Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Denouncing Nazis is easy. Living together is hard.

Facebook reminded me that a year ago I posted a piece titled There Are No Enemies.

It's not the most popular piece I've ever published, not by a long shot. It did pretty well - a little over 200 hits - but nothing special.

Re-reading it today, I think it may be one of the most important and difficult things I've ever written. And it helped me codify something that's been bugging me ever since the violence in Charleston and the political fallout that ensued.

In the aftermath of the Charleston violence, nearly everybody took to the airwaves and social media to condemn the assortment of white supremacists, Nazis, and KKK types who instigated the violence. This was easy to do: their brandishing of hateful symbols, their chants against Jews, blacks, and others outside their tribe, their obvious anger and aggression - all these put them squarely against core American values.

President Trump, of course, took tremendous political flak for his response. He tried to lay blame for the violence on "many sides" and seemed to go out of his way to serve as an apologist for the white supremacy movement. They themselves clearly saw it that way, judging by their reactions, especially after his Tuesday press conference. For this, Trump was roundly criticized by pretty much everyone across the political spectrum. The few people in his own White House who didn't distance themselves from this view now no longer work there.

That's all a pretty pat and easy story: Nazis and white supremacists are bad, we're the good guys, etc. Trump aside, almost everyone else will jump on this bandwagon.

But then I come back to my piece from last year: there are no enemies. And I also recall a lesson learned from decades of studying conflicts: conflict only ends when the different sides learn to live with each other.

Yes, white supremacy is morally wrong, and yes, Nazism is a horrible set of ideas. But because we say these things, however forcefully we may say them and however many of us "stand up" to do so, we are stuck with two unavoidable realities:

1) Some people will continue to hold to these ideas, despite (or even because of) our efforts to shout them down.

2) Those people are still our fellow Americans. And, if you hold to the Gospel of Christ, they are still Children of God.

We sort of know these things, deep down, though we don't know what to do with them. These are the reason why so many supporters of Hillary Clinton cringed when she made her famous "basket of deplorables" gaffe. She said in public what we wanted emotionally to say but know is morally wrong: that there are groups of people who are bad people.

In the language of revivalist Christianity, we failed to separate the sin from the sinner.

The problem with that logic, of course, is the conclusion to which it leads. If there are people who are irreducibly bad, then they must be either eliminated from society, driven out, or contained. It is, in fact, exactly the same logic that white supremacists operate under. They're just more open about it.

Lots of political movements - from the Nazis to the Khmer Rouge to the Interahamwe to the founders of Republika Srpska - have taken this idea that those people need to be gotten rid of and tried to put it into action. Every single of one of them failed. Genocide, ethnic cleansing, "purifying" the nation - it never works. It creates a lot of pain and a lot of dead bodies, but in the end you still end up living in a diverse society, and you tend to end up poor and miserable to boot.

That's an easy argument to make when confronting Nazis. But we need to think beyond confrontation, because confrontation itself isn't going to resolve anything.

We thought we had gotten rid of Creationism, until we discovered in the 1990s that it never went away. Most of us read Inherit the Wind in high school and saw it as an historical tale about the last gasp of Young Earth Creationism. Creationists read it and saw it as inspiration. We didn't notice until they started to take over school boards again.

White supremacy isn't going to go away simply because we shout at it, and it isn't going to go away because it's wrong. People are quite capable of holding morally abhorrent beliefs for generations, as our own history with black slavery shows. That some of those beliefs are still in circulation should surprise no one.

So while I applaud people who stand up against Nazis, who show up in Boston to demonstrate that there are far more of us who believe in diversity than there are in them who don't, that's just a band-aid. If the rest of us are vociferous enough, or if we elect a President less inclined to say supportive things about white supremacy the next time around, they may go back into the shadows. But they'll still be there, living among us as fellow citizens.

If we really want to move beyond endless demonstrations - if we really want to seek peace - demonstrations and taking down statues won't get us there. At some point, we're going to have to talk to the people we think of as our enemies. That can't happen in large groups, it certainly can't happen while people are carrying torches and clubs and shields, and it probably can't happen in public with TV cameras rolling. But in the end, it's the only way.

Years ago in graduate school, I wanted to start an article with what I thought was a clever observation: "everyone wants peace, they just want it on their own terms." My advisor stopped me and argued that I should get rid of that sentence. Not everyone wants peace, he pointed out. And he was right.

It's easy to look at those who march with Nazi flags and say, they don't want peace. But do we? We are comfortable in our knowledge that we're right and they're wrong and there are more of us anyway - just as they are comfortable in their understanding that they are right and we are wrong, even though there are fewer of them. Moral righteousness is addictive.

None of this means that we have to "meet them halfway" or adjust our beliefs in a racist direction. That's a red herring. But it does mean that we have to take the time to listen to our fellow human beings, and hope that they in turn will listen to us.

I don't know how to go about that, because all sides prefer the conflict we have to an uncertain peace in the future. But I know that, for myself, we are missing a piece of the moral puzzle: the piece that recognizes the common humanity of our "enemies" and seeks the seemingly impossible task of reconciliation. We have to live with "those people", like it or not. We might as well try to live together well.

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