This is a very dangerous moment. For so long, those on the left have been criticized by the right for talking and speaking in the language of identity. And yet identity talk has typically been deployed by the left to highlight those that have been excluded, marginalized, and dominated. It has been used to signal our failure to honor the equal standing of persons, and the nation’s refusal to fairly extend care and concern. But on the right, identity talk is of a very different quality.
I have spent the last few days, as have many, thinking about the events of Charlottesville. The horror of it all — the true catastrophe — is that it is yet another indication of an already fragile American ethical community coming undone. From that awful day to this one, I spent time digging around the websites of the alt-right. The explicit word you see again and again is identity. The implicit word you sense again and again is terror. I don’t mean the terror they intend to bring to the lives of those they hate — I mean their own terror. They are terrified of what it means to be just one among many, rather than the first among many. They shudder with fear, and we are experiencing its expression.
It is not identity as such that is the problem; it is the way whiteness as identity is configured in this country. It is fundamentally and inescapably tied to visions of superiority. We know this; many of us have studied it, experienced it, and watched it play itself out on the political and ethical landscape. Its allure and power runs deep. Those that inhabit it know their way around it, and they feel at home in its embrace. There is at once comfort (a built-in sense of pleasure), security (an existential feeling that I am exempt from many of the dangers other groups must face), and power (an ability, whether perceived or realized through the actions of other whites, to have others live at one’s whim without penalty). Once it is on, it is less like a way of seeing and becomes more like a way of being in the world.
No wonder, then, terror organizes these sites, for the threat to whiteness must feel like (to appropriate Walter Lippmann’s language) “an attack upon the foundations of the universe.” And when one’s way of being in the world is at stake, it is nearly impossible to acknowledge a difference between my universe and the universe. “There is anarchy if our order of precedence is not the only possible one” — Lippmann speaks to us again. And so the white nationalists would willingly sacrifice themselves (notice, no hoods this time), for in the absence of being first and superior, there is little point in going on. This is the fundamentalism with which we must contend. The president called for them to serve, and they have answered.
Our choice — and it has always been our choice — is to decide how we will narrate this moment. How will we weave it into the narrative that is America’s political and ethical life. Will we continue to see this as an aberration, the expression of a time that has long since passed away? Or will we see this as that portion of our past living in the present and struggling to secure its future, and confront what this means for our ethical and political choices today?
Melvin L. Rogers is currently Associate Professor of Political Science Brown University.