DARKNESS VISIBLE: THE RISING TIDE OF HATE IN MY TIME
BY SARAH BURK, AMERICAN EDITOR AT EYEWEAR PUBLISHING
This past Saturday, a week ago (it seems longer) the quiet college town of Charlottesville, VA became the site of violence and vitriol as white supremacists and neo-Nazis rallied to “Unite the Right” against the removal of a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee, clashing with counter-demonstrators.
This scene turned tragic when a man drove a car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, killing one and injuring 19. He had earlier been seen marching with the symbols of far-right extremist group Vanguard America, though according to the group, he was not an official member.
As physical confrontations erupted between protesters, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency and law enforcement officers attempted to stop the rally under orders that it was an unlawful assembly. However, the damage had already been done.
Indeed, it seems there is a state of emergency in the United States. This is not the first rally of its kind to be held in Charlottesville this summer, and there have been several others across the nation. It remains personally shocking to me that such philosophies remain so rampant, as demonstrated by the near-historic number of far-right groups and individuals that gathered in Charlottesville this past weekend.
I first learned of the events in Charlottesville when my phone alerted me that #Charlottesville was trending on Twitter. Without comment or conscience, my phone arbitrarily decided which information would be important to me. Perhaps it is telling that breaking news reached me through a social media site, but it is also important in demonstrating its scale. In this instance, the algorithm for Twitter’s in-app notification accurately identified a story that was relevant not just to me, but to the entirety of our society.
As a white American attending university in the South, this incident strikes close to home, both figuratively and literally. I grew up in Virginia, and my university, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, bears a striking resemblance to the community in Charlottesville. In fact, a statue of a Confederate soldier remains on my campus, and has been the subject of numerous debates throughout history.
It is all too easy to treat my nation’s history as exactly that: history. In our high schools, the American Civil War is discussed as an isolated set of events whose aftershocks contributed to the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century, but rarely is history contextualized for the modern era in any meaningful way. However, when I see rallies like the one held in Charlottesville, it is hard to believe over 150 years have passed since the end of the war that these statues commemorate. When I hear alternating cries of “You/Jews will not replace us” and “Blood and soil,” it’s hard for me to believe that we have learned anything from the systematic genocide of Hitler’s regime.
While Sinclair Lewis’s novel, It Can’t Happen Here, has already been revived in the post-Trump era, the sentiment echoes in my mind. Continually, I am proven wrong. It can happen here, as the violence this weekend has shown. Many of my classmates attend the University of Virginia or live in Charlottesville, and just as easily as they could have been involved in the violence this past weekend, a similar event could have occurred at my own university and might still.
But the “Unite the Right” rally isn’t terrifying because it’s close to me or people I know. The idea that such white supremacist, far-right groups still find footholds in society is abhorrent to me, as are their philosophies. Honestly, I feel rather ashamed of my own relative ignorance in this way, and I am made ever more aware of the privilege that allows me to be so unaware. However, I don’t believe this is a problem I alone encounter. Too many times do riots and rallies spread across social media feeds like wildfire only to largely die down among the mainstream focus. We cannot let Charlottesville become another such instance. It shouldn’t take mass casualty or a declaration of war to capture an attention span longer than it takes to read a 140-character message.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the use of social media for information and advocacy, but we must avoid remaining isolated in the echo chambers they create. Events like this must force us to recognize the existence of such hate-groups that congregated in Charlottesville, now emboldened by a president who seems reluctant to condemn them. Globally, we are a people of diverse backgrounds, passions, and interests, a fact that should be celebrated, not reviled. As we take care of the injured and move forward in an ever-evolving belligerent environment, recall the words of Maya Angelou: “Hate, it has caused a lot of problems in the world, but has not solved one yet.”
Sarah Burk works for Eyewear and is based in the American South, where she studies.