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…