One of my most controversial predictions is that North Americans are sleepwalking towards a Second Civil War in which the growing estrangement of the increasingly polarized halves of its electorate will have to act out the enormous reservoirs of animosity and spite they have been building towards each other for the last decades. The recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which rightists and leftists clashed in the streets causing enough turmoil to force Governor Terry McAuliffe to declare a state of emergency, and a counterdemonstrator (32 years old Heather Heyer) was killed, would seem to be a validation of the direness of my predictions, and a clear harbinger of the more virulent clashes to come. However, as is usually the case, there is more in the picture than meets the eye, and a sober assessment of the events rather makes me be more cautious, and even a bit more optimistic. Let’s see why.
1- What happened (are the streets burning yet?)
First let’s unpack what actually went on in the Virginia locality (population: 48,210 as of the 2010 census, and home to the University of Virginia) had announced its intention to remove a statue to Confederate general Robert E. Lee from the eponymous park (previously renamed Emancipation park, which already tells you a lot about Charlottesville municipal government).
A loose network of rightist groups opposed to the measure plan a rally on Saturday, Aug 12th under the denomination “Unite the Right”. Such rally is duly notified to the authorities and nominally permitted. The previous day (Fri, Aug 11th) Governor McAuliffe notifies via Twitter that, although demonstrators are protected by their constitutional right to express their views, he finds such views “abhorrent” and encourages Virginians of all persuasions to stay away of the march.
The night of the 11th hundreds of demonstrators march through the campus of the UoV carrying torches (as seen in countless photos, most seem to be oddly out-of-place tiki torches that would be more fit for lighting a barbecue in a patio in the ‘burbs than to be wielded in an exhibition of white power or whatnot…) and chanting niceties like “White lives matter”, “you will not replace us” (most journalists transcribe it as “Jews will not replace us”, as it has more sinister overtones and surely sells more papers) and “blood and soil”. Along with the torch-carrying and white-supremacist slogan chanting, a number of marchers can be seen unequivocally extending their arms in what undoubtedly can be construed as the traditional Nazi salute. Such march is widely and luridly transmitted by all major media organizations in the country.
On the morning of Saturday, Aug 12th demonstrators start gathering around Emancipation park, both for the planned march and to protest against it. A significant number on both sides are armed with visible weaponry and paramilitary gear that would be unimaginable in any other country but, Virginia being a permissive open carry state we can assume nothing out of bounds in the USA. To the surprise of exactly nobody, given the level of publicity achieved by the rally, as many counter-demonstrators as potential demonstrators can be seen around the park, and there are a number of clashes between both (check the NYT account: People pretending to fight - badly ). Around 11:00 AM Governor McAuliffe declares the state of emergency, revoking the authorization for the Right’s march, and ordering the attendants to the rally to abandon their location and dissolve. It has to be noted that such “dissolution” would force them to march through the throngs of counterdemonstrators gathered around the park, multiplying the chances for fights, clashes and brawls (check the alternative account of an avowedly alt-right attendant: What Loretta saw at C-ville ).
Clashes and widespread violence continue (but, amazingly given the stupendous amount of guns seen all around in every video and photo, no shootouts are reported… of the somewhere north of 30 wounded most are by punching and being beaten with blunt objects, plus some pepper-sprayed), reaching its high point (regarding lethality) when a Dodge Challenger driven by a James Alex Fields Jr. slams a group of counter protestors, killing the aforementioned Ms. Heyer. Later in the day, the crash of a police helicopter monitoring the day’s developments would add two officers to the total body count.
To top off the division and shock of the nation, the President famously talked to reporters from his golf resort in Bedmister, NJ, condemning the violence, which he blamed on “many sides”, causing not only liberals and progressives, but members of his (purportedly) own party like Speaker Paul Ryan to denounce him for “putting on the same moral plane” the “Nazis and anti-Nazis”. Not one to back off or publicly retract any proffered opinion, Trump later would say that a lot of “very fine people” attended the alt-right rally, and would insist in equally apportioning blame to “both sides” on a speech to reporters at Trump Tower the following Tuesday (Orange one's response ).
2- How the media reacted (burning? Man, they are exploding! Crumbling! Sizzling!)
Before I offer my interpretation of the facts I’ve just described, I think it’s worthwhile to reflect on how the media has portrayed them, from different points of the political spectrum. We have grown accustomed to the very post-modern idea of there not being a “true-truth”, but just different discourses, or narratives, weaving a hermeneutical network of signifiers that denote no precise significant at all. What that somewhat obscure assertion means is that for the few that still read news from outlets with different political alignments it is pretty common to find entirely diverging descriptions of a single event, to the point of making it difficult to identify such descriptions as applying to the same underlying facts. In the case under consideration, the differences have been predictably magnified: for the mainstream media it has been a national disgrace, the symptom of a seriously corroded and corrupted social compact that not only allows, but apparently encourages normal, seemingly well-adjusted young men (wearing that ultimate symbol of successful integration into middle-class status: khakis and polo shirts! That is no way to dress for the fascist takeover of the state, sir! What self-respecting revolutionary would exchange his jackboots and brown shirt for such a bland attire?) to publicly and unashamedly proclaim their Nazi sympathies and their scorn for every ages-old convention of what is acceptable and proper in a democracy. Nazi salutes? Check. Open proclamation of racial slurs? Check. Embracement not just of somewhat morally tainted past (the Confederacy and the Old South) but of beyond-the-pale fringe elements (like the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke and even ol’ Adolf himself)? Double check.
Unsurprisingly, both MSM and left-leaning circles have been having fits of apoplexy and denouncing the whole thing as furiously and unambiguously as possible, while at the same time pointing to the (at best equivocal) reaction of the White House as the undisputable proof of the racism and unabashed association with White Supremacism of not just the President and his inner circle, but the whole Republican establishment (the most commented piece along those lines is surely the one penned by Ta-Nehisi Coates in “The Atlantic”: The first white president (how much does the USA suck?) ). For them the right in general is racist, no exceptions allowed. And with fascist tendencies all along, so no surprise they resort to threats, violence and finally murder. The sad outcome of the many clashes in Charlottesville is not an isolated incident carried out by a mentally unstable individual, but the unavoidable consequence of a noxious ideology that, left unchecked, will cause many more eruptions like that one, and many more deaths (hence, combatting it with any means is the only rational and commendable action).
Fox News, the right leaning talk-radio hosts (Limbaugh, Hannity, Savage, etc.), the Murdoch press and the abundant orthosphere, NeoReaction and alt-right sites in the Interwebz see the whole story under a very different light. Their sympathies were since the beginning clearly with the initial demonstrators, not just because they fully endorse the country’s racist past, which they more or less unabashedly do, and thus also oppose the removal of any statue of Confederate heroes by the -in their eyes- minor feature of having led a rebel army against a constitutionally legitimate government for the sacred cause of being able to keep humans of a different skin color enslaved, but because in general “uniting the right” is something they all can rally behind (sharing, all of them, a sense of dread and disgust towards what they see as an almost unstoppable tide of progressivism and leftism that constitutes an existential threat to everything they hold dear and consider sacred). For all those media, the counterdemonstrators were an unholy and ragtag alliance of everything that is wrong with America today: feminists (“feminazis”), BLM sympathizers (“race traitors”), LGBT advocates (“faggots and butches”) and in general progressives and liberals. Instead of “proud boys” impeccably white and well-groomed marching in their khakis and polo shirts (oddly complemented by a peculiar assortment of shields, kneecaps and helmets), a bunch of blacks, short-haired girls and old hippies with questionable fashion sense carrying bullhorns and placards that seemed plucked from some outdated documentary about racial protests of the 70’s (but let’s not forget the mobile phones, which where mercifully absent back then… one can only wonder about the volume of uploads in Instagram, FB and the like of demonstrators from every sign preening about their exploits, in a new and social-media age version of the old “radical chic”).
Few have claimed that the victim between the counterdemonstrators somehow deserved it, or “had it coming”, but the narrative they weave leaves little doubt this is how they see it. For the right-wing media the whole episode is a further illustration of the inability of the current state (seized by liberals and traitors) to protect decent citizens, from the declaration of the state of emergency (which only served to further curtail the constitutional right to freely express its opinion to the always silenced part of the social body that does not share the left’s worldview) to the failure to protect the people gathered in Emancipation park from the taunts and aggressions of the dangerous “Antifa” mob. Never mind that the only actual casualty was in the ranks of the supposedly aggressive, dangerous and deranged anti-American extremists that went to disrupt a perfectly peaceful and tranquil event. Again, it was all the fault of the “Cathedral”, in this case personified in the Democratic Mayor, the Democratic Governor, the mob of dangerous radicals bent on violence and mayhem grouped under the label “Antifa” and, of course, the devious mainstream media that distorted and manipulated the emotions of some young man so he ended committing a crime.
3- So, all of this validates the narrative of “civil war tomorrow”, right?
Er, actually wrong. Always the contrarian, I see more positive than negative aspects to take into consideration after the events in Charlottesville. And remember I could construe it as a validation of my predictions of quick descent of the American polity into fractiousness and conflict (Guys, you're screwed ). But that’s not how I read it. For one, I won’t claim to be the greatest street brawler and bruiser of all time, but I’ve been involved in my share of fights (most of them had unwise amounts of alcohol involved, so take my account with a pinch of salt) and I was surprised, watching the many videos of the “violence”, by how… “performative” it looked like, and how little actual rage or aggression they showed. The few punches that are exchanged in front of the cameras (whose presence may be a distorting factor, or the other way round, the catalyst for all the action) resemble more a limp attempt to swat a mosquito than an actual intent to cause maximum damage whilst minimizing the puncher exposure.
We humans are a social species, and as every military instructor will tell you, getting normal people ready to shoot towards their fellow human beings (even at considerable distance, where the feeling of common humanity can be more easily overcome) requires quite extensive reprogramming. When I was younger (actually, much, much younger) I knew my share of seedy neighborhood gyms, all of which had its crew of testosterone-addled asocial troublemakers (and yes, a disproportionate percentage among them were already “extreme-right” and trained to either join the armed forces, the police or any self-styled anticommunist crusade in not-so-distant-Francoist Spain, their fathers or grandfathers having typically fought side by side with actual, honest-to-God German Nazis and Italian Fascists, the real thing and not the imagined bugbear so easily peddled in leftist fantasies). Even the most apparently psychotic between them had some difficulties overcoming the innate human revulsion towards doing harm and seeing other people suffer (although in some cases, it has to be said, they became quite good at such overcoming). I’ve seen how those guys hit, and that’s very different from what the footage by the NYT, CBS, ABC, WaPo, CNN or Fox shows. What that footage (much of it seem to be the same limited number of events shot from different points of view) depicts are a certain, limited number of posers running in front of the camera to have a go at throwing a (typically ineffective) jab at the least-imposing element of the opposite tribe, and then retreating precipitously back to safety among their own numbers, having accomplished its main goal, which we can surmise was never to gain territorial control of the contested streets, but snatching a nice graphical testimony to hang in their snapchat or Instagram account.
As I was not present in the city during the events, I can not say for sure that all the “street violence” so luridly reported by alarmed journalists was of this theatrical nature. Obviously the guy who rammed his car against the multitude, killing one and wounding multiple others was not “just doing it to look badass on Instagram”, and caused real, grievous and irreversible damage. Additional people were physically damaged to the point of requiring medical attention (19 in the car accident and 14 in other incidents) but if what the newsreels show is any representative indication, I think Charlottesville was a hybrid between a theater and a not-fully-grown-up kids’ giant playground, where self-styled radicals from left and right enacted their fantasies of being badass, rebellious and violently (and valiantly) opposing the unacceptable ideas of the other side:
Please note with this first interpretation of the events I’m not pretending to establish any moral equivalence between both sides, or pretending that white supremacism, racism and even ol’ Nazism are somehow OK (or not, I really don’t buy pieties or second hand opinions from any peddler of political correctness, and my opinions about such issues are really my own and not to be discussed here). I hope we can all agree the “Unite the Right” organizers had considered that their little show turning violent was a real possibility (heck, if not, why come with all the defensive gear, the shields, helmets, and, specially, the “security details” of the most prominent figures?), and that organizing a public event knowing it will turn violent (and thus, assuming people will be hurt) is at best irresponsible, and at worst outright evil. Yep, I know oppressed minorities in repressive states may be excused to resort to violence as no other way of redressing their grievances is open to them, and for many people in the USA “alt-right” theirs is precisely that kind of state. We’ll get back to that contention in a moment…
But similarly irresponsible/ evil is attending such event to be part of that same violence from the other side, regardless of how virtuous your ideas are. The traditional distinction between “defensive” and “offensive” violence does not apply, as we are not dealing with people that were going about their daily lives and suddenly were presented with a bunch of aggressive fascist threatening them, but of groups of activists that travelled to the scheduled demonstration location to harass and confront demonstrators for expressing their ideas, with the justification that such ideas are obnoxious and morally indefensible (again, I’m not yet declaring if I concur or not with such characterization). It is the embrace of violent means which constitutes a) the essence of totalitarian regimes (which define themselves by abandoning the public, pacific discussion of policy alternatives as main way of consensus formation and resort instead to its unilateral imposition, by whichever means -that’s when violence comes in) and b) the most salient and morally repugnant of its features (an imaginary “benevolent dictatorship” that never inflicted any pain on any of its subjects would be much less evil than one which systematically did -see “enlightened despotism” as proof). Am I saying with this that Trump was right, and we should condemn violence “from all sides”? does such generic condemnation mean that we indeed consider both sides “morally equivalent”? (let’s call them, for greater clarity, fascists and anti-fascists, or white supremacists and anti-white supremacists -or would it be more accurate to call the latter “white subserviencists “?). Not to put too fine a point about it, yes and no. I do indeed oppose (and condemn) every kind of violence, regardless of how honorable the cause it defends, or how ignoble and vile the cause it attacks. In cases of terrible oppression, when any other means of redress are closed, it could be justified to resort to causing pain (including to innocent people), always in a most limited, most circumspect manner, but those cases are few and far between, and certainly none of them obtains in modern day America (or in modern day Europe).
Which is not to say that, once violence is unleashed, every participant is similarly to blame: Those that start it (those who hit first) are normally more to blame than those that respond to it. Those that lose their temper and escalate it (and respond to a taunt with a punch, or to a punch with a shot to the head) are more to blame than those that keep their cool and show some restraint, trying to keep it proportional and not inflict more pain than what they themselves may have suffered. And yes, those that engage in it to advance a “respectable” cause (for a Kantian like me the proof of respectability is pretty straightforward: those that act according to a maxim they can universalize, so they would like to see it become a rule of nature or, alternatively, those that treat other people as ends in themselves and never as means) are less to blame than those that defend dubious, non-universalizable, particularistic causes. Only according to the first two criteria are the white supremacists who intended to march in Charlottesville morally equivalent to the counterdemonstrators that tried to stop them, as according the third their cause, being associated with racial segregation, a celebration of slavery and sedition (which entails a violation of the rule of law), and thus strictly non-universalizable, they are clearly inferior to those that showed up to oppose them.
Now that has been taken out of the way, let’s go back to why I find the sad and tragic events that unfolded the 12th of August still contain a reason to rejoice: essentially, what they showed is that the US of A is much farther from a civil war than what I feared, as the most vocal proponents of the de-humanization of half of the country that is required for such a confrontation to take place are a really tiny minority, unable to inflame the passions of a sizeable amount of their countrymen (as of today still very, very far from reaching a critical mass to have any significant impact on the political, let alone military balance of forces of the country) and willing to fold when confronted with the possibility of a real fight. During the campaign of the presidential election I tended to disagree with many analysts on the left that dismissed the perils of a Trump victory saying that the amount of his followers that bought into white supremacist phantasies was very minor, in the order of a few thousands, but now I think they were spot on, given how easy it was for a bunch of ragtag organizations to outnumber them on very short notice. Breitbart may claim some hundreds of thousands of readers, and the Daily Stormer (now disappeared from the “public” internet) some tens of thousands, but we’ve seen that lurking in unsavory virtual places while safely seated in your parents’ basement is one thing, and hauling your ass to a demonstration with fellow extremists where said ass can be repeatedly kicked is a very different one. A lot of people seem to have signed for the first, but precious few for the second.
And the media in the right have noticed, as the diagnostic I’ve met more frequently is that the “Unite the Right” rally was an unmitigated disaster, brought tons of bad publicity and has probably set up the movement a few years, if not decades. A lot of people, even those of a most conservative persuasion, still balk at being identified as Nazis, or being associated with the Ku Klux Klan. If I were a cynical I would show some surprise at the apparent inconsistency of endorsing blatant discrimination towards certain ethnic/ cultural groups (browns and blacks) but being uneasy about being associated with those who demonize others (Jews), as that’s where the line seem to be drawn. Sorry, but I fail to see how a Nazi is so much worse (and thus so amazingly more evil) than a super-nationalist, jingoistic hick that wants to send “people not like him” (because he considers them inferior and not fully human) back to their countries of origin, just because the former includes in the “not like him” category some people externally indistinguishable from himself (Jews) and the latter does not. And just to be clear and avoid mistakes, it is not because I sympathize with one more than the other: for the record, I consider both equally unacceptable and indefensible. However, a number of alt-right bloggers and neoReactionary thinkers seem to be happily aligned with the super-nationalist jingoist but reject being labelled as full-throat Nazis (see Mencius Moldbug, for obvious reasons).
But enough cynicism already, back to the uplifting consequences of proto-fascist thugs being routed in the streets, we can expect much less visibility from them, and that is not a bad thing. We will see similar levels of rancor and spite and foaming-at-the-mouth between progressives and conservatives, we will see one or the other condone ugly behaviors (both in words and deeds) as long as it is exhibited by someone from their tribe and causes harm to someone of the opposite’s, but such ugly behavior will return to the electronic realm: the usual trolling, badmouthing, toxic name-calling and occasional banding together to be overheard in front of niche audiences (sad puppies) but no street fighting (and hopefully, no car ramming in the enemy’s ranks). So cheer up, Americans! It seems like your simmering Second Civil War will remain a virtual conflict still for a few years to come. If and when it becomes real (not that original an idea, see American War by Omar el Akkad -oh, I forgot you barely read, and much less a book by an Arab-sounding author) is still up to you to decide.