Alt-Right, Alt-Left, “both sides,” white supremacists, Antifa, CEO resignations: America is having a moment. Tempers are flaring, and statues are falling. President Trump and the press are in an angry stand-off.
The death of a young woman, Heather Heyer, in the midst of protests and counter-protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the injuries to 19 others at the hands of a driver who used his car to plow other cars into a crowd, reminded some of us of another shocking burst of violence: the May 4, 1970 Kent State shootings, when members of the National Guard opened fire on unarmed students, killing four. Protests against the Vietnam War, some of them violent, were a familiar part of the news during those years, but the wanton killing of protesters was new, and it changed things.
I don’t know that Heather Heyer’s death, apparently at the hands of a 20-year-old neo-Nazi, James Alex Fields, Jr., will have the long reverberations of Kent State, but the mainstream press is trying very hard to give the whole Charlottesville debacle that kind of watershed significance.
From the Cooper Union to Charlottesville
I’d like to pull back a little and consider some of the pieces, especially those that connect to higher education. The higher education connection isn’t incidental. Colleges and universities have often been the stages for those who seek to make large declarations about America, and especially about race. Think of Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech in February 1860, in which he laid out his opposition to slavery as consonant with the ideals of the Founding Fathers.
The ghost of Lincoln is surely somewhere in the background of the Charlottesville riot. Richard Spencer and his white supremacist friends held their “Unite the Right” rally at Lee Park, on Saturday, August 12, ostensibly to protest the planned relocation of the large statue of Robert E. Lee. The struggle over slavery that led to the secession of eleven states, including Virginia, April 17, 1861, led to Lee’s fateful decision to turn down Lincoln’s offer of command of the Union Army in favor of serving the Confederacy. History has given Lee a generally kind assessment despite that decision. The esteem in which he is held by many who have no sympathy with the Southern cause rests on the way he met defeat. He spared the United States from what could have been decades of further hostility by counseling his supporters to lay down their arms.
What does a nation do with a figure of great historical importance who lent his weight to a bad cause? We are still, all these years later, wrestling with that question. It deserves a patient and thoughtful answer, but it has become entangled with demagoguery on both the right and the left.
The statue of Lee in Charlottesville was first seized as a symbol by the identitarian left, who made it an emblem of racial oppression. Spencer and his Alt-Right supporters then charged in, happy to endorse the conceit that Lee should stand for white privilege. The planned “Unite the Right” rally was meant to inflame the left and to summon counter-protesters. Violence was expected and welcomed on both sides—though to say that now invites the silly accusation that the term grants “moral equivalence.” No, it just registers the reality: both sides in this confrontation believe violence is a legitimate tool in pursuing their political ends.
On Friday night the Alt-Right protesters staged a torch-lit march on campus from the steps of the Rotunda across Thomas Jefferson’s “Academical Village,” the very center of the university. UVA president Teresa Sullivan understood the connections and put out a statement through the university’s newsletter, UVA Today, “In Aftermath of Violence, Sullivan Reflects On Challenging Weekend.”
In part, Sullivan said: “The University is about freedom of speech, but free speech is not the same as violence. We strongly condemn this kind of abhorrent and intimidating behavior whose purpose is only to create fear and cause divisions in the community.”
Indeed, free speech is not the same as violence, and my colleagues and I at the National Association of Scholars applaud the spirit of Sullivan’s statement.
How Higher Ed Contributed
The provocations of the Alt-Right protesters and the tragic consequences of their Saturday rally, however, cannot be wholly isolated from the stream of events in American higher education in the last few years. The Alt-Right didn’t spring out of thin air. Moreover, the use of mass intimidation wasn’t unknown on college campuses—including UVA. The deterioration of the ideal of free speech has been accelerating, and the feebleness of college authorities, when confronted with outrageous tactics by protesters, is now practically established as standard operating procedure.
UVA didn’t invite this compound catastrophe, but it wasn’t entirely an innocent on-looker either.
Charlottesville’s City Council voted 3-2 in February to move the equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee from the city’s central square. The Council’s vote followed a report last year from a Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces. Voices of the UVA community played a significant part in the acrimonious debate over the statue. For example, the Richmond Times-Dispatch quoted UVA Religious Studies professor Jalane Schmidt, comparing President Trump’s refugee policy to defenders of the Lee statue as evidence of an “empathy gap.” The monument, in Schmidt’s view, “enshrined” in Charlottesville “leading white citizens’ contempt for black humanity.”
Schmidt’s opinions in this matter voice what has become a very familiar line of historical interpretation, one shared with a fair number of people in the UVA community. But for the sake of clarity, I’ll stick with Schmidt’s views in particular. Was putting a statue of Robert E. Lee in a public park really an act of “contempt for black humanity?” I suspect that an examination of the records of Charlottesville from 1919 to 1924 would not offer much evidence that a public display of “contempt” was part of the motive. A commodities trader named Paul McIntire commissioned the statue in 1917 from sculptor Henry Shrady, who died before finishing it. The job was completed by Leo Lentelli. McIntire purchased the site for Lee Park and donated the monument to both the City of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia.
Shrady was picked for the commission after America’s most eminent sculptor, Daniel Chester French, declined it but recommended Shrady, who was completing the massive monument to Grant in Washington, D.C. and had previously executed the equestrian statue of George Washington in Brooklyn. Shrady’s successor on the Lee statue, Leo Lentelli, was born in Italy in 1879 and immigrated to the U.S. in 1903. Lentelli had numerous other public commissions including decorations for the San Francisco Public Library, the Sixteenth Street Bridge in Pittsburgh, and the Steinway Piano Building in New York City. He is best known for “The Savior with Sixteen Angels” at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York.
All these are details I’ve culled from a 1997 application to the National Register of Historic Places to register the Lee monument. It makes for interesting reading, not least because twenty years ago the thought that the Lee monument was an instrument of racial oppression seemed completely absent from anyone’s mind. Shrady, a native of New York who spent 19 years creating a monument honoring Ulysses S. Grant, and Lentelli, a twentieth-century immigrant from Italy who liked to sculpt angels, seem unlikely to have harbored nostalgia for the antebellum South or animus against “black humanity.”
Paul McIntire, the philanthropist who started out as a coffee trader, was a lover of art and music who lavished gifts on the University of Virginia, which he had attended for a single semester. He endowed a chair in fine arts and contributed the funds to create a Department of Music and Department of Art. These acts, of course, do not preclude his being a closet racist who wanted a statue of Robert E. Lee to cast a shadow of contempt over the black residents of Charlottesville—but it is hard to see any evidence of that. When Professor Jalene Schmidt leveled that accusation against Charlottesville’s “leading white citizens,” she must have been thinking of someone else. Or was she making a wild surmise based on nothing but the projection of today’s intensified racial resentments onto the past?
It is a tricky question to ask because those with a mind to do so can easily read into it a denial of the legal regime of racial discrimination of the Jim Crow South and the broader culture of racism. Recognizing the history of American racism without succumbing to the temptation to read racism into the fabric of everything seems to be a challenge for many Americans today. It is especially a challenge for many academics who are drawn to a kind of racial reductionism.
Who are these racial reductionists? Some of them are the self-styled denizens of the Alt-Right. And some are supporters of Black Lives Matter and kindred groups. For an extreme racial reductionist, think of Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose best-selling book, Between the World and Me, is a primer in how to blame white racism for anything and everything that a black American might find dissatisfying in life.
In Charlottesville last Saturday, we saw the collision of partisans of these two forms of reductionism. There may well have been individuals among the protesters who held more complicated and historically nuanced views of America, but they were not driving the Alt-Right provocateurs or the counter-protesters, both of whom were in the grip of their oppositional manias. Racial reductionists are not necessarily violent and not necessarily apologists for violence. But both sides clearly have attracted thuggish followers. Antifa protesters carrying baseball bats and two-by-fours are not showing up to celebrate the legacy of Gandhi.
The Alt-Right is, to be sure, a pernicious reactionary movement. It has a tiny national following—perhaps not much more than a few thousand. Only a few hundred showed up in Charlottesville. But the movement has achieved massive news coverage by its theatrics and the eagerness of the media to play it up as a supposed reflection of President Trump’s base of support. The counter-protesters are also a pernicious reactionary movement who have seized a poisonous sideshow as somehow exemplifying part of the American mainstream.
The Poison Is Spreading
The Wall Street Journal has commendably called out the “deeper ailment” as “The Poison of Identity Politics.”
That poison is spreading. Spencer’s group plans rallies at Texas A&M and the University of Florida. But the leftist version of the poison has entered the bloodstream of American higher education and is to be found almost everywhere. Mark Lilla’s recent Wall Street Journal op-ed “The Liberal Crack-Up” is an excellent historical account of how the Democratic Party trapped itself in obsessions over grievance-based accounts of personal identity. What was lost, says Lilla, was “the hard and unglamorous task of persuading people very different from themselves to join a common effort.”
Protesting and counter-protesting are seldom tactics aimed at “persuading” anyone. They are aimed at displaying to a larger audience of supposed on-lookers the power of the protesters. It is the power to bring excited people together to shout and to act in unison, to threaten violence, and at times to commit it. The campus left has been very busy at enacting these kinds of theatrics over the last several years at Mizzou, Yale, Berkeley, Middlebury, Claremont McKenna, and Evergreen, to mention only the most prominent examples.
Which brings me back to the University of Virginia, which was a pioneer of sorts in the invention of the insta-riot as a form of political communication. On November 20, 2014, not long after Rolling Stone published its false story about a rape at the UVA Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house, five masked women and two men vandalized the building. This followed vociferous protests culminating in a “Take Back the Party: End Rape Now” rally, which drew hundreds of participants. President Sullivan then suspended all the fraternities until January 9, 2015. An imaginary crime elevated to an ardent belief turned UVA into a place where the victim mythology triumphed over any concern for the truth.
Surely that wasn’t lost on Richard Spencer when he went in search of a venue that would be susceptible to his provocations.
Thus it may be worth taking a further look at what Sullivan said after this weekend’s tragic turn of events: “The University is about freedom of speech, but free speech is not the same as violence. We strongly condemn this kind of abhorrent and intimidating behavior whose purpose is only to create fear and cause divisions in the community.”
“The University is about freedom of speech” might sound right on first hearing, but it is not how Jefferson would have put it. Freedom of speech is a means to an end, but not the purpose of the university. What is? Jefferson explains:
To form the statesmen, legislators and judges, on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend; To expound the principles and structure of government, …and a sound spirit of legislation, which…shall leave us free to do whatever does not violate the equal rights of another; to harmonize and promote the interests of agriculture, manufactures and commerce…; to develop the reasoning faculties of our youth, enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals, and instill into them the precepts of virtue and order; to enlighten them with mathematical and physical sciences, which advance the arts and administer to the health, the subsistence and comforts of human life; and, generally, to form them to habits of reflection and correct action, rendering them examples of virtue to others and of happiness within themselves. These are the objects of that higher grade of education, the benefits and blessings of which the Legislature now propose to provide for the good and ornament of their country.
To accomplish these goals, freedom of speech is an important tool. Those who pick up the tool only to employ it as a club to beat others are, however, outside the bounds of the “academical” community. Sullivan hasn’t been an especially good steward of that principle. Her condemning the Alt-Right for “abhorrent and intimidating behavior whose purpose is only to create fear and cause divisions in the community” is all to the good. But it would be helpful if she showed some glimmer of understanding that these nasty (and sometimes murderous) extremists are the mirror image of other nasty (and often violent) extremists on the other side.
A university is properly a place where there is no place for those who disdain the rule of law, the dictates of civility, and the need for peaceful argument. Inviting identity politics to take root and then complaining that the vine is bearing its predictable fruit is a failure of presidential leadership. And that’s true of all kinds of presidents.