(Editor’s note: This piece originally ran at the Troubler of Israel blog at Patheos.)
Rod Dreher correctly observes that the mob who tore down a century-old monument to Confederate soldiers in Durham, North Carolina, Monday represents the breakdown of law and order. No matter what your views about race, the Confederacy, or monuments, banding together and destroying public property is not and must not become an acceptable answer. If it does, we simply can’t have a society.
But overlooking the obvious Marxist overtones of the group that organized the crime (“Workers World Party Durham”–Gee, I wonder which comrade these folks want to commemorate in place of a Confederate soldiers?), there’s an important question we need to ask, especially in light of the violence and murder by one of the alt-right demonstrators in Charlottesville, last week: Is tearing down statues really making our country a better place?
I mean this on two levels. First, a very pragmatic one. The alt-right demonstrators carrying and wearing Nazi, Klan, and Confederate imagery in Virginia were there to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. For them, much like their counterparts on the radical left, such statues symbolize an identity. The disaffected white males who swelled the ranks at the “Unite the Right” rally-turned-riot feel their identity and heritage are under attack. And Dreher doesn’t think they’re entirely wrong:
“The alt-right has correctly identified a hypocritical double standard in American culture. It’s one that allows liberals and their favored minority groups to practice toxic identity politics — on campus, in the media, in corporate America, on the streets — while denying the possibility to whites and males. By speaking out against left-wing identity politics, and by explaining, over and over, why identity politics are wrong and destructive, conservatives strengthen their position in chastising white nationalists on the right.”
That last, written before Charlottesville blew up, is among the few left-of-center articles I’ve read whose author seems to truly grapple with the situation. Moser recognizes that we’re not witnessing a resurgence of organized racism. The actual Klan has been for years, and remains, a virtual non-factor in America. Estimates of its national membership range from 5,000 to 8,000. Compared to that the Moose Lodge is like the Red Army. And the largest Neo-Nazi group in the United States totals a whopping 400 members.
What we’re actually witnessing, he argues, is the birth of a young and exceptionally nasty troll class, who know how to play the American left and its outrage machine like a fiddle. He calls it “hate theater.” And those counter-demonstrating, panicking about the resurrection of the Third Reich or Dixie, and doubling down on the demonization of all whites, are fanning the flames.
Again, these sentiments aren’t coming from some right-wing fever swamp. None other than Peter Beinart at The Atlantic observes that from Berkeley, Evergreen State and Middlebury, to Auburn, Dallas, and Portland, (not to mention the assassination attempt against Republican congressional leadership in June) the “violent left” is on the rise, meeting perceived assertions of white supremacy (real or imagined) with actual–often deadly and always illegal–force. Beinart thinks they’re only adding credibility to the alt-right’s persecution complex:
“…progressives face a choice. They can recommit to the rules of fair play, and try to limit the president’s corrosive effect, though they will often fail. Or they can, in revulsion or fear or righteous rage, try to deny racists and Trump supporters their political rights. From Middlebury to Berkeley to Portland, the latter approach is on the rise, especially among young people.Revulsion, fear, and rage are understandable. But one thing is clear. The people preventing Republicans from safely assembling on the streets of Portland may consider themselves fierce opponents of the authoritarianism growing on the American right. In truth, however, they are its unlikeliest allies.”
What we saw in Durham, a sort of left-wing vigilantism directed at a statue, is exactly the kind of thing that fuels the alt-right. It gives reality to the white nationalist alarm cry that their heritage is under attack by unrestrained mobs. Left-wing violence is the very best alt-right recruiting tool. As Moser points out, it not only makes them look legitimate in the eyes of potential converts, but it gives them a sense of renewed purpose and a strange sensation of importance and relevance.
Of course, there’s a second, less pragmatic reason to oppose the removal of Confederate statues and monuments: History is not the right place for the kind of moral inquisition many on the left want to hold, and almost none of America’s revered figures would pass the requisite purity test in such a purge.
The premise that half of the men who died in the Civil War are racist monsters who don’t deserve to have their names mentioned or their valor commemorated on the ground where they fought isn’t very convincing. But this French Revolution of American history will not stop with guillotining Robert E. Lee and his rebel soldiers. If everyone in the American story is now to be condemned on the basis of his worst ideas and deeds, rather than celebrated for his best, where does it stop?
Certainly not with Thomas Jefferson, our esteemed third president, a Southern plantation man who owned slaves and impregnated one. The Charlottesville protester at the 17-minute mark in Vice’s coverage seems to have already set her sights on Monticello, where she says “the master” constantly looks down on the city’s African Americans. Others are already demanding statues and commemorations of Washington come down. I live not far from the Jefferson memorial on the tidal basin in Washington, D.C. Should a mob gather to pull the author of the Declaration of Independence from his pedestal and consign him to the dustbin of history, would law enforcement put up more of a fight than they did in Durham? If they did, would it be consistent?
Right-wing fringe groups who turn violent richly deserve the condemnation they’re receiving. But if we take a clear-eyed look at what’s fueling these groups, it’s obvious left-wing fringe violence is, as Beinart writes, “their unlikeliest ally.” It’s also not clear whether this politically correct purge of history has any brakes. And as long as the radical left insists on unilaterally adjudicating that question, often outside the law, the radical right will continue to enjoy a potent recruiting tool.
Update 8/17/17: It took all of about five seconds for Al Sharpton to take up my suggestion about the Jefferson Memorial. I wonder how many progressives will follow suit?
Update 8/17/17: Looks like a strong majority of Americans want to keep the Confederate statues standing, according to an NPR/PBS poll. The “very liberal” were the only group where a majority wanted to take them down. Dreher concludes these people are even more out-of-touch with the American public than we thought.
Image courtesy of DoxaDigital at iStock by Getty Images. Illustration designed by Heidi Allums.
G. Shane Morris is assistant editor of BreakPoint Radio.