Friday,24 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)
Friday,24 May, 2019
Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Charlottesville

Recent events in the US illustrate the rifts ever present in the divided world in which we live, writes Abdel-Moneim Said


اقرأ باللغة العربية


Many years ago, professor William Quandt of the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville invited me to deliver two lectures on the Middle East and the Muslim Brotherhood. The first part of the visit revolved around the university founded by Thomas Jefferson, author of the American Declaration of Independence, one of the drafters of the US constitution and eventually the third US president. You could almost literally feel Jefferson’s vision, erudition and ideas in every corner of the institution that not only reflected his liberal outlooks and concerns but also the very identity of the city that embraced the university and the spirit of its founder. With the violence that erupted in Charlottesville last week, causing its name to leap to international headlines, I could not help but to look back, contemplate what I was able to recall of the discussions I had with the university’s professors, and wonder at what had become of the US.

What happened in Charlottesville may not have reverberated so profoundly had it not been for the ubiquitous shade of Jefferson’s spirit. How could a city from which he came, where he lived and in which he founded a higher institution of learning have ended up as the location of a demonstration staged by a gathering of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Ku Klux Klansmen and other racist groups? What was there in that liberal US city that led to a counter-demonstration by liberals and antiracist activists and a clash that culminated with the attack by 20-year-old James Field from Ohio who slammed his car into the crowd of liberal protesters killing a woman and injuring nine other people? In addition, as though the city had come under an evil spell, a Virginia state police helicopter that had been monitoring the demonstrations crashed, killing its pilot and co-pilot, bringing the number of dead to three. Perhaps by Middle East standards this death toll may seem barely newsworthy, but by US standards it precipitated another clash between President Donald Trump and his opponents in his Republic Party and in the Democratic Party, the press and intellectual circles.

They say that incidents of violence are revealing. This certainly applies to the case of Charlottesville where the train of events followed a pattern that has been seen in other US cities. The affair started when the city’s municipal board decided to remove a statue of General Robert Lee, commander of the Southern Confederate Army during the US Civil War. This triggered the first protest demonstration. The counter-demonstration involved those who believed that the statue should be removed because it commemorates a south that visited untold suffering on African Americans and that sought to perpetuate the cruelties of slavery. It was as though the US Civil War had resurfaced, not in its 19th century form but rather in a 21st century mode. The first set of demonstrators held that you cannot bury American history. General Lee led an entire people in the defence of a cause. Before the Civil War, he had been a commander of the US army in its war against the indigenous peoples and on behalf of the white immigrant populations. He was a national figure, therefore, and it was wrong to remove his statues, whether in Charlottesville or Baltimore. and to sustain the campaign to remove confederate flags and the statues of other confederate officers in other cities. As for the second set of protesters. who took part in the counter-demonstration, they essentially maintained that the violence being committed against African Americans in US cities was due to the fact that symbols of the confederacy that were opposed to emancipation remain widespread in the US and furnish a kind of haven for racist ideas and dreams.

The incident revealed that the division in the US over Trump is not just about an ongoing battle over a presidential election but also about a battle that is not about to end anytime soon and that can resurface in the form of a conflict over jettisoning Obamacare or in the form of a revival of the Civil War. It is well known that African Americans voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton and that members of American neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. Trump, for his part, has been clumsy in his attempts to dissociate himself from those groups and this time, in the case of Charlottesville, he not only dragged his feet in condemning them. he defended their stance on US history, saying that southerners were not the only ones to perpetuate the system of slavery and that all the founding fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, had slaves.

The sharpening of divides we are seeing today in the US has not occurred to this magnitude since the 1960s when the US was divided over the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. That was the backdrop against which Kennedy was assassinated, president Johnson failed to get elected to a second term, president Nixon was forced to resign and presidents Ford and Carter were unable to serve more than one term. It was Ronald Reagan who restored stability. In spite of his extreme conservatism in foreign policy matters and in his economic project, he was a socio-political liberal. Bush Senior, Clinton and Bush Junior followed suit. Liberalism had won the day in the US and apparently in the whole world. But history never stands still and things past always have a way of resurfacing. In fact, that very victory of liberalism may have worked to pave the way to Trump’s electoral victory. The “white ultra-nationalists” whose political expressions had long remained on the fringes of the US political map found in him someone to rally around and then, suddenly, in the space of a single presidential term, they found themselves at the centre of that map.

The question now is whether this is an ephemeral moment in US history or whether this moment has extensions into the future. The liberals have no doubt that the Trump phenomenon is a mere counterpoint to the flow of “globalisation” and the profound transformations that are taking place worldwide towards political and economic freedom and equality between all peoples. The conservatives believe that the back of liberalism has been broken, not just in the US but in Britain as manifested in its departure from the EU, in the echoes of Brexit in other countries, in the anti-immigration and anti-migrant movements in Poland and Hungary.

The world has never been one; nor will it ever be. Charlottesville, as a moment of clash, is more than its component parts. It reflects the components of a divided world in which there appear no politicians able to mend rifts.


The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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