“I know we talk a lot of sh*t on the Internet, right, but…our enemies just will not stop. What options do we have left? If somebody would like to inform me of that, then I would be grateful.” –Christopher Cantwell
We can secure valuable truths for all people from the “Unite the Right” tragedy.
By their posturing, rhetoric, and stated goals, white nationalists and the “alt-right” (but I repeat myself) seemed to think they were silent majority (or at least plurality) of the American polity—and that if they just burst into the scene without enough gumption and aplomb, they would find a powder keg of revolutionary support among the vast expanse of forgotten Americans.
But as it turns out, white nationalists in America are weak, isolated, and (appropriately enough) marginalized.
After weeks—if not months—of publicity and outreach to improve upon the anemic numbers at previous rallies, white nationalists’ 200-man fourth (at least) showing in Charlottesville, Virginia since late spring was embarrassingly paltry. (The torches and chants weren’t even original but retreads of May and July.) Moreover, it was tiny by standards on the ground—the local police feared at least six times as many attendees from at least four different organizations. But 200 is all they got. National rallies from Black Lives Matter to Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party, to say nothing of recent political protests against the president, have attracted crowds so much larger as to seem different in kind rather than degree. Even the local counter-protesters to last month’s KKK rally managed at least a thousand.
Better yet, a middle-aged blues musician has redeemed about as many white nationalists from the KKK by himself as showed up at “Unite the Right” for a fourth try at “national” flailing in Charlottesville:
Fifty-eight-year-old [Daryl] Davis, who is black, has spent years traveling across the US and forging friendships with members of the Ku Klux Klan and similar hate groups, The Independent reports. Davis says that because of his efforts, 200 people have renounced their membership in the KKK. Some have even given Davis their ceremonial robes and hoods as a gesture to signify their departure from the group.
Davis’s is a deeply Christian example that seems unimaginably hard for many of us to emulate, especially now, but there are others. This article is a few months old now, but the inspiring success Davis has seen is timeless and timely in a way that the Gospels and 2 Corinthians would have us expect and embrace. And it is the sort of example any movement based on empathy, tolerance, equality, and justice ought to champion, as giants of old once did.
When it comes down to it, the core of the problem of those animated by hatred, ignorance, or fear of different people is a failure of empathy—and the charitable imagination that comes with it. This is their prize mistake. But it should not be ours.
White nationalists talk a tough and infamously nasty game online, but when pulled into the disinfecting rays of sunlight and public exposure, they wilt. When called out by conservative podcaster Michael J. Knowles, Charlottesville rallier James Allsup rambled nervously and incoherently about culture, biology, and not being a racist or white nationalist. Gay alt-righter Jack Donovan, of the white nationalist Wolves of Vinland, ran for the woods at the prospect of being labelled a white nationalist (or in his own words: “only inbred rednecks identify as ‘White Supremacists’”). In response to media attention for his torch-lit trip to the South, Unite the Right attendee Peter Cvjetanovic (who would not have fared well in the Third Reich) cried pitifully and quixotically, “I’m not the angry racist they see in that photo.” Antisemite Christopher “trying to make myself more capable of violence” Cantwell had a lachrymose meltdown over an alleged arrest warrant and receiving violent threats after proclaiming the murder of Heather Heyer “was worth it” and “more than justified.” (But he assures us that white nationalist demonstrators were “trying to be law-abiding,” other than the whole driving a car into a crowd of rival protesters thing.) And so on.
Meanwhile, Steve Bannon of “platform for the alt-right” fame went, Scaramucci-style, to a major progressive outlet to denounce white nationalists as “losers” and “clowns.” As if to add insult to injury, Bannon’s former media fiefdom, is openly bragging to the New York Times that the Breitbart news and editorial staff has “more racial and gender diversity than most American media outlets” (particularly the New York Times).
Regardless of what you think about any of these folks, their motives, or sincerity, their behavior in the sunlight gives away the game. White nationalists are but paper hyenas. They cackle maniacally in conspiratorial shadows but are ultimately fearful and powerless before the pride of a world that does not fear them or cotton to their views. Even their violence is cowardly and opportunistic—a far cry from the community-fueled mass terrorism of a white supremacy that would never imagine cowering before or hiding behind the law.
The Jim Crow bogeymen these minstrel showers wish to be did not fear the wrath of “niggers” or death by police. They did not burn tiki torches to shout and inveigh against people unafraid to shout and fight back; they burned crosses and tar to maim and kill with impunity. They did not weep on YouTube.
Without mincing words, the inimitable Kevin Williamson reads the human debris for what it is:
The angry white boys do not have a serious political agenda. They don’t have any straightforward demands like the Teamsters or PETA do, and they do not have a well-developed ideological position like the Communists do, though it would be inaccurate to say that they lack an ideology entirely. Their agenda is their anger, an anger that is difficult to understand. Middle-class white men in the United States of America in anno Domini 2017 have their problems, to be sure. Life is full of little disappointments. But their motive is not to be found in their exterior circumstances, which are pretty good.
Maybe too good: A great many of these young men have an interest in evolutionary psychology and evolutionary sociology — they like to think of themselves as “alpha males,” as though they were living in a chimpanzee troop — but it never occurs to them to consider their own status as rejects and failed men in that context. Online fantasy lives notwithstanding, random girls do not want to have sex with them. How do we know this? Because they are carrying tiki torches in a giant dork parade in Charlottesville. There’s no prom queen waiting at home. If we credit their own sociobiological model, they are the superfluous males who would have been discarded, along with their genetic material, by the pitiless state of nature. The fantasy of proving that they are something else is why they dream of violence and confrontation. They are the products of the soft liberal-democratic society they hold in contempt — and upon which they depend, utterly. James Alex Fields Jr. is angry at the world, and angry at his mother, probably for the same reason.
What does an angry white boy want? The fact that they get together to play dress-up — to engage in a large and sometimes murderous game of cowboys and Indians — may give us our answer. They want to be someone other than who they are. That’s the great irony of identity politics: They seek identity in the tribe because they are failed individuals. They are a chain composed exclusively of weak links. What they are engaged in isn’t politics, but theater: play-acting in the hopes of achieving catharsis. Their online personas — knights, Vikings, reincarnations of Charles Martel — will be familiar enough to anybody with a Dungeons and Dragons nerd in his life. But sometimes, role-playing around a card table isn’t enough: Sometimes, you need a stage and an audience. In the theater, actors and audience both can forget ourselves for an hour or two. Under the soft glow of the tiki torches, these angry white boys can be something else — for a night.
In the morning, they wake up with the same faces.
Today’s white nationalists vow to Jews and nonwhites alike, “You will not replace us.” But there’s nothing to replace. Their impotent rage can’t “defend” anyone or change anything substantial. Their raging impotence is not anywhere winning anything but attention they hardly deserve. Neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, the KKK and their fellow travelers are together a grotesque pastiche of pages turned long ago, as powerless to turn back time as we are to unbuild the pains of history. And their enemies, good and mildly-less-evil, are powerful, passionate, and omnipresent.
Like cultists of a drowned Westerosi god, white nationalists can only pirate the trappings of substance they cannot grow. And like a wayward squid who stole into Winterfell, they don’t know what to do with glaring spotlight once they have it—other than playact at cultural or political dominance that is not forthcoming, whatever clicks and clacks on Twitter. Where they are violent, they must be stopped. Where they are fearful and embarrassed, they should be coaxed back into reason. Where they are ignorant and spiteful, they can be left quietly in their own corners like so many broken souls of our society’s many ills.
The quicker we as a nation stop fueling their unquenchable thirst for the validation of public attention and reaction, the quicker they’ll lose what little purchase they are imagined to have and collapse back into shadows and dust.
If a white supremacist cries on the Internet, the sound we’re forgetting is indifference.