Photo: Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetary
How times have changed since 2015. Ed Miliband was the leader of the Labour party, considered worryingly “Left leaning”. David Cameron tentatively promised a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, (that no one ever truly feared we’d renounce) and across the Atlantic, Obama continued sparring with dogged Republican resistance to achieve an inch of health care and other domestic reform. There was a comforting blandness to it all.
For many, the world turned upside down after the surprise Brexit vote, and no one can deny the worldwide upset felt after Trump’s victory. These two results led many to fear a new wave of “Populism”, which they theorized would tear apart the EU and thrust the West on the road to a new wave of dictators and nationalism. Of course, as of writing, this hasn’t precipitated. Results in the Netherlands, Austria and France demonstrated that Europe, at least, is firmly entrenched in the old neo-liberal order that is now so troubled in the Anglo-American world. But observers weren’t wrong in fearing that a genie had slipped out of the bottle.
And now we have last week’s events in Charlottesville. Debates around statues have arisen on several occasions in recent years, most notably in the case of the Cecil Rhodes statue at Oxford University. What’s new is the ferocity and urgency in the tone of the current debate. The grim spectacle of Tiki carrying White nationalists chanting anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans was at the very least, disturbing. The events the preceding day, with the tragic death of Heather Mayer, were even more sickening. Both show a ramping up of extreme right-wing action, but aside from Mayer’s horrific murder, the events were at least typical of the far right. Totally ignored in the media, and completely discredited after President Trump’s reaction, have been the reactions of the extreme left.
Anyone watching the politics of the last two years in some detail will have noticed the emergence of new, vocal far left movements across the West, whether they be political, identarian or targeting other wide ranging social issues. In times of great upheaval, as now seem, radical left and right groups are somewhat to be expected, but the traction and influence the extreme left bears is just as worrying, if not more, than the extreme right.
Here is why the far-left concerns me. After Charlottesville, the massive majority of America and watchers abroad denounced the bigotry of the far-right nationalists who descended on the town. But in the aftermath, as far left groups tore down Confederate statues, damaged Lincoln monuments and questioned the future of Mount Rushmore (even Nelsons column), a similar desire to moderate and denounce radical views has failed to appear. Of course, in crude terms, the far-right activists were more “Shocking”, but the views of the extreme left are no less dangerous to the future of Britain and America.
Since the end of the Cold War, memories of the Red Army Faction, ETA and even the IRA have begun to dissipate, and they are virtually unknown to most young people. Despite the collapse of the U.S.S.R., far left ideology still, as it almost always has, provides an understandable escape from the stale, slow moving politics of liberal democracies, and promises unparalleled equality and fairness that the optimism of youth strives for. Too often, however, we get caught in utopian thinking. The road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions, and the destruction of statues is not the progressive fight against racism that is being presented. It’s a thuggish, petty and ignorant outburst that wins no favour with ordinary people.
There is fair cause to debate the meaning and legitimacy of Confederate and other historical statues. 620,000 soldiers died in the American civil war. Slavery was the dominant factor in bringing about the conflict, but soldiers fought for many reasons, notably in defence of one’s state. Projecting our morals onto people who lived 150 years ago, however, misses the point. Unsurprisingly, many people, if not most people both North and South, across Europe and America, were racist. Abolitionists made comments that would deeply shock people today, in their ignorance and racism. But just as with the German soldiers of World War Two, or the Russian occupiers of Berlin, who have been accused of horrific war crimes, the legacy of their individual sacrifice, and merely their death, deserves to be remembered.
We cannot forget that individuals are all flawed. Winston Churchill was instrumental in saving Britain and the world from Nazi German victory, but was he racist? Of course, and he made horrific decisions that indirectly led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands in India. Does he then deserve to be castigated and forgotten? No, we celebrate his bravery whilst remembering his complexity as a human being.
The issue of statues and remembrance is so difficult for the extreme left because of its desire for full equality and its treatment of people in large, collective groups. It struggles with the diverse nature of individuals. As a result, it fails to understand that people are not equal, and never will be. Far leftists are often happy to celebrate diversity, yet are unaware that full equality of outcome is impossible for that exact reason.
Charlottesville scares me then, because our society knows how to deal with neo-Nazi’s and Fascists, but seems to have no coherent policy on how to reject the ideology of the radical left. What’s more, to continue to let these ideas fester in our society will only lead to greater trauma in the future. As history tells us, a crisis and fear of the left will only push people to the right, a disastrous route Europe has taken before, and one that can only lead us backwards.
To progress, we need that bland centre, that place of moderation, where left and right can meet in synthesis, and pragmatic solutions can be created, but this must come with a renewed sense of urgency. I do not advocate a return to the days of Ed Miliband. The centre is being abandoned exactly because it is not listening to a range of opinions. It’s worked for too few and has ceased to create actual change, citizens do not feel in control, and now a majority in Britain and America desire an alternative.
If the current political void is not filled, a crisis of left versus right is inevitable, and it will, as it always has, be a catastrophe.
What we must remember is that a turn to radicalism, whether left or right, is never the solution. The failure of politicians and the media on both sides of the aisles to denounce the radicalism of the left sets a worrying precedent.