Charlottesville: which side are you on?

One good thing to come out of Charlottesville and Trump’s reaction to it is some consciousness-raising (to use that old 60s phrase) about violence.

As someone posted on facebook : “Violence in behalf of white supremacy. Violence against white supremacy. Get the difference?”

There’s a bit of hypocrisy in the huge outcry against Trump. His now infamous “many sides” reaction to Charlottesville uses, to obscure the issues, an old liberal idea, a basic of early parenting: ”Two wrongs don’t make a right” or “use your words.”

In Charlottesville, from what I saw in the 22 minute Vice Media documentary that was circulating online, one side was not fuller of hate than the o ther. (One friend said that the main thing he picked up from the footage was that there were people on both sides who seemed to be eager to fight.) The fact that it was an anti-fascist mowed down by a car driven by a fascist supporter doesn’t prove that it might not have come out the other way. It would be hard to prove. Hate was spewed by both sides. As Trump said.

But the point that was, it seems, immediately grasped by most is that one side was mouthing anti-semitic, white supremacist filth right out of the nazi movement in 1920s and 30s Germany, stuff that we fought a world war to defeat, while the other side was expressing outrage at their doing so. Fascism is a view of the world that as a culture we have put behind us, just as clearly as we have moved beyond slavery. As a society, we are not neutral on fascism and white supremacy. Anti-fascism is progress, the anti-fascist protesters’ hate and outrage our national policy.

It takes a president like Trump to sow confusion about that.

It’s as if our president were standing on the sidelines at a football game noting the violence on the field but failing to feel a connection to either team. (Perhaps, it has been said, feeling more of a connection to the bad guys?) Given our national history, such failure, even if it resonates with those middle-class parenting slogans, is at the very least profoundly unpatriotic.

Is condemning the violence on both sides in Charlottesville different from failing to distinguish between Hitler’s brownshirts in the 20s and 30s who were an important element in his rise to power, and the anti- fascists who fought against them? (Somebody who knows more German history than I could comment on whether it would be reasonable to say that had the antifas of pre -WW2 fought more effectively, the world might conceivably have been spared the holocaust of WW2.)

After Charlottesville, the seeming contradiction between our cherished freedom of speech and our historical enmity to fascism is being discussed and debated, as it should be. The debate over tactics will and should go on. (Would the way of MLK and Gandhi be more effective against white supremacy and fascism than direct confrontation?) But the debate should not be allowed to obscure the issues. Violence is not the enemy; fascism is the enemy.

Along with our advice to our children about non-violence, another common notion is that it’s possible to choose to be apolitical (a plague on both their houses). As I think Charlottesville has made clearer, in this old struggle, there are no sidelines. There are only sides. And the key question is the refrain from the old union song: which side are you on?

It seems an important question especially for Trump supporters, many of whom would certainly never think of themselves as white supremacists or neo-nazis, to answer, as emphatically and publicly as possible.

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