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Guns Don’t Kill, Culture Does

Part Two

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Above: The car used as a murder weapon in Charlottesville.
This freeze-frame photo is in the Public Domain.

“…there are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill, and suspicion can destroy; and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own…”

—from Rod Serling’s closing narration to the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street

Attitudes and prejudices, like guns—and now cars—do not kill by themselves. That requires someone misusing or mishandling them. Sadly, too many people are willing to do just that. The U.S.A. has developed multiple competing cultures, some so specialized that they resemble the narrow focus of street gangs. Let’s take, for example, the “Unite the Right” weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia (August 11-13)—where Heather Heyer was killed by one of the Nazis she was protesting.

A VICE News team shot a 22-minute film for HBO, an inside look at some of the neo-Nazis who came to the weekend, and the ugly culture that they represent. I find the first few moments particularly chilling, video of a mob of neo-Nazi youth marching through the streets of liberal and diverse Charlottesville. They try on angry faces for the film crew, and chant well-worn racist phrases such as “Jews will not replace us!” and “Blood and soil!” and “Whose streets? Our streets!”

It’s scary, despite the much-ridiculed detail that their lit torches are in fact backyard Tiki party models. I have a number of those torches in my own garage! And their uniform is a collegiate khaki shorts with polo shirts. Laughable attempts to normalize themselves. But the fire burning in those torches is real, the march and chants are intimidating, and the implication of violence toward anyone opposing this horde is run-you-down-with-my-car obvious.

And since Virginia is an open carry state, they march while armed to the teeth. At the bottom of an online story about this event, Commenters discussed the wisdom of open carrying. Said one, “If we got in a battle, I’d take out the people with guns on their hips first.”

That’s as good an argument as I’ve ever heard for not owning a gun. If you need more convincing, consider that whatever you’re packing, someone else has bigger—and shoots better.

The neo-Nazis who invaded Charlottesville clearly have felt that intimidation was more important than making themselves a target. It’s easy to be scary and ugly when you’re part of a mob. You are conforming to, and supported by, the cultural norm of your mob. What these people are willing to say in front of a working camera crew goes beyond shame—but it conforms.

I should be shocked, but I’ve seen and heard too much to feel anything but contempt.

They call their perceived enemies, Jews in particular, “filth” and “vermin”—a strategy straight out of wartime propaganda. Your enemy is so much easier to hate and kill after he’s been dehumanized.

“I think that a lot more people are going to die before we’re done here,” said Chris Cantwell, the talkative white supremacist “star” of the aforementioned VICE News film, in response to the interviewer’s lament that wait, someone died. He added that one of them dying was a positive.

He justified Heather Heyers’s death more than once. That is white supremacist culture speaking. Sickening? Oh yes. But the evil rarely see themselves as evil.

The film made Cantwell both a hero (to fellow Nazis) and a pariah (to most everyone else). That pariah experience is far from unique—a small victory for justice. Cantwell was later arrested and numerous other marchers—who were photographed later identified on social media—lost their jobs as a result. Maybe they’ll hide under their white hoods for the next march.

The Nazis are the true victims, to hear them tell it; their free speech rights were violated. Are hate speech, intimidation, and threats are protected by the First Amendment? I thought threats were a legal definition of assault. But then, who decides if someone’s speech is “hate”?

Antifa (anti-fascists) showed up for the weekend, too. The Left has been criticized by many for reflecting violence back at the Nazis. “Do you want to become them?” is the gist of most criticisms.

But you have to push back. It happened in Boston the very next weekend. Boston protesters so vastly outnumbered the neo-Nazis that their demonstration never got going. The intimidation flipped, illustrated beautifully in this video of a scared white supremacist stripping off his uniform and disavowing his affiliation, claiming to be “just here for the fun.”

“When’s the fun part come?” asks the cameraman.

And the next weekend, unwelcome alt-Right demonstrations were canceled in San Francisco, but liberal protesters showed up anyway. The following day, both sides clashed violently in Berkeley. I want to chuckle because the fascists (supremacists) who thought they would intimidate others found themselves intimidated. But I shudder thinking of how these people will express themselves when there is no safe venue.

I hate to admit this: in a democracy, even bigots get representation.

There is another way to push back, and it might actually be fun, if you can swallow your anger. This New York Times article, How to Make Fun of Nazis, describes an excellent approach to non-violent protest. Some protesters are following the lead of Germans who dress like clowns and jeer Nazis when they march. The idea is to deny Nazis the gravitas and fear that they seek by marching.

But even anti-Nazi laws in Germany don’t stop people from being bad, or from meeting badness with more of the same. Earlier this year, a drunk American tourist in Dresden, Germany, repeatedly gave the Nazi salute in public—and in response a stranger beat him up.

The occasional ray of hope lights up this gloomy picture. One such sunbeam comes from, of all places, the Murdoch news empire. Patriarch Rupert may speak with Trump several times a week, but his son James has publicly expressed uneasiness with elements of their star media child, Fox News. He donated $1 million to the Anti-Defamation League in the wake of Trump’s tone-deaf statements about the Charlottesville violence.

The Murdoch empire controls The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post as well as Fox News, so passing any of James’s uneasiness on to those media outlets would be good. Right now, the Wall Street Journal is being pushed from both sides of that debate.

I wish that I could trust such possibilities. Even right-wing rock musician Ted Nugent is claiming a form of conversion. Maybe. In 2012, he announced that President Obama should “suck on my machine gun.” Now he wants to tone down the ‘hateful rhetoric’.

My reaction? Comedian Bill Maher said it best, when he recounted that Nugent announced, also in 2012, that if Obama won reelection, Nugent would be dead or in jail within a year. Maher grinned: “Sounds like a plan!” But as appealing as violence may be to my id, I don’t believe in it. The best thing Nugent can do is just crawl back under his rock and shut up.

The internet makes shutting up harder every year. Facebook, SnapChat, Instagram—you name the platform: social media has been a tool of hatred since its inception. Social media is no more vicious than the hallways of high school or a small town sidewalk. But it has a far greater reach, and to hear the purveyors of these virtual hallways and sidewalks tell it, their vitriol is not policeable.

* When a white man called a black woman’s kids the N-word, she wrote about the incident on her Facebook page. Facebook stopped her from sharing it because she repeated what had been said to her children.

* The Facebook reaction to a murder broadcast live at its annual conference was to sweep it under the rug and move on.

* Consider Facebook’s Secret Censorship Rules Protect White Men from Hate Speech But Not Black Children. The opening paragraphs of this Pro Publica article belie Mark Zuckberg’s claim that Facebook is trying anywhere near hard enough to rein in terror:

In the wake of a terrorist attack in London earlier this month [August], a U.S. congressman wrote a Facebook post in which he called for the slaughter of “radicalized” Muslims. “Hunt them, identify them, and kill them,” declared U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, a Louisiana Republican. “Kill them all. For the sake of all that is good and righteous. Kill them all.”

Higgins’ plea for violent revenge went untouched by Facebook workers who scour the social network deleting offensive speech.

But a May posting on Facebook by Boston poet and Black Lives Matter activist Didi Delgado drew a different response.

“All white people are racist. Start from this reference point, or you’ve already failed,” Delgado wrote. The post was removed and her Facebook account was disabled for seven days.

Whether you agree or disagree with either statement, you can’t sanely argue that the second deserves censoring if the first does not. But with truth and civility on the decline these days, how do you find common ground with people who oppose everything about you merely on principle?

Frank Bruni expressed the problem in a New York Times piece:

For more and more Americans, the other side isn’t merely misguided in the extreme. It’s evil in the absolute, and virtue is measured by the starkness with which that evil is labeled and reviled. There are emotional satisfactions to this. There is also a terrible price.

Hatred has always found its way around, no matter if the journey was via word-of-mouth instead of social media. What’s new is the legitimacy that this vitriol has gained. It’s okay to despise someone who disagrees with you. We’re building a culture around blind hatred.

The latest blow came in June from the U.S. Supreme Court: a unanimous ruling that killed a federal law prohibiting some offensive trademarks. The result: at least nine trademark applications for offensive symbols and words were filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. That sounds ugly, but incredibly, it isn’t 100% bad! One man wants to trademark the swastika and a version of the N-word—to legally take them away from bigots.

Resist however you can. Ghandi and Martin Luthor King managed non-violence fairly well. Must they be the exceptions in Humanity?

* The Republican candidate in Montana’s special congressional election last May was charged with misdemeanor assault after he body-slammed a reporter who, get this, had the temerity to ask him about the health-care bill! But the guy was re-elected anyway.

* The shooting of House Majority Whip and committed conservative Steve Scalise in June shows how easily violence can come from either side. Whether it’s a Jim Crow law, or a regional philosophy, or mob rule, or one person’s rage, every day we exist way too close to anarchy.

I began with the wisdom of Rod Serling. I’ll end with it as well. From his closing narration to “The Shelter”:

“…a simple statement of fact: for civilization to survive, the human race has to remain civilized.”

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Written by

Steve Schlich is retired after 35 years of writing fiction about software: “easy to use,” “does what you want,” and the like. Hobbies include webmaster for www.RodSerling.com, writing songs and short stories. In 2004, he created www.NakedWashington.com, a website chronicling the naughty public art in Washington, D.C. He lives happily with his wife and cats, north of San Francisco.

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