A few days ago, I shared one of the essay questions from my Law and Policy final exam. The question required students to consider the very different–actually opposed–beliefs about what constitutes American “greatness.”
A number of students chose to respond to that question, and although virtually all of their essays were thoughtful, several of them were depressing. As I noted yesterday, at least a couple suggested that we might be heading toward civil war–that Americans’ approaches to the legitimacy and purpose of government are so incommensurate that common ground is simply unattainable.
Nearly all of them blamed social media for many of our inconsistent realities.
As I said yesterday, I would love to dismiss their observations and concerns as overblown, but stories like the one yesterday and this one–which I referenced a few days ago– are becoming more common and more worrisome.
A small group of white nationalists stormed a bookstore in Washington, D.C., to protest an event for a book on racial politics and how it’s impacting lower- and middle-class white Americans.
The group stormed the Politics and Prose bookstore on Saturday afternoon, interrupting a scheduled talk by Jonathan Metzl, a professor of sociology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University who released his book “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland” this spring.
Videos filmed by those in attendance showed the group standing in a line before the audience chanting, “This land is our land.” At least one man was yelling white nationalist propaganda into a megaphone while people in the bookstore booed him.
The man identified the group as “identitarians,” a far-right white nationalist group which is linked to Identity Evropa, which the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as an extremist group.
This exhibition of racial and religious animus took place on the very same day that a 19-year-old white supremacist fired on worshippers in a synagogue in Poway, California.
Before he mounted the attack, the shooter had gone online and posted an eight-page manifesto, in which he boasted about his “European ancestry” and expressed hatred of Jewish people.
Metzl told NBC Washington that before the protest broke out he was speaking to a man who had helped Metzl’s father and grandfather flee Nazi Austria.
“Not five minutes before, I had acknowledged him and said this is how great America can be when it is bold and generous,” Metzl recalled to NBC.
He told the Post that the incident was “very symbolic for me.”
Actually, the incident should be symbolic for all of us.
The man who had helped Metzl’s father and grandfather escape the Nazis represents what many of us–certainly, the people who occupy my own “bubble”–think of as American greatness: generosity of spirit, a willingness to use our own good fortune to assist others, an instinctive impulse to protect people who are weaker or who are being marginalized.
We see America as an idea and citizenship as a diverse polity’s common devotion to that idea.
The “very fine” people who rioted in Charlottesville, who shot up the synagogue in California, who demonstrated in that bookstore and who cheer anti-immigrant slogans at Trump rallies cluster around a very different version of American greatness.
In their morally impoverished reality, only white Christians can be Americans, and only when straight white Christian males are dominant can America be great.
My students are right about one thing: those worldviews are impossible to bridge. They do not lend themselves to compromise. And thanks to Donald Trump and his constant appeals to the basest among us, we are confronted daily with evidence that many more Americans than I ever would have guessed share a significant amounts of “identitarian” beliefs.
And a hell of a lot of them are armed.