Everyone Missed the Point of Charlottesville

by Benjamin Studebaker

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been digesting the narratives swirling after the tragic violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. I’ve waited to write about it because I noticed that so many people’s emotions were running so high, even people who usually seem pretty level-headed to me. Nearly all the reactions I’ve seen have left me dissatisfied. This will take a minute to unpack, but I promise you it’s worth it.

Here are some of the major narratives I’ve spotted:

  1. There are a lot of  people angry at President Trump for blaming “both sides” for the violence when one side consists of racists and fascists and the other consists of opponents of racism and fascism.
  2. There are a lot of people angry at antifa for being illiberal.
  3. There are a lot of people angry at people for being angry at antifa (instead of the racists and the fascists).
  4. There are a lot of people angry about the number of confederate monuments that are still standing.
  5. There are some people who want to take down other monuments to people like Lord Nelson or Christopher Columbus.
  6. There are a lot of people who are angry at the people who are trying to take down monuments.
  7. There are some people who are angry at the people who are not angry, because they think if you don’t angrily condemn racists and fascists you aid and abet them.

The common thread in all of this is agent blaming. Each of these narratives is really just an argument about who the bad people are. As soon as Trump didn’t say that the racists and the fascists were the bad people and that “both sides” were at fault, the entire national conversation started revolving around identifying and calling out the bad people.

If you’ve read me for a while, you know that I find this kind of politics unproductive and beyond that, quite right wing. The right is all about personal responsibility–identifying and separating “good” people and groups from “bad” people and groups. The left is meant to be more sophisticated than that, to see the world in systems. When someone from a poor community turns to drugs or crime as a coping mechanism, the right calls that person bad, and perhaps the right even calls that person’s culture bad. The left looks for the social causes–the reasons that person’s life became such a mess that they felt they had no alternative but drugs or crime. The left is about collective responsibility–we are all each other’s keepers, and the failure of one is the failure of all.

The left failed to do this after Charlottesville. When we saw the right wing mob descend on Charlottesville and kill someone, we flipped out. We didn’t think seriously about how people become fascist or racist or devise cunning strategies for disrupting that process. Instead, we reacted to the far right the way the right reacts to Islamic terrorism. With fear. And fear is the mind-killer.

When I was doing my MA a few years ago at University of Chicago, I took a class on international relations with John Mearsheimer. Mearsheimer asked us a simple question about terrorists:

Do they hate us because of who we are or because of what we do?

If they hate us because of who we are, there’s nothing we can do but fight them. But if they hate us because of what we do, we could do things differently and change the way they feel about us. Many people on the right think that terrorists hate us because of who we are, that we’re in a clash of civilizations and religions that is kill or be killed. If you’re not with us, you are with the terrorists:

They think the terrorists are bad people and some of them think that Muslims are bad people too. In contrast, many people on the left think that the terrorists hate us because of what we do, and that if we removed our military bases from the Middle East, or changed our policies on Israel and Palestine, or stopped backing unpopular regimes in the Muslim world, or did more to help Muslim immigrants integrate socially and economically, fewer people would become terrorists. They don’t think terrorists are inherently bad people, they’ve just been mislead by social forces that we might have the power to change, if we’re willing to try.

But if you’ve noticed, when it comes to racists and fascists, suddenly a lot of people on the left think they hate leftists, women, and/or various racial, religious, or ethnic groups because of who they are instead of what they do. It’s uncomfortable to argue that racists and fascists hate these groups because of what they do in part because that sounds like blaming the victim, and we don’t want to say that historically marginalized and oppressed groups are doing anything wrong. It’s simpler and more comfortable to take the view that racists and fascists hate these groups because of who they are, and to accuse anyone who doesn’t take that view of naivete at best, sympathizing with fascists at worst. After all, once they hate us because of who we are, they’re mortal enemies in a clash of ideologies and it’s kill or be killed. If you’re not with us, you’re with the fascists.

But that doesn’t take racism and fascism seriously. The racists and the fascists don’t see the world the way we see it. They think that these groups are doing all kinds of horrible things to them and that they are the victims. If racists and fascists believed that leftists, women, and/or various racial, religious, or ethnic groups were beneficial to them, they wouldn’t hate those groups. Back in January, I identified two core claims that fascists believe:

  1. The Anti-Diversity Premise–the increase in the share of people in Europe and North America who are immigrants or from minority ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds is believed to be bad for white Europeans and Americans because it threatens their economic and physical welfare and security.
  2. The Core Fascist Premise–peoples are always entitled to redefine themselves to exclude groups which they feel are a threat to them or their way of life, and to expel or destroy those out-groups.

It often seems futile to challenge the Core Fascist Premise–people who believe this seem to have a very different core intuition from people who don’t. But the Anti-Diversity Premise is something we can deal with. It’s hard to believe the Anti-Diversity Premise if you and other people in your community are doing well socially and economically. If we make a point to include poor and working white people in our movements and deliver significant benefits to them, arguments in favor of the Anti-Diversity Premise will seem ridiculous. If more ordinary white people see benefits from participating in political coalitions with leftists and people of color, they won’t see these groups as threats to their way of life, and even if they go on believing in the Core Fascist Premise, they will have no reason to make a point to exclude these groups from their circles of concern. Without the Anti-Diversity Premise, the Core Fascist Premise goes dormant.

Racism and fascism are on the rise because mainstream liberal parties have excluded poor and working white concerns from their agendas, platforms, and campaigns. Until we change that, we can get angry, we can yell and blame and shame and punch people and rip down statues, and none of it will make a difference. We can drone strike terrorists, we can invade the countries in which they live, but until we change the policies that cause people to turn to terrorism, the problem will never go away. Racists and fascists are terrorists, and if we handle them the way we’ve been handling terrorists, we’ll get the same result–violence without end.

If you’re for Stop the War, you can’t be for Nazi-punching.