In a speech to an American Legion gathering, a lieutenant who had lost his leg in service spoke against the alt-right. He argued, among other things, that “private vengeance and outrages can be committed under the guise” of such a movement. Responding to cries from the audience asking how he knew an alt-right organization discriminates, he responded, “because I can read and write the English language, and their very application blanks that state that their members must be white gentiles is discrimination.”
The alt-right, at that time, was the Klan. It was the 1920s and the speaker was my grandfather. His mother saved a clipping about the speech and it was passed down to me. The place was Ohio, the state where James Fields, charged with murder for plowing his car into counter-protesters at an alt-right event in Charlottesville, VA yesterday, was also born.
Some things never seem to change. Racism and anti-Semitism, those twin forces of anti-American darkness, never seem to fully recede. They follow the gyre of American history, remaining part of it no matter how hard we try to move beyond them. They reflect the worst of us, all the while cloaking themselves in the vestments of the best, claiming patriotism, love of country and Constitution, and the motives of the pure. Yet they represent tyranny now as much as they did a century ago; racism and anti-Semitism are, unfortunately, part of the foundation of America.
As a country, as we all know, we started out facing adversity and rising above it. From 1776:
These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.
We believed Tom Paine’s words, and took them to heart. The people did stand.
Only thing is, we rejected those words, once victory came, and rejected Paine, too. Instead of continuing the battle for freedom, we retreated into an acceptance of slavery—an embracing of it, on many parts—that flew in the face of the writings of Paine and even of the Declaration of Independence, where the seeds of our current divisions were sown through the hypocrisy of slave-owning Thomas Jefferson (among others). Talk of equality and unalienable rights means nothing when you get to decide who has them and who does not. The banner of freedom inverts, becoming one of oppression: ‘War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength.’
If our Founding Fathers had believed that morality should push even economic standing aside, we wouldn’t be in the fix we face today. Instead, they laid out a plan where saying one thing while doing another works, and has continued to work in American politics. They showed how to yell “freedom” without ever meaning it at all, unless they were meaning only freedom to oppress, freedom to steal (from other people, from the government, from the environment). Freedom for one, not for all.
Many Americans believed the hollow words of the Founders, however, taking them to heart and, at times, making them real. The great struggles of this country have come down to one between those who actually want freedom and equality for all and those who want to be able to do anything they damned well please. When I was 16, I read both Erich Fromm and Ayn Rand and saw the divide. The former represented real belief and idealism, the latter simply self-justification by the privileged and their toadies. That is the divide in American politics, from the first and continuing today.
Though the United States is a great country (and does not need to be made so again), it is also quite flawed. Our culture, stemming from Europe and Africa, primarily, but with roots throughout the world, produces the most vibrant art and technological achievements on earth. Though progress has often been slow and fitful, we do inch forward and away from the filth our Founding Fathers left us with (along with the tool they gave, the Constitution, for growth)—which is more than can be said for most other countries.
We can’t stop the process now. Just as it should have been stopped a century ago, two centuries ago, the obscenity of the alt-right still needs to be slammed into the past. It’s high time to quit the spiral and complete the task our ancestors left undone.