If ever there was a lightning rod for attracting the disciples of Liberalism and political correctness, the new creed that is destroying honest debate and discourse in the ‘Land of the Free,’ you could do no worse than a bronze statue of Robert E. Lee in the town square. For those who never heard of the man, Lee was a very skilled general who led the South’s Confederate forces against Lincoln’s Union during the Civil War, the bloodiest US military conflict to date.
Lee also proved irresistible to the alternative right (‘alt-right’), an increasingly vocal group of predominantly frustrated white men who, in this latest convulsion to rattle the US, view the removal of the Southern general’s statue as an appropriate metaphor for the ‘endangered white male.’ The Anti-Defamation League defines the alt-right as individuals who “want to preserve the white majority in the US,” over fears that descendants of white Europeans are “losing their majority status,” which will eventually result in “white genocide.”
Although there is a big temptation to connect this latest bout of left-right strife with the rise of Donald Trump, and the epic fall of Hillary Clinton, that explanation falls wide of the mark. As witnessed by the Tea Party and other right-wing movements, such as Unite the Right, Oath Keepers and the 3 Percenters, these groups were itching for a fight long before the mogul of Manhattan crashed the political scene. But the left has been equally guilty of kicking up its share of dirt.
The great schism in American politics began shortly after the attacks of 9/11 when George W. Bush initiated an opportunistic crackdown on civil liberties through the Patriot Act, a veritable tome that few legislators had a chance to read, yet signed it into law anyways. This slide towards totalitarianism continued under Barack Obama, the first president to carry out extrajudicial killings of US citizens outside of war zones, oversee a vast surveillance network courtesy of the NSA, and speak openly about ‘updating’ the Second Amendment right to bear firearms. These constitutionally-challenged moves made a lot of conservative-minded folks, and certainly some Liberals, very nervous.
However, what seems to have really triggered the right was Obama’s raft of culturally explosive legislation, which turned traditional American values on their head. From the legalization of marijuana, to endorsing same-sex marriages, to opening the door, quite literally, to transgenders using the bathroom and changing facilities of their choice, it seems Obama punched every hot-button issue before leaving office.
At the same time, the left, well before Trump was considered hot political property, was also manning the trenches. On Sept. 17, 2011, a group called Occupy Wall Street took over Zuccotti Park in the heart of New York’s financial district, where they held protests against economic inequality. The protesters were forced to leave their site on November 15, 2011, but their message continues to resonate to this day.
Two years later, following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ hashtag became a social media phenomenon. The tag went from the world of virtual reality to the streets, where thousands of protesters condemned a reported rise in police brutality against blacks.
Finally, and most disturbingly, a group called ‘Antifa’ arrived on the scene, espousing ‘anti-fascist’ rhetoric against far-right groups. This militant group, which has been declared a ‘domestic terrorist group’ by the New Jersey Department of Homeland Security, resorts to violent tactics that mirror the very ‘fascist’ ideology it purports to be challenging. At Berkeley, black-masked Antifa members reportedly left behind property damage and started fires, while the group is believed to have violently disrupted the “March 4 Trump” event. This thuggish tendency, which seems to be strangely prevalent on the left, to resort to outright violence every time somebody attempts to challenge an idea sets a disastrous precedent. It also leads directly to outbreaks of violence.
Now, with the arrival of Donald Trump on the scene, all of this accumulated political firewood, as it were, has paved the way for round one of a conflagration that won’t be resolved anytime soon.
In considering the violent events that shook Charlottesville, where actual fatalities and numerous injuries occurred, it is important to consider what sparked this event, and that was the decision to remove Robert E. Lee’s statue from the city center. It seems a reasonable case could be made for both sides of the debate, yet that is exactly what is missing in America these days – healthy debate.
First, it must be said the Confederate cause that Lee defended – that is, an agrarian system based on slavery – is obviously noxious and indefensible. Hundreds of thousands of Africans were physically removed from their homeland and delivered to American shores, forced to till the fields of their ‘masters’ from morning til night. Not until the emergence of Abraham Lincoln and the North’s hard-fought victory in the Civil War did African Americans secure their full-fledged membership in US society. Thus, many Americans find it distasteful that a statue of Lee, gallantly astride his horse, sits in a park that bears his namesake.
Yet the question remains. Will removing Lee’s statue eliminate the stain of slavery from American history books? No, it won’t. So what is it exactly that we wish to accomplish by its removal? Should Americans be expected to tear down every physical reminder of those historical figures whose ultimate legacy was being on the wrong side of history? Should we be prepared to close down Gettysburg Military Park in Pennsylvania, for example, the sprawling site of the Battle of Gettysburg, the Civil War’s bloodiest battle that precipitated the final defeat of Lee’s army? It was on the basis of that victory, after all, that lent inspiration to Lincoln’s famous ‘Gettysburg Address.’
“To forget history is to repeat it” is not some silly cliche, but sound advice that we ignore at our own peril.
The willingness to remove statues from our main squares is just one step away, I believe, from demanding history books be purged from any reference to such events for fear of offending somebody. In both cases, we wish to remove the physical content because we find it morally offensive. Thanks to the toxic atmosphere of political correctness that has sanitized all debate and discussion, we already see the first signs of such extremism. It’s a sad day in America when university campuses, the very fountain of free thought, resort to violence every time a controversial guest speaker is invited to address a group of students.
So deeply entrenched are the roots of political correctness that Americans, who can barely pronounce the words ‘male’ and ‘female’ these days without facing a lawsuit, are now willing to remove not only stone representations of dead historical figures who still have hard lessons to teach, but living, breathing individuals carrying messages that some may find unsettling, yet that have a right to be spoken nevertheless.
As a nation, we’ve traveled light years away from the sound advice given by the English writer, Beatrice Hall, who said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Where is the police protection?
Meanwhile, the right of assembly by all participants should have been protected by the authorities in Charlottesville since the idea of allowing these two groups, which exist at extreme ends on the political spectrum, to mingle in the proximity of tiny Emancipation Park (formerly called ‘Lee Park’) was simply insane.
It should be noted that Unite the Right (UtR) had secured the necessary permits to assemble to hear various speakers discuss the decision to remove the historical Lee statue. They also had the blessing of the American Civil Liberties Union (Yet this did not stop “Unite The Right” organizer Jason Kessler from being attacked by protesters while attempting to hold a news conference). This decision naturally led to counter groups, notably from Antifa, to also secure permits to hold counter rallies. Thus, this quaint Virginia town had collected together enough combustible material to have given the authorities enough incentive to ensure public safety, yet once again the police failed spectacularly on that point.
Reminiscent of the violence that left Berkeley campus resembling a war zone over a scheduled talk by Milo Yiannopoulos, a British commentator associated with the so-called alt-right, the Charlottesville police fueled the tension by driving the conflicting sides into something resembling a mosh pit. Indeed, by all outside appearances, it looked as if the police were willfully inciting violence between the leftist and rightist camps.
Are the local police forces really so inept as to force two opposing groups together during a protest? According to various accounts I have heard, that is exactly what happened. While I will leave the question of police measures to other commentators, it needs to be emphasized that if Americans are to retain their constitutionally protected freedom of speech and assembly, then the authorities must be expected to create the safe spaces for such events.
When Americans are being physically denied the right to express themselves due to an oppressive atmosphere of political correctness, then the authorities must take the necessary steps to protect them, otherwise the natural result will be more violence.
It’s sad that the national state of debate in America has reached the point when such measures are required, but without open debate and discussion on all issues, America will be stuck in a Civil War mindset.