I have to admit that I know next to nothing about Charlottesville, Virginia. What I do know can be attributed to the violence which took place in the town recently. Thanks to the clichéd efforts of the alt.right losers the town will have become, for many, on both sides of the fence a physical and symbolic locus around which they can begin to build another layer to their respective mythologies.
When one takes into account the divisiveness that has become an all to potent feature of US politics, something that has been fuelled by both Donald Trump and a largely irresponsible mass media, it should not come as a surprise that these events took place. Of course there have been flare-ups between the Right and Left over a wide range of issues prior to Trump’s election victory, but there is a palpable feeling of something bigger to the events in Charlottesville. This is not least due to the fact that a white supremacists decided to borrow from the Jihadists playbook by weaponising an automobile to kill one of his opposing number.
With the death of Heather Heyer it may well transpire that at some point in the not so distant future the name Charlottesville will be uttered with the same reverence as other historically noteworthy loci of social tension. And Heather Heyer will, it is possible, become a martyr for the Left and all most certainly a figure of hate for Right; indeed, according to some reports in the media, one Alt. Right website has already called for protests at her funeral. It really does feel that Charlottesville may well have torn a rent in the social fabric of America thus supplying oxygen to a fire that should be starved not fed.
The fight against any social injustice is a fight I support, particularly when it comes to equality. I am equality absolutist, taking the term literally: all people should be equal. Of course this sentiment does not find itself reflected reality, but that should not stop the fight to bring the ideal and the material realms into alignment. Like all wars, and this is a war, it is imperative to know not only which battles to fight, but also how to fight them. One must have an eye on the future, for the seeds sown in the present will be reaped at some point, often with disastrous consequences.
The protests and counter protests in Charlottesville and the ugliness that they unleashed are as much to do with differing relationships with history as they are with current issues. As the embodiment of historical events, the monuments that are the bones of contention have taken on a meaning far beyond that which they deserve. Figures such a General’s Lee and Jackson or Jefferson Davis fought, in their respective spheres, for a social system that was abhorrent; and no one with any moral decency could, in all honesty, argue to the contrary. However, does this moral certainty give those on the Left the freedom to shape history to legitimise their own skewed political agenda? An agenda that is itself prone to hypocrisy, prejudice and the denial of basic freedoms and violence in the name of the cause.
Whether blinded by their own hatred of what they oppose, or self-righteousness, probably a mixture of the two, those on the Left who have decided that the statues must be obliterated are taking a long stride down a deeply perilous path. And they are, in all likelihood, completely unaware of the danger inherent in the precedent or they simply do not care. They are clearly blind to the fact that their actions will change nothing. Pulling down these statues will only serve to make their symbolic power even more potent to those who already choose to hate and will in all likelihood serve to attract more to their cause: just as the ban on Mein Kampf failed to aid in the total eradication of far right ideology in Germany. In point of fact Hitler’s screed is available in major book shops all over the America (and the UK); but, hypocritically, that icon of hatred doesn’t seem to be worth protesting over. History, particularly when it pertains to social justice must never be forgotten. However, it must be transcended in order to allow any semblance of genuine social change.
It is worth considering some other aspects of history. Almost two thirds of those considered to be the founding fathers of the fledgling America were slave owners at some point in their lives, including true blue American heroes: George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. It would not be altogether unreasonable to assume, when following the logic of those who wish to destroy the statues, that there will be calls for the destruction of Washington’s memorial and his likeness on Mount Rushmore; along with Franklin’s who, surely, must be removed from the one hundred Dollar bill. And why stop there? If a statue is such a potent symbol what of the books written about these men? Again, they must be destroyed along with any other literature that mentions their names; and speaking of names they will have to be banned too, along with those of Lee and Davis et al, of course. And then there is the Democratic party. It was after all the Democratic south which seceded from the Union in order to preserve the constitutional right of citizens to trade and own human beings, while a Republican issued the thirteenth Amendment to abolish it. It was Abraham Lincoln who also, at the defeat of the Confederacy, called for no recrimination or persecution after the war, stating: “Enough Lives have been sacrificed. We must extinguish our resentments if we expect harmony and union”. Sage words indeed.
Harmony and union: two terms that almost sound as naïve as they do noble. Of course if Lincoln were alive now he would be banging his head against the brick wall of identity politics, which has for too long been the impetus behind so much division in US and everywhere else, and it will become clear that this division will service to benefit the Right most. What Lincoln was wise enough to realise is that being American must come before all else. There could be no dual systems, no divisions which could supersede this while still maintaining the notion of a single country. Perhaps the most tragic aspect of his murder was that it deprived the country of the ideal person to navigate the reconstruction. Now though Americans aren’t Americans the name is and the identity has been ideologically modified with the addition of a determining prefix: they are African Americans, Irish, Italian and Pakistani Americans, Jewish, Protestant, Catholic and Muslim Americans, gay, straight, bisexual, transvestite, transsexual, asexual, vegan Americans, feminist, misogynist, racist, Democratic, Republican, Independent, neo-con, liberal and couldn’t care less Americans. As wonderful as diversity is all of these people must realise that they need to be American most of all. That is what Lincoln knew and fought for most of all.
Of course every individual and therefore the groups that they are a part of should be free to express their identity as they see fit. A world of uniformity would be bland beyond all reason. However, the politicisation of identity, while conceived with noble intention, along with its free speech stifling cousin: political correctness, has mutated into a frankensteinian creature which is now out of control. Developed to counter the effects of social inequality, some of which can be blamed squarely on the shoulders of the old Left, these two have become social WMD employed ruthlessly, by the new Left to destroy any opposition to its ideology or agenda. The internet is replete with example of academics being censured or even dismissed from their positions because they employed the type of open debate that should occur in any academy worth the status; only to find that some aspect of opinion was considered to be offensive to someone on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or any of the other indicators of personal identity. If people do prove to be homophobic, misogynistic or racist the surest way to defeat such prejudice is with the application of reason supported by evidence; not raving about being offended, have tantrums and calling for trigger words and safe spaces. By all means challenge bigotry and the inequality it engenders, it should be a duty of all to do so, but it is inexcusable to deny basic rights of some people in order to protect those of others. As John Stuart Mill reminds us:
“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
As some UK media commentators have in recent days, called for the removal of Nelson from Trafalgar Square on the grounds that he would now be known as a white supremacist who counted slave owners as friends. He would have most certainly been racist by any modern standard; but then he also fought the tyranny of Napoleon Bonaparte and his thirst for empire. To move from one Nelson to another: despite his benign image, Nelson Mandela it may be remembered, counted for a long-time, Robert Mugabe and Muammar Gadaffi as friends and was on the USA’s terror watch-list until 2008. As reported in the Telegraph (05 Feb 2011):
On his return to South Africa, Mr Mandela and his colleagues set up regional command units and set about training their army in bomb making and clandestine operations. MK carried out numerous bombings during the next 20 years and the pledge not to kill became redundant – in the whole campaign, at least 63 people died and 483 people were injured.
Based on these actions should there be a statue of him anywhere? What the events in Charlottesville show is that, like the human beings that enact it: history is very messy, it does not fit into the neat boxes that allow for easy examination and relativistic moral judgement.
It would be more advantageous to society if these symbols of hatred and oppression were used against the people who find them worthy of adoration. Employ them as examples of what not to be and what not to do, as part of a proper education system, that teaches not what to think, but how to think, to use dialectical reasoning to shine a light onto the darkness of ignorance and encourage incredulity before self-imposed mental servility. Why not state clearly, at the site of each effigy, what that particular individual really stood for, celebrate the fact that he was a failure in his aims and that there were so many who willingly sacrificed their lives for an ideal that was then and still is today far more noble and worthy of our moral and intellectual endeavours.