The white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia today characterizes itself as uniting the right. But the violence that has resulted, including the death of one and injuring of nineteen by a driver who plowed into a group of counter-protestors demonstrates the fascism at the core of the event, led by people like one of the organizers, neo-Nazi Richard Spencer.
The marchers are easy to mock as they carry their Tiki torches — filled with citronella, I must wonder — around and scream about white genocide, suggesting that what they really fear are mosquitoes, but given the reality that they have an enabler who is currently occupying the White House makes this all too real a threat to our democratic society.
The inciting rationale for the march is supposedly the objection to the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in the city. And thus the exhausting cliché about how flying the Confederate battle flag is for heritage not hate has been trotted out. The protesters are also carrying flags from Nazi Germany, testing the boundaries of our credulity, but it’s a good time to address this assertion, one that I’ve heard my whole life.
I was born in North Carolina, and I’ve lived most of my life in states that formed the Confederacy. By personality and culture, I understand the appeal of rebellion against powers that stand high above or far away from the people whom they seek to control. My Appalachian ancestors had no love for outsiders coming around to tell them how to live, and as much as I don’t want to drift into Lamarckism, I can’t help wondering if that suspicion was bred into my genes. In any case, I understand William Faulkner’s line in Intruder in the Dust that every southern boy of fourteen can imagine himself standing among fellow soldiers at Gettysberg, glancing at Pickett to see if “This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble,” things might turn out differently.
And yet. And yet I cannot forget what the Confederacy stood for. So many of the people who died defending that institution thought that they were fighting for home, for the same ideals of liberty and self-government that the patriots in the American revolution fought for, but what they didn’t realize, and what too many today who shout #MAGA and crow about the Trump Train don’t realize is that we commoners are being asked to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of those who the real powers that we should oppose.
Most southerners never owned slaves. They weren’t the wealthy plantation masters, America’s would-be aristocracy. But they were sold the lie that being white was somehow a gift of superiority, a lie that the few used to divide potential rivals to their power. And the same thing is happening today.
White nationalists cry about what they believe is white genocide coming down on them, but Trump and the billionaires who manipulate him behind the scenes aren’t concerned about skin color. They care only about clinging to the power that we’ve let them have.
It’s time to put a stop to this. The Confederacy was an error — an understandable one, in the case of many of its supporters, but an error nonetheless, and the sooner we accept that, the sooner we can address the real threat. Southern rebelliousness can be a mighty sword to wield, if we would use it wisely. Blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, and Jews are not my enemies. They aren’t taking my job away, nor are they holding me down. My battle flag must be raised against the ideologies that want me to fear the people around me so as to keep me under the thumb of people like Trump.
Charlottesville is a beautiful city, a shrine to the best ideas of Thomas Jefferson and his fellow revolutionaries. The University of Virginia was founded there to be a teacher and defender of liberal humanism, the values that are what America is about. And it was the home of Absolution Ale when I visited, may that fine drink be everlasting. These are the things that make this country great: liberty, achievement, the celebration of many individual human beings coming together.
Charlottesville must never be the American Nuremberg, and the United States must never be a new birth of fascism. Don’t leave what happens next solely in the hands of the worst among us.
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