I'd intended to write a travel piece about Pearl Harbour this month; the tragic but necessary evil that dragged America into the second world war. Instead, it's been the unnecessary evil of Charlottesville that's commanded my attention. As someone who is proud of his American citizenship, the events of the last couple of weeks have been embarrassing, shameful, and deeply concerning.
Trump's response to Charlottesville should have been an easy lay-up. There must be White House filing cabinets overflowing with clichés for repudiating racist and anti-Semitic violence. His stiff, scripted statement last Monday should have drawn a line under it; and we could all have pretended he was sincere. Instead, Trump's unscripted midweek press conference and follow-up tweets showed an inexcusable, irresponsible, and brazen tolerance for white nationalism that stands in stark contrast to his regular and unequivocal condemnation of violence committed by illegal immigrants.
In the face of vile prejudice, Trump chose to litigate the violence and caveat his criticism, and in doing so he empowered rather than rebuked. When a grand wizard of the KKK is thanking you for your support, it's fair to conclude that either you're a racist, or at best you're an enabler. When Trump claimed that 'very fine people' can march with neo-Nazis and asked a country stained with the original sin of slavery to 'cherish that history', he upgraded the dog whistle white nationalist rhetoric of his campaign for the powerful bully pulpit of the presidency. His outright lie that he was deprived of a popular vote victory last November by the votes of illegal immigrants has now penetrated Republican consciousness to the point that fully 50% of them will consider postponing the 2020 election. So, we should absolutely be concerned what impact his indifference to racism and anti-Semitism will now have on this country.
Trump's attempt to apportion equal blame on the basis that counter protesters in Charlottesville used violence, reveals a president with no moral compass. Yes, the better approach would have been for them to bear witness rather than bear arms, but on Omaha beach, when Americans charged with rifles and tanks to eradicate fascism, there was no moral equivalence. When the Army of the Potomac defined the high-water mark of the Confederacy in 1863 by repulsing Pickett's charge at Gettysburg, there was no moral equivalence. And when Federal troops forcibly desegregated schools in the south 60 years ago, it was might in the service of right, and there was no moral equivalence. As philosopher Edmund Burke pointed out, 'the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,' and if we've learned anything over the last two years, it's that Donald Trump is not a good man. We've also learned that many senior Republicans still don't have the moral backbone to separate issues of left and right from issues of right and wrong. If Trump's behaviour last week wasn't enough for Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell to break their Faustian bargain and move from generic denouncements of racism to explicit public criticism of the president, what the hell is?
I've written before in these pages about the coalition of overlapping constituencies that elected Trump: the economically disenfranchised white working class, the moral conservatives, and those who simply yearn for some past golden age when America was 'great'. The white supremacists who paraded in Charlottesville are a subset of the last group, and are a damning indictment of America's inability to reconcile itself with its own history. A hundred and fifty years after the end of the civil war, America continues to be wracked by tides of racism that periodically rise and fall in the public consciousness.
This is certainly not the first time that a rising tide has benefited from presidential support. A hundred years ago, Woodrow Wilson re-segregated the US government and in 1915 the KKK-celebrating 'Birth of a Nation' was the first movie to be screened in the White House. Emboldened by a southern president, KKK membership swelled to over three million in the early 1920s, and tens of thousands of white-hooded men marched through Washington on a regular basis. In Charlottesville, it was chilling that the racists didn't feel the need to conceal their identity with hoods. Instead, ranks of young white males in polo shirts and neatly trimmed beards spewed bile and whitelash grievance in a repugnant corruption and parody of LGBT 'Pride' marches. Powered by the combination of a black president followed by a racist president, the tide is coming in again. The Southern Law Poverty Centre now reports over 900 organised and active hate groups in the US, and tragically that number is growing.
This is no longer about Trump. We now know who he is and what he believes. For as long as he occupies the office, he will be a polarising figure who will embolden the worst of America, so it's futile to look to him for any sort of moral leadership. But bereft of leadership from the White House, we still have a huge amount of work to do to understand and address the systemic racism that pervades almost every aspect of American society.
One challenge highlighted by Charlottesville is how to protect free speech while preventing violence. Rather than effectively policing the event, the local authorities claimed it was 'too dangerous' to intervene, allowing the protests to degenerate into a pitched battle with no police in sight. Neither the death of Heather Heyer nor the general mayhem that preceded it were inevitable. They could have been prevented if the authorities had simply managed to keep the two groups of protesters apart. Increasingly over the last couple of years, protests against right-wing speakers on college campuses have also ended in smashed windows and burning cars, with the police standing back and abdicating their responsibility to maintain public order. If Trump's indifference to hate speech does embolden the alt-right to take to the streets, then maybe America's police need to come to Glasgow and take lessons about how to police Old Firm football games and manage flashpoints for deep-seated tribal hatred.
However distasteful the worldview, we need to honour the US constitution, trust in the disinfectant of sunlight, and adhere to the credo attributed to Voltaire that 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.' In 1977, a US court allowed a Nazi march to pass through a Chicago suburb populated by many Holocaust survivors and ruled that local authorities had no business preventing the group wearing Nazi uniforms or carrying swastikas. Among the arguments rejected by the court was that certain types of free speech were so hateful as to constitute a threat of violence. Instead, the court ruled that the only role for the authorities was to prevent actual or imminent violence, a responsibility in which the authorities in Charlottesville clearly failed.
Another enduring challenge is how America deals with the memorial infrastructure of the civil war. If there's been a positive from Charlottesville, it's the growing recognition that statues of Confederate generals act as live symbols of black subjugation, not neutral historical artefacts. The creation of civil war icons has mirrored the tides of racism in this country. The peak memorialisation of Confederate leaders in marble and bronze was just over 100 years ago, and it coincided with the passing of the segregationist Jim Crow laws, a surge in black lynchings, and the denial of the basic civil rights that hundreds of thousands of union troops died to protect.
Putting a statue of a Confederate general in a park during this period was the physical embodiment of William Faulkner's quip that in the south 'The past is never dead. It's not even past.' These statues delivered the message that, despite losing the war, racism had not been eradicated, and that blacks should remember their place. That propaganda campaign included southern states choosing to fill the places they were allocated in the hall of statuary in the rotunda of the Capitol building in Washington DC with at least eight Confederate generals; many of whom, including Lee, remain in place. New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu captured it perfectly last week. 'They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments celebrate a fictional, sanitised Confederacy, ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for.'
Civil war history doesn't need to be erased, but its message does need to be neutralised. There's an enormous difference between preserving Lee's home overlooking Arlington National Cemetery as a historic site, versus having a statue of him greet you as you enter a federal court house. A memorial on a battlefield can pay respects to the misguided sacrifice of those who died without elevating and validating the cause for which they fought. The triaging of the historical record will be difficult and hard, but there's no better guidance than the words of Lincoln's second inaugural address as he started to look beyond the fighting. '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 there’s a lot of work to finish. Estimates of the number of public Confederate statues and memorials number around 1,000, including the enormous 200ft-high Stone Mountain carving outside Atlanta that one historian has called a 'billboard for white nationalism.' Add in things like street names and schools, and explicit Confederate memorials number in the many thousands. The focus in each case needs to be the question of what is being remembered. This is where Trump's false equivalence of Lee with Washington and Jefferson falls apart. The founding fathers are lauded despite being slave holders, not because of it. In contrast, Lee and other Confederate generals are memorialised for fighting to preserve that abhorrent institution.
It's no accident that you struggle to find a statue of General James Longstreet in the south. While he was one of the Confederacy's most successful field commanders, his post-war repudiation of slavery disqualified him as a racist icon. In fact, one of the statues Mitch Landrieu recently had removed from New Orleans celebrated a white supremacist revolt against one of the first racially integrated police and miltia forces in the south; a force commanded by none of other than James Longstreet.
Maybe after 150 years, now is the time for a truth and reconciliation process that can reach reasonable and respectful decisions about how to remember and contextualise this raw wound in American history. I don't think the answer is just removing the statues in the dead of night as the city of Baltimore did last week, as that will only stoke resentment regarding knee-jerk liberal posturing. To make real progress in countering white nationalism, we need to debate the why as well as the what, and set policy and guidelines that can help shape the national consciousness on these divisive issues.
Right after the end of the second world war, there were calls to demolish what remained of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp and erase any memory of what happened there. The counter argument was that it should be preserved as a constant reproach to Europe and a permanent reminder of the evil of which we are capable, despite the risk that it could become a pilgrimage site for those interested in perpetuating that evil. That is the delicate balancing act that America now faces. To both honour the spirit of reconciliation embodied by Lincoln, while also simultaneously condemning the ignorance and intolerance that motivated the Confederacy in the 1860s, and which unfortunately still animates the torch bearers of Charlottesville today.