Charlottesville’s been much on my mind this week, which makes me just like everyone else. I wish I had some grand insight (or even some pithy quip) to help make sense of it. I go to Charlottesville quite regularly and thought of going again on Friday to take part in the counter-protests. I wanted to take some of our children with me, but after seeing images from the White Supremacists’ tiki torch march last Friday night, my wife forbid me from doing so.
Here in Blacksburg, my daughter (Ellie) and I attended a vigil on Sunday afternoon for the victims of White Supremacist violence. While walking to the rally, we met up with the kindly couple who owned the last house we rented. It was good to see people we knew. My daughter and I wore black shirts that proclaimed “Actively Caring For People,” which is a slogan used at local schools to promote an “empathetic culture.”
Having come from church a couple hours earlier, I was also wearing khaki slacks, and as we walked to the vigil, I realized that someone seeing me from afar – me a white male in a black shirt and khakis (apparently, the de rigueur outfit of choice among certain alt-right offshoots)—might mistake me for one of Mussolini’s Black Shirts. Here I was, walking into a crowd of good Americans who opposed Nazis, and I was scared. Scared because in the rapidly degrading political climate of our times, something as silly as a pair of khakis might falsely cast me in an ugly light.
The vigil was entirely peaceful. We marched silently with signs denouncing hate. There shouldn’t be anything controversial in that, right? But honestly, because of what happened in Charlottesville the day before, I half expected some alt-right types would show up to disrupt things. My wife, who was at home proctoring my two sons’ homework assignments, must have thought so too, for she sent me this text:
“Remember today’s sermon & don’t let anyone bait u into violence or nasty talk. U HAVE ELLIE W/U!”
Ellie and I joked with each other as we marched with our signs. It was actually a good father/daughter moment. After the march, we stood in a park and listened to speakers denounce the White Supremacists and their political allies. The sun was bright and we got sunburned standing in the park and listening. For a moment, it almost seemed like everything was normal. It almost seemed like we were a free people. But then I remembered how, in the right-wing hate echo chamber, creeps were already justifying the White Supremacists’ violence. As if ramming a car into a crowd can ever be justified.
Some of you might have read Robin Wright’s excellent New Yorker article, “Is America Headed for a New Kind of Civil War?” that appeared earlier this week. As the title suggests, Wright asks, “How fragile is the Union, our republic, and a country that has long been considered the world’s most stable democracy?” Foreign Policy magazine recently surveyed a panel of diplomats and “smart national security thinkers” (insert oxymoronic jokes here) and concluded there was about a 35% chance our nation would slip into some kind of civil war. To be clear, we’re not talking about an organized armed conflict pitting militias at either side of traditional battlefields but a prolonged period of civil strife characterized by guerilla activities and random acts of politically motivated violence.
On Sunday, after the Charlottesville tragedy, Wright asked Keith Mines, a former US Special Forces officer who’s worked in the UN and now serves in the State Department, whether he thought we’re headed to a civil war.
“We keep saying, ‘It can’t happen here,’ but then, holy smoke, it can.”
I want my America back. My America is the America of Lady Liberty, the America which welcomes with open arms the tired, the hungry, the poor. My America believes the self-evident truths that all men and women were created equally. My America believes that we must side with the better angels of our nature. I want an America which values its diversity. I want an America where armed thugs don’t hold torchlight marches shouting the cowardly “Blood and Soil” Anti-Semitic slogans of the Third Reich. I want an America that respects the health and safety of all its citizens. I want an America where you can walk into a public park without the fear of being mistaken for a fascist. These shouldn’t be Pollyannaish notions. These should be undisputedly American notions.
Heavy Feather Review just published one of my short stories, “How It Ends.” I wrote it in early June, during the week of the James Comey congressional hearings. And then I put it aside for about a month, thinking that its near-apocalyptic vision of the politically-motivated violence which President Trump would stoke as his failed presidency teetered into chaos was a little, um, *far-fetched.*
Almost all my good stories in some way derive from either Nathaniel Hawthorn’s “Young Goodman Brown” or Thomas Mann’s “Mario and the Magician.” Because I’m distinctly aware how many would dismiss these two masterworks as being irrelevant to contemporary America, I sometimes think that I, too, bark in the wrong direction. So sometimes I just don’t submit many of the stories I write. But also, I was hopeful that, in some fairytale way, Trump would right the ship. I didn’t vote for him. And yet, I wanted to believe that he might finally actually become presidential and maintain the “and justice for all” America he was sworn to uphold.
It hasn’t worked out that way.
“How It Ends” ends in an extremely dark place. It’s probably the darkest thing I’ve written.
I’m extremely excited and grateful that Heavy Feather Review published it. I hope that you might choose to read it. But I also hope it doesn’t prove too prescient.
Addendum: One thing I meant to add... amongst a lot of hyper-educated people, there's a mis-assumption that the Alt-Right & White Supremacist movements are mainly fueled by ignorance. Please get that out of your head. The Alt-Right is said to be gaining its greatest traction at land-grant colleges. It's not an ignorance thing-- it's an immorality thing! Pass it on!