Last year, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia brought together white supremacist groups from all over the country to demonstrate their volume, in both senses of the word. They cut ridiculous figures at first, dressed in khakis and polo shirts, wielding citronella candles, and shouting awkwardly. Their presence was met by a robust opposition, comprising local chapters of Black Lives Matter, Democratic Socialists of America, Industrial Workers of the World, and other groups. But the rally took a violent turn. A young white nationalist named James Alex Fields, Jr., drove his silver Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counter-protesters, leaving many injured and at least one dead.
Soon after, President Trump made a statement from his private golf course in New Jersey. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides,” he said, before adding, again, “on many sides.”
The term “many sides” drew rightful scrutiny from many observers. In a confrontation between racists and anti-racists, in which a racist’s actions resulted in the death and injuries of anti-racists, it’s a strange geometry that identifies multiple equivalent sides. President Trump’s reticence betrays a reactionary bias, which comes as no surprise. But his rhetoric was not unique to him — the mainstream media and liberal intelligentsia had set the precedent.
The morning before the rally, Mieke Eoyang, vice president of the National Security Program at centrist think tank Third Way, tweeted, “If the Bernie Bros wanted to make a show of force on behalf of progressive values, Saturday in Charlottesville would be a good time.”
Neera Tanden, president of liberal think tank Center for American Progress, turned disdainfully to her left later that day. “We have actual fascists marching with torches. Maybe everyone on the progressive side could focus on the enemies of progress in front of us,” she tweeted. “We’re ready for you to join us Neera,” one young activist responded. Tanden’s response was to ask him to condemn “those on the alt left who want to join with the fascists.”
By evening, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, a journalist for the New York Times who was reporting from Charlottesville, had tweeted, “The hard left seemed as hate-filled as alt-right.”
This middle-of-the-road tongue-clucking appeared earlier that year, in a Vanity Fair article by James Wolcott, pointing a finger at the so-called “alt-left.” Wolcott, too, directed his condemnation at many sides. He characterized the growing radical and socialist left, formerly scorned with the more lighthearted epithet “Bernie Bro,” as something more sinister. There is a “kinship,” he claimed, between the far left and the white supremacist alt-right. They are united by “disillusionment with Obama’s presidency, loathing of Hillary Clinton, disgust with ‘identity politics,’ and a craving for a climactic reckoning that will clear the stage for a bold tomorrow.”
The torch has been carried by centrist liberals ever since. Just a week before the Unite the Right rally, the Atlantic published an article by Peter Beinart decrying the “Rise of the Violent Left.” Beinart focused on “antifa,” which refers to tactical groupings of leftist activists dedicated to defending themselves and their comrades from fascist violence. “The people preventing Republicans from safely assembling on the streets of Portland may consider themselves fierce opponents of the authoritarianism growing on the American right,” wrote Beinart. “In truth, however, they are its unlikeliest allies.”
The day before the rally, the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from an upcoming book by Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal, which suggested that leftist anti-racism creates a “centrifugal” force, causing a movement to spiral out and splinter into factions. Even if we grant him his convoluted metaphor, based on a concept considered nonexistent by modern physics, it leads him to dangerous conclusions.
“Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity,” Lilla writes. “I am not a black male motorist and will never know what it is like to be one. If I am going to be affected by his experience, I need some way to identify with him, and citizenship is the only thing I know that we share.”
This isn’t just a failure of imagination, though it is certainly that. It’s a moral failure and a strategic failure as well. It offers no meaningful distinction from the politics of Donald Trump, who, after the violence in Charlottesville, tweeted: “We must remember this truth: No matter our color, creed, religion or political party, we are ALL AMERICANS FIRST.”
The first reported death from Charlottesville was of Heather Heyer, a thirty-two-year-old paralegal, who appears from her Facebook page to have been a Bernie Sanders supporter. “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” says her last public post. The cheapness of deriding “Bernie Bros” or comparing the left to the alt-right becomes all the more offensive in light of her courage, and the tragedy that followed. Looking at circumstances like these and seeing “many sides,” indistinguishable from each other, is a stance that history has never revealed to be anything but moral cowardice.
This stance is the subject of Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American, which follows Thomas Fowler, a journalist in 1950s colonial Vietnam who is dedicated to remaining objective in any situation. He befriends an undercover CIA agent named Alden Pyle, who advocates for a kind of centrist politics he calls a “Third Force” — one that opposes both communism and colonialism, viewing them as equal threats. When Fowler finds out that Pyle was involved in an act of terrorism in Saigon, detonating a car bomb and killing innocent civilians, he goes to speak to a member of the Communist Party who he knows as Mr. Heng.
“Sooner or later… one has to take sides — if one is to remain human,” Heng tells him.
The liberal center has to heed the same warning. In order to reject Trump’s equivocations about “many sides,” we have to take one. There is a side that asserts our common humanity and fights fascism, racism, and hate. It was represented in Charlottesville by the leftist groups who took to the streets to confront the far right. The other side is the one that took innocent lives on those same streets. The stakes are high. We have to choose.