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Sieg Heils, flaming torches, street battles, and the national guard. What has become of America, and where is it going?
The death in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday afternoon is a grave marker in the long-simmering drama of America’s social dysfunction. Ideologically, the United States truly has become two separate nations. Benedict Anderson defined a nation as an ‘imagined community’; and today, many Americans don’t believe they reside in the same community as the rest of their fellow citizens. Since the neoliberal turn in the 1970s, the terrain of the political battlefield was drawn along economic lines. One party advocated for increased government spending and constructive programs while the other decried such expansion as an infringement upon their God given liberty. Today, however, economics appears to be secondary to culture, government subordinate to values, and security marginalized by identity.
The United States is in the first turn of a genuine culture war and it’s difficult to see a rational way out. Nowadays, when one side wins the Whitehouse, the other broods in discontent, festering a malign disdain for the victor. To the loser, the president is not the leader of the nation, merely the leader of that nation that brought them to power. This is how it was for Republicans during the eight years of Obama’s administration, how it is now for Democrats under Trump, and doubtless how it would have been had Clinton been elected. One nation in power, the other out in the cold.
In other advanced democracies, when the opposition party takes control, we bemoan their rule and signal the idiocy of their policies, but it’s still our country – just temporarily run by the wrong side. In America, for a large section of the population, losing an election feels like losing your country.
In other advanced democracies, when the opposition party takes control, we bemoan their rule and signal the idiocy of their policies, but it’s still our country – just temporarily run by the wrong side. In America, for a large section of the population, losing an election feels like losing your country. For the next four years (at least) it will head in a horrific direction, out of control, degrading, and irreparably changing in ways that run counter to every fibre of your being.
On Saturday afternoon, a group called “Unite The Right” had been granted permission to stage a rally in Emancipation Park, to protest against the removal of a statue commemorating Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Civil War buffs know Lee as a man of honour, principle, a patriot, and a man who joined on the side of the Confederacy only because he refused to take arms up against his beloved Virginia. The previous evening, Unite The Right had staged a torch-light parade through the University. Highly provocative, historically insensitive, and culturally-cringey, imitating the Berlin Nazis of 30th January 1933 (the day Hitler seized power) is symbolically inexcusable. That this display went viral overnight was doubtless a catalyst for hundreds of AntiFa (Anti-Fascist) members and supporters to descend on Emancipation Park the next day; forming the vanguard of the counter-protest.
Clashes such as those in Charlottesville will happen again and it is likely the death toll will rise. Each event increases the intensity of the next as people bring more helmets, bats, mace, knives; and inevitably firearms will make an appearance. The protests and counter protests are symptoms of a social malignancy that is extremely challenging to remedy.
For whatever reason, security in the park was lax, the cordons were misplaced, and the police in absentia.
These two mobs – representing the most vociferous legions of today’s culture war – came face to face (yet again) and the inevitable ensued. Skirmishes, pepper-spray, thrown bottles, punches, kicks, sticks, batons, bats, and improvised shields conquered this corner of Charlottesville. If this wasn’t enough, in the latter part of the day, a young man who appears was part of the Unite The Right rally, accelerated his Dodge Charger into some AntiFa protesters who were marching on the road. The man arrested for this crime, James Alex Fields Jr., seems to have been radicalized by his social setting and deep immersion into far-right identitarianism.
Clashes such as those in Charlottesville will happen again and it is likely the death toll will rise. Each event increases the intensity of the next as people bring more helmets, bats, mace, knives; and inevitably firearms will make an appearance. The protests and counter protests are symptoms of a social malignancy that is extremely challenging to remedy. Clearly, the election of Donald Trump has accelerated the polarisation of the ideological landscape. His presidency has given voice to, and cover for, a raft of ideas and pronouncements that were until recently obscured and fragmented. The combination of social media platforms connecting ideological aligned but geographically disparate individuals, and YouTube personalities that sharpen, accentuate, and articulate right-wing ideas and arguments, have made the Far-Right a force to be reckoned with. Rightists have their ideas well-formulated, their communications technologies well-integrated, and now they have their champion (or more appropriately their avatar since even the alt-right recognise Trump is a thunderous disappointment).
The United States is once again entering a very dangerous phase in its history. Philosopher Jürgen Habermas advanced the theory that democracy requires a healthy ‘public sphere’: a space where ideas can be discussed, debated, and resolved – a mechanism that vitalizes the nervous system of a functioning polity. Habermas’ concern was that the public sphere can become suffocated – dominated by corporate media and financial interests. What merits urgent attention today is what happens where there are two public spheres, woven into the two distinct nations, each operating independently yet interconnected; like distinct social organisms, each competing for power within the same political jurisdiction.
America is in the first turn of a serious culture war, and there’s no easy way out of it.