The events last week in Charlottesville threaten to kick off a new chapter in American political history, one comparable in some respects to the student revolts of the late 1960s. As usual, my perspective seems to be a bit different from most. I shall try to share it.
I have no doubt, and have had none for at least the last ten years, that the United States is in the midst of a great political crisis. Yet I am increasingly convinced that this crisis is not mainly a matter of left vs. right, but rather a crisis in our institutions and the relationship between our elites and the people which threatens either to plunge us into anarchy or even break up the United States. The election of Donald Trump was a symptom of the crisis, in my opinion, because a demagogue without any background in public service, a man who had never been successful at anything except establishing and trading off of his own celebrity and his extraordinary neediness, and won the nomination of a major party despite the opposition of its entire leadership, and then squeaked into the White House without even a plurality of the popular vote. The crisis was bipartisan, in a sense, because the Republican Party could not stop his nomination, while the Democrats could not come up with a candidate that could beat him. By the time he took office Trump was firmly in alliance with the network of right wing donors led by the Koch brothers that I discussed at length two weeks ago. That alliance, which also dominates Congress, is now working at dismantling more and more of the federal government. Meanwhile, Trump's unstable behavior threatens war at almost any moment.
In the midst of this, two small but genuine grass roots movements have started something new. A coalition of right wing groups, including Nazis, the KKK, and other white nationalists, decided to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, VA. A larger number of people from the left decided to counterdemonstrate--and Antifa decided to show up to fight. There is really no doubt about that, and it is foolish for liberals to try to deny it. Today both of my newspapers, the Boston Globe and the New York Times, have stories about Antifa quoting members who believe in violence against the right wing.
It took only one crazed right winger in his car to turn the Charlottesville protest into something bigger, by killing Heather Heyer. But fatalities in such confrontations could happen in many other ways, and probably will. Many of the right wing marchers carried firearms; some of the Antifa people carried clubs. There are many other controversies over monuments brewing around the country, and other pretexts for marches as well. Tomorrow 500 police and 100 state troopers will deploy around Boston Common to separate a right wing march for free speech from the larger number of leftists who plan to oppose it. By the time many of you read this tomorrow I suspect the Boston Common march will be dominating the news. (I won't be there.)
The concept of "space", promulgated by Jurgen Habermas, is central to postmodernist thinking, modern left wing thought, and contemporary liberal activists. That is why they are so determined not to allow small numbers of far right activists to march unimpeded. But in my opinion, they are wrong. Postmodern concepts of space and oppression are at odds with more traditional concepts of liberty and law. The far right groups have the right to peaceful protest and other citizens do not have the right to impede them. Should they become violent it is the responsibility of law enforcement to stop them, and I am confident that, in the vast majority of cases, they will. In any case, these groups are still much too small to be any threat to our liberties, and they should be allowed gradually to return to the obscurity which they so richly deserve.
I do believe that Confederate monuments should come down. Some months ago I devoted a post to Mayor Landrieu's speech on the occasion of the removal of the monuments in New Orleans, which I thought marked a milestone in American history. A white southern politician not only endorsed, but embraced, the removal of the statues from a prominent outdoor location on the grounds that the Confederate leadership was on the wrong side of humanity and history. I believe other white southern politicians, as well as many black ones, will follow his lead. I have been shocked this week to discover that there were Confederate monuments in Baltimore and in Lexington, Kentucky, for the simple reason that neither Maryland nor Kentucky was ever part of the Confederacy. The Baltimore statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, it turns out, came from a bequest from a man named Ferguson and went up after his death in 1948. Their presence was endorsed, disgracefully, by Mayor Thomas d'Alessandro of of Baltimore, who happens to have been the father of Nancy Pelosi. Just today Pelosi has asked for the removal of Confederate statues (including one of Jefferson Davis) from the U.S.Capitol. Those statues were sent by the states, each of which was entitled to select two citizens to memorialize. I don't know exactly when they went in, and I would be curious as to whether there was any effort to keep men who had taken up arms against the government of the United States out, but I don't think Congress should insist on their removal. They came from various states (Davis from Mississippi), and the states should remove them. And I think there is a chance that they will.
The United States needs above all to rediscover a functioning government that can command the allegiance of its people. A long round of battles between white supremacists and Antifa activists around the country will not get us any closer to that goal. I believe the Democratic Party and its adherents should try to lead by example.