Lest We Forget

This past week we saw violent protests in Charlottesville, USA. They deserve our attention.

A rally called “Unite the Right” had formed to prevent a statue of Robert E. Lee from being torn down. Lee was a General during the American Civil War who fought for the Confederacy, a collection of southern states that supported the continued existence of slavery.

Racial tension remains an ongoing issue within America, and in that context some have called for visible public symbols, like Confederate statues, which call to mind past conflicts and fan the flames of ongoing tensions be moved to museums or elsewhere.

Some would say this is the wrong thing to do because where do you draw the line? When do you stop removing statues? George Washington, the first President of the United States, was a slave owner. Should all of Washington’s statues also be moved to museums?  Obviously this is a nonsense argument, since the American Founding Fathers are central to America’s identity. Although, it does highlight some key questions. Is it appropriate to pull down statues? And, what is the best way to reduce racial tensions?

On its face, removing a statue might be seen as erasing history, destroying cultural heritage, or censoring ideas. Clearly it is not something that should be done lightly. However, it would seem appropriate in certain circumstances, for example if a statue is being used as a rallying point by racists, bigots, or extremists. It might be argued that pulling down a statue will in time help people to forget past conflicts and thus move forwards together. However, it is worth remembering that removing statues does not by itself remove social tensions. Ultimately, the only antidote to conflict is not collective amnesia but community forgiveness and reconciliation. It is not necessary to forget the past in order to forgive others and move forwards, and it may not even be sufficient. Research suggests that animosities can linger on long after the original facts that caused hard feelings are forgotten.

Unfortunately, these issues are highly politicised, and moving forwards together is not what most people engaged in the issue are focused on right now. The Washington Post reported that at the Charlottesville protest “[a] lone figure stood inside Emancipation Park, offering water and holding a sign that said, “Free Hugs.” Tyler Lloyd said he came hoping for a peaceful solution. The rallygoers accepted his water but declined the hugs.”

Shortly after the protests, President Trump poured gasoline on the fire by failing to clearly denounce hate speech (including pro-Nazi, anti-black, and anti-Semitic slogans) chanted by many of the protesters. In his initial address he condemned “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides.” While pulling down statues may not be the solution to racial tensions, it is hard to see how this amounts to hatred or bigotry when its intent is the opposite. And so, what Trump was actually doing was drawing a moral equivalence between the protesters engaging in hate speech and the counter-protesters opposing them. In response to Trump’s comments, David Duke, former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, tweeted “[t]hank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville…” As if being endorsed by the KKK weren’t bad enough, a dozen CEOs also stepped down from Trump’s advisory councils in protest. As a result, the Strategy & Policy Forum and the Manufacturing Council are to be disbanded.

Are we living in base level reality, or is this one of Elon Musk’s distopian simulations?

The events surrounding Charlottesville give us a glimpse into the way Donald Trump thinks. He did not clearly denounce hate speech in his initial address, and while some have taken this to mean that Trump is a Nazi sympathiser it seems unlikely. He denounced the KKK and neo-Nazis as ‘repugnant’ two days later. However, he later defended his original morally ambiguous comments.

Trump’s willingness to spin on a dime and play fast and loose with tightly held American values highlights what many people already knew: Trump is a narcissist. He is more interested in his own agenda than what anyone else thinks. This means he is willing to tacitly support those who support him (remember that the alt-right was part of his support base during the election), and will viciously attack anyone who attacks him (CNN, the Washington Post, and other ‘fake’ news organisations). Trump’s narcissism is dangerous not because he intends to hurt others, but because he is casually indifferent to the agenda of anyone who is not Trump. What this means is that there is no way to understand or predict his behaviour, expect by knowing that he will at each step along the way reliably do what suits him best at a given point in time.

So where does that leave us?

The world finds itself at a delicate moment in history when the President of the most powerful country in the world clearly prefers expediency to morality, and has publicly demonstrated a casual indifference towards overt prejudice and discrimination.

In a heartening show of resistance, during the week a video released by the US War Department in 1943 went viral. It encourages Americans not to fall for the fascist rhetoric of prejudice and division. It is a positive message and if you haven’t already watched it, I encourage you to take a look. Lest we forget.

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