Monday, 14 August 2017

Thoughts on Charlottesville: Keep Standing Up To White Supremacists and Alt-Right Commentators

The horrific events that have occurred in Charlottesville on Saturday seem to have shocked people not just in the US but around the world. Such events should shock every person who believes that compassion towards others should never be rationed. Heather Heyer, a civil rights activist who was exercising her democratic right to peaceful protest lost her life and 19 people were injured as a result of a driver seemingly choosing to deliberately run over protesters just because they were counter-protesting an organised hate driven rally organised under the vague label of "Unite The Right". If an ISIS terrorist had done this on a Saturday afternoon in an American city, they'd have been immediately labelled as a terrorist; yet President Trump could only condemn the "egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides"  in his first statement rather than call out the actions perpetrated by the driver straight away.
Alt-righters have already tried to excuse or condone the driver's actions, stating that the driver had been "scared" by the number of protestors in the road and swerved off. We shall find out in the next days, weeks and months what primarily motivated the driver (the young man from Ohio currently charged with second degree murder is the main suspect) to commit such a heinous act but nobody should be surprised if police find out he had accessed materials that had been created and disseminated by alt-right commentators. The suspect seems to have adopted a poisonous, nationalist, white supremacist Neo Nazi based ideology that should be condemned at every opportunity. The act was deliberate and if found guilty, people have every right to label him a domestic terrorist because his act was designed to terrorise innocent people inspired by his political ideology. That makes the driver no better than ISIS suicide bombers.

The "Unite The Right" rally at Emancipation Park was organised by the former Daily Caller writer Jason Kessler, with speakers such as Richard Spencer, President of the National Policy Institute (a white supremacist think-tank) who has openly called for "peaceful ethnic cleansing" of the US or a "white homeland" for "a dispossessed white race" as The Southern Poverty Law Center have highlighted (https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/individual/richard-bertrand-spencer). Such views are ridiculous to a liberal like me but then Spencer idolises nihilistic Nietzsche:
(see more about Spencer here: http://www.dailywire.com/news/11089/5-things-know-about-alt-right-leader-richard-aaron-bandler). Alt-righters like Spencer love being allowed to vent
 their views full of hatred, bigotry and inspiring xenophobia, racism as well as not being ashamed of celebrating white supremacism. Urgh.

The event was planned after it was revealed in February that Charlottesville City Council had voted remove and sell a statue of General Robert E Lee, after a campaign run by a local high school student. There have been a number of campaigns across the American South dedicated towards removing monuments that celebrate the slave-owning Confederacy. I don't entirely understand why the divisive legacy of the Confederacy needs to be celebrated (after all the Union side won) and it's strange to see the level of negative emotion shown by white people who are upset that the confederate flags aren't being waved with pride on a daily basis anymore because they say that flag represents freedom and liberty. I thought the modern United States flag was meant to represent those values? Yet there are others who believe the confederate flag should still be celebrated because it honours the sacrifice of confederate soldiers (the flag itself is a battle flag and not a national flag so there is some sympathy with the honour element: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23705803). Anyways the Charlottesville rally was basically planned for months and was designed to be the largest gathering in decades of white supremacists (5,000-10,000 was the estimate given for attendance pre the event). There was an altercation on Friday night between white nationalists/supremacists/alt-right and counter-protestors on the University of Virginia campus, where counter-protestors were sprayed with pepper spray and lighter-fluid (you can read more about the build-up here: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/aug/12/nazi-white-nationalist-rallies-virginia-protests).

Alt-right white supremacist nationalist speakers (that's what the majority of the alt-right are really....white supremacists; Spencer admitted the alt-right was a movement "for white identity" and he coined the term so it's easy to see it as modern code for white supremacy even though he rejects the term white supremacy) stir up hatred, bigotry and fear in a provocative manner. It's what they specialise in. Division is their end goal. Most of them hate diversity and cannot abide the idea of coexistence. That's why it's important for those of us who believe in the values of tolerance, compassion and respect to speak up and actively condemn speakers like Richard Spenser and also continue to condemn traditional white supremacist group speakers, including the ex KKK grand wizard, shameful David Duke. Duke's brass neck is visible for all to see. He can't hide his delight in the fact that Trump's election has meant he's now empowered to speak out about his white supremacist agenda: "We are determined to take our country back....We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump". Duke interprets the "take back our country" slogan as being one that follows white supremacist lines but Duke was more than a bit upset at Trump's (vague) rebuking tweet, stating openly that Trump's win was down to "White Americans....not radical leftists". Duke's tweet is racist and false; "radical leftists" include white Americans and there were also Americans from ethnic minority groups who did vote for Trump (wonder if some of them regret this now given his actions during the Presidency...). Still a shame that Duke's been allowed a Twitter account when alt-right commentators such as Milo Yiannopolous have been banned from the social media site; what makes Duke more acceptable than Yiannopolous?!

It's important to mention the fact that most of the white supremacists and alt-right protesters were men. As a trans non-binary person, I find it very difficult to accept that white guys are the "most oppressed" people in America (and equally in the UK). A Vox article "The Charlottesville protesters are white fragility in action" (https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/8/12/16138558/charlottesville-va-white-fragility) points out that men at the march were changing slogans such as  "you will not replace us"; given that the 2016 census data indicates that 76.9% of the US population are white as opposed to 13.3% of the US population who are black or African American (https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045216) demonstrates quite clearly that these white men have no reason to chant such a slogan and besides, racial diversity is certainly nothing to fear. Yet these men are evidently afraid of change; there's no doubt a large number were angry at President Barack Obama and want to dismantle his legacy and also at the Black Lives Matter protests that have been gaining momentum in the US and beyond.

In America, white supremacists have the right to protest (under the 1st Amendment). An article in Vox explains how even the American Civil Liberties Union defended the right of Kessler et al to protest in Emancipation Park (https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/8/12/16138326/aclu-charlottesville-protests-racism).  I can and will never understand how someone can be so insecure about their own life that they end up blaming immigrants, African Americans, Asian Americans or Latin Americans for their own misfortune. There's no evidence to prove white people are being oppressed on the basis of their skin colour. It is worrying to see predominately young men turning to Neo-Nazi, white supremacist ideology for comfort. There's something quite frankly chilling about seeing young men marching with tiki torches, chanting Nazi-era slogans and threatening innocent students and protestors standing up for their fellow Americans with violence.  It seems we have to defend a person's right to protest, even if their views are abhorrent to us; that's the supposed hallmark of a democracy. But nobody should condone the right of protesters to resort to verbal abuse or physical violence, regardless of who those protestors happen to be. Violence is never the answer.White nationalists are far from the paragons of American virtues that they purport themselves to be. No gentility of character evident whatsoever.

A tepid false equivalence statement such as the one issued by Trump as his first response to Charlottesville was not acceptable. There was NOT blame "on many sides"; the blame firmly lies with the white supremacists. This group of individuals have oppressed African Americans, Asian Americans and Latin Americans for generations. They protest because they want to continue having a foothold in American politics, aided and abetted by alt-right commentators who have now spruced up the white supremacist ideology to suit the millennial (and younger) social media watching audience. They have used YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and even Instagram to their own advantage to push an odious ideology which has no place in a liberal, tolerant and open world. Most political commentators (and most Americans) wish Trump had openly condemned white supremacist and, alt-right groups on Saturday. Republican politicians lined up to criticise Trump's choice of words: Senator Cory Gardner urged Trump to "call evil by its name", stating that the act was committed by "white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism". Utah Senator Orrin Hatch tweeted that white supremacist protesters' "tiki torches may be fuelled by citronella but their ideas are fuelled by hate & have no place in civil society". Instead, Trump couldn't help but lay part of the blame for the events at the door of those who bravely protested these groups, including Black Lives Matter activists. I'm not ashamed to say that if I'd lived in Charlottesville and I had heard that an alt-right and white supremacist rally was going to take place in my town or city, I'd have tried to get involved in peacefully protesting them. Any person who abhors white supremacist ideology would have done the same.The White House has issued a "clarification statement" where they state that Trump was referring to white supremacist groups in his statement; it's just sad that he couldn't condemn them by name in the first place. Trump has also spoken out and mentioned the KKK by name but why did it really take him so long? If I was President of the US or Prime Minister of the UK, I'd have called them out straight away. A dithering attitude doesn't inspire much confidence leadership wise.

The events in Charlottesville demonstrate the need for real cultural change in America, including conservative attitudes towards peaceful protestors from the Left. Protestors are not paid shills for George Soros, no matter how hard the alt-right wants to push that false stereotype. People on the left care about freedom but they also care about (on the whole) equality and diversity and celebrating living in a multicultural society. It's important to mention that there are Republican lawmakers who want to make it legal for protesters to be hit by cars. In the UK this would be entirely unthinkable and contravenes Article 8 of the UK's Human Rights Act 1998. So to a British person like me, such a change in laws regarding protest in America are repulsive. So the lawmakers of North Carolina (who passed a bill with 67 people voting for it...https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2017-04-28/north-carolina-house-votes-to-protect-drivers-who-hit-protesters) Texas, Florida, Tennessee and North Dakota really need to take a look in the mirror and question their prejudices; would they try and change the law if an alt-right or conservative protester was mowed down by a car? Hmm.

Education is going to be key if America is to deal with the issue of persistent white supremacist ideology being pushed by elements of the alt-right movement. From an early age, whether at church (community centre or any other religious building), in elementary schools or at youth camps, children should be taught that hating a person based on the colour of their skin is fundamentally wrong and at odds with any notion of freedom, liberty or equality. However, testimony from the driver's history teacher proves how much of a challenge it is to try and get some young men to steer away from being seduced by Neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology; his comment about Dachau concentration camp is so chilling that I will not mention it here (read it for yourself: http://abcnews.go.com/US/charlottesville-murder-suspects-teacher-thought-nazis-pretty-cool/story?id=49193213).

More generally, frank conversations do need to be had over white privilege. This may be more difficult with those who have conservative  political views who may not wish to be told that their comments or actions have a negative impact on people from ethnic minority backgrounds and could be interpreted as casually racist; an interesting case is pointed out in the first Vox article where a young woman at an anti-racism training session couldn't accept that her views could be challenged so overtly by participants who were from ethnic minority backgrounds  to the point where she declared she "might be having a heart attack" to her white colleagues which then re focussed attention and sympathy on her and away from the comments she had made. Some white-supremacists and casual racists react in such a sensitive way so as to escape their responsibility for their hate speech. Others are blatantly proud to hold such views and they should be condemned openly for those views. I don't think there is any free-speech issue concerning  no-platforming of racists, white-supremacists who may define as alt-righters; social media sites should be diligent in policing their platforms and quick to remove videos, tweets and Facebook posts that contain white-supremacist or racist ideology whenever they are alerted to such content.

There are certainly white nationalist supremacists out there who appropriate Christianity for their own ends without seemingly recognising some vital basic facts about Christianity (Spencer describes himself as an atheist and a "cultural Christian", which is confusing enough!) Firstly, Jesus was from the Middle East (born in Judea which is now part of the Palestinian West Bank) and was a Jew; he was not white or evangelical. Secondly, Jesus believed that demonstrating acts of compassion were a vital part of leading a fulfilled and happy life. Thirdly, Jesus believed that those acts of compassion should be demonstrated to all, regardless of religion, nationality or race. Fourthly, Jesus taught us about the importance of loving your neighbour; alt-righters and white supremacists may love their immediate neighbour but show little respect or compassion towards those who lead different lives. James Martin, a New York based Jesuit Priest, points out in a Twitter post (https://twitter.com/JamesMartinSJ/status/896528129971281920) that "supremacy is absurd to Jesus": Mark 10 42:43 makes it clear that Jesus expects us not to "lord power over others" and be "each other's servants". The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the best examples of Jesus's acts of compassion to use to counter alt-right narratives but Father Martin also points to the example of the Roman centurion, whose servant he healed without passing judgement on either of them. Racism, Marks says, "goes against all that Jesus taught: It promotes hatred, not love, anger, not compassion, vengeance, not mercy. It is a sin". Religion can be a force of good in the world and it is a Christian duty to stand up to white nationalist supremacists. After all, we are all made equal in the image of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit: (Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus). God does not show favouritism (Deuteronomy 10:17 declares that God "is not partial and takes no bribe").  Christians should also be prepared to forgive those who truly repent of their racism/ white supremacism: Ephesians 4:32 states: "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as in Christ God forgave you". That being said, Christians respect the legal system and the law must be allowed to take its course when racists have taken action designed to terrorise others.

It has to be pointed out clearly that problems faced by communities in rural America (also faced by deindustrialised communities in the North of England) are NOT the result of "diversity genocide" or completely the fault of "mass globalisation". White supremacists only look to the past and glorify every action taken by the ancestors. That's not going to help solve the issues faced by "angry white young men" today.  Instead, there needs to be policies enacted that help to address those issues. The Alt-right and traditional white supremacist groups like the KKK cannot offer solutions; they just contribute articles to their own groupthink websites like AltRight.com where they try and read fascism into the work of David Bowie: (http://forward.com/fast-forward/360401/richard-spencer-and-white-supremacists-aim-for-bigger-platform-with-altrigh/).

As I've said earlier, education is key. More young white American men from working class backgrounds should be encouraged to apply for higher education programmes (including night school) because they need to realise that they will probably not be able to walk into a job without a good standard of education -i.e. college degrees (see more here: https://www.fastcompany.com/3062321/why-are-there-so-many-white-young-american-men-without-college-degrees). Trump's more bothered about reviewing federal education policies (mainly K-12 education) than increasing access to college education and the fact that his administration has rolled back the protection for individuals who may default on their college loans signals a disregard for college students. In fact, Trump wants to reduce state grants for career and technical education (for those who do not want to go through traditional college, akin to the UK apprenticeship programmes) and cut the funding for the US federal work-study (for those who do attend college but might have ended up working to fund it) programme by 50% (https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/05/trumps-education-budget-takes-aim-at-the-working-class/527718/).

Young people should also be empowered to look for a sense of self-worth that is not contingent on "membership" of a hate political movement. Getting them involved in community work, arts projects, the church can help in this respect.

Those who elected Trump who do not consider themselves in any way a part of or allied to the KKK or the Alt-right movement (including some independents) apparently did so in part because they believed that he could bring economic prosperity to the American rust belt. As of yet, Americans have heard very little about policies that would directly help working class Americans, including those who may have alt-right sympathies. Instead, there's an emphasis on tax reform that seems to predominantly benefit business owners, cutting the corporation tax from 35% to 15% (although Trump says he'll eliminate income tax for single people earning under $25,000 a year) with the "hope" that those business owners then expand and create jobs for young people including those involved in the alt-right movement. Will such trickle-down capitalist economics work? Doubt it.

Recently, Trump's administration have focussed on isolationist and protectionist policies, including trying to bring an immigration reduction bill (named the RAISE Act) to Congress; such an act would, according to a Penn Wharton study, lead to the US's Gross Domestic Product being 0.7% lower by 2027 and 2% by 2040. Whilst it may raise per capita GDP in the short term, the economy on a person-by-person basis would be smaller by 0.3% (https://www.vox.com/2017/8/11/16125578/raise-act-economic-impact) by 2040. The Penn Wharton study also found that such a policy may end up reducing the number of jobs in the US by 4.6 million. Trump's approach has been criticised by the Dean of Harvard Business School, Nitin Nohria who stated that the US needs to focus on the "ambitions and aspirations linked to globalisation" because they are part of "the American dream". The US must remain attractive to highly skilled migrants because they help drive economic growth: "more than 50% of Silicon Valley start-ups have an immigrant co-founder" and they help to employ US born citizens in well paid roles:  (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/donald-trump-economic-policy-us-risk-president-harvard-business-school-dean-name-a7870866.html). A more positive and progressive approach to immigration would be much better and there needs to be economic reforms that help young people get into work. But that doesn't seem to be coming any time soon.

My thoughts and prayers are with the family of the Ms Heyer and with the injured and their families who are in a critical or serious condition in hospital; having lost my Uncle on Sunday due to liver cancer I can only hope that they are all being well supported during the grieving process. Nobody should lose their life when exercising their right to protest peacefully. Nobody.

Thoughts are also with the two police officers who died when their helicopter crashed into a wooded area outside of Charlottesville. They died whilst carrying out their duty to "protect and serve".

Yet we must continue to protest white supremacists through countering the ideology that feeds their hatred, including through social media and engaging in a positive, practical way with those who would be susceptible to turning to the alt-right for advice and guidance. A pro-active approach is essential.  The words of Edmund Burke are more important now than ever: