By Carol Frenier
The first wave of commentary on the Charlottesville brawls contained remarkably little about the violence on the left. That has shifted somewhat, which is good, because we aren’t going to deal effectively with this problem if we focus on blaming one side over the other.
What most people do not know when they draw analogies between the alt-right and Nazism is that the Nazis in Germany won political power by first defeating the Communists in the street brawls. As a dear friend who grew up in Germany in the 1930s said so poignantly: “The Nazis proved to be bigger thugs than the Communists — the battle was between two groups of thugs equally willing to destroy the other, and the big losers were the German people.”
In our own time, I believe, we are being naive if we focus all, or even most, of our attention on only one of the gangs of thugs engaged in these brawls. The fact that the alt-right is linked to racism pushes a lot of guilt buttons in white America. We have a painful history that makes us acutely aware of the dangers of yielding to racist thugs. But while the potential damage of yielding to the leftist thugs is less clear, it is not necessarily less lethal. Consider the evil deeds of Stalinist Russia or Maoist China, both of whom killed more innocent people than the Holocaust.
In our own situation the ugly march of a couple of hundred white nationalists, as shocking as that is, is unlikely to threaten the stability of our constitutionally elected government. The general sympathy of mainstream Democrats for the violent tactics of fascists on the left (Antifa) against Trump just might.
Those of us who are committed to peaceful resolution of ideological differences have to stand together and make the violent conduct of these fringe groups the focus of our attention. A drunk driver is a drunk driver, and it doesn’t matter what good reasons he or she has for getting behind the wheel in a state of inebriation. The same is true for violence. This means I have to condemn the side I lean toward ideologically as strenuously as I condemn the side whose ideology I abhor.
As Ben Shapiro wrote in NRO Online, this is “why Charlottesville matters: not only because we saw destruction and terror, but because if all Americans of good conscience won’t do some soul-searching and move to excise the evil in their midst, that evil will metastasize. There is a cancer in the body politic. We must cut it out, or be destroyed.”
The hard work ahead of us includes at least three things.
First, it includes being rigorous in not assuming that the violent participants on either side represent the whole of that side. They don’t. Maintaining good faith with our largely non-violent political opponents is crucial.
Second, it involves standing firm against the violence. (We must) prosecute, sentence, expel from college, to the full extent of the law, and resist the temptation to indulge (anyone), especially the young.
Third, it includes toning down our own outrage.
Two articles this week amplify the difficulty involved in toning down the outrage. Lutheran pastor Hans Fiene wrote in the Federalist that the escalation of outrage is actually addicting. Each morning we scan the headlines for the latest stories that support our point of view — Trump’s latest faux pas if we are liberal, or the media’s latest trashing of Trump if we are conservative.
“Just like gambling or sex,” he writes, “outrage can become a process addiction — a form of behavior that our bodies come to rely on to feel good. The mechanics of anger addiction are simple. When we erupt in anger, our brains get a hit of dopamine, which yields a sense of euphoria. Just as drug users will quickly become dependent on their substance of choice to get that euphoria, those who overindulge in outrage will often end up relying on that behavior to release the desired dopamine.”
The second article, Frank Bruni’s “I’m a White Man. Hear Me Out,” printed in the Saturday edition of the New York Times, gave the perfect example of how outrage addiction has made us increasingly unable to listen respectfully to any side but our own. Here is his opening paragraph:
I’m a white man, so you should listen to absolutely nothing I say, at least on matters of social justice. I have no standing. No way to relate. My color and gender nullify me, and it gets worse: I grew up in the suburbs. Dad made six figures. We had a backyard pool. From the 10th through 12th grades, I attended private school. So the only proper way for me to check my privilege is to realize that it blinds me to others’ struggles and should gag me during discussions about the right responses to them.
In our obsession with identity politics, we are dissing the views of too many Americans. We are driving groups further apart instead of coming together as a nation. We are at one of those human crossroads that Ben Franklin had in mind when he was asked what kind of government the Constitution created. “A republic,” he famously replied, “if you can keep it.” If we can keep it, indeed.
Carol Frenier is a resident of Chelsea, Vermont.