In Response To: Charlottesville
In March of last year, my girlfriend and I traveled south to attend a wedding in Charlottesville, VA. Unbeknownst to us, the venue for the ceremony and reception was Trump Winery. The bridal party had reserved the location well before Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president. And even on the nuptial day itself--in the midst of the Republican primaries--his campaign seemed like a horrible joke soon to collapse. Between rounds of dancing, we snapped selfies holding bottles of Trump wine, mugging for maximum laugh emojis on Facebook. Up on top of a small mountain, it felt like we’d landed in a bizarro Trump theme park--the palace of Ozymandias before his fall.
Today, after Trump's defense of the Nazi terrorism that struck Charlottesville, the memory of that night has become a fever dream. His rise to the presidency--fueled by racial resentment, stoked by caustic demagoguery--casts the night in shame. Will future generations, living in the fallout of this madman’s despotism, find those selfies cute? Will they ask why I did not instead smash the bottles to pieces? I ask myself. From the top of that mountain, you could peer into the town where the KKK marched by torchlight. The metaphor is surreal and perfect. Rev. King saw one mountain top, Trump has his own. And Trump’s looks out onto the valley of violence he’s unleashed.
In terms of symbolic meaning, Charlottesville makes for an uncanny location for a Nazi-Confederate assault. The day before the wedding, we toured the business district of this hopping college town. Chic boutiques, locally-sourced eateries, open-air cafes lined the main drag. It was crawling with students, flush with youthful energy. My cousin is an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, and we met up with her for an insider tour of the grounds. It is a beautiful place. Thomas Jefferson designed it in his favored neo-classical style, with columns, domes, and colonnades giving the look of the Pantheon and Roman forum.
And then my cousin took us to a lonely back corner of the campus, where the slave cemetery sits. There beneath unmarked headstones lie the remains of enslaved black persons, by whose sweat and toil this grand institution was made. Dozens more of those people labored on Jefferson’s own mountaintop. Monticello--like Trump Winery--occupies a commanding view of the town in the valley.
We made the trek up to this old plantation, where the paradox of Jefferson is on full display: on the one hand, his genius for architecture, science, inventions. On the other, his ownership and domination of men, women, and children. This was a man who wrote the founding document of the United States, with a preamble the laid the groundwork for universal human rights. And yet this was also a man who later penned Notes on the State of Virginia, in which, while calling on Virginia to end slavery, he outlined a plan for colonizing black Americans out of the United States. To justify it, he engaged at length in racist pseudo-scientific arguments for the inferiority of black people, noting “the preference of the Orangutan for the black women over those of his own species.”
The Jefferson paradox is the American paradox. We are a double-sided nation. Two impulses--one good, one evil--contending within the same man, the same country. None of us is pure of mind or heart. Certainly Jefferson, that inscrutable enigma, was not. But the birthright of the nation he founded is to grow into the ideals of equality and rights that he preached, if not practiced. To broaden and expand the freedoms proclaimed in the Constitution and Declaration. To reject our base instincts and listen instead to the better angels of our nature. The statement that all men are created equal is an aspirational one. We were not worthy of it at the time. We are are not worthy of it still. We must forever try to become a people who embody it, by laboring for liberty and justice for all.
The conflict within America's soul exploded into a full-blown civil war from the 1850s through the 1870s. Jefferson sought to end slavery, though he knew not how. But because of his failure to do so, and his racist intellectual views, the southern states grew their slave society to an imperial level by the mid-nineteenth century. Buttressed by a philosophical and theological defense of slavery and white supremacy, the planters of the South turned their peculiar institution from a necessary evil--as the founders saw it--to a positive good. And then, between 1861 and 1865, they inaugurated the most destructive war in American history to expand their empire of bondage throughout the western hemisphere.
While walking through Charlottesville that day, we passed near the statue of Robert E. Lee that lies at the heart of the neo-Confederate violence last week. Lee was a slaveholder, like Jefferson and Washington. But, contrary to President Trump’s repugnant remarks over the last two days, these men are not the same. Washington freed his slaves upon his death. Jefferson hoped for a day when slavery would end. Both men sacrificed to lay the foundations of a democratic Republic. By contrast, Lee committed treason against that Republic and waged ruthless war to destroy democracy and expand slavery. Faced with the choice between the standard of American liberty and the standard of American slavery, he chose the latter.
Not every white southerner made this choice. Some stayed loyal and fought for the United States. A few, like Gen. George Thomas and Admiral David Farragut, even won major victories for the U.S. cause. Lee did not. He gave in to the baser instincts of America, and fought to the bitter end to undo the promise of the United States. During his invasions of the North, his troops captured free blacks and sent them south into slavery. He stood and watched as they massacred black U.S. prisoners of war at the Battle of the Crater. With his help, the United States Army lost more men to the Confederate legions than it did to Hitler's.
Why do we never think about the Civil War this way? Because, in part, of the very Confederate statues that have caused this violence. These monuments grew out of the cult of the Lost Cause that arose in the 1880s through the turn of the last century, when Jim Crow was in ascendancy. They were tools of mass propaganda to perpetuate a false mythology about the Confederacy and symbolically cement white supremacy in the South. Combined with the hundreds of racist, pro-Confederate movies produced by Hollywood starting in the silent era, these statues romanticized the Confederacy, erased black Americans from the narrative, and pretended that it had won the war just as much as the United States.
And in a real way, they did. Though the Confederacy lost the first phase of the conflict--that of mass armies battling in the field--the second phase belonged to them. From 1865 to 1877, former Confederate forces launched a guerrilla insurgency that killed an estimated 50,000 African Americans and their white allies--many of them U.S. soldiers. It remains the largest and most lethal terrorist campaign in our history. All in an effort to undo the hard won gains of the United States’ victory--the political and civil rights of black Americans.
To our everlasting shame, it succeeded. For ninety years, the old Confederacy dominated the South and convinced northern society that the war was never about slavery or race at all. For seventy years, Germany has done national penance for the catastrophe of the Holocaust and the Second World War. For 150 years, Americans have refused to accept, atone, and make reparations for the crime of slavery and the fratricidal bloodletting it unleashed.
The rally at Lee's statue last Saturday was perversely refreshing, then, in one sense: it put to bed the lie that the Confederacy fought in the name of states’ rights. The armed Nazis and Confederates beating on Jews, gays, Christians, and black people in Charlottesville represented the true meaning of Confederate statues and battle flags: white supremacy, racial warfare, and violent assault on American democracy. Empowered by their new Leader, the dark side of America has risen again. Standing on the steps of Monticello, I could draw a line from that mountaintop, down the valley through the statue of Lee, up the other hillside to Trump’s gilded chalet.
In 1861, we had a president who gave his life for abolition and black political rights. Today, we have one who sympathizes with the enemies that murdered Lincoln. In the 1940s, my grandfather and his brothers, along with millions of Americans, fought and bled and died to defeat fascism. Now our commander-in-chief openly embraces Nazis. This shocks the cerebral apparatus. But it should come as no surprise. Trump is the most racist, pro-Confederate chief executive since Woodrow Wilson. In 1915, Wilson held a special screening of The Birth of a Nation at the White House that the Klan celebrated. This week, Trump held a press conference that neo-Nazis cheered. Trump's mentor was Roy Cohn, Joe McCarthy’s bigoted lawyer during the communist witch hunts. Trump led the racist birther movement to undermine the first black president, our generation's Lincoln. His sole aim as president is to undo anything Obama did. His Attorney General is named after the president of the Confederacy and a major Confederate general. Can you imagine a German government official in 2017 with the name Himmler or Eichmann?
We cannot escape history either. The Civil War haunts us. Charlottesville was the field of its most recent battle. Until we reckon with the true story of the war, it will never end. Until we bury the ideology of the Confederacy forever, its evil will take more lives. Until we lay the whip in the grave for good, it will light our democracy down in dishonor, to the latest generation. It remains for the majority of our people--the people that elected a black man to the presidency not long ago--to defeat it with the goodness of America.
The monuments continue to topple; they should be melted down and poured into the drainpipe of ignominy. Trump’s mountaintop--all the bigotry, violence, and greed he represents--must be next. Charlottesville holds the symbols of America’s most vile heritage. If we can cleanse it, and every community, of those symbols, we can cleanse our hearts of hate. If we build monuments to the true heroes of our history--abolitionists, women’s rights activists, immigrants, civil rights marchers, Ulysses Grant and Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass--we will build monuments of reconciliation in our souls. Then we will heal. Then we will make Charlottesville, and the whole country, truly beautiful.