It’s a beautiful campus and a charming town. Just the sort of place you’d expect to be the locus of Mr. Jefferson’s university. And the tumult there puts me in mind of Jefferson’s unhappy experience as university president. I once spent a productive day in the UV archives, which tell the story.
Jefferson was a passionate believer in democracy at all levels of public life, and it made perfect ideological sense to him that the students should run the university. His university. They should make the basic decisions, from choosing their professors to deciding what they should study. After all, if the people were really going to rule, they were best qualified to judge how the place should be run, weren’t they? Jefferson institutionalized it. With the same predictably bad results as we get nowadays when the kids get their hands on their own schools.
It went bad quite quickly, as you’d expect. Just as now, the students took to the lawns when they didn’t get what they wanted, and order had to be imposed. All of which forced Jefferson to reconsider, and he redid the governance system at UV. No more student rule. Their elders and betters would make the academic decisions. Including Jefferson himself.
So the clashes on the UV campus and throughout beautiful Charlottesville are part of the traditions of the place. And the issue that so many have (wrongly, in my view) made the central one—to direct all opprobrium at the Nazis who scheduled the original demonstration—also has a long lineage. Have you seen the old movie “Skokie”? It’s about a Nazi march in Skokie, Illinois, and stars Danny Kaye. He plays himself, a Jew very upset that monsters are going to parade through the streets of his town, and he resolves to fight it. Which we all applaud. But the film stresses that the Nazis are entitled to march, just as the Nazis were entitled to demonstrate in Charlottesville. And when they do, the rest of us should denounce them. As we do, with rare exceptions. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.
It’s not supposed to degenerate into violence. Political leaders and the cops are supposed to prevent that. Both failed in Charlottesville. The pols condemned the Nazis but not the anarchist antifa mob, and the cops waited until the last minute before they acted. Why didn’t they act earlier? Most likely for two reasons: they weren’t ordered to, and because they didn’t want to end in front of politically ambitious prosecutors and DAs, a la Baltimore. They have learned that they themselves are, often as not, blamed for the violence.
Moreover, as I have noted in the past, colleges are ill equipped to deal with violence and/or extremist demands. Ask Jefferson. He’ll tell you all about it.
Finally, there’s America. We’re a fractious fighting people. We have always taken to the streets, lawns, and hills (think Bunker Hill, for example) to “solve” our problems, real or imagined. And nowadays street fighting is all the, uh, rage. Twitter overflows with it, on both or, as the president correctly said, “many sides.” It’s the way we are. Those who are able to duke it out do so, while the chattering crowds yell and scream.
Footnote: our Marine sons were both astonished at the number of colleagues who had never been in a fist fight. They got plenty of training, but their non-military peers never did; the inciters come from that group.
It is certain that we’ll have more Charlottesvilles. A bit of historical context helps understand it. Better.