The scariest thing you will see today

Yeah, that is a classic click bait headline, but for once I mean just that.

Here it is, a Vice documentary on Charlottesville.

Since last night, I’ve watched this half a dozen times, trying to unpack the many layers — and yet there is more to be seen at every subsequent viewing. But, broadly, this is what I see:

We have, all of us, biases and prejudices ingrained deep within us, in the darkest recesses of the mind and heart. We refrain, for the most part, from giving voice to these prejudices because we crave social acceptance, and therefore restrain ourselves from doing or saying those things that society tells us is unacceptable.

A few, lacking those inhibitions, give vent to their darkest thoughts through whatever medium is handy — in meetings of their own kind, or more lately through the many modes of communication digital technology has opened up for us. Mostly, these extreme thoughts stay within the confines of particular groups; occasionally they escape into the sunshine. “They are fringe,” we tell ourselves. “Batshit lunatics, not really representative of us, of the majority.”

But in dismissing them rather than engaging them at the very outset, we give them the very thing they are looking for: a feeling of having been disenfranchised, of being isolated, of being an endangered species. They get to believe that they need to group together even more tightly, for their own survival. They accumulate new adherents, they step up the pace and fervor of their proselytizing. And we continue to shrug, to look away, to turn our backs. Because what sane person would condescend to legitimize extreme views by engaging with them, right?

And then it reaches a tipping point. Tired of being seen as a fringe, they decide that it is time to mainstream themselves. They find a cause, and they take it to the streets. Charlottesville was not about the Robert E Lee statue, or a concern for a vanishing ‘heritage’ — it was about being seen, it was about their existence being acknowledged, it was about showing that they are real, that they matter, that there are many more where they came from, and they are not going away anytime soon.

They pick their moment. It is not as if racism did not exist in the US before — the reason this moment is appropriate is because they have, in the White House, a vocal, unabashed adherent to their cause, and that this confers on them both legitimacy and impunity.

Consider the many ways Donald Trump has signaled where his sympathies lie. First, he delays taking a position. Then, when he is pushed into it by those around him, and given an unequivocal condemnation to read, he still fights the good fight: he veers away from the prepared text and adds those crucial words, “in many ways“, to dilute the mandated criticism and to let his fellow travellers know he is ok with their actions..

When this puts the White House in the center of a storm, his staff attempts damage control. They put out unsourced statements to the effect that Trump is in fact calling out the KKK, the “alt-right”. It doesn’t sell, though. So they write a strong, pointed statement and, who knows through what means and what agency, they get Trump to go out there and deliver it. He does; his demeanor much like that of a schoolboy reluctantly doing the homework he hates.

And then he uses the first chance he gets — a press conference ostensibly about infrastructure development — to mount a spirited defense of the white supremacists who made their presence felt in Charlottesville. Commentators are still trying to parse the many, many problems with his words. Meanwhile, Trump has gotten where he wants to be; he has clearly signaled to the basest of his base that he does not personally endorse any public condemnation he may be forced to make of their actions. And that is your classic dog whistle, right there — except, the rest of us can hear it too.

So that is where we are now. The racists claim their place in the mainstream. They openly speak of their intent to further their movement. They say there are many more waiting to join in — which is how the multiplier effect kicks in, as does legitimacy. And their ally — the one man who, by setting his face firmly against such displays can rally the moral core — tells them they are doing ok.

We are complicit — all of us. Read this opener to a think piece in the Guardian:

They pour the petrol and then wonder why it burns. Fascism is on the rise in the west, and it is emboldened, legitimised and fuelled by “mainstream” politicians and newspapers. When we mourn a hero like Bernard Kenny – who courageously tried to stop a fascist terrorist murdering Jo Cox – we have to ask ourselves: who are those with power and influence who helped create the conditions in which racists and fascists breed?

“Cannot believe we’re seeing Nazi salutes in 21st century America,” tweets Nigel Farage about Charlottesville, dragging a can of petrol behind him. Perhaps next the chief executive of a fast-food company will express disbelief at levels of obesity; or a tobacco company will issue a press release spluttering about lung cancer deaths. Farage: the man who stood, arms outstretched, in front of a poster featuring dark-skinned refugees and the words “Breaking Point”. Farage: the man who expressed his “concern” at having Romanians move in next door, and made apocalyptic warnings of Romanians and Bulgarians flooding Britain. Farage: the man who cheered on the ascendancy of Donald Trump, a US president whose most fervent supporters are now triumphantly chanting “Heil Trump!” as they menace minorities and progressives.

But Farage is the easy target. Across the western world a media and political elite scapegoats migrants for the crimes of the powerful, portrays Muslims as a homogeneous violent fifth column, and demonises opponents as unpatriotic saboteurs and internal enemies. Trump’s initial refusal to attribute blame to racists and fascists after a far-right terrorist attack – his subsequent coerced denunciation is worthless, and was followed by his retweet of a leading “alt-rightist” – underlines why those marching in Charlottesville see him as their leader.

Then read this piece by David Brooks, in the NYT. Here is the premise:

We’re living in an age of anxiety. The country is being transformed by complex forces like changing demographics and technological disruption. Many people live within a bewildering freedom, without institutions to trust, unattached to compelling religions and sources of meaning, uncertain about their own lives. Anxiety is not so much a fear of a specific thing but a fear of everything, an unnamable dread about the future. People will do anything to escape it.

Donald Trump is the perfect snake oil salesman for this moment. He lacks inwardness and therefore is terrified by the possibility of anxiety. He has been escaping self-scrutiny his whole life and has become a genius at the self-exculpating rationalization. He took a nation beset by uncertainty and he gave it a series of “explanations” that were simple, crude, affirming and wrong.

Trump gave people a quick pass out of anxiety. Everything could be blamed on foreigners, the idiotic elites. The problems are clear, and the answers are easy. He has loosed a certain style of thinking. The true link between the Trump administration and those pathetic loons in Charlottesville is not just bigotry, but also conspiracy mongering.

We could argue that the events in America are not our problem; we could even say — as a friend told me in an email last night, that we are better, that we know better. “We have a civilizational advantage,” he told me. “We will never let things get that far.”

Really? Guess what, I heard this exact same thing many, many times during my six years in the US: we are a robust democracy, we have checks and balances ingrained in our constitution, the center, and the left are strong and will hold the line, we know how to keep our lunatics in their cages…

That is how we deceive ourselves; that is why we stand back and do nothing, that is why we fail to question when we must — because we believe that somehow, it will all come right in the end, that some providential deus ex machina will come along to douse the fires before they burn out of control.

Study Charlottesville. It has lessons for all of us.

In passing, go back to the Vice documentary. Does it strike you how good a job Elle Reeve has done, in the midst of the chaos, to stay calm, to stay focused, to avoid verbiage, to focus on the key points of the narrative, to keep herself out of the story and let the events, the various incidents, the visuals do all the talking? It’s textbook reporting, this; in fact, it should be a textbook.

I’ll leave you with this quote, from Christopher Cantwell, white supremacist and speaker for “Unite The Right”:

“I think a lot more people are going to die here before we are done here, frankly.”

Updated: 5 PM IST: The Daily Stormer, a white supremacist site that has taken the lead in rallying the neo-Nazis to the “Unite the Right” cause, has called for its adherents to disrupt the funeral of Heather Heyer, the paralegal and civil rights activist deliberately run over by a car during the Charlottesville terrorist attack (because, as many including the Attorney General of the US Jeff Sessions has said, it is not a ‘rally’, it is pure and simple an act of domestic terrorism, and deserves to be labelled as such in every single reference).

The question that occurs to us at such times is, “Who are these people?!” — an instinctive reaction that seeks to distance us from “the filth”. It is the wrong question, though. Instead, ask yourself this: what emboldens them to constantly provoke, to so repeatedly spew their venom, to so openly call for acts of disruption and violence?

The answer you are left with is: their enablers in high places, beginning with the President of the United States.

Often, when bad things happen and people ask why authority figures are not quick to unequivocally condemn it, the response from the other side is: A head of state cannot go around condemning every single act that takes place in a vast country.

This is why he should. Without circumlocution, without equivocation, and without delay. Because to ignore it emboldens the racists and the bigots, and in turn enables them to turn to the next vile act, and the next.

Updated: 10 AM August 17: SoChristopher Cantwell — the man you see in the Vice documentary above marching through Charlottesville, openly speaking to his hatred of blacks and Jews and ‘commies’, speaking of going to the gym to prepare himself for violence, showing off the many guns he has secreted about his person and in his bag, promising that the violence will get worse?

He learnt that the Charlottesville police were looking for him. He blubbered his angst on video. Here it is:

That is the thing with bigots — they are cowards who buckle when they realize there are consequences to their hateful actions. And that in turn is why it is important to call them out: important for the media to report their actions; important for those in power to unequivocally condemn them; important for the law and order machinery to take immediate action.

4 thoughts on “The scariest thing you will see today

  1. Pingback: Media Matters: Culpable Homicide edition | Smoke Signals

  2. Charlottesville fits into a disturbing cycle. Beginning with protests at Donald Trump’s campaign rallies last year, continuing through and beyond the inauguration, the far left has met the violent rhetoric of the alt-right by glorifying political violence. As example, refer to how the despicable alt-right ringleader Richard Spencer was punched in the face on inauguration day (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/local/wp/2017/01/20/richard-spencer-white-nationalist-spokesman-was-punched-in-the-face-on-camera-in-d-c).

    Punching Nazis in the public square might make the left feel good but it also puts us a half-step closer to accepting that it’s all right to run down the Nazi-punchers in the public square. When both sides see their identities as collectives, rather than as individuals, it makes it easier, perhaps, for members to justify ever-increasing levels of violence against their opponents. Ultimately though, individuals are responsible for their actions, and whoever was driving that car is responsible for the carnage he caused, and he should be held criminally accountable.

    This is a shocking event with violence perpetrated by human beings with some truly vile views, but the question is what should we do about it? How can we bring an end to the rage and give these “fringe” elements a reason to explore the more effective option of non-violent civil resistance? Certainly, shutting down their right to free-speech is not a good option (for whatever reason we use to shut-down their speech can later be used to shut-down ours), and engaging them in debate might be more civil, but it’s doubtful to change any hearts that are so maliciously set.

    In this post, you mention engaging the “fringe”, rather than dismissing them, and I agree. But, how would one go about doing that, when the hatred is so deeply set in the psyche?

    As always, I thoroughly enjoy your posts and look forward to a future blog post that will ruminate on how to solve this.

    • Sorry, Burzin, did not see this earlier. A couple of points, quickly: I agree that punching people, no matter how vile you find their beliefs, is not a solution. Nor is restricting their FoE, for precisely the reason you state. The quote attributed to Voltaire is still the best explanation of FoS that I have ever read: I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

      So, no, not even remotely agreeing with either of those acts. Which leaves what? The one tool that has always been valid: to show, repeatedly, to the “fringe” that the vast majority does not share their lunacy or subscribe to it; that rational people far outnumber the fringe; that they may be noisy, but they are a tiny minority. You do that by taking to the streets.

      One lesson out of Boston: In the wake of that event, 36 planned Unite The Right demonstrations were canceled. For obvious reasons — no movement, including Unite the Right, can afford to publicly be shown up as a fringe.

      Our problem is that not enough of us take to the streets — in fact, we spend more time and effort questioning the motivations of those who do. Which is the real pity.

  3. The observation on Elle Reeve is spot on. She looks like she is directing this & there seems to be no emotions on her face, even when people are dying. I think she mentioned that with a smile or smirk on her face. Wow. Respect.

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