Antarctica is melting; meanwhile, Hell has frozen over. Well, at least it seems Hell must have frozen over, since I find myself in the unfamiliar position of agreeing, at least in part, with Donald Trump regarding the horrific events in Charlottesville. Surely, that requires further explanation.
But first a disclaimer: Not only is Donald J. Trump temperamentally, politically and historically unfit to hold the office of President, he is morally unfit for that position as well. He is a despicable human being … a man whose conscience has been displaced by his id. Allow me to illustrate the depth of my disgust with the man.
Those who live in certain places in America learn to stomp their feet and otherwise make lots of noise before flipping the lights on when entering a darkened kitchen in order to avoid being greeted by the unpleasant sight of cockroaches scurrying across the countertop and floor. Cockroaches usually avoid the light; but thanks to Trump, human cockroaches have become emboldened. These days, they rally by torchlight at night and march boldly in the light of day. Indeed, some of these cockroaches see Trump as their king.
If there is any good to come of this, it is that now that these cockroaches have come out of the shadows and out from under their rocks, they can be seen for who and what they are. As they say, sunlight is the best disinfectant.
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Having compared Trump to an insect, it pains me greatly to defend anything he says. But honesty requires me to do so. But first, let me point out where I disagree.
While I decry the violence on both sides, to imply (at the very least) that both sides were equally guilty, as Trump did, is to strain credulity to the nth degree. Those who intend to march peacefully do not show up in full body armor, armed to the teeth with baseball bats, clubs and automatic weapons – those that do are all too obviously spoiling for a fight.
As for Trump’s assertion that some “very fine people” just happened to be caught up in the march, I think not. To the contrary, I think very fine people would have immediately gone over to the other side, once they discovered they were in the midst of Klansmen, Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists . Even the racists I know, some of whom are otherwise decent folk, people whose fathers and grandfathers fought the Nazis in WWII, even these racists wouldn’t be caught dead marching alongside Neo-Nazis.
Equally deplorable is the excuse that in shouting Nazi slogans and hurling slurs against Jews and other minorities, Klansmen, Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists were simply exercising their First Amendment rights. Fine people understand that those rights come with certain social obligations, including the obligation to restrain one’s id.
The First Amendment may guarantee us all but unlimited freedom to speak as we wish, but it does not guarantee there will be no consequences for exercising that freedom. A friend of my son’s discovered that the hard way, when he was fired after posting negative comments about his employer on a supposedly private Facebook page.
Some among the Neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville are learning that same hard lesson as well, based on reports that some have already been fired from their jobs for expressing their abhorrent and decidedly unamerican views. Sad to say, that is likely to lead to them becoming even more radicalized.
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Perversely, these Klansmen, Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists seem to want to deny to others what they demand for themselves. They seem to believe only their kind (however they choose to define their kind at any given moment) are deserving of these freedoms. They seem to believe only their kind deserve acceptance and respect. Indeed, the only thing they seem to respect is force. That certainly was evident from the fact that they showed up to their rally armed to the teeth with clubs and automatic weapons.
That leads to another salient point; the Freedom of Assembly extends only to the people’s right to “peaceably assemble”. When you show up at a “rally” with clubs, guns and god knows what else, that hardly qualifies as a peaceable assembly. And the fact they came prepared to do battle is evidence the Neo-Nazi Marchers wanted a confrontation. And thus, they are guilty of inciting a riot.
The Absolutist notion of freedom glosses over the fact that freedom comes at a price, a price that includes the responsibility not just for how one’s words and deeds affect oneself, but more importantly, for how they affect others. In a civilized society all freedoms have limitations. And there can be no civilization without that understanding and that tacit agreement among citizens.
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So where do I reluctantly find myself agreeing with Trump? The fact is, there was violence on both sides of this confrontation. Some of those who protested against the march did show up prepared (sort of) to do battle, and I’m certain there were plenty of nasty verbal exchanges on both sides before things came to blows. I’d much rather see these young people devote their time and energy to voter registration than physical confrontation.
I lived and marched in the Sixties, and I know that meeting violence with violence can sully the message and mission of even those with a noble cause. The non-violence of Martin Luther King did more to advance civil rights than did the Weathermen or the Blank Panthers or the Symbionese Liberation Army.
As for Trump’s spurious tirade about the Alt-Left, that was a red herring, on a par with the slippery slope argument that says confronting Neo-Nazis inevitably leads to the suppression of Liberals. That is, of course, absurd on its face. By that sort of pretzel logic, we should not have fought the Nazis because that would inevitably lead to the end of Democracy.
Trump has been roundly criticized for his slippery slope argument about who’s statute is the next to fall – Washington? Jefferson? While it is specious to broadly equate the heroes of the Revolution with the villains of the Civil War, it is true that Washington and Jefferson, like Lee, were unrepentant slave owners and believers in white supremacy. Indeed, here’s how I had to deal with Jefferson’s blatant hypocrisy in my book The Disappearing Cemetery:
Indulge my pen, Good Friend, I pray
For speaking fills my mouth with clay
A man of parts – in disarray
For fools have had unfettered say
My enemies exaggerate
And draw dark marks upon my slate
So I am come to expiate
These charges laid on me of late . . .
Virginia beckons, even now
Dark earth upturned to heaving plow
A reverence for the land, I vow
To this I did my life endow
I gave my all to one true cause
To free this land from tyrant’s claws
But now am fallen for my flaws –
How swiftly dies polite applause
This stalwart Son of Liberty
Epitome and apogee
Is humbled now in history
For having failed to set slaves free
Or else for that on which fools dwell
Concerning love – how gossip sells!
No gentleman would kiss and tell
May gossips die and rot in Hell!
Forgive me this intemperate plea
But that has been my curse, you see
A man of Reason – nth degree
Yet Passion made a slave of me
Ill-chosen word, I must admit
And yet, that is the heart of it
For master must himself submit
To that which he would sooner quit
So of two minds where should be one
How else explain the deeds I’ve done?
By my own hand I am undone
My shining star a sinking sun
But let the sinless cast first stone
And judge me not on sins alone
Pray, let my greater deeds atone
Let not the good be interred with bones
I claim my sins, I’ll not deny
Nor Reason ever answer ‘why?’
But Phoenix rose, and so shall I
To shine again in starry sky
For I have learned this much, my Friend
That marble statues are not men
Though Good and Evil both portend
‘Tis Good that triumphs in the end
Please don’t misunderstand, I am not defending or excusing the evil done by Jefferson or others. I’m saying judging these men is a balancing act, and it is sometimes a very difficult task. Robert E. Lee was offered command of the Union Army, but turned it down because he could not bear to fight against his beloved Virginia. It’s fair to say he considered himself a Virginian before an American; but in those days, that was not an uncommon sentiment.
But rather than judge Lee by today’s standards, perhaps we ought to question how many of today’s citizens would put state before country? Or party before country? Or money before country? Or skin color before country?
The truth is Lee, like Jefferson, was a complicated man of many parts, a man generally respected and admired even by his opponents, a man who ought to be judged not only for his slave-owning, racism and his part in the Civil War, but for his actions in trying to promote peace and bring the country together after that war.
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There’s a part of me that sees the tumbling statutes as an affront to humanity, as well as history. It puts me in mind of ignorant Taliban barbarians who destroyed centuries-old Buddhas. To channel Trump for a moment, what’s next – the demolition of Mount Rushmore?
My recommendation? Let’s use this as a teaching moment; let’s leave standing the statutes of these famous but flawed historically important people, but let’s add bronze tablets to these monuments … tablets that tell all who visit not only about their glorious deeds, but also about what we have learned from the mistakes these men made – and what we have learned – or should have learned – from the mistakes this country has made in the past as well.
If you want to know what a country is really like, listen to the stories – and the lies – its people tell themselves and others. And it’s long past time Americans told the truth about our past.
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Speaking of our past, the tragic events of this weekend put me in mind of another time the country was going through even more troubled times. In the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln delivered these words, on the occasion of his Second Inaugural.
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds … and do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
In truth, the Civil War never really ended, and the latest battleground in that war was Charlottesville. Too bad this President lacks the depth and the decency … the inspiration and the intelligence … the sincerity and the soul to speak in a manner befitting this solemn occasion.
©2017 Tom Cordle