What We Really Learned in Charlottesville
Finding a Way Forward
In the immediate aftermath of Heather Heyer’s death and the clashing protests that led to it, Charlottesville came together as a community to show its solidarity. There were condemnations of the violence, affirmations of the statue removal, and a call for healing. Then the President waffled on his response to the tragedy, first leaving his position ambiguous, then criticizing the white nationalists, and finally offering a disturbing comment on the moral goodness of some of the protesters who called for the violent assertion of white power. The outcry was swift and deafening; the events became a political Rorschach test during a slow August recess for Congress. Pundits and cable television and podcast broadcasters screamed themselves hoarse while journalists exacerbated their carpal tunnel, and the country bathed in the now all-too-familiar carnival of manufactured outrage, contradicting diagnoses, and forlorn grief.
By the standards of today’s whiplash news cycles, the coverage was in-depth and lasting. The media did not move on from the issue so much as it overexerted itself and wearily stumbled on to the Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Trump’s DACA repeal. When the dust settled, nearly everyone agreed that white nationalists and the KKK were morally unacceptable. That is, representatives of various points on the political spectrum as opposed as those of Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Kamala Harris disavowed the ideology of white nationalists and white supremacists in more or less the same terms. I will return to this agreement below, but it is important to underscore that it extended only so far as condemning the ideology behind the Unite the Right rally. Many, for instance, defended the protest on First Amendment grounds, arguing that the protesters followed the correct procedure and had a right to express their beliefs no matter how repugnant to the rest of society. Others decried the violence displayed by the protesters, and asserted that their race protected them from the police brutality that has marked so many minority protests in recent years. Thought pieces and in-depth television segments, including some here on Public Seminar, took on all facets of the debate, from the history of the confederate statues to the rise of white nationalism. Aside from forcing statue removal into the margins of platforms for the Virginia governor’s race, not much felt resolved.
Nearly eight weeks after the white nationalist demonstrations, Charlottesville is still trying to grapple with the tragedy and heal. An independent review of the weekend’s events is facing increasing political pressure due to perceived ties to the city council and slow-moving pace. Economically and culturally dominated by the University of Virginia, the town is largely sympathetic to the counter-protesters and the social justice movements that were so outspoken after the infamous weekend. Professors and administrators are struggling to offer students the proper amount of emotional security while they articulate a meaning of free speech that protects their own rights. None of these issues are new to college campuses: recently cancelled speeches at Berkeley are only the latest instances of a long contemporary struggle to negotiate the intersection of student security and free speech ideals. The tragic developments in Charlottesville only increased the pressure on faculty to cater to their students’ needs for physical security as well as emotional needs. Faced with grievances about the violent display of hatred and bigotry, many professors do not know how to simultaneously offer the comfort that basic decency requires of them while still making a case for the free speech rights that anchor their intellectual freedom.
One of the reasons it is so hard to value free speech in the context of Charlottesville is that the protesters were not merely present to confirm their own realness to themselves and others. That is, their symbolic argument was not existential. They also provided a physical manifestation of violence promised by the ideology of the KKK and of various organizations that embrace white nationalism. Protesters marched into Lee Park armed with guns and bullet-proof vests as well as the malice to use them. The decision of one protester to drive his car through a crowd of counter-protesters will be seared forever into the town’s memory after the fateful stretch of road is dedicated Heather Heyer Way. The violence on the ground directly correlated with the violence advocated by those groups. The protesters were there to show what it would look like to act in accordance with their beliefs. Many people, university professors or not, simply lack the will and tools to motivate people to believe in the institution of free speech when it so concretely threatens their ideas and bodies.
It is not difficult to articulate why violence is such a problem to the institution of free speech. If you take a hard line on protecting the right of people to say — which in our country also means protest, fund, and organize — nearly anything they want, the assumption is that there will be more speech from other perspectives. Oliver Wendell Holmes called it the marketplace of ideas, whereas Jefferson said that “error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” The language of competition and combat often gets lost when public figures rehearse these platitudes more in the model of town criers than thoughtful leaders. The violent preclusion of expression has a long history in America. There are even some journalists and academics, like Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic and Alan Taylor here at the University of Virginia, who argue that racially-motivated violence is how the United States consolidated its sovereignty during and after the Revolutionary War. One major upshot of the Civil Rights Movement was that the judicial branch of government altered or reversed nearly one hundred years of precedent regarding how the (federal) government could intervene against private citizens who used political violence.
When placed in terms of violence, it is easy to see that ideas have more than consequences, they have actions attached to them. Both the protesters and counter-protesters in Charlottesville had ideas that were expressed in a number of actions spanning over a year: in the petition and city council vote to remove a statue and rename a park, in the legal battle to hold a protest in the busy downtown location of the park itself, and in the occupation of the park and the surrounding blocks over the course of the weekend. Viewed retrospectively, it is easy to see this strand of actions as following from one another and in that sense necessary. But no one had to protest the city council vote, nor did they have to fight the motion to move the location of that protest. The institution of free speech, insofar as it is an institution, allowed for these actions and those which were not taken. It serves as a medium for socialization, repetition, and change by providing a shared vehicle for the transmission of ideas. So long as voting and protest do not devolve into violence, they point to the essence of free speech as an institution, namely, that it preserves continued action. Political, or ideological, violence prevents the abstract combativeness of words by putting physical combat in its place. Put simply, institutions endure, while wars end. Institutions cultivate the possibility of continuous action in which all parties participate.
The institution of free speech is not some political club to beat those with whom you do not agree; it is not a tool or a policy in the way that supporting free trade or lower taxes is. Speaking of free speech as a partisan issue undercuts its ability to preserve the very debate it subtends. More importantly, it clouds our understanding of institutions as preservers of collective action rather than collective ideology. I have never attended an academic debate that ended with one of the debaters admitting he was wrong and totally convinced of his opponent’s argument. They always end in disagreement, and everyone knows that there will be another event next week. Academics frequently are criticized for exactly this kind of benign disagreement, but universities rely on the institution of free speech more than anyone else. The point of debate, insofar as it relates to the institution, is that its repeated occurrence is the organizing principle of the university. People come together and work side by side in spite of the essential difference between their ideas, because of the essential similarity of their actions. One should not push the point too far since university life is not a helpful model for politics, but there is certainly something to learn from this type of collegial, dare we say civil, association.
Take also, for example, the very exchange we enact here on Public Seminar. What I would like to suggest to Elena Gagovska and Keval Bhatt is that, no matter their intent or conviction, their pieces are not, nor will they be taken as, definitive and ultimate statements on the nature of the issues at stake in Charlottesville’s statue politics. In this, I echo Michael Weinman’s response that it might be necessary to countenance some half-truths about the discontinuity of our mytho-poetic narrative. Isaac Reed argues that we can maintain the symbolism of that narrative while leaving behind the embodiments of its fallen characters. All of this commitment to discourse is precisely the element of our political theology that is sorely missing today. It is no half-truth that Jefferson believed in the new republic enough to suffer defeat to Adams in 1796 and run again in 1800. But when given the choice between reconciliation within the existing institutions and breaking with the institutions of the Union, Lee and others chose to fight. We must once more highlight the actions that enable our nation to so much as have a “public space,” actions which draw us together much more than the ideas that we may discuss once we arrive in meta-social agora.
In one of the most quoted passages from Democracy in America, Tocqueville calls association the mother of all sciences in the republic. While many critics today try to implicitly discredit his account of political life by highlighting the exclusionary nature of institutions in early America, they miss his point. It is not that the first generations of Americans shared complete political agreement or religious and cultural unity (they shared neither). Rather, Tocqueville is drawing our attention to the way association teaches people the practice of politics, more so than the ideas of politics. These practices are the bedrock of institutions because they enable people to come together time and time again to disagree without losing the motivating principle underlying their gathering. The United States has never realized the enlightenment ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. It is the promise of our institutions that allow for us to try to actualize them at all.
We need not romanticize past Congresses to decry the current state of debate in that institution. Instead of functioning as a model for the institution of free speech, with vigorous disagreement grounded in institutional pride and similar habits, our lawmakers invoke their staunch disagreements as excuses for disrupting decades old traditions like the filibuster and regular order. Roy Moore, who recently won a heated Republican primary to serve as the junior U.S. Senator from Alabama, wielded a pistol at a rally and promised never to compromise on his principles. Many will be quick to point out the caning of Charles Sumner as an example of violence in the Congress, but we must remind such cynics of the historical context of that event. The antebellum period was home to a much stricter code of personal honor — as President Trump’s Chief of Staff, and retired General John Kelly, recently reminded us with respect to Lee himself. As Kelly himself seemed to miss, or at least minimize, that time and Lee’s personal honor were of a piece with the foment that caused the civil war, hardly a lodestar of institutional ethics in its threat to the core of American government. It was precisely this shared sense of honor that could have kept the rebels in the Union. In this light, what Kelly calls “a failure to compromise” appears more like a failure to see the commonality among the representatives who would soon no longer be serving “on different sides of the aisle” in a single House.
After Charlottesville, it was easy to see how radical agendas manifested in behavior that was outside the bounds of acceptable civil habits. But we need to be attentive to the habits of ideology even when they do not involve violence. In many ways, the breakdown of our institutions has foretold this rise in violent political action, rather than the other way around. When our political leaders prioritize ideology at any cost, it compromises the faith that there will be another day and another metaphorical “fight.” If violence excludes the losers absolutely, ideological foreclosure imitates this and perhaps foreshadows it, instead of giving persons stock in the shared habits of debate. That is, people start to feel that there is no point to debating at all unless they win. American political history is rife with associations, so much so that another University of Virginia historian, Brian Balogh, has argued that we are, in our essence, an associational state. We must remember the importance of habitual institutions instead of stressing the ideological differences between us. Our nation, notwithstanding its long history of ideological political culture, has always sustained itself on our material and pragmatic habits. Our political debates must re-cognize these habits, and the associations and institutions that are born of these habits, as essential to our present and our past if we are to maintain some semblance of ourselves as Americans in the future.
Andrew Boyer graduated from the University of Virginia in 2017 with a B.A. in Political Philosophy. He currently resides in Charlottesville.