How Charlottesville has exposed competing narratives in America’s cultural memory

Christopher Penler via Shutterstock

How Charlottesville has exposed competing narratives in America’s cultural memory

The recent deadly events in Charlottesville expose – if further evidence were needed – the increasingly sectarian nature of American politics. Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old anti-fascist demonstrator killed during the protest, is the latest casualty of America’s long history of racial violence.

For those campaigning against the removal of Confederate general Robert E Lee’s statue from the town, the memory of the American Civil War is a heroic narrative of white military and political power. For those marching in opposition to this viewpoint, the continued presence of Confederate monuments signifies the historical marginalisation of African Americans and the daily vulnerability of black lives.

From slavery to Black Lives Matter, the story of race in America is a divisive narrative, rooted in contested cultures of memory. The recent revival of white supremacism, and the opposition it has engendered, is the latest chapter in this turbulent history. But the emergence of neo-Nazi organisations such as Vanguard America – and the repurposing of fascist symbols and slogans – also threatens to unsettle a different culture of memory that, until now, has gone largely uncontested: the story of World War II and the United States’ historic opposition to fascism.

Erected in 2004 on the Mall in Washington DC, the National World War II Memorial reflects the accepted narrative of the war against fascism. The monument commemorates the victory of freedom over tyranny, espousing national unity and democracy. For the past 70 years, in popular and political culture alike, this good-versus-evil dichotomy has routinely represented “Americanness” as the ultimate opposition – indeed, the only antidote – to fascism in any guise.

Since 1945, successive administrations on both sides of the political divide have drawn on this equation (sometimes dubiously) to justify American foreign policy. It was used to claim an unequivocal mandate to intervene in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan (among others) on the grounds of historical precedent.

Through the looking-glass

But contemporary white supremacist movements have reversed the moral framework in which memories of World War II have been been understood. In a recent post for the Daily Stormer (a notorious neo-Nazi website that continues to proliferate on the dark web), editor Andrew Anglin describes the current unrest as a “war” in which far right defenders of liberty rail against “Jew media lies” and what the alt-right refers to as “antifa terrorists”.

Reversing the orthodox designations of victims and perpetrators, Anglin positions the alt-right as martyrs battling an imagined Zionist elite. Such claims are not new – neo-fascist movements often couch their ideology in anti-Semitic terms and draw upon Nazi symbols and rhetoric. However, these groups typically operate as marginal organisations, with little political capital and no mainstream support.

What is unusual about Charlottesville, by contrast, is Trump’s refusal to resoundingly condemn the far right protesters.

This equivocal response has led neo-Nazi publications to claim a huge victory. A Daily Stormer editorial asserts that “the Trump condemnation is one of the first times when there is mainstream debate about who might be the ‘good guys’, between the Communists and the Nazis”. Leaving aside the bizarre characterisation of antifascists as communists, it is significant how the editorial mobilises Trump’s equivocation as a means of reversing the binaries of good and evil.

While it would be unwise to assume that Trump would be sympathetic to such an approach, it does not seem too much of a stretch to suggest that such claims may have been helped by the administration’s prior ambivalence towards the accepted memory of World War II.

From Trump’s marginalisation of Jewish victimhood in his remarks on Holocaust Memorial Day to Sean Spicer’s baffling assertion that Hitler’s regime did not use chemical weapons, the administration’s representation of World War II has repeatedly transgressed the norms of American political memory.

Fellow traveller

There are some notes of caution to raise here. First, the so-called “Americanisation of the Holocaust”, which has seen the genocide acquire sacrosanct status in American political culture, is not itself without issue. The elevation of Jewish victimhood above other historical losses has arguably served to mask instances of suffering more troubling to the American narrative – foremost among them, slavery and its legacies.

Second, Trump’s appointment of alt-right staffers (most notably, chief strategist Steve Bannon), his borderline racist remarks and his prejudicial policies, have raised enormous concern. But against the tendencies of social media, it would be rash simplistically to label the president himself a white supremacist.

Finally, the term “neo-Nazi” needs to be applied with some caution, for while it is accepted as a badge of honour by those who ascribe to it, for members of the alt-right less eager to identify directly with fascist politics, it can also provide an easy means of avoiding self-scrutiny.

Of course, America is not the only nation to be confronted with the rise of neo-Nazism, but it is clear that the Trump administration has created an environment in which racist organisations can thrive with apparent impunity.

There is a certain irony to the fact that, as state and city officials across the American South seek to address the divisive legacies of their region’s past, the inhabitants of the White House continue to prop-up a revisionist politics of memory that sympathises with the perpetrators, rather than the victims, of violence – and celebrates, rather than mourns, aggressors.