It may seem odd to say, but all told, the events of the last week or so were more heartening than not. Yes, white supremacists inflicted and incited violence in Charlottesville, Va., and, yes, none other than the president came down in their favor. But, rather than standing with its collective jaw agape, the nation responded with more unity and determination than it had mustered in months. Even people of influence began to stand up to Donald Trump.
Still, one can’t help wondering if this was the easy part.
All in all, I admire a full-throated response on behalf of a just world. For too long, the most noise has come from the side of hatred. Still, both the events at Charlottesville and the response to them raise questions that represent the legal and in some cases personal thickets of our era. I may well make enemies in all corners here, but a willingness to grapple with complexity is how we find our way to the better side of history.
• Across the country, a smattering of people have been fired from their jobs after evidence of their engagement in supremacist activities was mounted by others online. At least two of those firings were in Minnesota. This mob justice via social media feels pretty satisfying, right? There’s no chance of ever getting it wrong, right?
• It is indeed legal in many places for employers to fire people based on activities outside of work. There’s no chance of that power ever being used at odds with the angels, right?
In fact, some people were erroneously targeted following Charlottesville. And because some businesses already are suing over providing services to same-sex couples, it’s not a stretch to wonder if there might be an attempt to extend religious conscience to employment decisions themselves, perhaps citing the precedent of fired white supremacists.
• A proximate cause of the disturbances has been the removal of monuments memorializing the Confederacy. That will circle back to the Union state of Minnesota, where there’s a move in progress to rename Lake Calhoun. I don’t love the idea. Generations of people have enjoyed the lake, and I doubt that many of them ever believed they were doing so in support of slavery. Their Calhoun was a place, not a person. Ultimately, though, the name of a geographical feature is whatever a critical mass of people, acting through their representatives, say it is. I suspect recent events will favor finalizing the change.
• Although the cause of the violence at Charlottesville was not ambiguous, as Trump claimed, his “many sides” comment couldn’t have arrived at a more awkward moment for me. I had already been struggling with my reactions to what I perceive as a general but gratuitous antagonism from some on the left toward, well, white people, even those who would otherwise be allies. And, coincidentally, I had just asked that my name be taken off the mailing list of a Minneapolis organization I’d previously supported.
That was the Loft Literary Center, which provides classes and other support for aspiring writers and lovers of literature and which had recently taken a left turn from the apolitical. Accentuating the shift was a decision about a conference on young-adult literature. The center had invited a diverse group of writers to participate, but the response made for a predominantly white lineup, so it canceled the event.
I don’t have a stake in young-adult fiction, but the decision, like many of the sentiments I’ve been hearing from the left, rubbed me the wrong way.
Why? Was it pride? Of course, in part. I’ve always tried to conduct myself with integrity, and perhaps because of that, I’ve never found it easy to abide being called to account for the poor behavior of others. But to some, visible racial repercussions are a necessary component of equality.
Was it a fear of equity? No, I’ve never objected to weighting the scales to overcome imbalances — affirmative action, in the formal sense — and I don’t feel threatened by it now. (Many would argue that feeling generally unthreatened is a benefit of being white, and I agree.) But the Loft had made a good-faith effort with its original invitations.
Instead, I saw it as a philosophical objection: The Loft was dismissing what it called “a great group of writers” for the collective flaw of being white. To me, it was a blindingly obvious longing that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had when he wished for a day when people were judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. But many today — including, I imagine, those at the Loft — would argue that this ideal is impractical.
Bottom line: I want, and we need, to hear all voices, and I have no intention of stifling any to achieve this. To some, that makes me part of the white-privilege problem.
That said, among the targets of the white supremacists in Charlottesville were Jews, and I recently discovered — through DNA testing, as an adoptee with no previous, clear sense of my origins — that my genetic background is about one-quarter Jewish. In Nazi Germany, this admixture would not have marked me for death, but it surely would have subjected me to suspicion and uncertainty.
Which brings me to Switzerland. There, a hotel made news last week after posting a sign addressed specifically “to our Jewish guests,” asking them to shower before entering the swimming pool. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human-rights organization, subsequently demanded the hotel’s closure, noting that beyond the implicit stereotyping, “the reference to ‘showers’ can be construed as a patently vicious reference to the fake shower in the gas chambers.”
The hotel’s owner said it was all just a misunderstanding, a poor choice of words, and maybe so. But at least briefly, I had to wonder: In my case, would it be OK if I washed just one arm or one leg? Would it matter which appendage? Or would it be acceptable to dab myself with a moist towelette, as long as the cleansed areas comprised 25 percent of my body?
I don’t mean to trivialize, but rather to show how absurd it is, this fixation on race and ethnicity, were it not the case that people throughout history have been killed because of it.
• • •
At the risk of burying the lead, let me offer up one other matter, the resolution of which is, to me, as sure as a solar eclipse: By one legal means or another, the presidency of Donald Trump must end. Whether the issue is race relations in America or nuclear weapons in North Korea, he ineluctably, through sheer disuse of intellect, makes matters worse.
Last fall, the Star Tribune Editorial Board was, to my knowledge, one of just a few sizable opinion operations to literally call for Trump to step away from his pursuit of the presidency. The catalyst was the “Access Hollywood” tape, but the Editorial Board’s demand was a reflection of the brutishness that was implicit throughout the campaign, and which has been borne out with Trump in the Oval Office.
There was a brief period that same October weekend when it seemed the Republican Party may have been coming to a similar sensible conclusion. But the moment passed.
The effort must be resumed. (To be clear, I am speaking today for myself, not for the Editorial Board.) Impeachment is the option that’s been on the table virtually since Day One, but it’s predicated on the results of the special investigation into election tactics. It’s not the only means. Trump could vacate his office by resigning. This arguably would be the best outcome for all.
He won’t do it without intense pressure, and the pressure won’t be effective if it comes only from those of us who’ve opposed him from the start. It must come from those who believed the country had something to gain from his election.
Not on board?
If you’re a conservative, one who based your support on goals such as a rightward-leaning Supreme Court, protection of religious freedom and restrictions on abortion, understand that your agenda would be pursued by a Republican Congress and a President Mike Pence.
(To progressives and moderates, yes, you would have much to resist under Pence. But these battles would be fought on much more familiar footing. And the rest of the world wouldn’t have to worry so much about the world’s most powerful nuclear-armed nation.)
Beyond that, aside from the pure bigots and the closet bigots, there’s a final type of voter who helped to bring Trump into office — those who believed his alpha-male style was the answer to government’s problems. To those people, I’m sorry, but life is complicated. That’s why our government is complicated, too — why our institutions are entrusted to decide matters for which there is no fully satisfying solution, and why the country doesn’t have, and shouldn’t have, a president who can simply thumb-peck up a directive.
We’ve much to lose by allowing Trump to serve out his term. He sucks our energy and subverts the functioning of our democratic system. Over time, his destruction will only expand.
At the same time, I would argue, we have little to lose by taking the extraordinary step of seeking a change in the Oval Office outside the electoral process. It won’t matter, ultimately, because Trump himself is an aberration. He is a national nightmare for sure, but his impact, like that of a terrible dream, can yet be ephemeral.
Any takers? Any friends left at all?