These are not usual times. Not for those of us in the media, or those of us just trying to make sense of what is happening in the world around us. We live in a political age racked with uncertainty, anxiety, and stress. Because of this, we cannot treat what we are experiencing as something that is just an extension of the previous status-quo. Which is what made Style’s publishing of the Pat Hines letter so egregious, much in the same way the Richmond Times Dispatch’s publishing of Walter Williams column was.
Hines is a notorious white supremacist that was pinged by the Southern Poverty Law Center for saying, “without slavery, all the black people in the United States wouldn’t be here” and removing Confederate monuments is, “cultural genocide on the Southern people”. This is also the same man who got a print spot in the most recent edition of Style. In the Letters section he claims that Heather Heyer, the woman who was murdered in a terrorist attack by a white supremacist during Unite the Right, was a “morbidly obese person who…[had] been engaged in attacking those who were legally there to speak.” He goes on to say, “No one killed her, her eating habits, huge weight penalty, and Newport cigarettes did her in.”
For those of us who were on the ground during Unite the Right and have been covering and exposing white nationalism and supremacy all year in Virginia, this could not have been a bigger slap in the face – to give this man space in the pages of a city publication.
Claims of “the letters section reflects the views of our readers” can no longer be an acceptable portal to obfuscate the risk in letting certain views have a platform – especially in this political climate. This is for a good reason. Because of this new political age, we we are all experiencing something deeply profound. How we share this experience is something that is coming to shape our understating of each other in the most profound of ways, especially for such a small city. Which is why everything matters these days; editorials matter, letters to the editor matter, and most importantly, the message that media gives voice to matters.
We have to balance this against the steady creep of hate speech into our daily lives and what that means in real terms. Hate speech that now comes from our elected officials, from our president, from our family and friends who have been empowered to act on their worst impulses, and from those who now have agency to provoke, intimidate, and threaten entire cities, like Charlottesville.
This is what the Richmond Times Dispatch and Style failed to realize when they gave voice to men who can justify violence, and then rationalize it away with the same freedoms they claim to support. The letter by Pat Hines falsely describing the murder of Heather Heyer in a terrorist attack is particularly noxious for that very reason. For that to exist without context or expose does nothing but minimize the very real threat of white nationalism and how that – in the the former capitol of the Confederacy – impacts the entire city.
Even giving each publication the benefit of the doubt, the views articulated in either piece should have never passed muster to begin with, regardless of their bona fides (or lack thereof, re: Pat Hines). The views trafficked in these pieces were not provocative for the sake of advancing conversation and promoting the kinds of hard dialogue needed in this new political age. They were base, and represented the worst of what we are all collectively experiencing. For leading publications in this city to be unable to distinguish between these two things betrays a deep misunderstanding of the conversation people are having with one another, and ultimately how people throughout this city and Commonwealth are feeling about the world around them.
Failing to recognize this is just a default to the previous status quo, which ultimately led us to this situation in the first place. Perhaps it is time for the old-guard to pass the baton and make space for the next generation to take the conversation forward.