This commentary was first published by the Daily Caller.
A member of my staff was in Charlottesville the day of the clash. The University of Virginia campus, where he was tasked with delivering a table to his sister’s dorm room, was mostly deserted. It was like any other slow, muggy summer afternoon. So how did a bunch of racists and so-called counter-demonstrators come to descend on the place to create the ugliest of spectacles?
Simply put, they needed each other. For some, their passion was sufficient enough that traveling hundreds of miles was no impediment to confronting each other. Both wear their alienation from mainstream American society on their sleeve. Most significantly, they make group identity the basis for their activism.
Both also promote resentment and violence, although the media regularly fails to report this persistent fact about “anti-racist” demonstrators. They have been embraced (and funded) by philanthropists like George Soros and big corporations like Google, not to mention getting invited to the White House, even as policeman are murdered and cities burned down.
Whether or not this disparate treatment is fair, there is most certainly a moral equivalence between the two.
The so-called counter-demonstration was only the latest in a series of protests that were started by racial activists who call themselves Black Lives Matter. Since the goals of the civil rights movement long had been achieved, they needed a cause so they manufactured one by seizing on the deaths of black men in encounters with the police. As Carl Horowitz of my staff has documented in excruciating detail, the alleged police misconduct did not exist or was exaggerated in every case.
The next stop was the assault on Confederate monuments. This one is even more irrational. The long-dead Union veterans of the Civil War, who risked life and limb in the conflict that actually ended slavery, never asked that Confederate memorials and monuments be obliterated. In fact, it was quite the opposite, as evidenced by the grainy photos of ex-combatants of both sides who regularly gathered for reunions on the monument-studded Gettysburg battlefield for decades after the war. (My great-great-uncle Michael O’Brien fought for the Union. No reunions for him as he was hung by the British after taking part in the ill-fated Fenian Rising of 1867.)
It was the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee by the City of Charlottesville that provided the stage for the present crisis. It is unlikely that any other town in the Virginia Piedmont region would have taken such an action. It happened in Charlottesville because it is the home of the University of Virginia, which skews the politics of the town to the left.
Virginia is like most other universities. What’s called diversity is ballyhooed, but there is very little diversity of thought. It’s a place where a completely fictitious article in Rolling Stone about a gang rape at a frat house was immediately accepted as fact because it comported with the worldview of the people who run the place.
Following the election of Donald Trump, University President Teresa Sullivan sent an email purportedly seeking to calm the University community. It was a modestly veiled attempt to make an anti-Trump political statement that she no doubt hoped would be pleasing to her liberal constituency. But she made a big mistake, horror of horrors, by quoting the University’s founder, Thomas Jefferson.
The reaction was swift and angry. A letter signed by 469 faculty members and students asked Sullivan to stop quoting Jefferson. It candidly reported that “…some members of this community may have come to this university because of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, others of us came here in spite of it.”
Thus, it is not only Confederates that bother so much of the faculty but also the nation’s Founders, some of whom like Washington and Jefferson, owned slaves. It is apparently of no relevance that they also fathered the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Thomas Jefferson’s legacy has its roots in the Magna Carta, gained steam during the Enlightenment, and found its ultimate manifestation in the American Revolution.
Jefferson’s real legacy is of no relevance to the campus Left because they reject all this, including freedom of expression. They would replace Western history and values with a series of modern-day “isms.” An interim step is to make reasonable discourse impossible and to undermine functioning civil institutions, like community policing, which Black Lives Matter has succeeded in doing in several cities.
It is out of this crucible that the Charlottesville tragedy occurred.
Peter Flaherty is president of the National Legal and Policy Center, a foundation promoting ethics in public life.