White supremacists cloak themselves in the mantle of free speech because they know that term strikes a patriotic chord in Americans. They aim to twist one of our country’s most sacred rights into a weapon to destroy our fragile web of civility and common decency.
In his news conference Tuesday, responding to the violence in Charlottesville President Donald Trump once again encouraged us to look upon our country and see nothing but a sea of moral relativism.
Applying his “many sides” argument to our history, both recent and long-past, Americans might well ask ourselves: Southern slave owners? Imagine how hard it was for them to lose their culture. White mobs spitting on black schoolchildren? Think how difficult it was to share their neighborhood. A white man hurling racist speech at two teenage girls, one black, one wearing a hijab — and then stabbing three white men coming to their rescue? As one “alt-right” protester saw it, Jeremy Christian did “everything right up until the moment he started killing people.”
If Americans drift toward this kind of apologist reasoning for hate, we surrender beliefs in human equality won at the highest cost.
A week after Christian’s murderous May 26 rampage in Portland, Oregon, white supremacists insisted on holding a so-called “Free Speech” protest in the city despite numerous pleas to cancel. Afterward, a handful of surprising people emerged to defend the rally: self-proclaimed leftists who waded into the group to see the “alt-right” up close for themselves.
An Op-Ed writer painted the scene: “So with my peace sign, my hippie silk skirt and flowers in my hair, I mingled with the ProTrumpers and I have to honestly say, I had more open-minded conversations and was greeted with more politeness, and less anger and defensiveness than I had on ‘my side.’ ”
A Facebook poster called for understanding: “I’m a left-wing populist and I found about 20-30 percent of their speakers’ messages to be things I could agree with … Imagine what a different outcome there might have been if even 2 percent of the progressives shouting all afternoon had instead come into the free-speech rally to listen and dialogue.”
Yearning to find common ground, to make peace at this particularly painful, fraught moment in our country, is laudable. After the fatal violence in Charlottesville, some kind of national reconciliation seems integral to our republic’s survival. Yet there is no dialogue to be had with someone who denies your basic humanity. There’s no reconciliation with someone intent on your destruction. No matter how polite or articulate a white supremacist presents himself in person or on camera, Hamlet would have recognized him in an instant: “That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”
Most Americans automatically recoiled at the racism on full display in Charlottesville — the swastikas, the Confederate flags, the “Jew will not replace us” chants. This type of hate is easier to rebuke because it is blatant. Harder is to look someone in the eye at a “free-speech” rally, who claims to be misunderstood, and ask why, exactly, they turned out to hear a speaker like Tim “Treadstone” Gionet, who tweeted “Jews Control the News.” Harder to interrupt a neighbor or a family member or a friend who parrots Trump’s corrosive propaganda that the violence in Charlottesville had its roots in anything other than racism.
White supremacists — whether they’re marching in the streets or drafting memos in the White House — cloak themselves in the mantle of free speech because they know that term strikes a deep chord, a patriotic chord, in countless Americans. They aim to twist one of our country’s most sacred rights into a weapon to destroy our fragile web of civility and common decency.
When David Duke or Steve Bannon pontificate about free speech — and how too few “alt-right” people enjoy enough of it — what they’re really clamoring for is a public “safe space” for racists where hateful views can be shared and elevated and celebrated without censure.
In Charlottesville on Saturday, Heather Heyer refused to give them that. She was marching for love when she died. If you believe in human dignity, you know where you belong. Stand on her side.