Charlottesville happened over the weekend, and one can already foresee, as I write on this Monday morning, the week’s CNN obsessions: Trump’s statements, and the fate of the murderer. Each of these, in its own peculiar way, distracts from the underlying dynamics of the situation.
As I write on this Monday morning, Trump is being vilified for his late and lukewarm condemnation of the white supremacists who marched and killed. This is fair enough, but it is also beside the point. Whatever Trump says, we know where he stands. After a lifetime of racist actions and rhetoric, after a Presidential campaign of racist dog-whistling, after stocking his cabinet and staff with racists and outright white supremacists, and after absurd proposals like his election commission and an investigation into supposed discrimination against whites, Trump has made himself the perfect figurehead for, and enabler of, a resurgent white supremacist power structure. He could reject David Duke to his face, on national television, and Duke would understand that it was only for show.
As I write on this Monday morning, our racist Attorney General is hinting that the murder of Heather Heyer may be prosecuted as domestic terrorism. One can only hope that Sessions will feel pressured enough in the weeks to come to follow through with this decision, against what are no doubt his native prejudices. At the same time, there is a sense in which the decision is beside the point once again. Had the marches occurred without physical violence—had the white supremacists occupied campus and street with their Tiki torches, Nazi salutes, assault rifles, and nothing more--would this not have been, nevertheless, an act of terrorism? What is the purpose of torches and racist slogans except to create terror? What has it ever been?
There is another problem with focusing on the murder as the one and only terrorist act. People are irredeemably violent. There will always be someone, on any side of an issue, willing to throw a punch, squeeze off a shot, or drive a car into a crowd. Focusing on acts of violence can be strangely de-politicizing. For every neo-Nazi willing to kill a Heather Heyer, there is someone willing to shoot a police officer in Dallas. More importantly, whenever one points to a James Alex Fields, or to neo-Nazi marchers, the more quietly racist supporters of Trump are provided an avenue for evasion. “I’m not a killer; I’m not marching with torches; I just want people on all sides to be treated fairly, with equality and justice, including whites.” But of course this is not what they want. If they did, they would not be supporting a racist regime.
Finally, one has to beware of sloppy language. Slogans are always reductive and must always be avoided. “Love conquers hate” is from one perspective a meaningless platitude, from another, a misleading analysis. It implies that one is guided by either one or the other emotion, when this is clearly not the case in human affairs. The white supremacists are as clear about what they love as what they hate. The problem is not their emotions, but their ideology; the problem is not that they hate rather than love, but that they love and hate the wrong things. As Zizek puts it: “Soldiers are not bad per se—what is bad are soldiers inspired by poets, mobilized by nationalist poetry.” The same principle holds for the other side. Everyone knows what Guevara said about love, but he also wrote: “a people without hatred cannot vanquish a brutal enemy.” Or as Nietzsche puts it: “I love the great despisers.”
Okay, that Nietzsche quote is taken out of context. But you get the idea. Cut me a break. It’s only Monday morning.
John Rosewall, Bargain, 2017