Jamil Smith of The Daily Beast tweeted on August 16, “All these folks worried about erasing history when the Confederate statues come down will be thrilled to learn about the existence of books.”
Battles over monuments to treason may be symbolic, but symbols can promote violence as well as virtue, and clashes over what merits public commemoration are stand-ins for an old struggle over whom our public institutions are supposed to serve.
The aftermath of Charlottesville included ACLU’s announcement that it will cease defending hate speech accompanied by firearms; the fortitude of the parents of Heather Heyer, who was murdered with a car; and testimony by DeAndre Harris, whose beating by racists with metal poles caused wounds including a skull fracture that required eight staples. Neo-Nazis continued to defame Heyer and threaten Harris; web hosting firms banned The Daily Stormer. Heartening developments included the president’s entire arts advisory panel resigning; a huge counter-protest in Boston; and white nationalist Steve Bannon being booted from the White House.
Still defiling the Oval Office is our Birther-in-Chief, who refuses to call domestic terrorism by its name. He will not repudiate the white-grievance mongering he rode to power, much less check his spiteful outbursts or his lifelong contempt for people of color. Hang your head, John Kelly.
Trump sees no disparity when, as Tina Fey noted, Native Americans are shot with rubber bullets for protesting at Standing Rock while Nazis freely march with semiautomatics in Virginia. By the way, is it just me, or is there something slightly off about anti-Semites adopting a preppy polo-and-khakis look popularized by Jewish clothiers?
The midterm elections are less than fifteen months away. Do the Democrats look ready? The people they need to win over are not Obama haters, but Obama voters who supported Trump. Obama, whose stature only grows, spoke to the best in us. He did so when we needed it most, after horrors that included the murder of schoolchildren and a massacre in a church. He soared at his second inaugural: “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall….”
Inspiring words are not enough, but are vital. We must inspire people to consider the consequences of inaction and recognize the possibilities of cooperative effort. We will not inspire them to exercise their voting franchise by endlessly re-litigating the last election.
Pragmatism and principle are competing forces, not enemies. We need both if we are to practice the politics of addition required to win. We also need respect and patience. Being receptive to contrasting views requires grace unfamiliar in our War Room political culture. But willingness to learn is a key quality to distinguish us from Mr. Trump.
Our nation is beset by provocateurs, opportunists, and hate peddlers much more from the right than from the left, despite rampant moral equivalency. We must be ready to combat the lies of people like Jack Posobiec (who pushed the Pizzagate and Seth Rich hoaxes) and Dinesh D’Souza (who erases considerable history to portray Democrats as still the party of segregation), but we must avoid playing a purely defensive game. Anger may fuel our activism, but empathy should steer it.
Ms. Fey, a University of Virginia grad, gave a lacerating commentary about Charlottesville on “Weekend Update Summer Edition” while gorging on a sheet cake. Humorous venting, however, is no more a political plan than vandalizing statues. Disputes over public memorials will continue (my Civil War favorite is the one by Augustus Saint-Gaudens in Boston). But we must also look ahead. Attracting voters requires a theme and purpose that animate otherwise dry policy proposals.
Far-right fanatics and their collaborator in the White House are handing us plenty of ammunition to use against them. But if we fight on their terms and their schedule, we lose. Upholding American values that are under assault demands an assertive, confident message that connects at a human level, not just “a better deal.” Let’s be about it, telling the truth and shaming the devil.
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2017 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.