In a recent opinion piece for the Washington Post, titled “Charlottesville showed that liberalism can’t defeat white supremacy. Only direct action can”, N. D. B. Connolly, Associate Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University, makes a strong point against scissors and in favour of rocks. The ‘scissors’, to Connolly, symbolise the discriminatory policies of white Europeans who have been running the United States of America, with the sole exception of president No. 44, Barack Obama, since the Declaration of Independence in 1776. “Right at the country’s founding, racists cut black and indigenous people out of liberalism’s contract. Black bodies and Native American land did not deserve the protection of contract. They deserved bondage and expropriation”, wrote Connolly.
The ‘rocks’, to Connolly, symbolise the singular period of effective non-white protest, culminating in the victorious anti-segregationist campaigns of the 1960s. Those were the rocks thrown at government institutions and the police. And successfully so, as indeed, “on the whole, America’s corporations, universities, state legislatures, city halls and Congress were forced to rule overt racism — and with it, other forms of discrimination — out of bounds. Or at least they had to try.” Subsequently though, he mourns, America lost out on the opportunity: “Yet despite the rights hard won by rock, we returned to paper. During the 1970s, we covered and concealed any historically specific grievance with a general promise of ‘equal opportunity’, ownership, and with law and order.”
Just as recently, the TED Talk internet platform published a show by Theo E. J. Wilson, artist, activist, and slam poet. Wilson, African-American as is N. D. B. Connolly, recounts the experiences of his sockpuppet identity Lucius25, a white supremacist lurker troll within the confines of rightist and racist internet forums. Speaking in front of an almost exclusively white audience, the entertainer produced an astonishing conclusion. Instead of condemning the racist, neo-fascist exchanges in the Ku Klux Klan-infected echo chambers of the internet, Wilson spoke about compassion. At the end of the day, he said, what fuelled right wing resistance was the same mechanism that had previously effected the estrangement of non-white minorities – the conscious awareness that the colour of your skin was of more relevance than any of your individual talents or qualities. “And I am telling you what else led to the momentum of the alt-right: the left wing’s wholesale demonisation of everything white and male. If you are a pale-skin penis-haver, you’re in league with Satan. Would you believe that some people find that offensive”? asked Wilson.
Both voices, that of Connolly and that of Wilson, confront us with a hardly palatable truth. Their observation amounts to the fact that the aspirations of half a century, the hopes for emancipation, integration, and the convergence of humanity will not materialise. To a large degree, whether in the Americas or in Europe, in Asia, Africa, or wherever, skin colour – as well as cultural, religious, or social background – still largely determine an individual’s qualities and value in the eyes of the beholder.
It seems as if minority representatives like Connolly or Wilson have less of a problem to speak the obvious, however disappointing, truth than their white, liberal peers. And not without reason. During the last four decades, progressive white mainstream culture has been trying to heal racial (and other) divides by focussing on ‘language change’ as a prerequisite for ‘attitude change’. A plethora of assumingly pejorative terms were condemned and abolished from public and, increasingly, from private use. The cleansing of our communication from any sort of discriminative connotation would make the prejudices of the past disappear by themselves.
One must admit that a focus on language allows one to disregard many of the complexities of real life. The world of semantics, with its endless opportunities to construct and deconstruct, is a much more powerful attraction for the aspiring mind than the botched conditions of reality. If it weren’t so, why would intellectuals devote so much time to analyse and criticise politicians’ utterances – instead of their concrete politics. This once again became manifest after Donald Trump blamed both sides, rightists and leftists, for the Charlottesville escalation. The subsequent media uproar reminded us of the post-G20 public dispute in Germany last June, after anti-globalists had gone on a three-day rampage in the city of Hamburg. More than one politician deflected the blame directed at the leftist marauders by reverting to the dogma that “left”, per definition, excluded the use of violence. Absorbed by a Game of Words, a large part of the Western liberal mainstream has come to virtually reject reality.
Thus it is left to the likes of Connolly and Wilson to spell out the unspeakable: that broad-scale cultural or racial convergence has failed; that Angela Merkel-style multiculturalism has failed; that there is no such thing as a melting pot; and that the best that humans are able to negotiate is a community of coexistence, side-by-side, ever threatened by aggressive, unruly, and disenfranchised minorities. Which in fact means that there is no significant progress compared to the societies of early history, such as Jericho or Babylon.
The global reemergence of the quest for identity in the twenty-first century is a challenge no politician, no cultural or religious leader can hide away from, as they instead play the Games of Words. The world finally refutes universal solutions, societal models ‘fit for all’. The structural elements that have been holding the post-World War Two era together are weakening. More than ever, peace and prosperity will depend on negotiation and dialogue, compromise, mutual respect, humility, and magnanimity.
If anything, Charlottesville can serve as a beacon, a warning signal that is hopefully not too late. A rift divides America, and it cannot be healed by words, nor was it caused by words, not even by President Trump’s tweets. What lies at the bottom of it are objective contradictions, economic, social, and psychological, that stem from globalisation, technological advances, the digital age, and societal change. For the Western super power to return to at least semi-normal operations it is vital to deal with these issues, to tackle them head-on and urgently, to repair what is in danger of completely falling apart. To do so will require players in a Game of Acts, not a Game of Words.