I am well aware that when something as awful as what occurred on Saturday in Charlottesville happens, all “good” people are supposed to express their outrage to exclusion of all other reactions. Inevitably, there then becomes a bit of a contest over who can most dramatically express their indignation.
When the issue is race and the circumstances are perceived as white “right wingers” causing violence in name of racism, then prominent conservatives are especially prone to making VERY sure that they aren’t painted with this broad brush of career death. In the case of Charlottesville, we have seen numerous examples of this phenomenon, some of which have thrown the concept of free speech out the window in the rush to publicly proclaim “look how NOT racist I am!!”
As a person that is quite secure in who he is and has no regard for being “popular,” my reaction to these types of situations tends to be very different than most commentators. Charlottesville is no different.
Of course I have disdain for most the Alt-right/Nazi protestors. ]I also remember, however, that the original purpose of their demonstration, objecting to a statue of Robert E. Lee possibly being removed, is both a legitimate and not inherently racist cause.
One of the many things which has bothered me about the reaction to Saturday’s events is that almost everyone, including President Donald Trump, is being evaluated not on what they actually did, but rather based almost solely on their perceived beliefs. Those who appear to hold “bad” views are being seen as having been totally wrong, while those who seem to have “good” opinions are being viewed as having been nothing but virtuous victims.
This method of morality evaluation is both misguided and dangerous.
It has baffled me how because of the horrific, apparently rage-induced act of one very misguided racist kid (with no known evidence of any planning or conspirators) there has been such an enormous backlash on lots of people who DID nothing wrong. People who simply attended a rally, again for what was, at least on the surface, a reasonable purpose, are now losing their jobs because of their perceived beliefs.
I know that no one is supposed to care about these people because we all know they are the BAD guys. We know this because they are white male Nazis! Or at least some people with them were carrying Nazi flags!
But why doesn’t anyone ever stop to consider what might happen to THEM someday if society decides that THEIR beliefs are now “bad” and should be punished by the public?
I get that an innocent woman tragically lost her life and others were severely injured, but that was because of the actions of seemingly one man who is being prosecuted to the very fullest extent of the law. As for those who try to claim the two state police officers who were killed on their way to the situation are also the responsibility of the protesters, that is like blaming the counter protesters for all of the deaths/injuries because, if they hadn’t shown up, then no one would have gotten hurt.
It is important to remember that before the car attack that the rally had been cancelled by authorities because of relatively minor skirmishes which had broken out between “protesters” and “counter protesters.” While the media “knows” who the “bad” guys here were (the white racists!!), there seems to be plenty of evidence that both sides deserve blame for the situation escalating out of full control.
You can actually make a good argument that it was the counter-protesters who had the stronger motive for violence to break out since that circumstance achieved their goal of effectively shutting down the demonstration. Also, authorities on Durham allowing “good” protesters to tear down a Confederate statue without even a hint of hindrance, certainly shows the national culture of treating these “sides” very differently.
Here is where I am in the extremely bizarre situation of feeling as if Trump actually got a raw deal in the apoplectic reaction, even on the “we are SO not racist!” right, to his refusal to assess specific blame before all the facts were in. Based on what we knew at the time of that first statement, I sincerely thought that Trump, while typically unartful and tone-deaf, was basically correct on the substance.
People seem to forget that, when Trump first spoke publicly, we didn’t even know the identities/profiles of the driver or the person who had died. He was right that all sides seemed to deserve blame for their ACTS. What he didn’t seem to anticipate is that we are apparently no longer judging morality on ACTS, but rather now on BELIEFS, and there is simply no room for nuance or ambiguity.
What Trump also probably didn’t realize is, because he is presumed by much of the public and most of the media to himself be “bad/racist,” that he was going to be held to a very different standard than say Barack Obama, whom these very same people knew to be good/virtuous. Ironically, I believe if Obama had said exactly what Trump did (except, obviously with more eloquence) that he would have been cheered by many for NOT rushing to judgment before all the facts were in and for not trying to play racial politics.
I found it particularly hilarious that many conservative commentators, who rightly bashed Obama for often prematurely diving into local criminal issues in ways that a president probably should avoid, were immediately attacking Trump for NOT doing so. But again, this is the price Trump pays for being a “bad” guy. He gets no benefit of the doubt, and no second chance.
But the most troubling impact of all of this backlash is what is happening to freedom of speech (meaning the value of the concept in our society, not necessarily with regard to the First Amendment). GoDaddy and Google both suddenly dropped a Nazi website over their BELIEFS. The Charlottesville rally organizer wasn’t even allowed to hold a press conference to explain his side of the story. Texas A&M University cancelled a “White Lives Matter” event out of fear of violence (this is called a classic “Heckler’s Veto” a gambit which used to be rightly forbidden in liberal academia where free speech and principle once mattered).
The reason that our freedom of speech has been unique is that for most of our history we have understood (or at least pretended to) that it is very easily eroded and that we as a people only have as much freedom of expression as the most despised of us do. We may hate what Nazis believe, but unless we are willing to defend their ability to say it, then we are effectively, over time, abdicating this privilege for everyone.
In the last few days, in the name of hating Nazism, we have inched closer towards eventual Fascism.
John Ziegler hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.