Our town vigil in response to Charlottesville was beautifully organized by the Wilton Clergy Association and held on the grounds of Our Lady of Fatima.
State Senator Toni Boucher, state Rep. Gail Lavielle, First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice, and Wilton Police Chief John Lynch spoke eloquently as did Wilton’s clergy. Before the vigil, Lynne said, “There is no place for Nazis in society. Millions, including Americans, lost their lives to rid the world of nazism. I am disgusted by the President’s response to Charlottesville. History has taught us that good people need to stand up and speak out. I thank the Wilton clergy for providing the opportunity.”
The fact is that time and again, we Americans have learned that inclusion and equality work to the national good. In multiple specific cases, however, that realization has come only after years of acrimonious debate, violence, and vilification of “the other” — with the other comprising, successively, a daunting array of national origins, ethnicities, religions, and other differences that for a time became more defining than our common humanity and yet today have been so fully absorbed that they are not even questioned. That is an encouraging arc of American history pointing consistently, if often too slowly, to the good.
Boston University Professor Stephen Prothero recently quoted author Horace Kallen writing a century ago, “Democracy involves not the elimination of differences but the perfection and conservation of differences. It aims, through Union, not at uniformity, but at variety … at a many in one.” Prothero summarizes Kallen’s thoughts about the U.S. as a “symphony of civilization” in which “each race, each ethnic group, has its own instrument to play — something to contribute to the orchestration of America.” Yet in Prothero’s own view, “much of American public life has been dominated by arguing on behalf of … the interests of self or social class or political party — with little or no regard for the common good.”
In the area of race especially, America seems to keep revisiting the subject generation after generation. Granted that revisiting is thankfully often different today, so that a lynching would not now be “business as usual” anywhere in our country as it would have been in too many places less than a century ago. Yet we still see enormous racial divides in income, employment, housing, education, and even something as fundamental as one’s sense of safety in ordinary day-to-day living. When some proclaim they want a white-only society using fascist slogans and pronouncements to embody how they think America should be reconstituted, they are trying to turn back a reality that has already very thankfully moved far in the opposite direction even as it still has a long way to go. But their hate-filled language rekindles fears and animosities sadly still close to the surface of race relations even now, almost four centuries after slavery was introduced to the New World.
“White-only” assaults on America’s movement away from racism, especially when laced with Nazi tropes, conjure up great and understandable fear and loathing among all of the rest of us and especially among those and their families who suffered so much at the hands of Hitler and his hordes. Can neo-Nazis be so historically ignorant in choosing such depraved role models? Or do they simply want to be provocative, giving no thought to the impact of their conduct?
Not so long ago, those upon whom the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis focused their hatred included Roman Catholics and Mormons as well as African-Americans and Jews. Their “pure Aryan/white blood” myths ignore what just about any of our DNA analyses would show: we are all, even KKKers and neo-Nazis, amalgams of diverse ethnic and even racial heritages. “Pure anything” is the unlikeliest of DNA specimens, and that is a great strength of America: we draw on many different backgrounds to enjoy a diversity that strengthens and enriches us all.
The First Amendment wisely protects freedom of speech no matter how vile because distinguishing between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” speech can become a very slippery slope indeed. However, with that protection goes a corresponding responsibility upon the rest of us to speak out against that which is hateful and demeaning, as Father Reggie Norman expressed so well at the vigil. Those in government leadership positions should be at the forefront of this speaking out, as our own local leaders are doing. We need that outspoken degree of leadership at all levels of government — and from each one of us individually.