Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Was DJT Right about “Both Sides”?

The President has been much criticized for his comments about “both sides” in his remarks about this month’s tragedy in Charlottesville. But let’s think a bit about his assertion that there were “some very fine people on both sides.” Was he perhaps right about that?
A Timely Quote
When I was still in college I remember hearing, and quoting, the following statement by American historian J.T. Adams (1878-1949), although it has also been attributed to various people, including Robert Louis Stevenson:  
I thought that statement was true in the 1950s—and I still do.
Adams’s pithy words are important for us especially in our relationships with the people closest to us—at home, school, church, and community.
But are they also applicable to all people, perhaps without exception.
A Time to Reflect
We are all beset by the tendency to condemn those we disagree with—and we often do that from a position of moral superiority or self-righteousness. Further, the stronger a fundamentalist (on the right or the left) one is, the stronger their certainty becomes.
Consider just one example from the far right. “The Wilkow Majority” is a regular program on the Patriot channel of Sirius XM satellite radio. It has been hosted by Andrew Wilkow since 2006.
At the end of each segment of his provocative program, Wilkow (b. 1972) proclaims, “We’re right! They’re wrong! End of story!”
What arrogance!
But, to be fair, there are some on the political/theological left who are similarly arrogant, even though they might not express that arrogance so blatantly.
Regardless of our theological or political position on issues, each of us needs to take time to reflect upon our own culpability. It is important to acknowledge the bad we find within ourselves as well as upon the good we see in others—even in those with whom we strongly disagree.
A Time to Resist
So DJT was probably right when he said that there were “some very fine people on both sides.” That was probably true in Charlottesville earlier this month as well as in the Civil War—and also in the Second World War.
General Robert E. Lee was a good and honorable man in many ways—but so were many of the men who fought for Germany or for Japan in WWII. Lee was not a demon, and neither were most of the Germans and Japanese who fought against the Allies.
There is good in the worst of us and bad in the best of us. But that certainly doesn’t mean that good people don’t sometimes do bad things, terribly bad things.
That was certainly the case with Lee, who was the leading general of the Confederate States Army that killed over 400,000 Union soldiers.
Those killed on both sides may have been Americans, but some were citizens of the United States of America and others had become citizens of the Confederate States of America—an alt-nation with its own constitution and president.
The CSA fought against and sought to defeat the USA as much as the Germans and Japanese did in the 1940s.
The basic problem is what people do, not whether or not they are “good people.” Whenever people, good or not, do bad things, they need to be opposed. Thus, there was ample reason for people, good and bad, to fight against Lee and his soldiers during the Civil War.
Accordingly, even if there were some “very fine people” among the alt-right white supremacists and KKK members who marched in Charlottesville, there was/is ample reason to resist them resolutely and to denounce them soundly for fanning the flames of racism.


  1. Lord, have mercy on those besieged by the weather.

    Racism is very real. But the word has become nothing more than a swear word to accuse one of another's "tribe". I have heard it here and in my home land in various forms. Violent threats are also real. I have faced it personally by folk of various "tribes", both here and in my homeland. But it seems the world is losing its capacity for civil dialogue, and the Church is losing its capacity to "Love One Another", and for reconciliation. None are righteous. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

    And yet it has been my observation that people are generally good, and trying to get by, and could use a friendly smile, and another friend. "And let it begin with me."

    And continuing my prayer of the past 14 years, "God save the President."

    1. As every good debater knows, words often have to be defined in order to be used effectively. In this article and the previous one, I have used "racism" with perhaps the mistaken idea that readers would know what I meant by it.

      I have used "racism" with its dictionary definition on mind: "prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior." In this sense, certainly, "racism" is not a "swear word" but a descriptive word for attitudes/actions which I find highly problematic.

      The white supremacists are clearly racist in this sense when they flaunt KKK symbols that were used to intimidate/terrify African Americans and when they chant "Jews will not replace us."

      This is the kind of racism I was writing about and continue to oppose.

  2. About an hour ago I received the following comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your observations about the white supremacist movement.

    "I am sure that there are white supremacists who would give the shirts off their backs if you needed them--and you are white. But I think many racists suffer from a lack of exposure to people of other ethnicities. How many white racists have visited the homes and experienced the generous hospitality of African-Americans, Indians, Jews, Koreans, Mexicans, etc.? How many have attended a church service in an African-American church where the members feel honored by your visit? How many have eaten wonderful Indian food at a potluck supper in the basement of a Hindu temple?

    "The problem is that many racists refuse to have these experiences, so they never recover from their racism--or from their narrow tastes in food.

    "I feel very fortunate to have friends who are African-American, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, or members of other ethnic or religious groups. I can see absolutely no rationale or justification for racism. We are all human and we all need each other."

    1. Eric, I wish everyone had the breadth of experience and the depth of understanding that you have.

    2. Hear, hear Eric!

  3. Thinking Friend Mike Greer in Kentucky sent this important email early this morning and has given me permission to post it here:

    "Question? Does Adams' advice apply when evaluating the lives of Hitler, Idi Amin, Timothy McVeigh, or Bin Laden. How far must we go in the fear of being accused of being hypocritical, liberal, or arrogant when identifying the evil acts of others? Must we wait until someone is dead to make judgments?

    "I'm afraid I will never be able to claim that 45 is my president as long as he acts and speaks in such an evil manner."

    1. Thanks, Mike, for raising significant questions about Adams's quote--and my use of it in this article.

      As I wrote in the article, his words "are important for us especially in our relationships with the people closest to us," and my guess is Adams was thinking mostly about what we think and say about people we know rather than about world leaders--or despots--or terrorists such as McVeigh.

      Also, please note that I said that there is a time to reflect and a time to resist--and, no, I don't think that we must wait until someone is dead to make judgments--or to engage in resistance. But even in opposing obvious evil in others, we need to reflect upon the evil that may exist in our own hearts.

      I thought about, but did not have room to include, the words of Thomas Merton that I have thought about so often (and cited in previous blog articles): "If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed—but hate these things in yourself, not in another."

  4. Just a few minutes ago I received the following comments from local Thinking Friend, and pastor, Kevin Payne:

    "Thanks for acknowledging that there might have been good people on both sides of the Charlottesville, Vir., mess. KKK and other groups are racist and evil, to be sure; but there were no doubt some there in that group that weren’t KKK or racist, they just had strong convictions re: the movement of historical monuments. They might have displayed poor judgment in marching with KKK-types, to be sure, but they surely weren’t 'evil.'

    "Unfortunately for Trump, he has said so many ignorant things that he has lost all credibility, so is maligned even when he says what might be true!"

  5. Thinking Friend Frank Shope in New Mexico gave me permission to post his email comments here:

    "It is the role of the Church and the Christian to resist the personal and cultural desire to demonize people. If we see or believe that the other person is only a bigot and has no value then we can marginalize them and destroy them without regard.

    "I have often reflected on those called to military action. Burdened with a responsibility to the state and a choice for people and God. The horror of war and the destruction of the other person is learned through evil language and 'bad words' (as a country friend says). To dismiss people by a nasty name or labeling a group of people betrays the reality that we are all creatures created in the image of God. God always works for the constructive redemption of his creation ... all women, men and children."

  6. Thinking Friend Tom Nowlin in Arkansas shares these comments:

    "As always, thank you, Leroy, for the thought-full 'provocations.' It seems we are always trying to simplify things, too often using transference and stereotype (and even prejudice) as shorthand for quickly navigating life, and too often unfairly simplifying life and creating unjust myths. The human mind just tends to do this as a matter of expediency, or so it seems. As life continues to speed up I suspect this will get worse, if that is possible.

    "Would that we would all just learn to see people for the individuals they are. We want life to be simple, like the B&W old cowboy movie reels where there were black hats (Bad cowboy actors) and white hats (good cowboy actors). In real life we all wear gray hats, neither absolutely good or absolutely bad. As you have aptly pointed out, as all are gray hatters, arguably some darker and others lighter gray, it is in the 'doing' that we must discern 'rightness' and morality. There are various ethical lenses (utilitarian, teleological, deontological, etc.) for viewing, assessing and making such determinations.

    "By every measurement of which I am aware, transference, stereotype and prejudice are always wrong. Yet, in some measure, we all do them, sometimes in spite of ourselves. The 'shorthand' is just too easy not to do in our fast paced living. We must work 'not to do them.'”

  7. Local Thinking Friend Vern Barnet has also shared substantial comments:

    What at excellent caution from James Truslow Adams: "There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it ill behooves any of us to find fault with the rest of us."

    The other dynamic that might be appropriate to this discussion is from Reinhold Niebuhr:

    "Individuals have a moral code which makes the actions of collective man an outrage to their conscience. They therefore invent romantic and moral interpretations of the real facts, preferring to obscure rather than reveal the true character of their collective behavior. Sometimes they are as anxious to offer moral justifications for the brutalities from which they suffer as for those which they commit. The fact that the hypocrisy of man's group behavior... expresses itself not only in terms of self-justification but in terms of moral justification of human behavior in general, symbolizes one of the tragedies of the human spirit: its inability to conform its collective life to its individual ideals. As individuals, men believe they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic and national groups they take for themselves, whatever their power can command."

    1. Thanks, Vern, for sharing these words from the first chapter of Niebuhr's "Moral Man and Immoral Society."

      I am sure that many of the people who were marching in Charlottesville are far more moral as individuals in their own communities than they were when they became a part of the "society" of white supremacists.

  8. This conversation probably needs to continue. I will email some additional thoughts.