The riot in Charlottesville this past weekend can readily be recognized as an action straight out of Hitler’s SA playbook: stage a disturbance, and blame the Communists. The “Communists” in this case are headlined by “Antifa”, a loose collection of anarchists, actual Communists, and various other radical and not-so-radical Leftists who proclaim themselves “anti-fascist”. The rise of National Socialism to power (in the person of Adolf Hitler) has popularly been put down to any number of uncommonly harsh conditions in Germany: the unrealistic Treaty of Versailles, the Great Depression, the ineffective Weimar government – and so on. But these explanations rooted in political or economic circumstances overlook the emotional factor: the root of this tactic is that people who would not – one assumes – ordinarily have sympathized with the Nazis were inclined to give them some credence due to their stated opposition to other groups. It’s a standard enough political tactic, and it does not inherently have to lead to or give cover to violence. But it can do that too, and the number of people who fell for it this past week is worrying. Fool us twice, shame on us.
But why did it work? It worked because there was another group present to blame. Political scapegoats can certainly be manufactured or exaggerated easily enough, but it is easier to pull the stunt off if some person or group is already there, asking for the label. The United States’ political scene is increasingly publicly interpreted in terms of Right and Left – which is odd, as actual variety of political views seems in my experience to be increasing. To those who know they are considered “the Right” it seems that “the Left” has failed to take responsibility for the riots, violence, and vandalism resulting from its own protests. Though the vast majority of “the Right” would prefer to distance themselves from neo-Nazis, white supremacy, and the like, there are twin fears which result in mere mumbling of platitudes. The first fear stems from the – sometimes legitimate – assumption that many on “the Left” already see everyone on “the Right” as essentially Nazis-in-waiting: if the “rightist” condemns the white supremacist now, who will he be pressured to condemn next time? The second is negative: if condemnation of the white supremacists is issued, but their also-violent opponents are ignored, how is the “rightist” supposed to convince his fellows he’s not really a “leftist”? (The “Leftist”, of course, faces the opposite social pressure: if he admits a “leftist” protest got out of hand, how can he demonstrate he’s not really a “rightist” condoning unjust police violence and systemic oppression of women and minorities?)
We should recognize this kind of fear for what it is. This is political thinking. In a political party, I may not be expected to sing the copious praises of the candidate from the next town over at all times, but I am expected to show up at his rally and politely call him a “good American” and parrot whatever the catchphrase of this year’s campaign may be. What we see, in short, is that violence is being politicized, with neither “the Right” nor “the Left” willing to criticize the vandals with whom they know they are grouped.
It would be as well to distinguish two sorts of civil disturbance. (There may be others.) The first – as in Ferguson or Baltimore – helps nobody, but there is a clear cause of perceived governmental injustice. The second – as this January in Washington at the Inauguration or this weekend in Charlottesville – is about the advancement of a political agenda, simply and solely, by show of force, whether that force remains a demonstration of numerical strength or spills over into actual violence. The first we should have some sympathy with (even if the crowd’s assumptions are not totally justified), though we can hardly condone the acts and may disagree about the facts. C. S. Lewis notes for us that, “Hard words sound less unlovely from the hunted than from the hunter,” and I take the same to be true of deeds. But the second is more complicated: legitimate and secured by law when peaceful; when violent, simply criminal. The transition is often hard to identify.
If I have digressed this far, in many ways equating the habits of “Left” and “Right”, it should not be taken to obscure the point I began with. I undertook in this piece to briefly set out the reasons I see for the reactions I’ve seen. Todays “Left” at times radically misunderstand humanity and what would really happen if their goals were met; but they at least profess to aim at a further realizing of equalities enshrined in American law and ideal. The “Right” sometimes falls short of even professing those goals – but the white supremacists and related activists who provoked the clash in Charlottesville are attempting to project on us an ideal twisted in essence and refuted in our history by force of arms and law. To find evil continuing should surprise no one with an honest appreciation of history – even without the Christian doctrine of depravity – but to excuse it out of fear we ourselves will be later libeled is heinous. And to a real extent, excusing an evil now would only add to the weight of the charge later. “I was afraid,” is much more pardonable than, “I meant to do badly,” but the results are all too often very similar.