Unorthodox Reflections on Charlottesville

New York Times article, with video, of shot fired during the Charlottesville rally.

As everyone has commented, the right wing marchers in Charlottesville were heavily armed, thereby making a mockery of any notion of free speech in the public square.  Dahlia Lithwick in Slate has that angle nicely covered.

I want to focus in on the fact that, so far as I can discern, the only shot actually fired that day is the one captured in the video embedded in the New York Times article.  That’s a miracle.  Impressive, really.  All accounts suggest that was some fairly strenuous fighting going on.  Yet no one pulled the trigger, except that one guy, and he fired into the ground.

That’s relevant to my current obsession with the impediments to violence and, from the opposite side, with what incites violence.  All the evidence suggests (the best place to review this evidence is Randall Collins’s book, Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory [Princeton Universioty Press, 2008]) that the impediments to violence are very strong.  Famously, studies done after World War II discovered that in most cases 75% of troops in combat never even fired their weapons.

My supposition is that people need to be authorized to commit violence–except in cases where they are responding directly to violence against them.  And even when authorized–as the World War II case shows–the reluctance to be violent is still a strong impediment.

Clearly, the right wingers don’t think of themselves as reluctant to use violence.  Maybe that’s bluster, and maybe that’s true.  Collins suggest that there are virtuosos of violence just as there are virtuosos in other endeavors.  But my suggestion is that even the virtuousos need to be given permission.  Violence always must justify itself against the assumption that it is wrong.  It must have a story to tell about why it was necessary.

So my thought is: the Charlottesville show of force was a message.  We are armed and we are ready to resort to force if you do certain things, i.e. take down Confederate monuments.  So one question is: what actually would move all these right-wing militias to the actual deployment of force.  They are clearly threatening force, but what would actually move them to use it.

This is also why, it seems to me, these militias are addicted to arcane, hair-splitting interpretations of the Constitution.  They need the law to be on their side to justify their resorting to force.  That is certainly how the two Bundy escapades worked.  They provided themselves with crackpot legal justification.

If we think back to the street fights in 1930s Germany, we have a case where violence from both sides was one instigator, but also where the state quite simply unleashed the thugs.  Similar instances (in Egypt for example or in China during the Cultural Revolution) can also be cited. The violence against blacks in the South was socially sanctioned from 1870 to 1965–and Kennedy’s reluctance to intervene in the early 1960s allowed Southerners to still count on the fact that local justice systems would wink at their violence while their social cohorts would approve of it.

That, of course, is why Trump is so dangerous.  He hasn’t gone so far as to designate certain people enemies of the nation, but he hasn’t exactly embraced the equal right of everyone to be here (to put it mildly).  Still, he hasn’t openly endorsed violence, even as he has winked at it.  What he has done so far is enough justification for the outliers and loners, but not enough to swing the militias into concerted action.  In short, we have not seen any organized violence as of yet, although we have had these organized rallies that are built around the threat of violence.  If we reach a point where the courts refuse to prosecute, watch out.  (Just as the courts’ absurd interpretation of the 2nd amendment has given us people parading with assault rifles on our streets.)

Is there really something, some political event, that would push the militias into action? That possibility is certainly less remote than left-wing violence in the contemporary US.  But it still seems pretty remote to me.  The two Bundy stand-offs were the closest we’ve gotten there–and they never came close to being wide-spread movements.


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