Charlottesville, Selective Outrage, and Demonization of White, American Men
Let's overcome hate with empathy and respect.
One of the lessons I’ve learned from spending so much time on Facebook: not everyone reacts the same way at the same time. Certainly I, and no doubt others, have had that eerie experience of coming from the hospital room of an ailing loved one and finding nothing but happy vacation images, cute kitten videos, and smiling newlyweds on Facebook. Because I’m a news junkie, I experience this disorienting disconnect in the wake of what, to me, feel like world-shattering news events. I think, especially, of the San Bernardino jihad attack.
On December 2, 2015, food inspector Syed Rizwan Farook, the Chicago-born son of Pakistani immigrants, and his new bride, Tashfeen Malik, a recent immigrant from Pakistan and a new mother, murdered fourteen innocent people and injured twenty-two others. The victims were at an office Christmas party. Police would later say that Malik objected to her Muslim husband attending the Christmas party and that that objection may have triggered the shooting.
One of the dead that day was 45-year-old Shannon Johnson. Press accounts identify him as a Christian. Survivor Denise Peraza, then 27, reported that Johnson shielded her body from the rain of bullets. Peraza said, “I will always remember his left arm wrapped around me, holding me as close as possible next to him … amidst all the chaos, I’ll always remember him saying these three words, ‘I got you.’ I believe I am still here today because of this amazing man. This amazing, selfless man who always brought a smile to everyone’s face.”
After the San Bernardino shooting, I was glued to news accounts. How could I not be? An apparently assimilated, American-born Muslim killed his co-workers, possibly because of an office Christmas party. How could he do such a thing? How could his wife abandon the greatest gift God can give to a woman – her newborn? What would be the fate of the baby? Why did immigration allow Malik to enter the country? Would immigration laws change? Would anything change?
I didn’t want to focus, solely, on the killers. I made it a point to look at the photos of every victim, and to read as many of their stories as I could, before I became overcome by tears. Similarly, after the 9-11 attack, the New York Times published “Portraits in Grief,” over 2,500 thumbnail obituaries. I made it a point to read those sketches, as well.
I noticed that a subset of my Facebook friends seemed to exist in a universe where the San Bernardino jihad attack never took place. They never posted about it. Never responded to any of my posts about it.
This was not an isolated incident. After a jihadi murdered little girls at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, after Linda Sarsour called for jihad “here in the United States of America,” after two different California imams, on camera, in July, 2017, called for Muslims to kill all Jews, after, in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, police officers were murdered in New York and Dallas, after a mentally disabled white teenager was tortured by four black assailants, who streamed video of their torture live on Facebook, these same Facebook friends who appeared to live in a bubble untouched by the San Bernardino shooting were similarly untouched.
Mind you, I’m not talking about small events. I’m talking about sadistic and murderous acts of hatred, or calls for murder, backed by ideologies that denigrate to complete insignificance the lives of all those identified as race criminals and enemies of the one true faith. I’m talking about events of historic proportions, that received international news coverage, news coverage that lasted for days. I’m talking, not about events isolated on any timeline, but events that were part of waves of warfare, in the case of jihad, stretching back 1,400 years. I’m talking about events that could list my name, or your name, or my Facebook friends’ names, in any future news account. Nothing, no strategy, no politician’s ameliorist or hardline rhetoric, no concrete barricade, protects any of us from a terror attack. We all wear targets. We all could be next. News accounts of terror attacks are news accounts about us.
And these Facebook friends posted happily away, living on some planet where these events simply never occurred. I thought about this. A lot. These are my friends. I’ve known some of them for decades. I think of them as people with consciences, awareness and compassion.
I invented excuses. Maybe they just don’t look at the news, I told myself, though I knew that not to be true. Maybe they just want to post about happy things on Facebook. I knew this to be fiction, as well.
Everything changed in the third week of August, 2017. Suddenly my Facebook feed was a flood of outrage. It was bubbling, burning, insistent, internet lava.
On August 11 and 12, 2017, Charlottesville, Virginia, hosted the so-called “Unite the Right” rally. The announced purpose of the rally was to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from the park where the rally was held. Participants included those sporting Nazi and KKK insignia. Estimates of the number of protesters vary. The highest number I found was five hundred; the lowest, several dozen. At many points in the weekend, counter-protesters outnumbered protesters.
Conflict between protesters and counter-protesters reached its nadir when, it is alleged, James Fields, a twenty-year-old who had been living with his wheelchair-bound mother, whom he had repeatedly threatened or beaten, drove his car into counter-protesters, killing one and injuring many. Fields’ own father, according to an uncle, had been killed by a drunk driver before Fields was born. These bare facts of Fields’ biography suggest that he was a lost and troubled person. One hesitates to use the term “man,” but twenty is a bit old for “boy.” He is now an accused murderer. His life may have ended before he was able to begin it; in a heartbreaking online video, his mother says she had just recently helped him to move into his own apartment.
It goes without saying that the vast majority of Americans have little in common with the ragtag protesters at this rally. Again, counter protesters usually outnumbered so-called “white nationalists.” America in 2017 is not Mississippi in 1965. America has twice elected an African American president, and warmly embraced his first family. Michelle Obama is one of the most admired women in America, according to polls. One of America’s most prominent couples, Kim and Kanye, is a mixed marriage. African Americans occupy leadership positions throughout the political spectrum, from Clarence Thomas to Keith Ellison. Affirmative Action, numerous scholarships dedicated to African Americans, Black History Month, and too many special initiatives to mention signal that Jim Crow is dead and buried and not coming back.
To call the “Unite the Right” protesters “Nazis” is like calling those who attend Star Trek conventions “spacemen.” The attendees at this rally cannot accurately be labeled “Nazis.” To do so cheapens the word. As a descendent of loved ones who suffered under the Nazis, I am ill-equipped to serve as the Nazis’ defense attorney, but even the Nazis had standards. The attendees are misguided, fringe, losers playing dress up.
Nor can they accurately be labeled Klan members. One online listing of protest leaders included one man with a Slavic last name, one man with an Italian last name, and one man who has or had a Jewish wife. The Ku Klux Klan reached its highest membership and greatest power, not after the Civil War, and not as a group of disgruntled former slave owners, but when millions of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe were entering the US one hundred years ago. That powerful Klan was anti-Catholic. That Klan lynched Jews and Italians. That men today with Italian or Slavic ancestry or Jewish associations call themselves Klan members, or that Slavs call themselves Nazis, is an important historical point that alarmists would like to erase and that those seeking the truth should not miss. Today’s so-called Klansmen and Nazis are not a continuation of past power. They are often people whose ancestors would have been attacked by the Klan or the Nazis who are so unhappy with current conditions that they are reviving the brands “Klan” and “Nazi” to express their grievances.
I’m not dismissing the Charlottesville protesters because I’ve never been targeted by murderous extremists. I have been targeted by murderous extremists, at least tangentially. Years ago, I lived in Bloomington, Indiana. A hate group member was very active. One day I found his calling card in my driveway. I phoned the police. They asked why this man would have singled me or my housemates out. I explained that I published and broadcast in local media, and that my output could be characterized as “liberal.” My housemate was a locally prominent Civil Rights attorney. They told me to be careful and I was, but I did not live in fear. I assumed that my chances of being harmed by this man were comparable to my chances of winning the lottery. On July 4, 1999, I walked, unaware, to the scene of a shooting. This man had murdered Won-Joon Yoon, one of my fellow IU grad students, as he was entering a Christian Church. I had missed the shooting by moments. I still regard such persons as a minority, and the chances of being harmed by such persons as small.
Why, then, did my Facebook feed erupt with urgent expressions of outrage against the Charlottesville rally? Against a relative handful of marginal losers and lost souls who completely lack clout or support in mainstream American life? Why did this rally so inflame my Facebook friends in a way that the multiple murders at San Bernardino, Orlando, Dallas or Boston did not?
I don’t know. I can report the following. The demographics of the outrage struck me as skewed. Those expressing the most outrage were all white, economically comfortable, living lives far from real, live black people. One woman who adamantly insisted that she understands “white privilege” and could explain it to others lives in a state where black people constitute three percent of the population. Another woman who loudly insisted that she loves diversity lives in a state where black people make up 2.6 percent of the population. One man lives in a town that is 1.27 percent black. One lives in a largely rural county that is 0.3 percent black.
I look at these folks’ photos as they come through my feed. I don’t see black people. I’m not insisting on any conclusions here. I’m merely mentioning this demographic reality. Economically comfortable white people with no visible black friends, living in geographic regions without significant black populations, regions they choose as adults, adamantly insisted in a public space that they had deep knowledge of and commitment to race relations and were in a position to instruct others morally and factually.
One potential conclusion from this data. Those posting the most visibly are not, themselves, in their day-to-day lives, terribly committed to black-white relations. It’s kind of hard to see how they could be; such commitment, it would seem, would require actual black people. It is reasonable to hypothesize that these folks were posting as they were posting not as a sign of commitment to any struggle, but as virtue signaling. Virtue signaling is a practice whereby the virtue signaler enhances his social status by voicing positions popularly understood as badges and seals of virtue. This possibility emphasizes how very dead Jim Crow is. If there were a shred of a chance that any reader harbored any support for Jim Crow, Facebook virtue signaling by denouncing the Charlottesville protesters would not be as popular as it is.
I asked those among my Facebook friends who were denouncing the rally with such vehemence why they did not devote any Facebook space to denunciations of black-on-black or black-on-poor-white violence. I mentioned that in black urban areas in the week of the Charlottesville rally, multiple innocent black people had been killed in black-on-black violence. I said that such violence is not exceptional; it proceeds, with numbing persistence, day after day, week after week, and year after year.
I mentioned, also, Jimmy Maldonado, a 74-year-old man in Paterson, NJ. He suffers from dementia. He attempted to take out his garbage on Pearl Street in Paterson in early August. A young black male, passing by, began to beat Maldonado viciously. The beating was caught on camera and broadcast via media. Such deaths and assaults are not uncommon. They are part of everyday life for blacks and poor whites. If one is really “down with the struggle,” wouldn’t one care about the victims of such pervasive and inescapable crime? Crime that is much more of a threat to the average African American than the Charlottesville protesters?
Only one of my liberal friends cared enough to attempt to answer that question. “Bob” said, “We don’t want to judge black people because we have treated them horribly. It’s much easier to judge white people.” His response reminds me of an old joke. The punchline: “Did you lose your car keys here?” “No, but I’ll look here, because the light is much better here.”
What’s wrong with that, you may be asking. Why not, on one’s Facebook feed, theatrically denounce the Charlottesville protesters? There are a few things potentially wrong with that.
First, the Facebook denunciations that I saw of the Charlottesville rally conflated hate per se with American identity in general and with white, male identity in particular. One poster said that Virginia had become the “epicenter of hate.” Another said, and this is a quote, that the rally was “Just like the Holocaust.” Another poster introduced his posts with the words “My America.” We need to rise above identity politics and call evil and virtue by their true names. Jimmy Maldonado is not black, but his life matters. His assailant is not white, but he is clearly a hater. Hate is bad. I don’t care about the ethnicity of the hater.
I don’t think I need to expand on why it is an error to conflate hate with white, male, American identity. I will just mention one example. Read the news accounts leading up to, during, and just after the Rwandan genocide of 1994, called the fastest genocide in history. You will read apparently intelligent people insisting that whatever was about to happen, or was happening, or had happened in Rwanda could not be that bad, because, Africans are not white Europeans and nothing like genocide could ever happen there. Genocide was a white people’s problem.
This effort to conflate hate and violence with white, male, American identity was used, in several posts, as an overt absolution of any association of hate and violence with jihad. I don’t know if anyone at the Charlottesville rally mentioned Islam, but Facebook posts condemning the rally rushed to associate the two. The overall message was “Christian, white, American men are terrorists. Muslims are not terrorists.” That theme was pumped out in memes that sprang up like mushrooms after a rain.
The Facebook page Occupy Democrats circulated a meme showing white male James Fields with the caption “America, this is what a terrorist looks like.” In September, 2014, ISIS issued a call for Muslims to run over kuffar with their cars. Since then, several jihadis have answered the call and murdered non-Muslims in vehicular jihad. Occupy Democrats has never issued a meme with the face of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the caption, “America, this is what a terrorist looks like.” NPR has never broadcast a weepy segment commemorating the life of a victim of vehicular jihad, as they have focused on the life lost in Charlottesville. Occupy Democrats is in the business of airbrushing history and thought control. The politically correct exploited Charlottesville, an event that had little to do with Islam, into a propaganda tool to shield jihad from much needed critique and to needlessly and unhelpfully demonize white, American men.
There’s another potential problem, and that problem is spelled out by Shelby Steele in White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era. Bob acknowledged that he holds blacks to a lesser standard, because he is white and “we have treated blacks horribly.” It would reflect badly on Bob if Bob spoke frankly about the young man who beat Jimmy Maldonado. Bob’s protection of his own reputation as a not-racist white man is not helping that young man who beat Maldonado. Someone needs to say to that young man, “What you did is wrong. That whites have treated blacks horribly in the past is no excuse for your beating a defenseless and ill senior citizen. You will pay a price for this and you must learn to change before you can be returned to respectable society.” I can’t imagine Bob speaking those words. Someone needs to speak them.
Further, well off whites living far from black people suffer no consequences by announcing, without any real life experience, that the greatest problem blacks face is white supremacy. As Shelby Steele and other “black conservatives” point out, that message is poison to black people. It dampens, if not kills, personal responsibility and personal initiative, the engines of personal advancement. If you believe that society is out to get you, to thwart you at every turn, and that you have no chance of moving forward through your own efforts, that belief can stunt your life. I really wish my rich, white liberal friends would commit to the black people not through Facebook posts, but by moving to Newark or Camden and working with black people. If they were more familiar with day-to-day realities, I am confident that their Facebook posts would change.
There’s a final problem with the virtue signaling that elevates the speaker above the Charlottesville protesters. That is the emphasis on dramatic denunciations, combined with a refusal to understand.
I teach young people. I have seen this develop over decades. Many young men have confided in me that they feel demonized by their professors and the courses they are required to take. They recognize that professors express disrespect for Christianity. They recognize that the dominant morality in our culture today is a morality of selective outrage and double standards. They see that the words “white,” “American,” and “man” are treated as pejoratives.
There is a backlash. In unguarded environments, such as unmonitored internet discussion groups, many young American males today are rebelling against political correctness. They tell Holocaust jokes. They say shocking things about black-white relations. In their shocking comments, I do not see a carryover from Jim Crow or Nazism. I see the photographic negative of political correctness. Whatever statement political correctness outlaws, these males are eager to pronounce. Case in point: the Charlottesville rally’s slogan was “White lives matter.” It’s impossible not to see this as the photographic negative of the woefully selective phrase, “Black lives matter.”
Writer Brendan O’Neill produced a brilliant Facebook post that I wish I had written. He began, “The events in Charlottesville are the logical consequence of the politics of identity. One of the nastiest trends in Western politics in recent years has been the relentless racialisation of public life and political debate. Everyone has been forced, often against their will, into a racial box.” I urge you to read the whole thing.
Another problem. The competition to be the most publicly huffy about white supremacists, and to dehumanize them the most severely with one’s insults, makes things worse, not better. Rather, we should work to understand and empathize with them. Are you, as my Facebook friends were, shocked, shocked that I say that? Please remember that Hillary Clinton recommending something close to that when discussing Muslim terrorists. If my stance is not macho enough for you, please remember that no one understands white-tailed deer better than a wolf.
At least one hate group expert, Christian Picciolini (please note Italian last name) agrees with me. Picciolini was a hate group member himself. He reformed himself and now is a spokesperson against hate groups. He says that hate group members seek identity, community, and purpose, and that to reform them, they must be offered respect and empathy when they least deserve it, from those they hate the most. So, those on Facebook and elsewhere referring to hate group members as “pigs” and “scum” probably only strengthened the haters’ resolve. I would have loved to have seen Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe invite the hate group members in for a chat, where he disabused them of their misconceptions in a rational, respectful manner.