Short Visit to Charlottesville

Few people live for the excitement of radical demonstrations. Most of us want to enjoy life and, if we can, contribute something positive to society along the way. Thus, it is small surprise that, when hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists arrived in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11, and engaged in open intimidation of counterdemonstrators the following day, almost no residents were happy, and many made their displeasure clear. In the end, one Nazi sympathizer from Ohio chose to drive his car into a crowd, injuring numerous bystanders and killing Heather Heyer, a young local paralegal with an admirable history of assisting the disadvantaged.

Thanks to extremely unfortunate and ill-considered comments on the matter by President Donald Trump, Charlottesville has become shorthand in many people’s minds for a controversy about intolerance. But what really happens as a community tries to resume normal life after such distasteful episodes? What happens after the intruders, who among other things took issue with the proposed removal of statues of Confederate leaders, finally leave town and go back where they came from? Only one organizer was a Charlottesville resident, not a particularly popular one at that, and the vast majority of right-wing demonstrators were from outside Virginia—a point emphasized by Gov. Terry McAuliffe in his condemnation of their activities.

I had the opportunity to visit Charlottesville last Monday. To be clear, my primary motive was to visit two retired friends who moved there from suburban Washington, D.C. They had invited me long before the demonstrations took place. I took them up on the offer largely because I had been asked to speak at the North Carolina state conference of the American Planning Association, which began on September 26. I flew into Richmond the previous day and drove to Charlottesville that afternoon. They wanted to show off their new home town and took me to the University of Virginia campus and then downtown, where we eventually had dinner followed by some late-night conversation. I drove to Greenville, North Carolina, the next morning.

I mention all this because I am sharing casual observations, not dedicated reporting or profound knowledge of the city, which I had never previously visited. Even so, I think my observations have some modest value. For one, Charlottesville is a normal, mostly attractive city, a university town of average size (just under 50,000). It is well forested in places and sports some attractive scenery, like much of Virginia. It is easy to see why people would like living there.

It is also largely a progressive city, not unusual for a community with a strong academic history. The Rotunda, the original core of the University of Virginia campus, was designed by Thomas Jefferson in the years after he retired from the presidency to his home at nearby Monticello. The campus thus has a noteworthy history dating back more than two centuries to America’s earliest days. The university has a noteworthy academic history and has produced its fair share of meritorious scholarship. Historic preservation clearly is part of the university’s DNA.

But that history contains a dark side that long remained unacknowledged until more recent times. Much of Jefferson’s architectural handiwork was achieved with slave labor. The slaves who helped build the campus spent many decades deprived of access to the educational opportunities the university provided. Social justice has become a significant focus of the university’s attention in recent decades, once the civil rights movement had forced the entire state to think seriously about racial equality. This is the state, after all, that in the 1960s gave the nation Loving v. Virginia, a U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed state laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

To its credit, however, the University of Virginia has been coming to terms with its history. Surely, one can credit Jefferson for remarkable skills and a certain practical genius in both politics and architectural design. His achievements are not to be gainsaid. At the same time, there is no question that much of his life was predicated on and enabled by inequality and the suppression of opportunity for people of color, enslaved or free. His political courage never extended to the liberation of his African-American servants. University walking tours now include very factual discussions of the role of enslaved African Americans, some of whom were openly abused and maltreated on the antebellum campus. Their story deserves to be told along with that of the leaders who created much of the university’s unique heritage. Brochures and information related to historic buildings suggest that university historians have spent time documenting this history for the benefit of future generations. The contributions of African Americans, willing or involuntary, to the university need to be part of the public record. The educational displays in the Rotunda acknowledge that history.

But it was through this very campus that the Klansmen and Nazis marched on that August night, carrying torches and chanting offensive slogans like “Jews will not replace us.” They made a point of marching in front of a downtown synagogue. I may be Christian, not Jewish, but I can easily imagine how angry I would feel if that were my place of worship. It has never even occurred to me to disrespect someone else’s house of worship in any way. Part of being American, in my humble opinion, lies in respecting other people’s ethnic or racial heritage and freedom of religion. I am aware that there are plenty of examples of disrespect for diversity in American history, but they should fill us with shame, not pride, because they contradict our stated principles as a nation.

Shrouded statue of Gen. Stonewall Jackson in downtown Charlottesville.

As in any such city, the university is a major presence in the life of Charlottesville. But it was downtown where the Saturday rally and confrontations occurred. There seems to be some serious public discontent with the role of the police that day in containing the violence that occurred, quite possibly because public safety officials failed to take seriously enough the full extent of the threat, expecting a much smaller demonstration. Certainly, no one expected James Alex Fields, a 20-year-old Nazi sympathizer from a Toledo, Ohio, suburb to drive his vehicle through a crowd with the express purpose of producing mayhem among those opposed to the right-wing protest, but it also is not clear to all concerned that police had taken all appropriate measures to secure the area to prevent such an outcome. I am not judging; I am merely reporting the apparent public sentiment.

Two statues whose preservation was the object of the protest, those of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, have been shrouded from public view with a “no trespassing” sign to bar fans of the Confederacy from removing the shrouds. I will not take up the arguments about the fate of the statues here. I am merely noting that many would like to see them go, even as others make a case for preserving them. But it does seem to me that there is a serious difference between exploring and understanding the history of the Civil War and providing people who fought to preserve slavery and against the United States with a place of honor on public property. Equating knowledge of American heritage with statue preservation strikes me as simplistic and even disingenuous.

But most striking in this city seeking to reestablish normal life after a harrowing episode involving domestic terrorism and racial hatred is the simple campaign that has been launched to demonstrate a municipal identity in the wake of those events. Throughout downtown, posters and displays proclaim that “Charlottesville Stands for Love.” It is a simple, almost unsophisticated declaration that captures a sentiment that informs the Klan and the Nazis that they are out of place in Charlottesville, that the community simply is not interested in fomenting or disseminating hatred. This is a city looking to the future, not interested in perpetuating the animosities and bigotries of the past. It is time to move on.

The display in the photo above appears in the middle of the downtown pedestrian mall, which reminded me in its design features of the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, Colorado. It is a place of small shops, of funky and independent restaurants, of people who accept diversity. It is a place for people to find locally oriented businesses, to relax, to meet each other, and to foster a culture of mutual respect. It is its own message: We all just want to get along and lead productive lives. We have our problems, like any city, but hate is not welcome here.

Jim Schwab

A Brief American Declaration of Intelligence

Ignorance did not make America great. Ignorance will not make America great again. Let’s all vow to stop the glorification of #ignorance.

 

Like millions of other Americans, I have been deeply disturbed over the past week by the comments of President Donald Trump regarding the events last Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia. I contemplated what I could possibly do or say in response to someone who seems to possess so little desire to educate himself on the basic issues of U.S. history or to consider the impact of his words on the people threatened by demonstrations of torch-bearing, bat-carrying, shield-wearing neo-Nazis chanting Nazi slogans and white supremacists and Ku Klux Klan members invoking the horrors of the Confederacy. I finally concluded there is no point in refuting someone who clearly cares so little for the truth. The truth, in his mind, seems to be whatever he wants to believe is the truth.

Instead, I posted the statement above earlier today on both Twitter and Facebook as an offering to those other millions of Americans who cherish equality and dignity and understand that compassion and truth are the foundations of a better future for our nation. If I can share anything with America, it is a gift for condensing the message in articulate language, and so that is what I tried to do here. It is what I can do for my country at a moment when it is pining for clarity of purpose. We need to honor intelligence and intelligent, thoughtful inquiry concerning the kind of nation we want to become. We must rise above hateful slogans.

One reason I titled this blog “Home of the Brave” was that I felt we should not accede to the appropriation of our national symbols and phrases by extreme right-wing forces at odds with democracy for all. We need to keep in mind the closing words of the Pledge of Allegiance: “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Those who want more, and those who want to dispute my perspective, can dig through the rest of this website, and the rest of this blog, and parse and dissect it to their hearts’ content. I have left a long trail by now. But for tonight, at this time, my three-word statement above is what I have to offer. Share it, retweet it, put it on your placard or bumper sticker. But please insist on intelligent dialogue.

 

Jim Schwab

Our National Farce

Sadly, a national farce is underway. I first commented on the evolving phenomenon last June on this blog, but it has metastasized and metamorphosed in the intervening months, trumping all other considerations as we choose a new leader of the world’s most powerful nation. I wish I could find a reason to write about anything else, but it just keeps staring me in the face this weekend because the farce found its way to Chicago.

I could not even escape it while eating dinner Friday evening with my wife at the end of a very busy week. Because she was coming downtown anyway, I suggested that we eat at Miller’s Pub, right next door to the Palmer House Hilton on Wabash Avenue, where, it so happened, protesters were greeting Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner during a Republican fundraising dinner. Given the stalemate between Rauner and the Democratic majority in the state legislature, there is undoubtedly plenty of reason for people to be upset. After all, the state still has no budget, and schools are getting no money. He insists on including some antiunion provisions in the budget, and the Democrats refuse. Checkmate. The losers are the students and teachers and the voters. But dramatic as that is, it is not my point.

Miller’s Pub is one of those busy, popular places with television screens on the walls, and while they are often filled with sports images or the usual news, Friday evening it was impossible to avoid noticing the train wreck associated with the other demonstration in town—the one at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) Pavilion. Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump had canceled a rally that attracted more than 25,000 people because among them were thousands of highly diverse protesters. The anti-Trump crowd consisted of young and old, black and white, Christians and Muslims, Hispanics—a veritable Chicago rainbow. In choosing the UIC Pavilion for a rally, Trump had situated himself amid Chicago’s diversity, much of which consists of populations he has insulted or offended in recent months during his rise to prominence. Many of the protesters stated they wanted to make clear that Chicago relishes its diversity and does not share his values. In my honest opinion, it is almost as if he wanted this result. The idea of actually engaging in dialogue with his critics, as most candidates do at some point, seems foreign to him, almost a sign of weakness. Only confrontation is acceptable for a man’s man. How sad.

What unfolded, however, exceeds even the bizarre standards of this year’s campaign, making it hard to stop tracking the news even on Saturday. Trump first explained that he had canceled the rally out of concern for public safety after consulting with the Chicago police. But interim Police Chief John Escalante said in a press conference that Trump had never talked to them before making that decision. Trump’s campaign claimed to have conferred with Cmdr. George Devereux, but the police said Devereux was responsible for security at Trump’s hotel, not the rally site. Is it that hard to just tell the truth?

We have a national campaign that begins to resemble a Jerry Springer television show in its ability to attract supercilious scuffles. Trump claims to want peaceful rallies, yet news reports can easily replay numerous scenes in which he has urged his followers to rough up protesters and even offered to pay their legal fees for doing so. Only a day before the Chicago contretemps, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, a Trump supporter had cold-cocked a protester who was being escorted from a rally by the police, leaving him with injuries around one eye. John McGraw, 78, now charged with assualt, said the protester “deserved it” and that next time they “might have to kill him.” Trump’s response? The day after Chicago, he was claiming that his supporters were “nice people” and that the protesters were “Bernie’s people,” referring to Vermont U.S. Senator Bernard Sanders, one of the two remaining Democratic contenders (along with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton), whom Trump then derided as “our communist friend.”

If I were writing a wild fictional potboiler, the plot could not sound more contrived. I confess I am approaching a loss for words. I cannot recall a situation in my life where the leading candidate in either party has looked more like Benito Mussolini with his Blackshirts attacking those who disagreed with him. Trump has shown a complete incapacity to accept any responsibility for what Clinton rightly has labeled “political arson.”

What is sad is that a brand of political recklessness and disregard for truth that would have sunk almost any other candidacy in years past seems to buoy Trump in the eyes of his supporters. You can analyze this authoritarian phenomenon however you wish. There is little doubt in my mind that the divisive obstinacy of many Republican leaders in their reaction to President Barack Obama, in their willingness to remain silent in the face of nonsensical claims that he is a Muslim, that he was not born in the U.S., etc., has set the stage for this farce. They are now reaping the whirlwind.

Still, it was not inevitable, and it did not have to happen. There remains one man who, but for his own brand of narcissism and egomania, could take responsibility and change course. But as one commentator on CNN noted, Trump never backs down. And that is one very frightening characteristic for any potential occupant of the Oval Office. And they used to say it can’t happen here.

Maybe it can.

 

Jim Schwab

It’s Okay to Fail (Sometimes)

Ascension Parish Strike SceneJust in case anyone out there is unduly impressed with my intelligence, I have a revelation: I flunked calculus in my first quarter of my freshman year in college. I was attending Cleveland State University on Kiwanis scholarship money, no less. Not that I really understood what hit me or saw it coming, and that’s the point. I entered with high SAT scores, and the guidance counselor duly noted that I had high placement scores for both Spanish and Mathematics. She recommended a fifth-quarter placement for Spanish though my three years in high school ordinarily equated to fourth-quarter placement. We ended up choosing more conservatively, and I aced both the fourth and fifth quarters of Spanish to complete my language requirement. I probably should have skipped that fourth quarter and taken the advanced placement. On the other hand, we stuck with the advanced placement in calculus, and it backfired. Not so good.

A little background is helpful, as it almost always is in understanding how and why any student performs at the college level. I entered the fall quarter on crutches because of an industrial accident late in the summer. I was earning money working in a chemical plant in a nearby Cleveland suburb, but the dome of an antimony kiln tipped over and trapped my ankle, which was fractured. I collected worker compensation for the next six weeks until the doctor removed the cast, at which time I hobbled for a while until I rebuilt strength in my left leg. That was certainly a distraction, but not a dire impediment. More importantly, but exacerbated by the injury, I had a tendency developed earlier in life not to reach out for help when I needed it, in part because of a stubborn tendency to assume I could figure things out, which I very often had done. I was in deep water in that calculus class, and by the time I realized I could not swim, I was drowning—even though the ankle had healed just fine.

In a subsequent quarter, I asserted some hard-working grit by getting permission to take 20 credits (the limit was 18), five courses instead of four, in order to regain the lost ground from that failed class. And I pushed my through that grinding schedule with respectable grades.

Failing that class, which may have cost me a renewal of the scholarship (I never found out), may have been vital, however, for my growth as a student. I worked two more summers in that chemical plant, which would only qualify as easy work if you enjoy such activities as unloading 50-pound bags of sulfur on a dolly from a railcar in 95-degree heat while wearing a face mask. I should note that my father worked there, too. He ran the garage and was the lead mechanic, repairing and maintaining all the trucks and forklifts and such. When I started college, he too was temporarily disabled. He was in the hospital with a disk injury that required lower back surgery that kept him out of work for six months. Suffice it to say that all the undergraduate tuition for my education came from my own savings from those summer and other seasonal jobs. Thank God for union wages. But it did mean that my education was for me a valuable commodity, hard earned and well paid for. Although I attended college from 1968 to 1973, in the midst of the civil rights, Vietnam war, and environmental protest era, and I did participate in all those causes, I was decidedly not inclined to get silly about drugs, sex, and parties because it was my money that was paying for that education. It makes a difference.

There is a certain right-wing mythology in American politics that says such self-reliance induces a conservative outlook in life. What it does, which has little to do with modern American conservatism in my opinion, is instill a strong dose of resilience and common sense. That may or may not lead to a conservative political outlook. In my case, it led to a strong identification with those struggling to get ahead and a willingness to balance the social scales better than we typically do. My intellectual curiosity drove me to learn more about other cultures and lifestyles and perspectives.

I should also add that I had a powerful hankering to write, one that has asserted itself repeatedly throughout my life and career. It seemed at first that majoring in English made sense; the university did not offer a major in journalism. I enjoyed reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald and 17th-century English novelists for a while, and the honors English classes in which I was placed were stimulating. But I soon realized that another part of me was itching to be born. In high school, perhaps in part because of nerdy tendencies, such as they came in the 1960s, I was somewhat withdrawn. Our high school was a high performer, and I was on an academic quiz show team, but no matter. I never felt that I fit in very easily, but I was president of the Writers Club and active in one or two other groups—but nothing major.

At Cleveland State, however, I quickly found that my inner extrovert was eagerly waiting to burst its shell, and the higher intellectual climate was just what I needed to find my comfort zone. I started doing less well in those honors English classes as I became heavily involved in campus politics, at one point running credibly but unsuccessfully for president of the student government. I founded Cleveland State’s first student environmental group and led it for three years. It was time to blend my academic studies with my real life aspirations, and I shifted my major to political science, which undoubtedly aided my GPA. Suddenly my activities and my studies bore some relation to each other. I could excel again.

None of this led to instant change. It led to perpetual evolution. It took years for many of the seeds planted in those college years to grow and mature, and failure contributed to that growth and maturation every bit as much as any success along the way. Someday I may need a whole book to relate the entire story, and right now I lack the free time to write it thoughtfully and thoroughly. But in all the discussion of resilient communities of which I am a part, I am at least willing to offer that, beneath all the intellectual definitions of resilience, some of us also harbor perspectives on resilience that are built on a solid foundation of personal experience. And in real life, those perspectives matter every bit as much in collectively defining resilience as any words in a dictionary or scientific report.

 

Jim Schwab

 

 

We Shall Overcome Together

Imagine watching a mean-spirited white farmer shoot your father dead in the cotton fields shortly after taking advantage of your mother in the shed. Then imagine, after several years of serving as a household servant, walking away into a world unknown, with few possessions, and walking past two black men hanging from nooses on a public street in Georgia. And somehow you first find a job serving affluent white people and ignoring their comments, and then finding your way to a fancy hotel in Washington, D.C., on the recommendation of your boss, who turned down the opportunity, and after several years finding that your performance leads you to the White House to serve as a new butler. By now it is 1957, Dwight Eisenhower is president, and you are a witness to history as he sends federal troops to Arkansas to enforce desegregation of public schools.

That is only the beginning of the story in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, the movie my wife and I saw at the theater last night. The violence, however, is not at all gratuitous but instructive about a piece of American history that many would still prefer to forget or ignore. Cecil Gaines served under presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan, and lived long enough to see the inauguration of Barack Obama. His wife, played by Oprah Winfrey, lived almost but not quite long enough. Along the way, they witnessed the assassination of John Kennedy and watched their oldest son, Louis, attend Fisk University in Nashville, where he joined the Freedom Riders—against his father’s wishes—survived numerous encounters with the law before the law finally changed, and suffered the death of their younger son, Charles, in Vietnam. He was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery, at a time when Cecil and Louis were estranged as a result of Louis’s involvement in the Black Panthers. Louis eventually returned to school, earned a Master’s degree in political science, ran for Congress, and led protests against apartheid in South Africa. His father finally reconciled with him at that time after retiring from his job during the administration of Ronald Reagan, who opposed sanctions against the South African regime. The movie depicts Reagan, as Cecil announced his retirement, wondering whether he was on the wrong side of history with regard to civil rights. As ever, Gaines tried to avoid answering the question. But he proceeded to reconcile with Louis by joining his protest.

Although the pace of such a biopic is sometimes uneven, as would be the case with most movies whose story stretches over nine decades, it is nonetheless an extremely worthwhile contribution to public understanding of where our nation has been with regard to race relations, and how far it has come, and more importantly, how it got from point A to point B. It shows that division of opinion and perspective was every bit as alive and poignant in black as in white America over those many years. We watch presidents and others change their hearts and minds as a result of experience. It is important, in 2013, to remember that awareness of the full range of the American experience was not as prevalent a century ago as now, that we have not always had 24-hour news, whatever that has contributed, and that for many blacks in the Old South, leaving home was a frightening experience because their world had been so narrow. It took real fear and despair to push people northward.

But the sight of those hanging men, the vicious responses to lunch counter sit-ins, and the burning of freedom buses by robed Klansmen helped provide that impetus, along with the sense that there had to be new opportunities elsewhere. But the violence also has long troubled me in another sense.

As a Christian, I have never, ever found it possible to reconcile such behavior by the southern white community with the so-called Bible Belt affinity for religion. I grew up in Ohio, with some distance from the Old South, but I knew of it even as a teenager, watching television news footage of civil rights protests in Alabama and Mississippi. It just did not add up. I am well aware of the tendency to accept the way things are, and tradition and the status quo are not always bad things. But the sheer brutality required to enforce segregation cannot be reconciled with the teachings of Jesus no matter how hard one tries, no matter how desperately one wants to believe in his own privileges in an oppressive system. There is a willful stubbornness about clinging to such beliefs in the face of all the evidence of their unfairness. I am well aware that these things were not limited to the South, though the lynchings largely were.

The reconciliation of father and son in The Butler is the reconciliation of two very different paths to personal and political liberation, and the discovery that Cecil and Louis, coming from two different times and generations, had more in common in the end than either realized during most of their long estrangement. Their conflict is a reminder to us all of the stress imposed on all of us who struggle to find a path to a better world. Both made meaningful contributions, and both were heroes, each in his own way. If this movie has a core lesson to impart, I believe that is it.

Jim Schwab