While it might be a little hard to envision at the moment, as we try to figure out what’s going on both in the United States and internationally, there is a place for optimism as we think about where we are as a society. And this is an appropriate time, too. Just this past week-end students and leadership at The University of Virginia and the citizens of Charlottesville put together an important program to mark the one-year anniversary of the 2017 deadly white supremacist rallies.
As an American citizen I have followed the news reports about last year’s awful tragedy. And as a graduate of the University I’ve been hearing a great deal about many other goings-on there as well, since – as it happens – Mr. Jefferson’s University is in the midst of observing its 200th anniversary in 2018 and 2019. (And, yes, we did speak of “Mr. Jefferson’s University” when I was a student in Charlottesville – at least some people did – as “UVA” wasn’t yet part of our local academic vocabulary). So while this week-end’s event was certainly not celebratory in tone, it surely filled a need on the Grounds – as UVA’s campus is called – that required attention, even (or perhaps especially) during the two years of the bicentennial observance. And it was an event of which, I think, Mr. Jefferson would have approved and supported strongly. While I could not get to Charlottesville to attend the program remembering last year’s horrific event, I was happy to be able to read about it, and mightily impressed with University President James E. Ryan’s remarks to the community about how the program was planned and would be staged.
For one thing, the title of the event was optimistic and hopeful: “The Hope that Summons Us: A Morning of Reflection and Renewal.” The program’s announcement made it clear that the event had been put together to enable students and citizens to come together to discuss “how our shared values as a community will help guide our future actions.” If that is the goal our future leaders are pursuing, perhaps we need to hear what they have to say. Perhaps that level of optimism will position us, as a society, for moving forward with a higher understanding of our shared values and provide a cooperative strength for defusing the hatred that is so plainly dividing us as citizens.
Indeed, two comments in the invitation stated that ideal very well:
“Our hope is that this program embodies the values of many who live, study, and work in Charlottesville and the surrounding counties – individuals committed to equity and the challenging and important work of community-building,” said event organizer Melody Barnes, a fellow at the Miller Center and the School of Law and the recently elected vice chairman of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
At the same time, fellow organizer Michael Suarez, professor of English, director of UVA’s Rare Book School, and a Jesuit priest at the Church of the Holy Comforter in Charlottesville said, “Gathering our communities on the morning of Aug. 11 is more than a symbolic gesture – it is an important step in moving forward together, knowing that there is much work to be done in the months and years ahead.”
At the program, President Ryan began his address by honoring those who died in the rallies, those who were injured, and all who were so hurt and humiliated and dismayed in the events of August, 2017. And, like those who organized the event and described it to attendees, he was determined in his address – titled The Imperfect Pursuit of High Ideals – to cast his lot in optimism and looking to the future: “I believe,” he said, “that in the face of tragedy, having endured some myself, that we can still find the strength to move forward.”
He then went on to quote one of Wordsworth’s poems, saying “in which he got it, if I dare say so, almost right”: “Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower, we will grieve not, but find strength in what remains behind.”
Then President Ryan continued, building on that “almost got it right”:
“It’s almost right because I think we can, and we should, grieve for the fact than nothing can bring back the splendor and the glory of those whose lives were lost last August. But we can still, despite our grief, find strength in what remains behind. And we can still have hope, which is what summons us here this morning.”
From then on, the address went to places anyone listening needed to go, fully moving into that dangerous context in which ideals and reality do, in fact, come into conflict:
“When the neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched toward the Jefferson statue last year, they were met by a group of intrepid individuals who had gathered around the statue. It was a remarkable moment of courage and bravery by our students and community members, who stood fast and found themselves, perhaps to their surprise, in a position of appearing to defend the Thomas Jefferson statue from attack. I doubt very much that all of those forced into that position were intending to defend the statue itself, and I am certain they were fully aware of Jefferson’s complicated legacy. Author of the Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed the inherent equality of all, he was also a slave owner. Yet these students and community members were forced into appearing to keep the statue safe from the white supremacists who had marched through our Grounds, intent on causing terror and seemingly intent on laying claim to Jefferson the slaveowner as opposed to Jefferson the idealist.”
President Ryan then brought Professor Annette Gordon-Reed into the picture, declaring that she had described that tension well.
“She’s an eminent Jefferson scholar whose research helped convinced historians and others about the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings,” President Ryan said, referring to a scholar I have admired for many years, but not nearly so much as when I had the opportunity to read and think about her important 2016 book Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination which she wrote with Professor Peter Onuf. In his address, President Ryan noted that in 2017 Annette Gordon-Reed had this to say:
“American ideals have always clashed with harsh American realities. We saw that clash on the grounds of UVA. But how do we continue in the face of depressing realities to allow ourselves to hold fast to the importance of having aspirations, and recognize that the pursuit of high ideals – even if carried out imperfectly – offers the only real chance of bringing forth good in the world? In many ways, grappling with that question is what being a scholar of Jefferson is all about. Perhaps coming fully to grips with the paradoxes that Jefferson’s life presents is what being an American is about.”
Continuing, President Ryan noted that what Professor Gordon-Reed had to say brought his listeners back to where they needed to be, to think about “the gaps,” he called it, “between our aspirations and our everyday realities.” It was, he said, “to me one of the most profound observations of what took place last year on our Grounds and in Charlottesville.”
“Our professed and cherished ideals as a community were confronted with the grim and horrific reminder that everyday realities are sometimes quite different. To wrestle with that difference, to come to grips with the gaps that still exist between our aspirations and our everyday realities, is indeed what being an American is about. It is also, importantly, what being a member of this community is about, or should be.”
As he moved forward with his address, President Ryan did a remarkable job of ensuring that the single message of the title of his presentation, “The Imperfect Pursuit of High Ideals,” was the message our society needed to hear, not just the society in Charlottesville and at the University, but – as I, too, firmly believe – throughout the United States and, yes, throughout the world. And he brought that message home when he talked about what we’re all talking about: “As I listened in to conversations over the past year, this is the dominant question I heard asked around Grounds: how do we close that gap? How do we more fully live our values?”
He spoke about how important it is to be asking these questions and how, for us as a society, “this is all to the good.”
And he didn’t stop there. Painting the very ugly picture of what the neo-Nazis and white supremacist wanted, and who they are, he contrasted what is “all to the good” with what they wanted.
“…it is quite different – markedly, drastically, different – from the motives of those who marched last year. Let’s be clear: This group of marchers represented an extreme group of lost souls who want to reject our values and our aspirations, and they were emboldened – let’s be honest yet again – by a political climate that fosters the idea that those fundamental values might actually be up for grabs.”
It was, President Ryan said, a different message this “extreme group of lost souls” wanted to deliver. “Such a different message, if you think about it, from the one delivered by the great Abraham Lincoln, who famously appealed to ‘the better angels of our nature’ in an effort to bring the country together and save the union.” In embracing Lincoln, President Ryan carefully connected his time to our own:
“To summon hope today is to summon the better angels of our nature, who can help lead us down the path to the place where our aspirations and our realities meet. As a university, this means we must have the courage to acknowledge the gaps that still exist. It means we must admit to mistakes, including those made last year, understanding – and trusting that others understand – that mistakes in times of crises are inevitable, some avoidable and some not. It means pledging to do our best to learn from our mistakes, because that is the best that any human – or any institution, which is nothing more than a collection of humans – can do. And it means not being afraid to apologize for mistakes we have made. We do nothing more than recognize our common humanity to say to those who were attacked around the statue last year: I am sorry. We are sorry.”
[The filmed presentation of President Ryan’s remarks is at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cyLaJPGhJJQ&feature=youtu.be]