The president's "both sides" rhetoric in response to Charlottesville is the dangerous language of relativization. History tells us where it can leadby Catherine Baker / August 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
The very day that ‘white identitarians’ called a rally in Charlottesville to protest against the recent removal of a monument to the Confederate leader Robert E. Lee, anti-fascist campaigners started warning it would bring white supremacist violence to the city.
That violence manifested last weekend when a man linked to the openly fascist group Vanguard America allegedly killed one activist, Heather Heyer, and injured at least 19 others with his car. Armed white nationalists also reportedly intimidated the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue and beat black and left-wing counter-protestors with the same torches that had created the spectacle of a neo-Nazi torchlight parade.
Donald Trump’s remarks at a press briefing inside Trump Tower on Tuesday evening, however, shocked many journalists and politicians when he stated that “there’s blame on both sides”—narrating the violence in similar terms to those used by a New York Times reporter, who had tweeted about seeing “club-wielding ‘antifa’ beating white nationalists.” The left, Trump said, held equal responsibility for the violence with the alt-right.
In stating there had been violence on “both sides” without any further context, Trump amplified the narrative of Charlottesville that white supremacists themselves had been telling the media—and employed the dangerous language of relativization. This sort of language is a familiar one to historians of the twentieth century: it is with the language of relativization that leaders responsible for ethnic conflict have disclaimed responsibility for planning and organizing the persecution of groups they have identified as enemies.
Both the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, and Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, gave rise to persistent claims that there had been violence on all sides or “all sides had committed crimes.” Usually by design, these covered up how much stronger one side was than another, or which side had been most heavily implicated in the outbreak of war.
First in Croatia in 1990–1, then in Bosnia in 1991–2, large-scale conflict between armed forces only came after long months where militias formed by the Serb Democratic Party (SDS) had been arming themselves and preparing to take over towns which they planned to cleanse of non-Serbs (and Serbs who still supported the ex-Communist Social Democratic Party or other political alternatives). Throughout, they had the support of Slobodan Milošević, whose speeches at mass rallies amplified the myth that Serbs were being persecuted. Milošević indicated that the Yugoslav armed forces would stand by the SDS militias in any ensuing violence.
In response to this, Croat and then Bosniak nationalist parties formed militias, and the process escalated. Yet the SDS’s plans for taking political control of territory and making it ethnically homogenous were, as the weight of documentation gathered by international prosecutors records, far more extensive and advanced.
The historical record also shows that some members of forces from opposing sides did commit atrocities against Serb civilians, such as the massacre of 100–120 Serb residents of Gospić by Croatian police and paramilitaries in October 1991, or the burning and looting of the village of Kravica by troops from the Army of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina (ARBiH) in January 1993.
Yet this equally irrefutable evidence does not wipe away the evidence of Milošević’s and the SDS’s plans in 1990–2—just as evidence that Croat and even ARBiH troops destroyed some Orthodox religious buildings in Bosnia does not wipe away evidence that the SDS destroyed by far the most “enemy” cultural heritage (including monuments which stood as historical proof of inter-ethnic coexistence), and that they did so with a systematic plan.
And relativization doesn’t just impact how people within a country understand acts of violence—it also provides an excuse for non-intervention. Western politicians who did not wish to intervene in Bosnia—including many British politicians—had their own mode of relativization that blamed the wars on unpreventable “ethnic hatreds.” It was this rhetoric which was used to justify a United Nations arms embargo that left the Sarajevo government unable to smuggle in weapons, while forces seeking to create ethnically pure Serb and Croat entities, by killing or forcing out minorities, retained Serbian and Croation state support.
More recently, English-language Russian media and Vladimir Putin himself commonly emphasize how difficult it supposedly is to prove the facts behind violence in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine—deflecting attention from Russia’s involvement in fomenting the conflicts, just like Milošević did when speaking about Bosnia.
In today’s Serbia, the common demand for acknowledgement that “all sides committed crimes” simply asks for recognition that Serb civilians were also victims of atrocities—a recognition which ought to be afforded.
Yet when Serbian intellectuals, politicians and the far right use “all sides” to shout down public discussion of crimes committed by Serbs, it facilitates apologism and genocide denial.
Just as relativization distorts understandings of the Yugoslav wars, which marked a decade and killed approximately 140,000 people, America’s past, and its influence on today’s events, also risks being elided.
The history that needs acknowledging as context for anti-fascist violence in Charlottesville is no less than the enslavement of more than 12.5 million Africans across four centuries; the systematic oppression of their African-American descendants; the settler colonialism that stripped Native Americans of sovereignty over the lands where this occurred—and how white supremacy has operated through US government structures, as well as through movements like the Ku Klux Klan.
In the immediate term, to argue “both sides were violent” at Charlottesville covers up the most important part of the story: that white nationalists arrived in Charlottesville bearing this history, and anti-fascists organized themselves to defend more vulnerable counter-protestors they credibly expected could be attacked, and would not be protected by police.
With this in mind, it is not incidental that the philosopher Cornel West and the pastor Osagyefo Sekou have both credited anti-fascists with ‘saving their lives’ after the rally, while the president of Congregation Beth Israel wrote that Charlottesville police failed to send a single officer to protect their synagogue.
— dare to struggle (@mzfayya) August 14, 2017
Trump’s relativization of Charlottesville not only seeks to persuade whites who do not want unrest that black and left-wing activists are responsible for it—potentially legitimizing future government action against groups like Black Lives Matter—but also lets white supremacists believe he supports and sanctions their violence.
Richard Spencer, who supports the creation of a white ‘ethnostate’, and David Duke, a former leader of the KKK, both praised Trump’s remarks, in a context where white nationalists have viewed Trump as their champion since his election campaign began.
Placing “blame on both sides” after Charlottesville with no further context makes the same move as to claim “all sides committed crimes” after a large-scale ethnic conflict: it removes evidence of which side responded to which side, what their expressed intentions were, and how much structural power each had to harm or eliminate the other.
Writers from former Yugoslavia who came to North America during the 1990s have already heard echoes of Milošević in Trump: Aleksandar Hemon named Trump ‘a war criminal in the making’ in February 2016, and Jasmin Mujanović wrote a week after the election of how Trump’s exploitation of a majority’s grievances matched “the Milošević playbook.”
Their warnings joined those of innumerable African-Americans, Jewish- and Muslim-Americans, LGBTQ people, and others, at a moment when US and European white supremacists were openly organizing together—showing that US racial politics and eastern European ethnopolitics do not belong to two separate worlds.
In 1993, five years after Milošević’s first mass rallies, the Serbian opposition journalist Miloš Vasić wrote in the New Yorker warning Americans who might have thought of Bosnia as some strange wellspring of Balkan violence that in a USA “with every little TV station everywhere taking exactly the same editorial line—a line dictated by David Duke[,] you too would have war in five years.”
The digital news infrastructure behind today’s white nationalism places its audience in a world where Vasić’s prediction has come true—while some of its personalities hold positions of influence in Trump’s White House.
Seeing through how apologists for ethnic and racial violence relativize the past is only the beginning of resisting white supremacy—but is as important in making sense of Charlottesville as it was in making sense of the Yugoslav wars.