Reporter Journal / Chris Davis

Distress never what Mr Jefferson had in mind

(China Daily USA) Updated: 2017-08-17 11:26

Being an alumnus of the University of Virginia, my inbox has been lighting up with comments on the recent troubles in what I fondly remember as a quite bucolic place to go to school.

There was a small monolith on the Grounds, to the right of the Rotunda, if I remember correctly, that held a bust of Mr Jefferson (as he is always referred to by custom) and one of his most celebrated quotes. I believe he wrote it in a letter, describing the university, which he prided himself on more than any of his other considerable accomplishments:

"This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it."

In a normal day of classes, you'd pass that fixture more than once and more than one of the fellow alums I've stayed in touch with have used the words as a kind of compass in life, one that might come in handy presently. What would Mr Jefferson make of all this?

One old friend, who works as a writer now, let it rip without pulling any punches:

"I'm pretty saddened to learn that two of the 'alt-right' leaders, Spencer and Kessler, are U-Va graduates," he wrote in an email. "You'd think they would have learned something about honor and decency while they were there."

No doubt a reference to the school's vaunted honor code, which was very real and strictly enforced. Hope it still is.

He continued: "I have no sympathy for those low-life yahoos or for the wannabe supporters of the Confederate lost cause. One of the reasons I live in Maryland and not in Virginia is that I do not want to live in a state where streets, highways and schools are still named for traitors. I'd like to see every last Confederate statue taken down and its base obliterated.

"From what I've heard, the Friday night torchlight march of the neo-Nazis along the U-Va Lawn, as they chanted 'Heil Trump' and 'Death to the Jews,' was incredibly eerie, like a Hitler Youth rally.

"These are the country's real terrorists," he wrote.

It's impossible to imagine this parade of torch-bearing cretins getting away with this kind of behavior while school was in session and the rooms along the Lawn were occupied.

Another old friend reacted to the incident as it was still unfolding, calling it "a real tragedy of intolerance and racism at its worst."

"No excuse for these radical Nazis to become violent," he wrote. "It appears that both sides were geared for violence and intended to make sure that violence occurred. Police are being criticized for not having been more forceful in keeping order."

He goes on to explain it all started months ago when a member of the Charlottesville City Council and Vice Mayor, Wes Bellamy, started a movement to remove the Lee Park statue and went downhill from there. The council appointed a task force to study the issue and provide new names for the park, then didn't follow the recommendations they were given.

"Council seems to be split but the left leaning ones are in the majority and don't really care what the local population thinks," he writes. "Over 80% in a local informal poll voted to leave statue where it is. Not sure what will happen next."

Charlottesville resident Mike King seemed to back that view up, writing on the CNN website: " yesterday was a horrible day for my city. The news outlets have it all wrong. This whole march was started by the city's vice mayor and the city council who decided to try to make a name for himself by removing a historical statue of Robert E Lee. He wants to erase history.

"After the citizens of Charlottesville voiced their opinion that the statue should stay, Wes Bellamy kept pushing the issue. These are the facts. This has nothing to do with Trump. Wes Bellamy and the city council brought this mess upon our city. Race relations here have been set back 60 years. BLM is to the black community as the KKK is to the white community. Hate is what it is. Hate has no color, hate has no political belief. There is hate on both sides, yesterday proved that."

A former classmate who now lives in the downtown, not far from the parks, wrote me the following:

"It's been a tragic time here in Charlottesville. And confusing, bewildering. Disgusting, hate-filled. Frightening.

"And still, as a community we are coming together in a way that is uplifting, heartening, strengthening, illuminating. Each day is a revelation for me."

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