Renewing the best of Charlottesville

Seeing the footage from the alt-right rally in Charlottesville four weeks ago gave the appearance of a tranquil college town, typically livelier than Hoboken, under attack. Any civilized person could see this physically – counter-protesters being run over by a white nationalist (unlike some, I only use that term when it actually applies), disorderly combat in the streets, businesses being threatened and vandalized, etc. Coincidentally, the events happened shortly after I read about Charlottesville’s finest citizen and the ideals he ingrained in the US at its beginning. I speak, of course, about Thomas Jefferson.

Had Jefferson never left Monticello, it would be hard to believe that neo-Confederates would oppose the ideals of a 18th-19th century slaveholder. However, it’s his ideals that he is remembered for the most, and he did not, by any stretch of the imagination, believe himself, Washington, Hamilton, Madison, or any of the other founders to be an immaculate embodiment of those ideals. Fulfilling bold ideals (which they are, especially for the 18th century), much like technology, is not something a single generation can figure out to perfection, make reality, and ‘close the books on’ for millions unborn. He believed (probably to naivete) in future generations “improvements”, and carrying out the ideals of unalienable rights, equality, etc. in ways that the founding generation never realized, or even imagined. This is why he founded the University of Virginia. He was a leader in his generation’s fight – against monarchs and theocracy, but he knew that posterity would use the same ideals to further enlightenment ideals – science, liberty, tolerance, etc. Indeed, looking at the Civil War, a mere 24 years after the last founder died, Lincoln appealed to the Declaration of Independence’s ideals when promoting the “new birth of freedom” in the Gettysburg Address. Alexander Stephens (Confederate Vice President) on the other hand, in his notorious “Cornerstone” speech, said that the founders’ ideas were “fundamentally wrong”, and therefore slavery was fine.

It should be obvious that the several hundred neo-Nazis and sort in Charlottesville that weekend were doing the exact opposite of further fulfilling the ideals. They seek to erase the improvements generations before us had made and revive the ideologies that are otherwise obviated to ugly stains in history textbooks. So not only was the city itself under a sort of attack, but the ideals that are the bedrock of the University, that made the city what it is, that made the city a city as opposed to a tourist attraction in the middle of farmland were under attack. (Ok, Jefferson would have wanted Charlottesville to remain farmland, but that’s another story.)

But how does this relate to us in the (much larger than not) non-neo-Nazi world? It’s still true, though to a lesser extent than it was in 1777, that the world we control does not 100% live up to the ideals ingrained in the Declaration. The Americans of 3017 will read about some things we do, or are complicit in, and wonder “how the #&^* did they let that happen?” In order for us to improve the world with those ideals, a healthy skepticism is necessary. I am not advocating for changing things for the sake of changing things, or cherry-picking and twisting ideals in a fanatic and/or impulsive manner. Honestly applying them in enlightened manner is necessary. A sheer impulse on any subject is typically bad to obey in the long term. (Many of history’s “bad guys”, including Al Capogne and some 20th century tyrants, were seemingly blind and impulsive enough to consider themselves public benefactors.) Rather, I am saying that an honest an critical look at one’s present conditions, accompanied of course by a lot of fact and enlightenment thought, is how societies can improve and human minds are released from shackles.