who fought in the defense of their country deserve to be remembered, whichever side they fought on.

To add a final corollary to Mr.Trump's point about slave owners, where indeed do we draw the line once we begin to judge our historical figures on the basis of their morality as seen from today? Slavery may be our greatest national sin, but surely competing with that is our ethnic cleansing of the native North American population. One after the other of our presidents, politicians, and military leaders from the past – whether northern or southern – have been guilty of illegally seizing their lands, of betrayal of hundreds of Indian treaties, of shipping them out to lands promised them in perpetuity, to then seize their new lands and chase them further. (And in all this they had the support of the American people.) That's a lot of statues that will have to come down, a lot of towns, schools and streets to be renamed. Our presidents have started unjustified wars that have killed millions: Against Mexico, the Philippines, Viet Nam, Iraq, to name just a few. In the last-named case, not only the president but Congress is fully responsible for a war that is still going on, resulting in millions homeless and dead in the Middle East. Among those with blood on their hands for that disaster, one is currently our Vice President, another narrowly failed to become president last November. Where does it end, the condemnation of the past? We either take down all statues, recognizing that everyone has flaws, or with the same recognition, we moderate our moral judgement and leave them.

Incidentally,it may also be remembered that George Washington was a 'traitor' to his country. He was a British citizen, and served as a colonel in the redcoat army. In 1754, he led a raid by the British against the French in western Pennsylvania, which resulted in the 'French and Indian Wars' which was fought as the 7-year war in Europe. When he took up arms to lead the rebellious Continental Army against the British in 1775, he was condemned to death by a Royal Proclamation for treason. Yet, on a visit to London this year, I saw in Trafalgar Square, right outside the National Gallery, a statue of George Washington, the traitor. It appears that some countries can stomach the idea of honoring heroes, even those who fought for an opposing cause.

© H. Paul Lillebo

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