While occupying a cell in a Birmingham jail in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote one of his most pointed critiques of American culture. Addressing his “Christian and Jewish brothers,” he excoriated the lack of urgency among his fellow clergy:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action” … Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.
This insight into the psyche of white America remains prescient. When hundreds of torch-bearing white supremacists can march proudly in a significant American city, it is clear that we are at a point of moral crisis. Despite the obvious stakes involved, there remain prominent individuals who equivocate and blame “both sides” for the events in Charlottesville. The American president, regrettably, is one of them.
I’m here to tell you that you must choose a side.
This should not be a hard decision. On one side you have torch-wielding, Nazi-slogan-chanting, out-of-the-closet, white supremacists. They chanted "Jews Will Not Replace Us" as they terrorized local activists seeking refuge in a church. Their avowed strategy is the maintenance of a racial hierarchy that places people of European descent in a position of permanent superiority over people of other races. They sometimes do business under the euphemistic name “the alt-right.” They have pseudo-scientists who buttress their claims, and they rely upon tacit support from mainstream members of the political right for sustenance.
On the other side you have ... people who are NOT Nazis.
That’s literally the end of my argument.
I’m not sure why we’re still talking.
I’m already on the couch, watching Netflix.
Yet, somehow, some of you are still saying, “Yeah, but ….” What follows the, “Yeah, but … “ can vary:
1) “ … it’s more complicated than that!”
2) “… her emails!”
3) “ … antifa has baseball bats!”
4) “ … not all white people are Nazis!”
5) “ … maybe we need to listen to what they’re saying!”
To each of those things, my response is the same: “Are you seriously confused over whether to side with literal Nazis?”
Those who equivocate over siding with Nazis can be seen taking firm positions on a whole variety of non-Nazi-related issues. They have strong opinions about the Common Core State Standards, the role of the federal government in healthcare, and a host of other domains occupying grayer moral area than Nazi fighting. Their hemming and hawing forces us to consider that they might not actually view Nazism as a bad thing.
To be more charitable, perhaps the equivocators have become desensitized. For decades our political culture has played fast and loose with the idea of Nazism. Have a political opponent? He’s a Nazi! Disagree with a policy idea? That’s the sort of thing they would do in Nazi Germany! In the meantime, it's possible that the equivocators are confused about what to do when actual Nazis show up ... which is now, and should always be, to take the other side reflexively.
Maybe the problem for the fence-sitters is that they’re concerned about tactical imperfections among the Nazi fighters. This is a favorite bête noir among very serious conservatives. The problem with that argument is that we shouldn’t anticipate tactical perfection among the opposition, because they’re literally fighting fucking Nazis. We should provide significant room for suboptimal decision-making, because Nazi-fighting presents an existential crisis for the American public. A moral crisis of this magnitude requires hard decisions, firm leadership, strategic flexibility, and many other intangible things. Tactical perfection is very low on that list.
My real suspicion is that the middle-grounders are wary of what the Nazi-fighters want: racial equity, religious tolerance, equal rights for women, an inclusive approach to understanding sexual identity and orientation, and basic human rights. The Movement for Black Lives, in particular, wants the state to kill fewer innocent African-Americans and reform the racial inequities in the criminal justice system. The moral vacuity necessary to equate these ideas with white supremacy is stunning. The cowardice required to side with Nazis in order to oppose them is wicked.
At the end of the day, the fence-sitters should consider the trajectory of American history. In the first half of the 19th century, some people were abolitionists. They recognized the moral imperative of ending slavery, despite the myriad political complexities posed by abolition. We celebrate their foresight. In the middle of the 20th century, some people were Civil Rights activists. They stood shoulder to shoulder with leaders who we now valorize, because they put their lives on the line to fight back against a racist policy regime. We revere their courage.
Nowhere in the history books, however, can we find praise for the valor of the people who, in the midst of a moral crisis, cried “well, actually.”
At the dawn of the 21st century, we remain an unequal society, riven through with bulging veins of racism and white supremacy. While there have been incremental improvements in the conditions of nonwhite America, the events of the last several years should leave no doubt that a vocal plurality of the American public – with explicit backing from a bigoted American president – wants to reverse that progress.
In a fight like this, there is room for thoughtful critique. There is room for debate, nuance, the free sharing of ideas, and vigorous disagreement.