Tag Archives: Charlottesville

Charlottesville’s Mayor Assigns Homework

The Mayor of Charlottesville seems an impressive guy. I say this even though I’m still bemused by the tepid response of his police department during the demonstrations–good practice would have kept the neo-Nazis and counter-demonstrators separated.

That said, Mayor Signer exhibited the forcefulness that the city’s policing lacked, both in public statements in the aftermath of the demonstrations, and in a letter published by the New York Times. Unlike other elected officials who were reluctant to “call out” the President, the Mayor called it like he saw it.

Asked about Trump’s culpability, he responded

I mean, look at the intentional courting both on the one hand of all these white supremacists, white nationalist group like that, anti-Semitic groups. And then look on the other hand the repeated failure to step up,condemn, denounce, silence, you know, put to bed all those different efforts just like we saw yesterday. I mean this is not hard.

In his essay in the Times, the Mayor considered the underlying issues raised by the conflict.

We start with a paradox: It was only because we live in a strong democracy, with a robust commitment to free speech, that these people were able to march in the first place. Narrowly speaking, their presence was in a way an expression of our democratic values, even as they sought to destroy them. In response, we must find an answer that both fights back against voices of hate, but at the same time stays true to the values that undergird our community in the first place.

As both the mayor of Charlottesville — a city steeped in the legacy of Thomas Jefferson — and the author of a biography of James Madison, I believe our answers lie in what I think of as the “soul” of the founders’ vision.

The Mayor went on to describe the mechanics of our system, the checks and balances and legal constraints that we depend upon to keep our polity functioning– but then he made an important point. The mechanics, he wrote, are nothing without the norms and values that enable us to collectively solve problems without force, violence and intimidation.

The people who visited terror on us last weekend were using the mechanics of the Constitution — freedom of speech, freedom of assembly — to attack its soul, to set fire to the pillars of civility, deliberation, compromise, tolerance and reconciliation that underwrite our system of government.

Signer noted that events like those in Charlottesville elicit calls for restricting the rights that allow such protests to occur, and he warned against going down that path.

It’s counterintuitive, but our democracy has often been at its best when our constitutional soul has been poked and prodded and has stood up on its hind legs to defend itself.

So–if retreating from our constitutional liberties is not the proper response, what is? Signer doesn’t simply recite platitudes; he spells out who should do what: companies must use their weight to press for tolerance and diversity, “whether that means pressuring states on transgender bathroom laws or refusing to sell services to groups that advocate hate.” Colleges and universities must “recommit to instilling the values of deliberation and civility in their students.” News organizations must not only convey correct facts, but “present contextual and fact-checking resources.”

It means a broad social commitment to organizations telling the stories of embattled minorities, whether Muslim Americans or L.G.B.T.Q. youth, so they are humanized to the rest of the country. It means law firms dedicating pro bono hours to stand up for the rights of the harassed and the oppressed.

It means mentors teaching young folks that they don’t always have to fight to get what they want, that carrots often work better than sticks. It means government agencies using negotiation rather than just mandates. It means politicians agreeing to sit down together and negotiate, rather than lob hopeless bombs.

And it means governments finally telling the truth about race in our history. It means strong new programs to build bridges between isolated communities. And yes, it means political parties and organizations actively reaching out to the economically dispossessed, who feel left behind by today’s cultural and economic changes.

I read this letter as a call for active and informed citizenship, and at this moment in our national life, a properly mobilized and informed citizenry is probably the only thing that will save us.

Free Speech Conundrums

A friend of mine–a very thoughtful observer of American life and culture–asked for my opinion of the ACLU’s reported decision not to represent Charlottesville protestors alleging violation of their free speech rights if the “speakers” were armed at the time.

I haven’t seen a detailed statement to that effect, but based upon what I know, I agree with it.

When I teach the free speech clause, I tell students it requires distinguishing between speech—defined as the transmission of an idea—and action. The government cannot prohibit or punish the articulation of a message; it can, however, justifiably prohibit or punish harmful actions.

It isn’t always easy to draw the line, to identify when a message or idea becomes something else.

I illustrate the dilemma by giving students a number of “scenarios” requiring that they  decide whether something was speech or intimidation, speech or fraud, speech or harassment, speech or the first step in commission of a crime ( the RICO arguments).

Assume that a 6’4″ muscular body builder tells a hundred pound 5’1″ woman “If you don’t let me [fill in the blank], I’ll beat you so badly you’ll be unrecognizable.” Assume, also, that he does nothing more–doesn’t lunge toward her, or otherwise make menacing moves–has he simply exercised his constitutionally-protected freedom of speech? Or is he guilty of threat and intimidation?

What’s the difference between a labor union picketing a store by marching on the sidewalk with placards, and anti-choice activists coming into a residential neighborhood with bullhorns and screaming from 2:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m night after night in front of the home of the Director of Planned Parenthood? (True story.)

Can we draw a distinction between the speaker who says “I think we need to overthrow the government, and this is why,” and the one who tells a group of angry citizens “I’ve got the rifles outside in my truck! Everyone who’s with me come and get one and we’ll march on City Hall right now!”

As they used to say on Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the other. And by and large, the courts have understood the differences.

So I agree with the ACLU’s decision. (I am surprised; it seemingly breaks a long tradition of ACLU First Amendment absolutism.) In the real world, racist speech by an armed and confrontational White Supremacist crosses the line from protected expression to  criminal intimidation.

Permit me to offer an (admittedly imperfect) analogy: the ACLU supported the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. I tend to be a free speech purist, and in the abstract, I agreed with the reasoning. But in the real world, that decision gives the rich and powerful permission to corrupt the political process and drown out the speech of others. I agree with former Indiana Supreme Court Justice Ted Boehm, who once told me that the original legal error, in his opinion, was Buckley v. Valeo’s equation of money with speech. I also agree with former Representative Lee Hamilton, who has said that the Supreme Court doesn’t need more Justices who graduated from Harvard Law; it needs more Justices who’ve run for County Sheriff.

The First Amendment protects the exchange of ideas, no matter how pernicious or hurtful or offensive. However, it does not protect actions that government can properly forbid, merely because those actions are accompanied by–or accomplished through–the spoken word.

It isn’t always easy to tell the difference, and we may not all agree on where the line should be drawn, but we have to draw it.

It’s Getting Harder To Ignore

In the wake of the events in Charlottesville– especially in the wake of the White House’s reluctance to name and blame those responsible and yesterday’s return to a defensive insistence on the equivalence of “both sides”– it has become much more difficult for Trump apologists to deny what has been obvious to many of us since well before the Presidential campaign: this needy, damaged ignoramus desperately needs to feel superior to others, and the “others” he feels most superior to are minorities.

His entire campaign was a none-too-veiled appeal to bigotry. His base is populated with “alt-right” figures–Klansmen and Nazis like David Duke who enthusiastically endorsed him and whom he refused to repudiate. As a recent column in the Guardian noted,

Duke, in Charlottesville on Saturday, told the USA Today Network: “We’re gonna fulfil the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in, that’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s gonna take our country back.”

Neo-Nazis and the so-called “alt-right” have been a crucial part of the Trump base. Critics have noted the nods, the winks, even the Republican national convention speech, with its giant screens and logos that bordered on fascist parody.

Trump’s bigotry, and especially his racism, is neither new nor recently adopted for reasons of political expediency. This is a man who has been sued for refusing to rent apartments to blacks, who flogged “birtherism” in order to delegitimatize a black President, and who has filled his administration and the White House with unapologetic white supremacists.

Trump’s attorney general is Jeff Sessions, who has long been dogged by accusations of racism. His chief strategist is Steve Bannon, who once proudly said of Breitbart News: “We’re the platform for the alt-right.”

Trump’s deputy assistant is Sebastian Gorka, who has worn a medal awarded to the Hungarian group Vitezi Rend, linked by some to Nazi collaborators. Gorka said last week: “It’s this constant, ‘Oh, it’s the white man. It’s the white supremacists. That’s the problem.’ No, it isn’t … go to Sinjar. Go to the Middle East, and tell me what the real problem is today. Go to Manchester.”

A president’s actions and words can only do so much, but they can create a climate in which certain groups, attitudes and mindsets flourish. Trump, 71, will not switch course now, for as Michelle Obama once observed: “Being president doesn’t change who you are. It reveals who you are.”

Paul Krugman’s Monday column in the New York Times, titled “When the President is UnAmerican” is worth reading in its entirety; it is impossible to disagree with his conclusion.

These days we have a president who is really, truly, deeply un-American, someone who doesn’t share the values and ideals that made this country special.

In fact, he’s so deeply alienated from the American idea that he can’t even bring himself to fake it. We all know that Trump feels comfortable with white supremacists, but it’s amazing that he won’t even give them a light tap on the wrist. We all know that Putin is Trump’s kind of guy, but it’s remarkable that Trump won’t even pretend to be outraged at Putin’s meddling with our election….

Whatever role foreign influence may have played and may still be playing, however, we don’t need to wonder whether an anti-American cabal, hostile to everything we stand for, determined to undermine everything that truly makes this country great, has seized power in Washington. It has: it’s called the Trump administration.

I will repeat what I have said previously: when Trump’s poll numbers finally hit bottom and stop their slide (when the people who held their noses and voted for him because they couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary or desert the GOP have deserted him), the extent of American bigotry will be starkly obvious.

Trump’s loyalists are America’s White Nationalists, Nazis and racists. We’re about to see just how many of these despicable people there are.

Trump and White Christian Nationalism

The past few days, in addition to the spectacle of two immature, ignorant and nuclear- armed heads of state throwing verbal poo at each other, the media has been filled with images of torch-wielding White Nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia.

A “Unite The Right” rally organized by white nationalist Richard Spencer descended into chaos and violence Saturday in Charlottesville, as thousands of “alt right” activists, Nazis, KKK members, other assorted white supremacists, and armed militia groups fought with anti-fascist groups and other counter-protesters.

Thanks to Trump, the haters now feel confident “coming out.”

Donald Trump’s election was the culmination of years of seething White Christian Nationalist resentment, constantly fed by a conservative media harping on “those” people– immigrants, the LGBTQ community, blacks, feminists– and brought to a boiling point by Obama’s Presidency.

Evangelicals’ embrace of Donald Trump may seem incomprehensible to traditional Christians and certainly to the rest of us, but we shouldn’t confuse genuine evangelical Christianity with the White Christian Nationalism that has increasingly replaced it. As ThinkProgress explains:

Where did this cross-toting, flag-waving, and sometimes confusion-inducing form of Trumpian Christian nationalism come from, and why does it appear to resonate with throngs of Americans? And how in the world did Trump, hardly a paragon of conservative Christian virtue, end up as its champion?…

[T]he Christian nationalist scaffolding currently propping up Trump is … relatively new. It shares many theological ideas with the broader spectrum of evangelicalism, but adds a different brand of intensity and emphasis (especially domestically). Its origins are also more recent, beginning with the rise of the Religious Right in the 1970s, when leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Sr. and Pat Robertson characterized America as a “Christian nation” and urged their supporters to elect conservative Christian leaders who shared their rabid opposition to abortion, LGBTQ equality, and euthanasia, among other things.

The article traces the history of “dominionism,” a theology that has been described as a “strange fundamentalist postmodernism that denies that there is any such thing as objective reality.” That history–and the convoluted doctrine that allows some Christian Nationalists to insist that Trump was “chosen by God”– is well worth reading. In most cases, however, this “Christian” embrace of the president has more to do with his willingness to pander to them and promote their causes than with doctrine.

It also has a lot to do with the fact that Trump’s rhetoric makes their bigotry seem acceptable; he constantly demeans the “others” they hate, and steadfastly refuses to call them out.(CNN reported that Trump condemned hate “on many sides” in response to the violent white nationalist protests and terror attack in Charlottesville; the President did not even mention white nationalists and the alt-right movement in his remarks, and later called for a “study” of the “situation.”)

Analyses of data from the 2016 election have made it increasingly clear that the great majority of Trump voters–whether they self-identified as Christian Nationalists or not–were motivated by racism and traits associated with racism.  A commentary in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology reports that a majority of Trump voters displayed one or more (usually more) of the following social-psychological traits:

  • authoritarianism and social dominance orientation (authoritarianism is characterized by deference to authority, aggression toward outgroups, a rigidly hierarchical view of the world, and resistance to new experiences);
  • prejudice (racial prejudice as well as prejudice against immigrants and outgroups in general);
  • lack of intergroup contact (Trump’s white supporters report far less contact with minorities than other Americans); and
  • relative–not real–deprivation (Trump supporters feel deprived relative to what they erroneously perceive other ‘less deserving’ groups possess).

The horrendous spectacle in Charlottesville is only the beginning. We can see clearly now just what it is that motivates “Trump’s Troops,” and it isn’t Truth, Justice and the American Way.