A friend asked if I was going to write something about Charlottesville. I said, no, that it was too raw, too soon to have a real perspective. And then I couldn't stop thinking about it.
First and foremost Charlottesville was an outrage and a tragedy. But there is a new tragedy every day. It is endless, ceaseless. We are numb from it. How do you sustain outrage day after day? It is the new normal. Outrageous people have made it commonplace and almost acceptable.
It is somehow how apropos that this took place in Charlottesville, Virginia the home of what Thomas Jefferson called his most important contribution, the University of Virginia. When we visited a few years ago you could walk around the main quad that Jefferson had laid out and which remains to this day the way he designed and built it. A place for learning, principled discussion. A space for peace and reflection. The very seat of the Enlightenment in America.
Yet this place embodies at its core the central contradiction of Jefferson and of our nation. How could a person write such impassioned, stirring words - "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" and simultaneously possess other human beings thereby depriving them of any semblance of liberty or equality? It is also probable that Jefferson was a rapist, at least by modern standards. He began his "affair" with Sally Hemmings when she was 15 or 16 years old, too young for consent - as if a slave could refuse.
This contradiction is mirrored in the nation. People speak of liberty and freedom but mostly they mean freedom for their group and to do what they want to do regardless of the impact on others. We all speak the words but mostly live in our little enclaves; closed worlds of like minded people. Too often freedom comes down to being free to denigrate, discriminate or hate.
It is worth remembering what precipitated the Charlottesville events. The "Unite the Right" gathering was to protest the city's plan to remove a statute of Robert E Lee and rename the park from Lee Park to Emancipation Park. After 150 years the Civil War continues. The South lost the war but largely won the peace through a concerted campaign of Jim Crow, lynchings and violence and continuing to today's efforts for state rights (at least where they find it useful), voter suppression and reverence for the "heroes" of the Civil War.
Think of those Civil War monuments, of what could have been done. Consider as an alternative how Germany has handled the Nazi memorials. Germany banned the swastika from public life. And since 1945, its government has worked to systematically get rid of Nazi-era memorials and architecture. Nazi officials were buried in unmarked graves. Swastikas were ground off buildings. Monuments and statues from the Third Reich were torn down. And most importantly the monuments and statues that were retained have been used as vehicles to educate people and especially children about the horrors of the Nazi regime. I have heard many people justify the retention of Civil War monuments and the use of the Confederate flag as honoring those who fought, those who died and as part of their history and heritage. I have yet to hear one person use those monuments as a vehicle to discuss the horrors of slavery, to explain how the economy and prosperity and wealth was built on forced labor, of the crime of succession and the traitors to the nation who tore the country apart, of how the actions of these historic figures resulted in a war that took nearly 1 million American lives, of the use of "state's rights" as a cover for racism and discrimination. If Germany had taken our approach there would be statutes of Hitler, Goring, Gobbelels and Eichmann and the children would be learning about their glorious Nazi heritage.
So the war never ends, we know no peace, " A thousand people in the street...Mostly saying, 'hooray for our side'"
We know not what we do.
One Small Voice
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