Notes on Charlottesville and the America of 2017
NOTE: This is not intended to be a polemical or even an analytic essay. It is rather a series of observations, realizations, and arguments about the current state of American political society, including attacks on those who think wrongly and attacks on myself for previously thinking wrongly. It is organized in the dying format of “Notes,” and intended to serve as a reference point for the author and for anyone curious.
I realize my takes on these contentious subjects will offend many, and am prepared to accept the consequences.
REALIZATIONS ON WHITE SUPREMACY
I make this admission publicly to acknowledge a certain species of my intellectual failures over the last several years, and partly to begin to reorient my thinking moving forward.
So: I was wrong about white supremacists. For a while, I had held to the notion that what remained of KKK-style groups and resurgent Neo-Nazis in America was confined to the fringes of public life. Sure, they have a vigorous online presence, and sure, candidate and then President Trump dogwhistled them into relevance again over the course of the last election. But they didn’t, in my view, warrant any kind of sustained attention, simply because they were a small group not capable of mobilizing towards anything significant. And the key thing I thought was that white supremacists did not influence the Republican Party to any significant degree.
And now an innocent woman is dead in Charlottesville, Virginia, where my young, not-fully-white sister is about to start going to college. Those two facts, when I realized them, made me start thinking on white supremacy again.
So back to my former assumptions. I was wrong on most of those counts, not because I was fed wrong data, but because I didn’t want to acknowledge the trends or connect the dots that should’ve been obvious that whole time. Commentators in the center with more liberal views than me, notably my contact Chris Ladd over at Political Orphans, have been warning for years about the resurgence of active white supremacy, with ample data to prove it. I only now realize they were right about the extent of the racial prejudice- not just resentment, but active prejudice and at times identitarianism- within an electorally significant portion of the GOP, and which percolates up into its lower layers and even all the way up to the very top.
So, the concessions (or, rather, the realizations, because I’m not conceding them: I’m realizing them.)
-Neo-Nazis and Klansmen and other white supremacists are not confined to the margins of public life, though they have (rightly) been shut out of the mainstream of public discourse. The reason they seem, to a standard member of the establishment like myself, to be a marginal group, is because they don’t have columnists at National Review, The New York Times, the Washington Post, or any reasonably mainstream publications. They’re confined to Breitbart and further right, further out; they don’t even speak openly on Fox News (though Fox News, like President Trump, dogwhistles to them all the time.)
-While a plurality or even a majority of Trump voters might well have been, like many members of my family, merely disgruntled conservative loyalists who liked Trump’s straight-talkin’ forwardness, or like the 2016 election trope of the culturally conservative white working-class voter who was tired of liberal elitism in social issues and neoliberal economic policy that destroyed high-wage jobs, the fact of the matter is that a large number of Trump’s voters- some of Trump’s most ardent supporters, it should be added- were and are active white supremacists pining for an older, whiter American bereft of its growing minority groups (of which I am partly a member.) In Trump they saw, rightly or not, the prospect of a return to that America through, realistic or not, deportation and immigration restriction, the repeal of racial preference and affirmative action policies, stricter crime policies, and a general denouncement of multiculturalism.
-These white supremacists are both formally and informally organized. The question of whether Voter ID laws in the Deep South are propelled partly or largely by racial animus among white voters is no longer a question for me. The question of whether the Right’s response to police shootings of young black men and crimes committed by illegal immigrants is motivated by similar racial animus is no longer a question, either. And it’s no question which party these people vote for. Nor is it a question of whether any of them are in local office, state legislative office, Congress, party positions, and other politically significant roles across American society, in every state. Of course they’re there, and that means there is indeed an element in the Republican Party that happens to be racially resentful, racially prejudiced, and racially identitarian.
-The violence we saw in Charlottesville, as many have opined, is not likely to be the last white supremacist violence we see this year or this epoch. My former boss, Adam Garfinkle, was perhaps overly pessimistic in his initial reaction comparing the America of 2017 to Weimar Germany’s lethal streetfighting and organized political violence by nonstate actors. But he was overall correct in noting the normalization of political violence- a trend he’s been writing eloquently about for some time- not only on the fringes of contemporary America, but even in the rhetoric of those in high office and high cultural positions.
Any Republican official or conservative commentator who does not realize the above four things, and factor them into their future statements and analyses of the national situation, is not necessarily complicit in the white supremacy in their own party, as many activists on the left would bellow they are. But any Republican official or conservative commentator who does not realize those above four things, is keeping their head in the sand like an ostrich, and willfully deluding themselves as to the nature of contemporary American life. If Julius Krein- founder of the American Affairs journal and one of President Trump’s most ardent, eloquent, and sophisticated intellectual apologists- could grasp the meaning of Charlottesville and change direction publicly, in the pages of the New York Times, then any center-right figure- save, perhaps, those responsible officials in the Trump Administration who are keeping the ship of state afloat, and would risk not only their jobs but their country’s safety if they spoke out against their boss- should be able to do the same. I’m beginning to think it’s a moral responsibility, at this point, if American conservatism is going to have a future.
Anyhow, moving forward, I’ll be keeping this in mind, especially when I write about nationalism, conservatism, traditionalism, colorblind racial policies and attitudes, and American heritage issues. I have my own opinions on each of these things, some of which I’ll elaborate further down the road; but it will always weigh on me, moving forward, to know that opinions and positions I’ve arrived at with no racial prejudice or resentment in my heart or mind, and that many of my fellow Americans have arrived at in a similarly racially benign way, are nonetheless shared by thousands or millions of Americans who are motivated by racial prejudice, the dark specter of white supremacy, and the evil violence that cannot fail to accompany those.
I could, I suppose, forsake my convictions out of disgust. But I think it’s more productive to simply be aware that unpalatable people share my views, and make sure I don’t inadvertently help them accomplish dark and sinister ends by pushing for my preferred policies and reforms. It’s a thin tightrope to walk, I’m sure- but in an age of resurgent white supremacy, it is the road anybody on the center-right must uncomfortably walk.
IMPLICATIONS FOR THE BROADER STATE OF AMERICAN PUBLIC LIFE
The responses to the Charlottesville murder and riots were generally intelligent, especially on the reformist center-right. Ross Douthat examined our nation’s domestic divisions, which cleave across multiple spheres of identity, and concluded that we’ll likely experience more low-level violence before anything significant happens. (He also noted that, for now, the violence of the late 1960s dwarfs anything in the mid-2010s.) My former colleague Jason Willick, who has been commenting very intelligently on liberal excess and conservative reaction for years now, penned a memorable passage worth quoting at length, on the slow decline of American mores on violence over the last few years:
“Yes, the 1990s saw race riots in Los Angeles and the bombing of Oklahoma City, but those took place against the backdrop of a competent government and a strong political consensus. Yes, there were the September 11 attacks, but those at least temporarily brought the country closer together.
We’ve had polarization and culture wars before. This is different. This feels different. Stretching back at least to Dylann Roof’s mass murder of black congregationalists in 2015, the country has been getting pushed closer and closer to the edge. The summer of 2016 saw the assassination of five police officers in Dallas by a black activist. Donald Trump’s rhetoric as a candidate flirted with political violence over and over again. And since his election, the temperature has only been escalating. A Montana congressional candidate physically attacked a reporter. There have been campus riots against right-wing speakers, and clashes between Leftists and neo-Nazis on the streets of Sacramento and elsewhere. It was less than two months ago that an anti-Trump activist opened fire on a group of Republican Congressmen playing baseball in Alexandria.
The events in Charlottesville—in which a neo-Nazi ran down anti-racist protesters after a white supremacist march, killing at least one person and injuring many more—were distinctively hideous. The anti-civilizational fascists of the alt-right, no longer confined to marginal online forums, were out in force in a storied American town, maiming people on the streets. The President whom they openly admire (former Klansman David Duke praised him in an interview at the march) deliberately equivocated when given the opportunity to condemn them. Maybe he was egging them on, or maybe he is simply so narcissistic that he cannot distance himself from anyone who has offered loyalty. It doesn’t matter. Neo-Nazi blogs delighted at the President’s non-response. Fascists are emboldened. More on the far-Left will become convinced that racism cannot be fought adequately within the political system.”
But the events in Charlottesville weren’t the fault of many sides, as President Trump argued at the outset of the event. Again, Julius Krein, in his 180-degree rejection of President Trump, very correctly noted that “if Mr. Trump had been speaking about the overall political climate, he might have been right to say that ‘many sides’ are responsible for exacerbating social tensions. Yet during the events in Charlottesville this past weekend, only one side- a deranged white nationalist- was responsible for killing anyone. To equivocate about this fact is the height of irresponsibility.”
I fear we’re getting into a social blame game on the issue of domestic mass violence not dissimilar to the blame game we’re in on the issue of jihadi vs. white supremacist terrorism. (For those who don’t know, it’s the tendency, whenever there’s a mass shooting, for conservatives and liberals alike to hold their breath and commentary until the identity of the shooter is revealed. And when it is a white supremacist, as in the Dylan Roof attack in Charleston, the liberals bemoan the prevalence of white supremacist terrorism in America, while conservatives talk about the need for better mental health services. Meanwhile when it is a radical Islamist, as in the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, the conservatives highlight the growing threat to the homeland of radical Islamism, while liberals argue that better gun control is the only solution. It’s really quite pathetic, and I’m getting to the point that whenever a mass shooting happens, I wonder who will score the points and make themselves look like jerks more.)
Anyhow, back to the social blame game- it should go as unspoken that when white supremacists rally, the conservative press tends to downplay its coverage of the instigators and their vile cause, while highlighting and vilifying the various breeds of counter-protestor- some of whom are indeed vile, like the Antifa types and other neo-Marxist revolutionary leftists. This is sheer apologism and it is absolutely wrong. Whereas, when anyone on the left rallies, but particularly when it’s over a racial issue, the liberal media will highlight only the peaceful nature of the main groups of protestors, while absolutely ignoring the very real riots and other violence being perpetrated by other members of the same protest. The Ferguson and Baltimore protests a few years back had their share of rioting, and it was absolute irresponsibility on the part of the liberal press to ignore or, worse, justify the wanton destruction of property and desecration of civic order.
But it’s not just a question of racial identity politics, white and otherwise, contributing to a decline in civic order (and before I’m accused of equivocating, let me say it- I am equivocating left and right, because as I will attempt to demonstrate below, the radical left in this country is every bit as guilty of ripping up the social fabric as the radical right, even though the radical left doesn’t happen to have blood on its hands from this last weekend.) It’s not just identity politics on their own- there are broader trends at play in American society in the hot, violent summer of 2017, and they need to be observed.
So: my former supervisor Damir Marusic wrote about this over at The American Interest better than most others have, so I’ll reference his piece here. Marusic absolutely shredded the contemporary diversity narrative and the ascent of postmodernism in political thinking, arguing that they’re incompatible with liberal democracy in any form. The emphasis on group identity over individual citizenship, the universal narrative of oppressor vs. oppressed in everything from political institutions to economic outcomes to “gender constructs” and everything between and beyond, so familiar to any skeptical attendee of any (post)modern university, the implication of perpetual struggle and perpetual revolution on the part of the “oppressed-“ this would seem to be a domain of the left and only of the left. But Marusic argues that this emphasis on particularistic identity, oppressed-ness by the powers that be, and the emphasis on struggle and overthrow equally characterizes the “alt-right” movement, alongside the radical racial separatist movements and gender movements on the left demanding so much recognition and booty from the common weal. It’s like Willick said so many months ago, (or rather, doesn’t appear to have said, but has certainly implied time and time again-) identity politics on the left breeds identity politics on the right. Identity politics among minorities breeds identity politics among the majority.
Identity politics, white or otherwise, spur more identity politics. Radical, revolutionary violence spurs more radical revolutionary violence. It’s a vicious cycle- and the center-right ignores it on the right at its own peril. The center-left ignores it on the left at its own peril, as well.
In probably the most provocative part of his piece, Marusic says that a President Hillary Clinton would’ve been, if perhaps not as bad as President Trump on the identity issue, still pretty darn bad. That’s because, as the ostrich-ized mainstream left has yet to admit to itself, the modern Democratic Party is organized much more explicitly along identity-politics lines than the Republican Party is. (The GOP just dogwhistles for racist white voters- the national Democratic Party website’s “People” section literally lists all the different ethnic groups the Democrats have special advocacy for. That’s the cut-and-dry definition of identity politics, folks, and it’s fully institutionalized on the cultural left.) So a second President Clinton, whatever her other virtues would have been (and relative centrism and temperance compared to Trump certainly would’ve been some of them) would’ve continued to slide along the current diversity narrative without offering up any meaningful narrative of national unity. And what we desperately, desperately need these days is a narrative of inclusive national unity- something the exclusivist right rejects, and the multicultural left cannot fathom.
But Marusic, who writes for a functionally center-right magazine, is not at all the only one making this point. The now-notorious Mark Lilla, a colorblind liberal if there ever was one and a Democrat seeking the best for the future of his party, was recently interviewed by Rod Dreher over at The American Conservative on his latest book, The Once and Future Liberal, and given that identity is a central focus of that book, Charlottesville of course came up.
The interview is worth reading in full, if for no other reason than that Lilla throws plenty of barbs in both directions and is more eloquent than I can ever be in describing the ills that face identitarian America. The basic point, though, is this- pre-Reaganite America emphasized communalism and solidarity, and great things were accomplished in the age between the Roosevelts and Gerald Ford, due largely to the emphasis on commonality, community, and mass democracy.
ON NATIONAL UNITY- ITS PROSPECTS AND ITS PROBLEMS
There are problems with the national unity narrative, of course. One of them is the fact that, as my old professor Ted McAllister says, “America is a conversation- not a creed.” That is, the definition of America is nebulous and diverse enough to inspire multiple, equally-valid ideas about it, and the same is true about American national identity. Anyone who’s read David Hackett Fischer’s magisterial work Albion’s Seed knows that Puritans, Quakers, Cavaliers, and Scots-Irish, and all their descendants, have equal justifiable claims on the appellation “the real Americans.” It is rather the interactions of these groups and more, especially including the innumerable immigrant groups whose journeys Michael Barone chronicles in Shaping Our Nation, that has formed the tumultuous and inspiring “conversation” that is America and Americanism. Anyone who has studied American history must, necessarily, concede that there is no unified American identity, never has been, and never will be. Apologies, Theodore Roosevelt.
That being said, the fact that we can’t put it into a neatly categorizable box doesn’t mean American identity doesn’t exist- simply that American identity is different from, say, the Chinese or German conceptions of national identity, and not only in the fact that Americanism includes a politically-ideological component about principles and truths. There are certain things that are American and certain things that are clearly not- certain tendencies, certain beliefs, certain lifestyles, certain habits of the heart and mind.
The problem with contemporary liberal culture, outside of thinkers like Lilla, is that it emphasizes the importance of cultural differences- the diversity or multiculturalism narrative- to the point that, as many liberals will say, “our diversity is our strength. Our diversity is what is American about America.” No it’s not- not by a longshot, on either count. Our diversity is a strength when we can find the common threads of unity beneath it, not when we push apart the components based on differences and intergroup competition. And though diversity- as mentioned, throughout our entire history, not just throughout our immigrants’ history- is indeed a component of Americanism, it is nowhere near the entirety of what is American about America.
The problem with contemporary conservative culture is that it defines American identity primarily in economic and ideological terms without looking to the cultural side of things; and when it does look to the cultural side of things, it is primarily in a majoritarian apple-pie sort of sense that is as banal as it is uncreative. One might say that the mainstream right sees pre-1960s America, plus Ronald Reagan, as American identity, while the mainstream left sees post-1960s America, plus perhaps the abolitionists and the progressives, as American identity. Both views leave out too much America, as Ross Douthat implied a while back.
The problem with contemporary alt-right culture- and there are too many to count- is that it relies on too exclusivistic a definition of American identity, and one that, in a wholly un-American twist, puts that identity in the blood and not in the heart and hands. I need not elaborate further on this. Meanwhile, the problem with contemporary revolutionary leftist culture- and there are still too many to count- is that it views Americanism as the source of most of the world’s ills, and wishes to deconstruct and destroy it entirely out of some form of warped universal justice.
Pick your poison, but I’m not satisfied with the arguments of the mainstream left or the decadent right, and no reasonable person and certainly no American patriot would accept or even consider the arguments of the alt-right or the revolutionary left.
No, I think one of the main causes of our social dysfunction today is precisely the fact that for the last half-century or so, the cultivation of standard melting-pot American pride has been driven from most of the public square and confined to the military and intelligence communities and certain civic groups like the American Legion, the Boy Scouts, and others. (Fareed Zakaria wrote today that the immediate condemnation by the five armed services chiefs of the Charlottesville riot and murder and the white supremacy it represents was indicative of the notions of honor and old-fashioned values held by the military community, alongside that community’s famed history of successfully integrating America’s diverse population into a powerful unified fighting force.)
As I’ll probably write in a piece eventually- there never has been, is not, and never will be a Rooseveltian unified American identity, a 100% Americanism fully colorblind and cultureblind in all ways. And there shouldn’t be- one of the great things about the American social fabric is the ability for so many different groups to live together in relative harmony, while the members of each hold complicated multiple identities revolving around the core identity as of American citizenship.
But to get to a healthy version of this mosaic-like pluralism revolving around shared heritage, you can’t just tell people to be proud of their ethnic and religious heritage and whatever else, and not tell them that they’re Americans as well (or, more accurately, you shouldn’t tell them that their American-ness is different from that of their fellow citizens of different races, which I believe is closer to what the contemporary diversity narrative does.) If you’re going to keep a nation as diverse intellectually, ethnically, and culturally as the United States of America together, you absolutely must have some kind of movement towards a common unity, even if you’ll never fully get there. You must have some shared notion among at least the elites who run the country and staff its major institutions, that they’re part of an American national project- membership in an international cosmopolitan project or a subnational ethnic project might be a part of that, but the primary orientation of the elite absolutely must be towards an American national project. And the population must see that the elite is working for the country first and foremost, and not for any of its particular groups or for any outside institutions, if the people are going to seriously trust that their leaders and their elites are looking out for them.
This movement towards unity, this emphasis on common citizenship even in its diverse manifestations, this cultivation of a common culture even if you’ll never fully get there, this general expectation of national loyalty despite divergent interpretations of what that nationhood means- this is Americanism, and it is neither fascist nor authoritarian. It is what the vast majority of successful American presidents have practiced, and what even the unsuccessful ones have attempted– George W. Bush, for example, did it very well in the aftermath of 9/11, if not so much over the duration of the Iraq War, and Barack Obama did it very well during his 2008 presidential campaign, though all traces of it were lost by his 2012 campaign.
And I should say again: the Pre-Trump GOP never figured out how to do this for a diverse, multiethnic nation. The Democratic Party of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton never bothered to figure out how to do it, figuring that diversity was its own reward. The Republican Party of Donald Trump has abandoned the project entirely and catered to white supremacists. None of this is healthy.
But we need it. If we’re going to keep this national bad dream from becoming a national nightmare, and if we fail and need to escape a yet-unrealized national nightmare, we need to find some kind of consensus on what the hell all 320 millions of us are doing together in this damn American project. I fear, with many others who also try to look beyond the nose of our particular partisan prejudices and towards the future state of the country a few years’ hence, that it might already be too late. But I’m not willing to stick a fork in just yet.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS AND TROUBLING QUESTIONS
I’ve discussed a lot in these notes, covering too much ground for a coherent essay (hence why I’m not publishing it as a polemical or analytic argument.) There’s a few miscellaneous things I need to cover, that will take us back to the beginning of these notes.
I have a question I ask my politically-oriented friends hyperbolically, when they say they are true centrists, true moderates, true wonks, or something of that nature. I ask them, “if you were forced to pick a side to be in coalition with- not join them, but vote alongside them- would you rather have it said that you had Klansmen in your coalition, or Communists in your coalition?”
Now, this is a somewhat unfair question given its hyperbolic nature. It’s also an unfair question given history- after all, President Franklin D. Roosevelt somehow managed to stuff BOTH Klansman Southern Democrats AND Communist Northern Progressive Democrats into THE SAME New Deal coalition (and he was neither!) But it is, I think, a revealing thing. Some people- mostly on the right- would rather be with racists than with totalitarians. Many others- most socially liberal, antiracist Millennials- would rather side with totalitarians than racists (though I don’t think many are familiar with the very real evils of applied Communism, simply because it never made its way to American shores.) In any case, it’s very often an easy answer for the people I ask- they’ll say Communists right off the bat. Communists might have killed a lot of people, but hey- they didn’t target them for their race, did they?
It’s a harder question for me. I do, actually, think that there’s something like a moral equivalency between left-totalitarianism and right-reactionary race supremacy. That’s not just because I’m more aware of Stalinist and Maoist excesses than my lefty friends; that’s out of an analysis of the social evils of both movements, and the intellectual and cultural currents that led both to commit the deeds they did.
I don’t know if I’d rather be lumped with Communists or Klansmen in coalition. For many, that makes me morally bankrupt already- it is so clear to them that racism is the greatest evil, or that totalitarianism is the greatest evil, that any other choice is tantamount to either tacit endorsement or moral cowardice. I’m just not so sure.
But how about another question- suppose everything were to go as badly as it could go over the next decade, and we in America were to find ourselves involved in a domestic conflict a little bit worse than low-scale civil war- that is, mass violence in the streets, legitimate political factions backing that violence, and a threat to the institutions and integrity of the state by one of those groups. Suppose, too, as seems likely, that the factions were roughly the alt-right on one side, and the alt-left on the other- Klansmen and Neo-Nazis versus revolutionary Marxists and Antifa black-masks. Suppose there were centrist, pro-compromise moderates like Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, perhaps this time Jon Huntsman and Joe Lieberman, like there were the last time this happened- but that they’re again taking different sides and affiliating themselves reluctantly with different radicalisms. Which side would you fight for?
This question is less difficult for me. I would side, of course, with whichever side was for the preservation of the Union, the Anti-Secessionists. I would fight my hardest to keep the Union whole and not in parts, and I would reluctantly side with whatever one-time allies were also fighting for that goal, be they interested in destroying capitalist civilization or be they interested in subjugating people of other races. It goes unspoken that this would taint my conscience and implicate me in great evils by association, be they totalitarian evils or racist evils. (A statesman must love his country more than his own soul– and the preservation of a unified American nation-state is a cause I would fight and die for.)
This is because, as I have argued before, the existence of a unified and centrally-governed American nation-state in the middle third of North America is a great moral cause in itself- for that political order, and the stability and prosperity made possible by it, protect the American people from international wars against each other, from foreign domination by outside powers, and from tyranny by petty local oligarchs and usurpers. (Just read Alexander Hamilton’s first few Federalist Papers to see why that abolitionist was willing to form a union together with slave lords- it’s a lesser-evil kind of thing.) Furthermore, the existence of American power or superpower in North America, on the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts, opens up the opportunity that American sea power can check Eurasian land power and preclude the domination of much of the world by a perhaps less-benign sovereign in Berlin, Moscow, Beijing, or elsewhere. There are significant implications for world order that a post-superpower American Civil War would open up.
And again- of course it would be a great moral evil to side with totalitarians, and of course it would be a great moral evil to side with racists. But given the hyperbolic nature of the thought experiment, there’s no way out of this question that doesn’t end in a “gotcha” soundbite.
I hope the stakes of this moment in summer 2017 are clear, then. I don’t want to have to make the choice to side with racists against totalitarians or with totalitarians against racists. I have dedicated my life and career to becoming as much of an Alexander Hamilton or a Henry Clay as possible, a public servant working to preserve our union and make it great, and I will fight and write to keep us from getting further towards the point of dissension and dissolution. But god forbid, should we ever come to that point, I know where I’ll stand.
This leads to a final question worth pondering. I noted earlier that some believe racism to be the worst of evils, and the thing that must be fought at all costs, the demon against which no sacrifice is too great. There certainly is great reasoning for this; racism dehumanizes people for the meagerist of reasons, and when it is institutionalized it is near impossible to correct the myriad injustices flowing from it. Of all the great social and political evils, racism certainly ranks near the worst.
But is it the worst? Is racism the greatest evil, the one great demon against which no sacrifice is too great? Is nothing worse than racism?
I think it’s clear that most on America’s left would argue that it is, indeed. They would point to any number of incidents and trends, they would cite Jefferson or Rawls or Ta-Nehisi Coates, they would passionately argue that the social tyranny of “free” people oppressing those of different races, the reality of half of America before Lincoln freed the slaves, was the darkest time in the history of the world, not least because of the hypocrisy it represented in our identity as a people.
They have a powerful argument, one I would not attempt to alter or defeat, and one which must be present in every American conscience- especially after Charlottesville- because it highlights the great sin of American identity, the racism inherent in our founding and expansion.
Yet, it still seems somewhat shortsighted to me. It only covers the American experience; it does not cover the whole of the human experience which must be examined, as well.
I can think of two other evils that, in my book, are greater than racism. The first is totalitarianism, not only that of the Communists and Fascists and old Monarchists and Theocrats, but that of any regime that seeks total control over the lives of its people in all aspects- thus the republicanism of the Jacobins fits this category, and the slave lords of the American South were certainly totalitarian in their power over their slaves. The labor movement, too, can credibly say that the great industrial capitalists of the last two centuries were totalitarians of a sort, though this is a far-extended argument that I don’t believe holds up to philosophical and empirical scrutiny.
Totalitarianism removes human freedom in entirety, and even if it is purported to advance a particular social ideal, it is entirely bankrupt as a political system or as the result of any ideological mode of thinking. And its close relationship to utopianism- a fallacy, one might say a heresy, which free-thinking people under free constitutions embrace far more often than is comfortable- means that totalitarianism is always a little bit closer to the human condition and thus to earthly realization than anyone would like to admit.
But there is another, greater evil, an evil worse even than the imposition of totalitarian tyranny. Hobbes thought that that evil was death; but as Clinton Rossiter argued, Alexander Hamilton thought that that evil was anarchy- the Hydra anarchy, for freedom is equally expunged in the war of all against all, and the natural, necessary remedy to anarchy is typically a temporary tyranny that is always in danger of falling into despotic totalitarianism. Moreover, anarchy is far closer to realization at any given time than totalitarianism, given the fragile nature of order and stability in human affairs. And finally, if we are to accept with Thomas Aquinas that there is a natural order to things, then political anarchy is a crime against the way things are supposed to be, even if anarchy does characterize whatever “state of nature” exists. It simply is the worst state human beings can exist in, and thus Hamilton and I seek flexible order wherever, whenever, and by whatever means possible, as did Aeneas.
I’m not sure all on the modern American left would agree that totalitarianism and anarchy are worse evils than institutional racism. I’m certainly sure the modern right would agree that totalitarianism is a greater evil, but it’d quibble over the definition of anarchy and whether anarchy is worse than totalitarianism.
In any case, the question of racism as the greatest evil is still one I must ponder- after all, my own existence as a half-white half-Asian child would have been outlawed in some places a century ago, and the descriptive effective of racism are far more visible in America today than either totalitarianism or anarchy.
But there are no easy answers. That’s why we must ponder. I just need to come to conclusions soon enough- the pace of events nationwide and worldwide is quickening, and people who will make a difference need at least a basic idea of what they think.