The purported goal of the original gathering in Charlottesville, VA this past weekend was to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee; however, given that the protest was co-opted on all sides by a variety of groups — some of which, like neo-Nazis and white supremacists, fall on the “extreme” end of the conservative spectrum — the protest quickly morphed into something much more insidious.
When all was said and done, three people were dead (including a counter-protester, who was struck — likely intentionally — by a protester in a Dodge Challenger and killed), 34 more were injured, and a state of emergency was declared. It was, without question, one of the darker moments in recent American history.
There has been a wide range of reactions to this past weekend’s events, but there are a significant amount of people decrying violence as a solution to these problems. Now, before we go any further, I should state right now that I am not in any way advocating for violence. The injuries and loss of life suffered by both sides are tragic, and nobody should have to risk serious injury or death simply for standing up for their beliefs.
But while I don’t approve of the violence that was on display in Charlottesville this past weekend, I do understand it.
In Politics as a Vocation, sociologist Max Weber defines the state in two ways (emphasis mine): “The form of human community that (successfully) lays claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a particular territory,” and “A relation of men dominating men, a relation supported by means of legitimate (i.e., considered to be legitimate) violence.”
In other words, according to Weber, states can only form by laying claim to the use of physical force within a given area, and they can only remain as states through violence, whether real or implied. I believe the same applies to social and political movements.
Take, for example, the Ku Klux Klan. The group was formed as a response to what its members believed was a disturbing trend of political, social, and economic equality for black Americans, one that directly threatened their views of white supremacy. But the Klan didn’t merely assemble and peacefully protest in support of their beliefs — they saw themselves as participants in a war being waged within our own borders, and they acted accordingly.
They intimidated, assaulted, or murdered anyone who they believed to be a threat to their standing in the social hierarchy. Those who might otherwise speak up in opposition to the Klan were cowed by the threat of violence, allowing the Klan to rise to national prominence. Their goal, in so many words, was to Make America Great Again.
Over time, the Klan engaged in fewer acts of overt violence, but the threat of violence still remained; after all, an army that doesn’t fight is still an army. In Weberian terms, they supported their domination by means of violence.
Violence was once considered the realm of the conservative; by and large, liberals were believed to be too soft to engage in violence. The far-right, recognizing this, used violence (or the threat thereof) as a means to support and advance their agendas, intimidating those who might otherwise oppose them into silence.
Far-right conservatives still hold a monopoly on the threat of violence; for proof, we need only look at images from this weekend in Charlottesville, where far-right protesters came armed with assault rifles and body armor. But in terms of the actual deployment of violence, the tactics have shifted somewhat — the left appears to be much more willing to use violence than ever before.
Following the events of this weekend, there was a rush to condemn anti-fascists (or “Antifa,” as they’ve come to be known) for their role in the violence. The point of these pieces, near as I can discern there is one, is that both sides are to blame for the chaos in Charlottesville, though some are explicitly laying the blame at the feet of the left. Others have gone so far as to attribute this weekend’s events to the “violent left.” (There is a certain irony in this; namely, that the people who showed up prepared for a riot were surprised when they got one.)
More importantly, however, it seems intellectually dishonest to argue that violence is somehow improper when engaged in by one side of a debate while turning a blind eye to the hateful, violent rhetoric (including debating the merits of “black genocide”) of the other that inspired the violence in the first place.
White supremacist groups have been warning of a coming racial holy war (or “RaHoWa”) since the early 1970s. Their rhetoric is not one of peaceful coexistence; it is one of separatism, of planned restoration of whites to their so-called rightful place as the dominant race. Many of the marchers wore Nazi paraphernalia and chanted Nazi slogans. And yet, the counter-protesters are the ones being chided for not taking the “high road.”
Ignoring the problem is not only unrealistic, it’s irresponsible. Hatred of the kind evinced by the marchers does not suffocate from lack of oxygen; it thrives. So if willful ignorance is off the table and reasonable debate is a non-starter, it’s understandable that the reaction will exhibit violent tendencies.
In a perfect world, violence would be unnecessary. People with opposing ideologies would be able to agree to disagree as they saw fit without having to resort to physical clashes. But I need not remind you that we don’t live in a perfect world, and distasteful though violence may be, it is also effective. Already, we’ve seen prominent white supremacists like Tim Gionet (better known as “Baked Alaska”) attempting to distance themselves from white supremacy or neo-Nazism. Why? Because they’re starting to feel the consequences of embracing far-right rhetoric; it’s a lot easier to champion a stance when nobody’s challenging you on it.
Even historically, nonviolence benefits from the threat of violence. Take, for example, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King was a champion of civil rights, and his nonviolent stance made him a heroic figure to millions, especially in contrast to his contemporary, Malcolm X.
Malcolm X’s rhetoric was far more inflammatory, and he frequently advocated violence if necessary as a means to achieve the goals of the black community. Yet while King is rightly celebrated as a hero of the Civil Rights movement, he benefited from Malcolm X’s position. Malcolm X presented opponents of the Civil Rights movement with a choice: deal with Malcolm X, or deal with Dr. King. And when faced with that choice, they took the path of least resistance.
Is it all worth it? Well, I suppose that depends on how you view this debate. If you feel that the alt-right is unfairly being deprived of their First Amendment rights, I would remind you that “free speech” means the right to speak your mind without governmental interference; it is not a free pass to spout hateful rhetoric without consequence. (I would also question whether “Nazis have rights, too!” is a worthwhile hill to die on.)
If you feel that this violence is going to contribute further to the divide between the left and right in this country, I can’t argue with that. But I would contend that the divide exists no matter what we do.
Violence is simply the logical endpoint of decades of vitriol between the left and the right. But in time, perhaps this violence will lead to a non-violent solution to the discord.