Charlottesville, Thomas Jefferson, and America’s Fate
A response to Keval Bhatt
This essay is a response to Keval Bhatt’s recent Public Seminar Post.
In a stirring, passionate, and bracingly clear recent contribution to the ongoing Charlottesville thread in our “Power and Crisis” vertical, University of Virginia student Keval Bhatt accounts for his decision to join others in shrouding the famous, indeed iconic, statue of Thomas Jefferson on the grounds of the University. I profoundly respect the urgency and moral standing of the author, of both the action and his account of it; at the same time, I disagree with much that Bhatt has said — though perhaps less than I disagree with most of the criticism leveled against him and his colleagues, particularly the second statement issued by University of Virginia president, Theresa Sullivan, and the Washington Post’s reporting on that statement. While largely sympathetic to the frustration that motivated Bhatt’s decision and his argument for it, I’d like here to justify my inability to stand in solidarity with the gesture and its cogent rationalization.
Bhatt makes two claims that, above all, I should like us to reconsider. First, I dissent from his account of why Spencer and Kessler and others have focused on Charlottesville and the grounds of the University of Virginia in particular. He writes: “There is a reason why Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler, both well-known white supremacists, are obsessed with making the University of Virginia the new capital of white supremacy and fascism in the Western world. It is because the fetishization of Thomas Jefferson and the liberal republic has led to the fetishization of values and institutions that have served white supremacy for 200 years.” It is of course hard to know precisely why Spencer and Kessler meant to intimidate and (in Kessler’s words) punish those who live and/or work in Charlottesville in general and the students, staff and faculty of the University of Virginia in particular. So, we are going to need to do interpretive work on insecure foundations in order to come to an understanding of “what we are up against.” With a high degree of humility and in recognition of the limitations of my interpretive judgment, then, I dissent from the claim that it is the fetishization of “American” values and institutions — literally embodied in the person of Thomas Jefferson — that grounds the racist, xenophobic, anti-democratic ideology behind the “Unite the Right” event and its ilk.
I state this with firmness in large part because the occupation of UVA grounds and the march on the Jefferson statue did not, of course, happen in a vacuum. They were part of a series of marches and other direct actions that focused on the main confederate monuments a short walk from Jefferson’s statue down Main Street, and a prelude to the “Unite the Right” rally, called for the following day, under the watchful eyes of (a monumental statue of) Robert E. Lee. In that light, we must, yes, think seriously about the status of the Jefferson statue in the eyes of Spencer and Kessler and their followers. But how can we ensure that their vision of the meaning of the statue does not overdetermine its possible meanings for us in response?
This means that we must directly confront how all three statues are seen by those against whom the violence of those groups was directed: the students, staff, and faculty of UVA for sure, but also the citizens and elected government of Charlottesville, which voted to remove the Lee and Jackson monuments. If, as I think is surely true, the majority of people who live and work in Charlottesville disagree with Spencer and Kessler about the continuity between Jefferson on the one hand and Lee and Jackson on the other, this is a salient fact for politics around these statues and in Charlottesville (and in the South, and in America) today. Whatever the historical fact of the matter, Bhatt will argue — and I will agree — that the statue of Jefferson and those of Lee and Stonewall Jackson downtown, are ultimately of a piece both with one another and with other statues (such as one to Lewis and Clark, and another just to Lewis) put up in prominent places around Charlottesville, at least in the eyes of those who commissioned and executed them in the early 20th century. The crucial point at present, it seems to me, is not the historical fact of the matter but rather how our contemporary interpretations of the founders inform practical, coalitional politics today.
Why does this conflict of interpretations over the intentions of the white nationalist and Confederate pride movements matter, ultimately? If all that were at stake in my acceptance or rejection of Bhatt’s assertion was a discussion about the degree of continuity between the embrace of figures like Thomas Jefferson and figures like Stonewall Jackson, there would be no serious stake in this controversy for me. And if determining the degree of continuity between Thomas Jefferson and Stonewall Jackson (and of each with Andrew Jackson as a mediating figure) were not caught up in determining the conditions of “constitutional patriotism” as an American citizen who identifies with social democratic politics and/or democratic socialist politics, then I would not overly insist that my interpretation should carry the day. But, much more than that is at stake here, for our interpretation of the intentions of the far-right nationalists, white supremacists, racists, fascists, and, yes, Nazis (some of the “Unite the Right” participants merit all of these descriptors, all deserve one or more of them) is what grounds our political responses to them. And, I earnestly believe, Bhatt’s mistaken interpretation of the likes of Spencer leads directly to a mistaken politics. A politics in which we lose needed allies and cede more public space to the truly unacceptable elements of the current American political spectrum.
This brings us directly to the second of Bhatt’s claims I need to dissent from, at least as a justification of shrouding the Jefferson statue. He writes: “I fear, considering the ubiquity of the republic and the symbols that uphold the possibility for white supremacy to exist, we will stumble, trip into the chasm of fascism as the world once did.” I, too, see a dangerous acceptance of views far beyond the pale of acceptability in our pluralist society. These views are no longer sneaking around public discourse and civil society; they are being openly expressed in broad daylight. This is beyond disturbing. If we need evidence that speech intolerable in a liberal society has become admissible in America, I would say in agreement with Bhatt, that we ought not look to the President of the United States refusing to expressly condemn outright the ideology behind the “Unite the Right” demonstration. This was bad, and worse was that after finally expressing such a blanket condemnation in a written statement to which he adhered carefully, the President, the next day, made clear that he did not believe that condemnation. But that is not what is truly worrisome: what really makes one worry is just how many of my fellow citizens see the presence of Spencer and Kessler, et. al. as highly disagreeable but no worse than “the Antifa activists and other left-wing nutjobs” out there.
But precisely because there are relatively many “ordinary Americans” who struggle to see how the combination of far-right nationalists, white supremacists, racists, fascists, and, yes, Nazis constitutes both a radical rejection of American values and a serious threat to our democratic republic, it is vital to recognize that the significant majority of Americans do see this, and they also see major difference between Jefferson and Washington, and Lee and Jackson. Bhatt and I disagree with our fellow Americans who see a radical discontinuity between the founders and the Confederate generals as a matter of fact. Nevertheless, given the growing (but still minority) prevalence of sympathy for anti-pluralist and anti-democratic values in American society, it behooves us to identify with the “moral majority” (so to say) in insisting on that discontinuity in historical representation and public commemoration, and with all the distortions entailed therein. We can, and we must, continue to educate ourselves about “the sins of our fathers,” including very much the “founding fathers.” But absenting the founders of the Republic from the public space, even temporarily, does not serve our more immediate and undeniable political needs and goals: saving the American public space from occupation by all that is worst in our checkered past. We may need to countenance things much worse than half-truths in order to form successful alliances to reclaim and protect our public spaces. We might find it noxious to violate our principles in making the necessary compromises. But purity of principle will not hold together the coalition of people who think like Bhatt, people who think like me, and those who are glad the Lee and Jackson memorials have been shrouded, but are displeased to see the same happen to the statue of Thomas Jefferson. And we desperately need to keep that coalition together.
Bhatt and I will continue to agree with one another in disagreeing with those who see a yawning gap between Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee on a number of issues vitally important for Americans today; chiefly, the racial superiority of whites and the acceptability of the institution of slavery. We will continue to agree with one another in insisting that Thomas Jefferson does not embody all that is good and none that is bad in America’s ongoing myth of itself as a “city on the hill” and “beacon for freedom and equality.” But my fear — offered in exchange for Bhatt’s — is that we won’t be able to continue expressing those views in an open and more-or-less democratic public space for very long if we insist, against the will of the majority of residents of Charlottesville and Americans more generally, that (effectively) the Spencers and Kesslers are right that Jefferson is of a piece with Lee and Jackson and thus all three need to be shrouded until they are removed from our public spaces.