When Belfast City Council voted to break with tradition in 2012 by reducing the flying of the Union Flag atop City Hall from 365 to 18 days a year, the more vociferous wing of the Unionist community greeted the announcement with violent protests. A couple of days ago, marking the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, bonfires were lit across Unionist strongholds of the province, many of which were decorated with photos of prominent Sinn Fein politicians. I only nod to our neighbours over the Irish Sea to make a roundabout point on how the issues that enflame passions on both sides of the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland barely register on the mainland; they’re viewed by the rest of the UK (with the possible exception of Glasgow) as parochial concerns unique to Ulster and characteristic of a land with an extremely long memory.
Even with the high profile suddenly afforded the DUP in the wake of Theresa May’s golden handshake, the ‘street politics’ of Northern Ireland rarely attract outsiders to the barricades, something that can’t be said of another divided community from a region with a similarly turbulent history several thousand miles away – Virginia. The dramatic and ugly events that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia at the weekend didn’t have their source material in religious divisions, but race – the most contentious of all American issues that just won’t go away. Not even eight years of a black President could sort it.
Virginia was one of the four slave states from the ‘Upper South’ of the US that, along with Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina, joined the original seven Southern secessionist states in the Confederacy during the Civil War. Its history, now so bound-up with the Confederacy and its aftermath, predates that era considerably, with Virginia being the first English colony in the New World, established as far back as 1607. But it was also prominent among the 13 colonies that broke with British rule and has a claim as being the birthplace of the USA; it certainly was the birthplace of eight US Presidents, for one thing.
Like the rest of the states in the South, Virginia had a segregationist policy in place until the civil rights movement of the 1960s gradually led to a repeal of the remaining Jim Crow laws; but its past, like many of its neighbours’ pasts, continues to attract the attention of those for whom integration remains a greater threat to making America great again than the hardware in Kim Jong Un’s toy-box.
Recent attempts to reduce the high visibility of the Confederate Flag in the Southern states have gone hand-in-hand with a concerted programme to remove statues of, and monuments to, Confederate heroes from public places; and these efforts at erasing a history that sits uncomfortably on the shoulders of modern America have served to ignite the ire of white Southern natives proud of their inheritance, as well as white supremacists from different parts of the country who exploit the situation to promote their cause. When Washington belatedly addressed the iniquities and inequality of the South in the 60s by outlawing its segregationist traditions, the white population claimed the rest of the US didn’t understand the South and there’s probably a grain of truth in that. The South was seen as something of an embarrassment that contradicted America’s international reputation as the Land of the Free; the South was a place where the past remained present.
The ongoing contemporary operation to change the perception of the South, not only for outsiders but also for those who live there, has been characterised by the official removal of ‘negative’ symbols relating to its past; though whereas the pulling down of statues during an uprising or revolution tends to come from the emancipated population itself, the policy of removing them that has been taking place across the South of late is a decision of federal government. Many have viewed this decision as symptomatic of rewriting American history, a rewrite that fails to acknowledge aspects of it that don’t complement the image America likes to project of itself. There are also concerns that by erasing the visible legacy of the Confederacy, future generations are being presented with a lopsided story of their country, one without warts and all, and one depriving them of a history they could learn from.
Plans to remove a statue of Robert E Lee, Confederate Civil War general, in Charlottesville led to the town being invaded on Saturday by a ‘Unite the Right’ march, bringing in angry white men from all over America for a rally that was destined to be met with a counter-rally. Whatever valid points had a right to be made didn’t stand a chance of being heard; both sides were infiltrated by those whose intentions were obvious from the start, many of whom had little or nothing to do with the part of the country they headed for.
The relatively liberal college town of Charlottesville was hijacked by opposing sides looking for a battlefield. The far-from spotless ‘Black Lives Matter’ crowd were accompanied by the masked men from ‘antifa’ – an abbreviation of ‘anti-fascist’ – who have a reputation as violent left-wing anarchists; they were the group responsible for the trouble that occurred in Washington on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration. Those under the Alt-Right banner included neo-Nazis as well as that old mainstay always up for a fight, the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK are almost to the South what the Orangemen are to Ulster, though for all their shared pseudo-Masonic ritualism and shameful record of gerrymandering, the Orangemen are a long way from the Klan when it comes to provoking and stoking hatred in the most sinister manner.
What was already a predictable and unedifying clash on Saturday plumbed especially appalling depths when one lunatic ironically took a leaf out of the Jihadi manual and drove a car directly at protestors; his efforts were responsible for 19 injuries and one death. The white supremacists, who view President Trump as ‘their man’, were gratified that the Donald seemed reluctant to attribute blame for events to them, though the majority of the Alt Right (to whom Trump owes a great debt) probably regard the extremists who descended upon Charlottesville with the same abhorrence as the left views the ‘antifa’. It would certainly suit the narrative of the moment to lump together anyone who questions or challenges the anti-Trump consensus into one hate-fuelled, racist mob; but unfortunately, it’s not quite so…erm…black and white.
© The Editor