There are a couple of things from the past that I should start with. The first one was from my undergraduate days and involved an invitation to a speaker who was offensive to a large number of members of a group I was involved in. Some people favored asking the university to disinvite the speaker. I was with the faction that went with the "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." (The quote is widely attributed to Voltaire, but apparently came from a much later biography of him.) I researched quotes by the group that speaker represented and put together a collection that appeared on the back page of a student newspaper. The point was to show that this person was spreading hate and using his own words was a sane approach to doing so. (By the way, I am being vague about the details because, frankly, I don’t remember them after nearly 40 years. But they also don’t matter for what I want to say.)
The second thing I want to mention was 17 years ago, when I was on a trip to Tuva, Siberia, and Mongolia. We took a section of the trans-Siberian railroad, from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude. For those who are not familiar with Ulan Ude, one of its major attractions is the world’s largest statue of Lenin’s head. There was some controversy about leaving this up, particularly as most statues of Lenin were being taken down throughout Russia. There were actually a large number of people in Siberia who thought they had been better off under Communism, so it was a more complicated issue than it might seem. Even for those who opposed Communism, many questioned what the right way to remember history was.
The reason I mention these two items is that I think they are both applicable to what happened in Charlottesville this past weekend. Taking the second one first, the "Unite the Right" march started as a protest against the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park in downtown Charlottesville. My personal opinion is that the right thing to do with Confederate statues is to remove them to a museum, which can also provide historical context about the Civil War. Even though I disapprove of the statue remaining in place, I think it was legitimate to allow the protest against its removal. But – and this is a big but – that is predicated on a peaceful demonstration, limited to the intended scope. I also think it is perfectly legitimate for people who disagree with the statue remaining in place to counter-protest (and, yes, again, peacefully).
Some members of the alt-right group, which included neo-Nazis, KKK members, white nationalists, and other racist scum, marched to the University of Virginia and surrounded counter-protesters, who as far as I could tell from news reports were singing peacefully. They brandished tiki torches and flags with racist (both Confederate and Nazi) symbols. There is also report of them having surrounded an African-American church where a service was underway. This is no longer free speech. This is intimidation.
I do have to comment on reports about guns being brandished. Unfortunately, Virginia is an open-carry state. There are fewer incidents up in the region I live in, but there are still some here of open-carry "activists" who get their kicks by showing off their sidearms at diners and shops and such. We’re supposed to believe they are not actually posing a threat by doing so, though the problem is, of course, you can’t distinguish between them and those who are intending to pose a threat. But that’s why I focused on the torches and racist flags.
Anyway, things accelerated on Saturday, with various incidents of outright violence, as well as chanting of racist and anti-Semitic hate speech. (Note that the mayor of Charlottesville is Jewish, but I suspect the anti-Semitism was mostly on general principle for these thugs.) Again, this is far beyond what is legitimate free speech. It appears that there may have been some acts of violence by the counter-protestors, which is also not okay. Of course, the most significant act of violence was by one of the white nationalists driving a car nto a crowd of anti-fascist demonstrators, killing one woman and injuring a large number of others. No human being could possibly justify that.
There are lots of questions about whether the police were adequately prepared and whether they had planned appropriately. It’s hard for me to know, based on a limited number of reports. I hope that gets more investigation over the coming days.
So here is my bottom line:
Both sides have the right to peaceably assemble. Condemning the views of a group is fine (and, indeed, the only moral approach to evil speech), but using violence to do so is not. Let us act deliberately to oppose bigotry and to foster the inclusive values that are the heart of what America should be about. And let us look carefully at what our politicians are saying and doing and work for those who are on the path of good.
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