Facing Charlottesville and the issue of identity politics
Events in Charlottesville, Va., have dominated recent news. A white supremacist demonstration — against the decision to remove a statue of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee — with Nazi elements provoked a counterdemonstration, and violence resulted. Horrifically, a car driven by a demonstration supporter was driven into a group of counterdemonstrators, killing one and injuring many others.
President Donald Trump’s initial condemnation of the attack, which some have labeled terrorism, was deemed inadequate by his critics, and his follow-up statements were also widely criticized.
The violence has drawn across-the-board condemnation from prominent American-Jewish groups and leaders.
How did we get to this point?
There have been battles over the use of Confederate symbols — state flags incorporating elements of flags of the Confederacy and memorials to heroes of the seceded South, such as the famous statue of Lee in New Orleans. Movements have been mounted to tear down such memorials and rename schools and streets. Some advocate renaming of sites or institutions dedicated to founders like Thomas Jefferson, because he was a slave owner.
Do you, in Stalinist fashion, write people out of history and make them “unpersons” because they are not in favor with the current setters of public morality?
This is the point made in a New York Sun editorial, “The Robert E. Lee Lustration” (referring to a policy that seeks to cleanse a new regime from the remnants of the past):
The issue in Virginia is, in our view, the statue of Robert E. Lee. Why is it there at Charlottesville? For what does it stand? Was the city right to decide to take it down? What about all the other places that have monuments to the general? We read that there are more than a thousand. There is also Arlington House-the Robert E. Lee Memorial amid America’s national cemetery (once the Lee estate). Congress, by a unanimous vote in 1925, made it a memorial to the confederate commander. Currently being refurbished, it is due to reopen next month.
The Sun continues, “The cause of the Union itself would have been better pursued by a proper lustration. And we suppose a form of that is what is under way in all the protests against the Lee monuments. It’s a dangerous moment, though, for the process of lustration can ignite its own kind of illiberalism.”
For some reason, Americans, especially on the left, have an obsession with classifying everyone. It’s called identity politics. You are ascribed characteristics of a class — e.g., gender, race, location — disregarding who you are as a person.
The connection between Charlottesville and identity politics was made in a Wall Street Journal editorial:
[T]he focus on Mr. Trump is also a cop-out because it lets everyone duck the deeper and growing problem of identity politics on the right and left. The politics of white supremacy was a poison on the right for many decades, but the civil-rights movement rose to overcome it, and it finally did so in the mid-1960s with Martin Luther King Jr.’s language of equal opportunity and color-blind justice.
That principle has since been abandoned, however, in favor of a new identity politics that again seeks to divide Americans by race, ethnicity, gender, and even religion. “Diversity” is now the all-purpose justification for these divisions, and the irony is that America is more diverse and tolerant than ever.
The editorial warns, “A politics fixated on indelible differences will inevitably lead to resentments that extremists can exploit in ugly ways on the right and left. The extremists were on the right in Charlottesville, but there have been examples on the left in Berkeley, Oakland, and numerous college campuses.”
How does this affect an individual? A column by liberal New York Times columnist Frank Bruni provides some insight:
I’m a white man, so you should listen to absolutely nothing I say, at least on matters of social justice. I have no standing. No way to relate. My color and gender nullify me, and it gets worse: I grew up in the suburbs…. But wait. I’m gay…. So where does that leave me? Who does that make me? Oppressor or oppressed? Villain or victim? And does my legitimacy hinge on the answer? To listen to some of the guardians of purity on the left, yes.
Bruni concludes, “I question the wisdom of turning categories into credentials when it comes to politics and public debate. I reject the assumptions — otherwise known as prejudices — that certain life circumstances prohibit sensitivity and sound judgment while other conditions guarantee them. That appraises the packaging more than it does the content.”
What packaging applies to Charlottesville? Every rational person deplores the extremism and violence on display there. But some packaging conditions us. Part of it has to do with history. Some of that history is regional, and the South is no exception. You may detest slavery, secession, and discrimination, but it is part of the South’s — and America’s — history.
Imagine that you were told that you had to obliterate part of your history. For millennia, Jews were told to forget their ancestral homeland. We did not. Today, we react viscerally when we see UNESCO resolutions trying to sever the connection of Jews and Judaism to biblical Israel in order to boost Palestinian territorial claims.
To what extent do we rewrite history to match the political views of others? If we commence a rewrite, where does it end?
In Chicago, a pastor has asked Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration to remove the names of Presidents George Washington and Andrew Jackson from parks on the South Side, saying the city should not honor slave owners in black communities. Should we raze the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial for the same reason?
In New York, 200 demonstrators held a protest inside the American Museum of Natural History to take down the “racist” statue of Theodore Roosevelt. Calling TR a promoter of white supremacy, a statement said the statue was “an affront to all who pass it on entering the museum, but especially to African and Native Americans.” The protesters also called for Columbus Day to be renamed Indigenous People’s Day.
History should be based on facts, which should be accurately reported, and not distorted by identity politics.