However much the media and public officials love to describe contemporary events – whatever they may be – as ‘unprecedented’, when it comes to protest in America there is exactly one precedent: the civil rights movement. That has proven true yet again this week.
In late July, HBO unveiled plans for a new show set in an alternative reality, in which the Confederate South, led by General Robert E. Lee, has successfully seceded from the Union. D.B. Weiss, one of the producers of Confederate, explained the thinking behind the series: ‘What would the world have looked like if Lee had sacked DC, if the South had won – that just always fascinated me.’ Last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, Weiss got his answer, with the ‘Unite the Right’ demonstration against the planned removal of Lee’s statue in Emancipation Park (formerly known as Lee Park). This ‘pastoral scene of the gallant South’, as Billie Holiday might have described it, was open to anyone who hated black people and Jews (‘Jews will not replace us’ was one of the cries), from members of the Ku Klux Klan to neo-Nazis. Emboldened by having an ally in the highest office in the land, they came with Confederate flags, swastikas, medieval-looking wooden shields, torches and, of course, guns. They came to fight. One young woman in the counter-demonstration was murdered by a man who rammed his car into her, weaponising his vehicle just as jihadists have done in Nice and London. A helicopter surveilling the event crashed, killing the two officers inside. Dozens were injured. For the next two days, the world waited for Trump to denounce those responsible for the pogrom. The week before, he threatened North Korea with nuclear incineration (‘fire and fury’). Trump is so hollow a person, so impulsive a leader, that it’s easy to miss the great paradox of his presidency: that a cipher of a man has revealed the hidden depths, the ugly unmastered history, of the country he claims to lead.
1. When We Were Kings is the fitting title of Leon Gast’s superb documentary about the Rumble in the Jungle, Muhammad Ali's battle with George Foreman in Zaire, where he regained the heavyweight crown. It was a time of giants in boxing’s most glamorous division. Foreman said that he, Joe Frazier and Ali were like one person; they had been forged together in the public imagination, but there were also Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, Ken Norton, Henry Cooper, Ernie Terrell: men over whom Ali needed to triumph to establish himself, and who now shine in his reflection. Watch the moment Foreman falls in the film: at ringside George Plimpton is frozen in drop-jaw disbelief; Norman Mailer is already beginning to celebrate. 2. Muhammad Ali would have been the most important sportsman of the 20th century even had he not become a symbol for battles of conscience, for racial justice, for people far removed from power, for religious belief, for so much else.