It’s been a bizarre week. On Wednesday, I sat in a hushed room listening to an 82-year-old Holocaust survivor talk about her experience for 90 minutes straight: her move into the Lvov ghetto when she was five; hiding in a basement for two weeks; her father securing fake Aryan papers for her and her mother; the flight to the countryside, then to Sweden once the Soviets invaded; her eventual passage to the United States and all the harrowing details in between.
Then, on Saturday, curled on the sofa with the nose in a book, and an eye to the news, I saw footage of white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, march through the streets, chanting “we will not be replaced by Blacks and Jews”. A young woman died and dozens were injured. And our President couldn’t bring himself to speak out strong words of condemnation that explicitly mentioned white supremacists and neo-Nazis. It took him three days and a whole lot of criticism from all fronts. The perception is that he wouldn’t angered his base.
On the white supremacist website The Daily Stormer, Mr. Trump is described as such: “He didn’t attack us. Refused to answer a question about White Nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.”
For the longest time we lived in this fantasy land that the old wounds of the Civil War were a thing for the history books. Instead, it had become so socially unacceptable to express hate and racism out loud that those who wouldn’t renounce their beliefs felt compelled to mask their faces when protesting in public.
The veil has now come off. The removal of a statue of a confederate general has brought to the fore the nostalgia for a genteel Southern way of life that included slavery. And this administration has made it perfectly acceptable to crow about the good old days when inequality was the law of the land.
I really really want to think it’s a passing aberration borne out of difficult economic circumstances. I grew up in the shadows of Fascism, in a country that had to reconcile the War years with the economic boom of the 60s. For the longest time, peace and democracy won. Now those who want to close off the borders and go back to the good old days are on the rise in Europe too. But I believe the European scars are still a bit too raw to leave too much of an opening to hate.
On this continent, we have been blindsided. What we thought was dead and buried and at least half conquered was just disguised. I believe in the strength of American democracy to withstand this assault but there is little room for complacency, even in my privileged corner of the country where we seem to live, more or less, all mingled in peace.
I have been thinking a lot, lately, about what it means to stand up for one’s beliefs. What extremes would I go to, what could I withstand in their name? What if I were about to find out?
All images from the Charlottesville protests