Charlottesville without Natural Law

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 18, 2017

Almost nobody knows the problem that lies at the heart of the recent unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia. For those who have not followed the action, white supremacists held a rally there which led to widespread outrage, the escalation of rhetoric, and some violence. President Trump is facing near universal denunciation (again!) for suggesting that there are good people on all sides, and that responsibility for crossing the line into violence is shared.

Most public commentators, and most of those who feel part of the establishment culture in the United States, tend to frame the argument as follows: White supremacy is a hateful concept which fosters racial hatred. Of its very nature it constitutes incendiary speech, like shouting “Fire!” in a crowded building when there is in fact no fire, causing people to injure each other as they flee to safety. Few notice that there is a significant difference between flight and engagement. To some extent, this relies on a cultural perception that there are some insults people should not have to suffer with docility, and that violent reactions are completely without blame in the face of those insults.

But that is not the evidence for my contention that most people have missed the point. After all, white supremacy is a hateful concept, a form of racial bigotry which is particularly outrageous in a society which once supported slavery at an extraordinarily severe level of personal degradation. Every morally responsible person should work for the end of such bigotry, and do as much as is reasonably possible to ensure that it does not manifest itself publicly.

For this reason, when many social leaders, including some of the businessmen on President Trump’s now disbanded business advisory councils, condemn the American President’s typically tone deaf efforts to transcend our culture’s sacred unwritten rules, we are unlikely to be offended, and we certainly cannot be surprised. Moreover, as those with power in the realm of communications move rapidly to deny white supremacists access to the Internet and the airwaves, just as they have done to terrorists, I suspect most of us recognize that even relatively free societies require limits—somehow.

The Real Issue

The real issue, then, is not whether a very strong and repressive reaction to white supremacists is morally justifiable. No, the gigantic problem is simply that nobody really knows why. The problem that is killing our society is that the vast majority of commentators (and others) know that white supremacy is both evil and very dangerous because…because…well, because our culture condemns it as self-evidently immoral. While its evil should be self-evident, it cannot be so without a whole raft of prior principles firmly in place, principles not available through scientism, materialism, chance, or the will of cultural elites.

The common argument is entirely circular, as all legal and moral positivism always is. We abhor and condemn whatever right-thinking people are “supposed” to abhor and condemn.

We do not even know how we know what “everybody knows”. We glide along on the assumption that our ever-morphing cultural signals are always right. But the only way everybody can be expected to know a moral truth is through their apprehension of the Natural Law, which is almost universally denied in our time. White supremacy is hateful because it is an egregious denial of the Natural Law. As such, it leads to a great many injuries to others and a severe diminution of the common good.

Sadly, we will look in vain for a similar well-ordered outrage against many evils which should be equally obvious to anyone who can tie his own shoes. People in our culture routinely advocate killing unborn children, which has serious personal consequences while significantly diminishing the common good. People in our culture routinely advocate gay marriage, which makes a mockery of human nature and dramatically undermines the family, inflicting serious personal injury and tearing away the very social and psychological basis of the common good. Many more instances could be cited.

These things can also be known from the one source of a genuinely common and properly foundational morality, the Natural Law. Yet most in our culture know without asking that moral outrage at these horrors is not only absent but even forbidden in Charlottesville and everywhere else. Moreover, in the absence of a secure foundation for moral judgment in the United States, one of the grave dangers of making exceptions to free speech to restrict white supremacy is that it is another step toward the creation of a whole series of categories within which our political establishment “knows” beyond doubt that the usual civil rights should be denied.

Coming for you and me?

I believe everyone has heard the famous comment of the Protestant pastor Martin Niemöller when reflecting on his experience in Germany before and during World War II:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

This is part of the equation, but it is not the heart of matter. My argument is not that we are bound to defend white supremacists. We are, in fact, called to refute and even condemn such ideas, along with many others. My point is far more basic: Nothing will be gained until our culture learns again how we are to discern the difference between good and evil.

Therefore, to those who do not know, I offer this caution: Until you figure it out, do not keep shouting that you are good and those who disagree with you are bad. How do you know? “Because the culture told me so?” Thus would we all think if we had no seriousness of moral purpose. The darkness has never been dissipated by cultural certainties plucked out of thin air.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: FredC - Aug. 22, 2017 2:24 PM ET USA

    Suggestion: Comment at each public hearing to teach Natural Law to the political leaders and the audience. You will need to attend several of the meetings with the same politicians and the same audience, so break the lessons into 3-minute presentations.

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Aug. 19, 2017 3:33 PM ET USA

    Terrific point that those who advocate "post-birth supremacy" (pro-abortion) don't really know why they oppose the evil white supremacy thesis. As you say, that doesn't mean that we don't oppose white supremacy while they figure it out. What it means is that opposition to white supremacy not based on Natural Law will take gravely immoral forms, creating other evils even as it confronts the white supremacy evil, such as tribalism that justifies murder, hatred based on identity politics, etc.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Aug. 19, 2017 11:29 AM ET USA

    I was born in Cuba and suffered the evils of Communism. Communism has been responsible for the death of millions of innocent people. I, however, believe that they have the right to have peaceful rallies in democratic societies. Thus, I believe that white supremacists and other radical groups such as National Socialists and Islamic radicals have the same right to peaceful rallies. What they do not have the right to is to use violence.

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Aug. 19, 2017 10:56 AM ET USA

    Exactly right. There is another dimension to pursue here, and that is the distinction between SIGN, SYMBOL (and SACRAMENT, for Christians). A statue is a sign. If it is also a symbol (a statue of R.E. Lee, for instance), what is it a symbol of? That is an equivocal relationship. For me, it is a symbol of mankind faced with dilemma--Robert E. Lee offered command of all Union armies and knowing Virginia has his primary allegiance. For others, not so. This needs major discussion.

  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Aug. 19, 2017 7:01 AM ET USA

    Jeff, I believe that John Horvat II, in the Crisis Magazine article, "A Clash of False Alternatives", describes the travesty very well. Your comments are well taken, but again, fail to point out that hatred from one side will never justify hatred from the other...

  • Posted by: Dennis Olden - Aug. 18, 2017 7:14 PM ET USA