In one of the most astute commentaries written in the wake of recent discussions of racism in the USA, Mark Gardner wrote: “It should go without saying that there is no comparison between totalitarians and those who oppose them. Nevertheless, it needs saying because President Trump has failed to make the distinction.”
A demonstration, held on the pretext that understanding of history was being reshaped through the removal of a statue, was an attempt to give a physical face to the keyboard warriors of the new far-right.
Confederate symbolism may have served as a simple unifying force, but those present observed that, in the words of VICE reporter Elle Reeve, “Once they started marching, they didn’t talk about Robert E. Lee being a brilliant military tactician, they chanted about Jews.”
Let me be quite clear – whether or not Jews had been an issue, the far-right demonstrators were repulsive, repugnant and reprehensible. Amongst my personal acquaintances who I have discovered attended the counter protest were Muslims, Christians and Jews, international students and locals, the young and not so young. What they had in common was a belief that racist thugs needed to be aware that decent people oppose them.
But the antisemitism was neither accidental nor incidental.
Over many years, I have researched, and sometimes had direct contact with, the Australian far-right, within which are a significant number of people who draw inspiration and direction from North Americans.
I have sometimes featured directly and personally in their publications, such as when the “Euro-American Alliance” racist nitwits “uncovered” a plot by Jews to take over Australia by first “assuming Welsh names” and when the “Nationalists” published a full page spread on me as “Mr Jew-lie”, the “Kike of the Month.”
At other times, the contact has been through receipt of threats to my person, which were always framed as “retaliation” for manipulation by Jews of racist inferiors to allow them to undermine the mythical racist integrity of European societies.
An important part of the self-image of most of the Australian far-right wing racists I have encountered, and by all accounts that of the Charlottesville protestors, is that they feel they have special knowledge of the intentions of their enemies and that they are in the front lines of a defensive battle.
Largely due to logical or intellectual deficiencies, they struggle to have the issues which matter to them included in public debate, so they will seize on any opportunity to show their unwanted “leadership”. This means an intelligent, rational discussion about how a country might respond to applications for immigration, asylum or refuge, will be exploited to allege particular “threats” from those they can depict as others.
A sensible consideration of the balances between religious freedom, gender equality, unifying values, integration and socialisation, can be hijacked to position bigots as champions of rights.
The very reasonable issue of how to properly memorialise, display and educate about moments in local, national and global history, can be distorted to become one of vandals/apologists against truth tellers.
Debate and political positioning on these and similar issues is complicated by the lack of integrity and moral consistency by far too many of the loudest voices in public discussions.
Opponents of far-right totalitarians include far-left totalitarians and Islamist fascists.
Opponents of the Islamists, who teach and promote the idea that Jews are existential enemies of all which is good, include some self-identifying Christian movements which see Jews as deicidal and manipulators of world affairs.
Some loud voices calling for the silencing of the repulsive bigotry of the alt-right defend, and even promote, repulsive bigotry framed in leftist or broadly anti-establishment language. Far too often, liberal, tolerant voices are drowned out by polemic and bullying from self-appointed leaders of movements against racism.
The events at Charlottesville, and President Trump’s response, threw a spotlight on the real problem of far-right extremism. But whether or not the response will lead to a better America will depend on how effectively unifying values can be articulated and promoted.