Charlottesville’s Mayor Assigns Homework
The Mayor of Charlottesville seems an impressive guy. I say this even though I’m still bemused by the tepid response of his police department during the demonstrations–good practice would have kept the neo-Nazis and counter-demonstrators separated.
That said, Mayor Signer exhibited the forcefulness that the city’s policing lacked, both in public statements in the aftermath of the demonstrations, and in a letter published by the New York Times. Unlike other elected officials who were reluctant to “call out” the President, the Mayor called it like he saw it.
Asked about Trump’s culpability, he responded
I mean, look at the intentional courting both on the one hand of all these white supremacists, white nationalist group like that, anti-Semitic groups. And then look on the other hand the repeated failure to step up,condemn, denounce, silence, you know, put to bed all those different efforts just like we saw yesterday. I mean this is not hard.
In his essay in the Times, the Mayor considered the underlying issues raised by the conflict.
We start with a paradox: It was only because we live in a strong democracy, with a robust commitment to free speech, that these people were able to march in the first place. Narrowly speaking, their presence was in a way an expression of our democratic values, even as they sought to destroy them. In response, we must find an answer that both fights back against voices of hate, but at the same time stays true to the values that undergird our community in the first place.
As both the mayor of Charlottesville — a city steeped in the legacy of Thomas Jefferson — and the author of a biography of James Madison, I believe our answers lie in what I think of as the “soul” of the founders’ vision.
The Mayor went on to describe the mechanics of our system, the checks and balances and legal constraints that we depend upon to keep our polity functioning– but then he made an important point. The mechanics, he wrote, are nothing without the norms and values that enable us to collectively solve problems without force, violence and intimidation.
The people who visited terror on us last weekend were using the mechanics of the Constitution — freedom of speech, freedom of assembly — to attack its soul, to set fire to the pillars of civility, deliberation, compromise, tolerance and reconciliation that underwrite our system of government.
Signer noted that events like those in Charlottesville elicit calls for restricting the rights that allow such protests to occur, and he warned against going down that path.
It’s counterintuitive, but our democracy has often been at its best when our constitutional soul has been poked and prodded and has stood up on its hind legs to defend itself.
So–if retreating from our constitutional liberties is not the proper response, what is? Signer doesn’t simply recite platitudes; he spells out who should do what: companies must use their weight to press for tolerance and diversity, “whether that means pressuring states on transgender bathroom laws or refusing to sell services to groups that advocate hate.” Colleges and universities must “recommit to instilling the values of deliberation and civility in their students.” News organizations must not only convey correct facts, but “present contextual and fact-checking resources.”
It means a broad social commitment to organizations telling the stories of embattled minorities, whether Muslim Americans or L.G.B.T.Q. youth, so they are humanized to the rest of the country. It means law firms dedicating pro bono hours to stand up for the rights of the harassed and the oppressed.
It means mentors teaching young folks that they don’t always have to fight to get what they want, that carrots often work better than sticks. It means government agencies using negotiation rather than just mandates. It means politicians agreeing to sit down together and negotiate, rather than lob hopeless bombs.
And it means governments finally telling the truth about race in our history. It means strong new programs to build bridges between isolated communities. And yes, it means political parties and organizations actively reaching out to the economically dispossessed, who feel left behind by today’s cultural and economic changes.
I read this letter as a call for active and informed citizenship, and at this moment in our national life, a properly mobilized and informed citizenry is probably the only thing that will save us.