For all the divisive agents to befall the United States, race has long been a worn record spinning beneath the weight of a very blunt needle. It is the background music to an ongoing conflict of American identity: the existential crisis of a nation that simultaneously embraces the power of both unified diversity and tribal distinction.

Like most soundtracks, the issue of race almost disappears in the spotlight of seemingly more pressing narratives—say, perhaps, the brink of nuclear war, an economy hijacked by the 1%, or a failing healthcare system. But, now and again, the background music of race hits a crescendo, and the blaring message can no longer be ignored.

In the case of a recent alt-right demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, the speakers blew completely. Race ideology had, again, come to the forefront of social discourse as white nationalists and neo-nazis clashed with counter protestors in a skirmish that left 19 injured and one dead.

Déjà vu it would seem has returned to our great union with a vengeance, an all-too-familiar scene for those with long memories and the stomach to read—even casually—about the dangers of when nationalism becomes an expression of ethnocentrism. Apart from its somewhat laughable temporal displacement, it was an event rendered ever more shocking for the moral ambivalence and tone-deaf reactions of top American leadership—or a lack thereof. As Americans, hateful thugs and torches don’t scare us. We’ve seen redemption periods of backlash against social progress before, and we’ve fought them all.

Indeed, much of our nation’s character has been defined by an ability to call upon strong moral fiber in the face of tyranny and fascism—and at times, ourselves—as villains. But with each new venture into the fray of perfecting our union, strong leadership at the top has always emerged as a moral compass and guide toward greater tolerance and unity. And if history were ever to publish a magazine about the dangers of short memory, August 2017 would surely be the cover page.

Barely two generations ago, the entire world went to war in a collective effort to crush imperialism spurred by Hitler’s race ideology. Yet somehow, the most salient example about the consequences of bigotry as a legitimized political position has been wiped from our collective memory like a bad night of binge drinking. Luckily, all is not lost. Sanity across party lines has prevailed among other ranking leadership, including that of Austrian-born native and former governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had a message for Trump in a YouTube video that went viral: “There are not two sides to hatred.”

The immediate response of government officials to the Charlottesville skirmish was crucial. And in light of historical fact and consensus, the denouncement of such hate ideology should have been a proverbial lay-up for the 45th President of the United States. Identifying the bad guys in this case was on par with the acceptable moral standard of a toddler: sometimes the good guys have to fight the bad guys to keep evil at bay.

What unfolded during press conferences following the incident was nothing short of a golden opportunity wasted. At stake was a real chance to lull public hysteria with the security of branding Trump as a rational human being, if only misunderstood in his own eccentricity. On matters of clear moral distinction, he might have even appeared as a person of sound mind, capable of retaining the most basic constituents of moral consciousness. But alas, there would be no upset, no pleasant surprise to the abysmal track record of a man barely hanging on to reality. What might have otherwise been a redeeming moment for the President, turned into business as usual for an administration where the nuts run the nuthouse.

As the nation looked to its leader for conviction in and vindication of its moral compass, the message communicated was one of betrayal. In his sympathy for white nationalism, Trump’s inability to command any semblance of moral authority not only failed to assuage the shock and damaged morale of a nation on its heels, it emboldened those seeking to destroy any optimism for continued social progress.

Shout “No big deal!” enough times and people become desensitized. Equate the forces for good with those of evil, and soon enough, acts of social regression can easily hide in plain sight. To act morally against injustice requires the ability to identify right from wrong. And thus is the breeding grounds of moral ambivalence itself: a lack of distinction between what is right and what is wrong.

The act of eroding a nation’s moral competence involves little else than ambivalence. Real American heroes like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have made references to the importance of moral ambivalence: “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Even the fictional heroes of comic books—an American cultural pastime—have taught us such lessons. Characters like Spider-Man aren’t heroes because they possess super powers; their true super powers have always been their humanity and lack of moral ambivalence. Making the choice to fight injustice when others are paralyzed by it—that’s what makes a hero great. Willful and deliberate action against evil that seeks to target and exploit the most vulnerable of us—that’s what makes America great.

Ambivalence is easy. Ambivalence is the very essence of weakness. The inescapable result of practicing ambivalence is a lack of leadership and direction. Choosing nothing—not even a painfully obvious consensus of morality, that one should stand against to hate—is to allow hate to triumph over love. As the famous Irish statesman, Edmund Burke, once famously wrote: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”. One of his lesser known writings also alludes to the necessity of unified opposition against evil: “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrificed in a contemptible struggle”.

Trump’s vehement charge that there was blame on “both sides” was not a gaffe of public speech, nor a lack in understanding of the facts. It was a deliberate assault on the moral clarity of our nation, uttered with the sole intent of inciting ambivalence. Aside from its disconnect from logic and downright cowardice nature, such commentary from Trump serves the same purpose as his attacks on the integrity of the free press: the introduction of “alternative facts” as a means to distort and abolish facts that are true. From the birther movement that questioned President Obama’s citizenship, to the assertion that climate change is a hoax created by China’s government, Trump’s persistent disregard for reality is a core strategic play for degrading the legitimacy of any person, place, or thing.

This is the same rhetorical strategy used to dilute the legitimacy of many progressive social movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM): any response which is less than acceptable to the ruling powers who perpetuate the very injustice such movements are riling against, is showered with blame and deemed invalid. This move to delegitimize counter-protests against hate ideology only serves to keep power with the oppressors by essentially gaslighting marginalized groups and their would-be allies. Believing that protests occurring in response of and as protection against hate should be deemed equal with those seeking to divide our nation requires the ultimate suspension of reality—and a complete disregard for the role of intention.

Intention is a guide for moral clarity. Any reasonable attempt at sound moral judgement understands the weight of intent and motivation. “Follow the money” they say, “find out who stands to benefit the most.” Even our own justice system makes efforts to parse out intent for both the charge and punishment of murder. Whether or not persons act with premeditated ill will is a crucial factor. Planning to hurt others out of rage and anger is much different from death which happens as the result of self-defense, negligence, or happenstance. Trump’s assertion that both sides share equal blame ignores the historically relevance of intent; the agents of hatred seek to destroy, while the agents of opposing hate seek to unify.

Hate ideology has long employed tools of divisiveness and violence as primary agents. To drive people part from one another you must use fear and the fear of others to encourage the seeking out of safety within one’s own tribe. The origin of behavior and the means by which behavior is enacted is significant here. As I once argued in an article on gun violence: guns can be discharged with no ill intentions to harm others—target practice, for instance. But shooting non-living targets doesn’t represent the true origin and purpose that guide gun usage; guns exist to kill, and therefore, despite their ability to be used in a non-lethal manner, their overall potential and impact is largely negative. Observe this in contrast to a risky medical procedure. The potential for death and harm to the body are certainly present, but that is not the primary intention of surgery. Surgery seeks to heal and preserve life, and therefore, despite what unpleasant risks may be present, its overall integrity remains positive.

The above examples are relevant to the efforts of counter protests against white nationalism. The threat of letting hate rob our country of its moral values is greater than the risk of a less-than ideal opposition campaign. Do we hope for nonviolent demonstrations to oppose hate? Of course. Does violence sometimes occur? The extensive history of good versus evil would certainly suggest so. But violence is not the real question at hand, but merely a distractive device aimed at seeding moral ambivalence. At hand is the question of whether the event of violence invalidates the intentions of a just cause. History offers a resounding no. The U.S. and its citizens have never truly had a problem with violence in the name of goodwill—see the last 100 years of international war and conflict. In fact, as the story of Hitler’s Germany against the Allied powers tells, a sometimes forceful campaign against those who hate is not only justifiable, but is sometimes necessary to preserve basic moral integrity. Fighting itself is not necessarily the better measure of moral integrity. What one fights FOR tells the real tale.


Also published on Medium.