Like most Americans, I witnessed the scenes from the right-wing march on Charlottesville, Virginia with horror and dread and was delighted to see the President’s response to the violence excoriated by Republican leaders. But the more denunciations I saw, the more I worried. Attempts to marginalize Donald Trump have failed spectacularly because his supporters tend to see them as evidence of his political autonomy. Maybe a different approach was needed.
Let me confess. While I am usually cautious to the point of timidity, there are times when a contrarian impulse overtakes me. When truths appear a little too self-evident; when almost everyone in a position of power seems to agree; when it seems obvious what doing the right thing means: that’s when my thinking is most likely to go against the grain, even if it will bring me trouble. And that’s what happened when I began to reflect on the meaning of Donald Trump’s refusal to repudiate forcefully all the right-wing marchers who descended upon Thomas Jefferson’s city. Although I had no desire to defend the President’s actions, I was overcome by a desire to understand what he really wanted to achieve with his remarks.
In order to follow through on this desire, I had to respond to a question which felt rather dangerous. What would it be like to feel as though he were speaking to me instead of speaking against everything I profess? Before I share the results of this possibly misguided experiment in immanent critique, it is important to clarify my initial conclusions about Trump’s most controversial statements. While he clearly didn’t want to repudiate everyone who marched on the city in defense of “European identity,” I was pretty sure that courting extremists was not his primary goal.
Whatever else you may think of him, he is an extraordinarily talented confidence man in the best — or, worst — American tradition — an insight that inspires me to revisit Herman Melville’s baffling final novel, among other things — and not likely to waste political capital on a demographic that is still far too small to benefit him. That’s why I became convinced, with the help of less hysterical commentaries on his response, that he was actually speaking to that much larger percentage of the electorate who, while unlikely to endorse white supremacism in public, sometimes express support for its tenets when talking with friends and family.
The President’s repeated attempts to establish equivalence between the marchers and those individuals who were protesting against their racism, while firmly rejected by his two predecessors on the Republican presidential ticket and other prominent party leaders, reflected the comments of Fox News pundits and conservative talk radio and podcast hosts who have been working diligently for years to make it seems as if right-wing extremists only returned to prominence because of the need to fight back against their left-wing counterparts. It’s a conspiracy theory I know a good deal about, thanks to the weekly letters one of my mother’s old friends sends to my father. While a tireless volunteer for humanitarian activities such as feeding the homeless, this woman boarded the Trump bandwagon in the summer of 2015, back when he first announced his candidacy, and remains, despite some misgivings about his coziness with the super-rich, a strong supporter of his ambition to “make American great again.”
Her words have repeatedly confirmed the degree to which this argument about the dangers posed by an insurgent Left has been woven seamlessly into a larger narrative, much commented upon by mainstream pundits since the 2016 election, in which conservatives conceive of themselves as an oppressed minority in desperate need of what you could plausibly call affirmative action — including efforts to gerrymander electoral districts to ensure that more Republicans win state and national elections — because they will otherwise be facing political extinction. To most of the people in the real-world and social media circles I frequent, this story represents the apex of absurdity. But it seems pretty clear that millions and millions of Americans are willing to believe it without hesitation.
Trump’s entire presidential campaign pivoted on the conviction that America is under attack by internationalists who repudiate the values that made the nation great. For some, this message translated into a call to arms. But most of the people who ended up voting for him stopped short of such radicalism. To my mind, that’s the most pernicious aspect of his approach to politics. The further he pushes his rhetoric into controversial territory, the more space opens up behind the militant vanguard of the extreme right, making it easier for the majority of his supporters to seem reasonable and restrained.
You don’t have to be a fan of the Nazis or KKK to worry that the nation needs defending from this assault on traditional American values. You can disapprove of those groups’ methods and ideology, but still acknowledge the need for “soldiers” who are willing to get their hands dirty in this struggle. You can publically lament the negative publicity they bring to the conservative resistance, while privately confessing that it doesn’t exactly break your heart that the Black Lives Matter protestors, tenured radicals, and ANTIFA thugs who give patriotism a bad name are feeling afraid.
At least, that’s what the President has wanted people to believe. Even as his periodic “dog whistles” serve to legitimate the Far Right, I am convinced that most of his words have been directed at an updated version of the Silent Majority that won Richard Nixon the presidency in 1968 and 1972. Regardless of how many boundaries Trump transgresses, regardless of how poorly informed he seems, Trump never loses sight of those Americans whose anxiety about the future makes them susceptible to a contrarian conservative ideology.
Back when Nixon was in the White House, the wildly popular Norman Lear situation comedy All in the Family presented Americans with the character of Archie Bunker, a blue-collar white man from Queens who articulated the misgivings of the Silent Majority. Today, we find ourselves being led by a billionaire from Queens who acts just like Archie Bunker did, possibly because he internalized Carroll O’Connor’s iconic portrayal from his youthful television viewing.
I have a feeling that a major reason the president and his wife Melania will not be attending the annual Kennedy Center Honors show, as was recently announced, is that Norman Lear is one of this year’s recipients of the prestigious award. Lear declared to NPR in early August that he would be skipping the presidential reception connected to the event, because, “As an artist and a human being, I cannot celebrate this incredible honor. . . at a White House that has no interest in supporting the Arts and Humanities.” I would argue, though, that Trump’s biggest problem wasn’t that Lear might denounce him at the ceremony, but that the clips from All in the Family they will surely show during the televised ceremonies might make it a little too obvious where this billionaire’s angry “regular guy” persona comes from
Whether living through the Nixon Era or the Trump Era, Archie Bunkers types are not the sort to march around with torches, shouting button-pushing slogans. Their preferred domains are the comfy chair, the car seat, and the barstool, places from which they can communicate their disdain for liberal elites without too much risk of having to defend themselves against counter arguments. They are the sort who, while taking in the news from Charlottesville, would likely have said things such as “I don’t like the looks of them, but they do have a point” about the marchers, while getting riled up by the antics of the counter-protestors, in part because the media they consume keep reminding them that they need to be outraged.
As I have written before, Archie Bunker scared me as a small child because he reminded me of my own relatives from Queens, particularly a hard-drinking uncle who had served in the army during World War II fighting actual fascists and liked to take out his frustrations on his sons. At the time, the elder one was fresh out of law school, an idealist not unlike the son-in-law “Meathead” on All in the Family, who debated Archie endlessly on subjects like racism. I specifically remember talking to this cousin about how much I liked the character of Lionel on the show, the well-spoken son of the African-American neighbors who were threatening, in Archie’s view, to ruin the neighborhood.
The joke was on Archie, though, because this family, the Jeffersons, ended up “moving on up to the East Side” of Manhattan “to a deluxe apartment in the sky,” as the theme song for their eponymous spin-off show explained it. Before all that, though, my cousin defended these fictional Jeffersons against the periodically racist grumbling of his father, confusing my young mind with a spectacle of infinite regress in which the show reflected the reality of people like my relatives while my relatives reflected on the show.
I remember these familial tensions so clearly because they simply did not exist within the space of my own nuclear family. My father had done everything in his power to get distance from his family, particularly his father and brother-in-law, while still remaining a dutiful son. And my mother, raised by two college-educated parents who “summered on the Cape” — because that was what intellectuals like them, however impoverished, did — had been committed to the Civil Rights Movement as long as she could remember.
Because my father didn’t talk much back then — it had been his way of avoiding conflict with family members — my mother was the parent who focused on instilling values in my sister and me. A radical Protestant who identified with both her progressive Jewish friends who went south to organize in the black community and with the left-wing Zionists who were working to keep her kind of democratic socialism alive in Israel, she always went out of her way to let us know that any discrimination on the basis of race or religion was a terrible offense against humanity.
I still remember one time, during my grade-school years, when she overheard me acting out a dogfight from World War II with my model airplanes and gave me a stern lecture about how disappointed she was to hear me use the term “Japs,” which I had first encountered not long before in a comic book. To this day, very little makes me feel more ashamed than that isolated incident. By the time the television mini-series Roots and Holocaust aired in the late 1970s, I already knew exactly who to identify with and why. My father’s German heritage did not stop me from always wanting to defeat the Nazis. Nor did my whiteness prevent me from siding with black characters whenever they experienced mistreatment on the basis of race.
To be fair, my mother had a much easier time of teaching us to identify with minorities than would have been the case for previous generations. For the most part, the culture I consumed growing up reflected a mainstream consensus that discrimination was backward and wrong. While sexism and sexual exploitation were still rampant, the conviction that women deserved to be treated as the equals of men was becoming more widespread; in the circles my mother frequented, it was practically taken for granted. The pursuit of gay rights, while still taboo in most parts of the country, was also becoming a cause for many progressives. And black pride extended beyond the African-American community in ways that seem downright remarkable today.
That final point is one that keeps coming to mind as I try to make sense of the president’s response to the conflict in Charlottesville. I am fond of saying that I am part of the Sesame Street generation. My mother sat me down to watch its first season when I was a baby and I continued to watch the show almost every day through my sister’s preschool years in the mid-1970s. Even as I type this, I’m experiencing body memories that confirm just how powerfully it shaped my worldview. This delights me. But it also provides an important clue in my efforts to figure out what it would be like to feel like Trump was speaking specifically to me.
I’ll explain. Although I grew up in the heart of the most heavily populated portion of the United States and was able to watch both Philadelphia and New York television stations — thanks to the aerial my father had installed on our roof — I had almost no real-world experiences of racial diversity until we moved to the Washington D.C. area when I was 11. With the exception of the mixed-race children from one professional family, every single person I encountered in my elementary school was white. The children I saw on Sesame Street, by contrast, were usually black or brown. And many of the authority figures on the show were people of color as well.
Because I had internalized the belief that children’s television depicted the world as it should be, I found my own surroundings to be lacking. I desperately wanted to feel included in the diversity I witnessed every day on Sesame Street. To give just one example, I remember being beside myself with joy when, while on a family vacation in Los Angeles — to give you a sense of how detailed my memories from that time are, I know that I weighed myself at 52 pounds on the scale in our hotel room— I made an African-American friend at a park and played with him for several hours. Finally, I thought, my life was starting to look like the world I saw on the screen.
If I’m going to be absolutely truthful here, though, I have to confess that my racial consciousness was just as powerfully shaped by a movie I had watched several times on television at my paternal grandparents’ house, one that is now deemed so problematic that is no longer shown in the United States: Song of the South, Disney’s treatment of the African-American folktales Joel Chandler Harris collected and retold as Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings. While this film is undoubtedly a troubling relic of a time when racial segregation was commonplace, my own reaction to it as a toddler was overwhelmingly positive. And the primary reason, I’m convinced, is that I was a Sesame Street viewer.
Were I able to watch Song of the South today, I’m sure that I would wince at the racial stereotyping of Uncle Remus’s character, as well as its idealized representation of life on a nineteenth-century plantation. As a toddler, however, without the historical knowledge necessary to perceive its offensiveness, it struck me as the story of a young white boy who is better cared for by an older black gentleman than by his own family members. To my innocent mind, Uncle Remus seemed very similar to the African-American characters of Gordon and Gloria on Sesame Street, who served as surrogate parents for the children who would visit the show’s idealized urban neighborhood and, by extension, all the those who watched them on television.
I’ve often wondered what deeper meaning this convergence of outwardly antithetical influences meant for the development of my own racial consciousness, particularly while floating along on the Splash Mountain ride at Disneyland, which reproduces the characters from the film’s animated portions while ignoring its live-action sequences. And now the violence in Charlottesville and the President’s response to it has helped me to see this aspect of my upbringing in a different light.
What if the overt racism that returned to the spotlight with the 2008 presidential campaign were somehow connected to the diversity positively represented on shows like Sesame Street? Might at least some of the resentment towards liberal elites that Donald Trump capitalized upon be grounded in the sort of childhood experiences of race that I had? Could government-supported efforts to redress the marginalization of people of color on movie and television screens have led to a backlash against multiculturalism? And could the parallel banishment of retrograde entertainment like Song of the South also have contributed to this unanticipated outcome? Obviously, these are disturbing questions that cannot be adequately addressed in this piece. But it will be helpful to bear them in mind as I turn my attention back to the conflict in Charlottesville.
Introspection is often painful, particularly when it calls long-held views into question. Not once in my childhood did I ever hear my parents say anything negative about a person of color. Nor did it ever occur to me that a person’s behavior had anything to do with the color of their skin. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous dream of a society in which people would be judged solely by the “content of their character” had come true in my home, thanks primarily to my mother’s tireless efforts to instruct my sister and me. I can’t imagine, to recite the list favored in contemporary social justice circles, a boy growing up white, male, straight and cis in the United States of America with less prejudice towards individuals unlike myself.
This is the self-congratulatory story I told myself and others over the years, whenever I wanted to communicate my incredulity that anyone would discriminate against another person because they looked or acted “different.” It’s a story that made me feel good, particularly when my motives were being questioned. To be honest, it still does. I am proud that my parents raised me right and even prouder that I have done little to suggest otherwise where race is concerned. Unfortunately, this pride conceals the fact that there are other stories in my head, ones that would create a different impression if I were less circumspect about sharing them. Until now, I haven’t wanted to take that risk. But Charlottesville has convinced me that I must.
For the most part, these other stories were rooted in make-believe. In preschool, I loved to play with my Matchbox vehicles — “car” was my first word, months before “mommy” — and my blocks, managing imaginary traffic flows. Second grade marked a significant shift. As the nation’s Bicentennial approached, I started to act out Revolutionary War scenarios, siding with the Americans. I enjoyed this new approach so much that I soon extended it to World War II, where I also always took the side of the Americans or, in a few instances, their British allies. Once, I received a grown-up board game as a present, the sort with a map divided into hexagons, that required playing either as the Germans or the Russians. As cool as it looked, though, I couldn’t muster the resolve to play it for very long, because I didn’t want to imagine myself supporting either fascism or communism.
Although the peak of my childhood war-playing coincided with the release of several high-profile films about the Vietnam War, such as Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now, I never wanted to act out scenarios from that conflict. Somehow the news I had absorbed in my preschool days had made me understand that pretending to be an American pilot or foot soldier in that conflict was problematic. But that wasn’t the only reason I shied away from imagining myself in Indochina. The stories I liked best were the ones in which my side was struggling against a stronger or better-equippedi’m proof opponent. For example, my favorite World War II narratives were from the early stages of American involvement, like the Battle of the Coral Sea or the landing at Anzio. By contrast, there was never a time when the American side could legitimately be considered underdogs in Vietnam.
I also sometimes played Civil War. In that case, I could obviously take either side and still be rooting for the Americans. Because I had started reading military history written for adults, I knew that the Confederacy faced serious geographic and technological disadvantages. The President back then was a Southerner and a man I admired. But I was also watching Roots, in which white Southerners were naturally presented as the enemy. Torn between conflicting impulses, I decided to ask my mother what she thought.
I expected her to tell me that it would be wrong to side with the South, even if I were just playing war, much like she had admonished me for using the slur “Jap.” Nothing I knew about her suggested otherwise. Imagine my surprise, then, when she instead proceeded to tell me tales of the dashing Stonewall Jackson and honorable Robert E. Lee. Despite her strong opposition to all forms of racism, she had fallen for the same story that Southerners liked to tell themselves. And I fell further under their spell, too, because I trusted her opinions more than anyone else’s. With her implicit endorsement, I went on to side with the Confederacy in many of my imaginary battles.
Soon, this identification with the legacy of the antebellum South made itself felt in other ways. I became a big fan of stock car racing, as opposed to the open-wheel sort at the Indianapolis 500 or Grand Prix races in Europe, partially because I associated it with the romance of rebellion associated with the “Lost Cause.” To this day, the sight of the two-tone 43 car gives me a thrill, even if I know that its iconic driver is a Trump supporter. I also fell in love with the famous Confederate battle flag and collected iconography associated with it whenever I could, such as at the Mexico-themed tourist trap South of the Border. Yes, I was way into The General, even if the show that featured it bored me. When we visited the lovely cities of New Orleans and Charleston, I sought out landmarks and artifacts from the decades prior to the Civil War without ever stopping to consider the implications of this interest. And one of my most treasured possessions, which I own to this day, was a set featuring reproductions of Confederate currency.
That’s a big reason why, when I learned that my father was being transferred to his non-profit organization’s headquarters in Washington D.C., I was able to counterbalance my sadness at leaving the rural home I adored with excitement at the prospect of living south of the Mason-Dixon Line. It was a difficult time to purchase property, with interest rates approaching 20%, particularly if you weren’t selling your previous house, as my parents did not wish to do. Finding something affordable that also had enough land for the garden my father insisted on creating was an arduous task, requiring a succession of weekend trips to look all over the suburbs in Virgina and Maryland. As tedious as the search was, though, I consoled myself with the little flashes of Southern living I detected in the landscape and the lilt I detected in some of the conversations I overheard.
Over time, the impressions I collected during these trips settled into a fantasy of what it would like to live there. Even though I generally hated hot weather, I came to like the idea of looking out at a lush, green horizon through the softness of humid air. I imagined flowers that didn’t grow well on our heavily shaded, rocky-soiled Pennsylvania hilltop and fireflies flitting about in the dusk. I even had a picture of the driveway I wanted, made of the concrete I remembered from highways in the South instead of the gravel I’d grown up with or the asphalt that my friends had.
A big part of this fantasy concerned the people I expected to meet. Finally, after years of feeling deprived because everyone around me was white, I would get to know black people. When we visited the elementary school where I would be a sixth-grader, I was delighted to learn that three-quarters of the students were African-American. On the trips we took into Washington D.C. itself, I thrilled to see street scenes in which nobody looked like me. While I obviously knew that there were people of color in northern cities like Philadelphia and New York, I believed that there would be something different about black life in the South that could not be experienced elsewhere and I was eager to learn as much as possible about it.
As is now painfully obvious to me looking back on this period, I was absurdly naïve. Not once did it occur to me, as I looked forward to the move, that immersing myself in black culture and celebrating the legacy of the Confederacy might be mutually exclusive. Truly, it’s hard to imagine being more clueless than I was about the realities of racial politics in the United States. Perhaps, if I had shared this fantasy with my mother, she would have tried to set me straight. Maybe doing so would even have led her to question her own contradictory beliefs. But she was busy and very stressed — my father had been required to move down to our new home in the middle of the school year and only came home some weekends — so I kept my excitement to myself.
Indeed, the only negative information that registered with me was something my father had said during our search for a home, when he passed a sign for the town where, as a government rocket scientist during the 1950s, he had gone by himself to a movie theater without a balcony and been reprimanded by an usher for sitting on the wrong side of the aisle, because, like most public spaces in that part of Maryland back then, it was segregated.
Strangely enough, he volunteered this story again the other night, without any prompting, as I sat with him eating the dinner I’d made for us. I hadn’t mentioned working on this piece. And I’d never shared my fantasy of the South with him, except to the degree that I sometimes asked for money to buy items on vacation. But we had been talking about what transpired in Charlottesville beforehand, which gives a pretty good indication of how thoroughly recent events have pushed racial discrimination into the front of people’s minds, even the sort who, like him, rarely bring up politics.
As you might expect, the reality of living in the Washington D.C. area differed sharply from my expectations. The air conditioning in our home broke within a month and my parents decided that they didn’t want to spend the money to fix it, ensuring that the indoor “heat index” regularly approached triple digits over the next decade’s worth of summers. I missed my friends. I missed the beauty that had surrounded us in the Pennsylvania countryside. And the neighborhood we ended up moving into was in a particularly “Southern” part of Prince George’s County, Maryland, entirely white, overwhelmingly blue-collar, and full of kids my age who regarded me as an outsider not worthy of their time.
When I finally did make some acquaintances on our street, including the son of a local police officer, I was shocked by their lack of interest in the wider world and deeply troubled by their casual use of the “N-word.” Because the school I had been slated to attend had been shut down for good over the summer, I was bussed, along with much of its predominantly African-American student body, to another elementary school that had previously been over 90% white. It was only then, in 1979, that the county was finally making substantive efforts to comply with a court order to desegregate. But the newcomers to this school were largely shunned by those children who had been attending it since kindergarten, both because they were new and because they were black, ensuring a kind of grassroots resegregation. Because I was also new, though, and would have attended the school that had been shut down, I was classified as a “black” white person. The other white kids in my class barely spoke to me. But I made friends with several African-American students in my class and spent my lunchtime and recess hours in their company.
My teacher, who had been transferred from the school that had been shut down, was also African-American. To her undying credit, rather than try to adapt herself wholly to the whiteness of her new surroundings, she insisted that all of her students, regardless of the color of their skin, would benefit from learning about black culture. We spent months learning about Africa. We studied slavery. We took field trips to places like the Frederick Douglas House in the District. And she did such a great job of making these lessons inclusive that even most of the white students who had initially grumbled about the curriculum ended up becoming interested in it.
In other words, I was very lucky. This teacher powerfully reinforced all the positive lessons about race that my mother had tried to impart and instilled in me a passion for social justice that demanded inclusiveness as a prerequisite. I often wonder what would have happened, though, if I had been placed in a different class, like that of the most feared sixth-grade teacher, a white woman who was an outright racist, fond of grabbing black children by the hair and dragging them to the principal’s office. Or if my parents had been like the white boy in my class whose father ran the local “county” Little League team, which somehow managed not have a single black player.
When my parents learned that I was set to be bussed to a middle school far across the county, without any of my African-American friends, for seventh grade, they looked into a well-regarded private school ten minutes from my house. Although my mother was an adamant supporter of public schooling, I was still pretty depressed from the move and unlikely, given my penchant for becoming extremely car sick, to benefit from spending over two hours on a school bus each day. So they sent me to an open house at the private school. Walking in, I was taken aback by how white these prospective seventh-graders were. But I soon found two African-American boys to sit with and decided that it might not be that bad a place.
As it turned out, I was miserable for most of my six years there. Many of my white classmates had come from a private “feeder” elementary school and already knew each other. The two African-American boys, though pleasant with me, were closely bound to the community where they lived. They knew some of my sixth-grade friends and reported back to me on their activities, but we interacted less than I would have liked. While I eventually made new friends, I always had the sense that I remained an outsider relative to the private school’s most prominent families, some of whom had eighteenth-century gravestones with their names on them in the graveyard of the neighboring Episcopal church.
There were a number of wonderful progressive teachers at this school, whom I think of fondly to this day. And the curriculum was generally rather progressive. But it did not come as a surprise when I learned that the school had originally been formed in the 1960s by people who were concerned about the direction public schools were heading. Like a lot of post-Civil Rights Movement institutions in the South, it had initially provided a place where white students could be “white without question,” not officially segregated, but still insulated from the pressures of racialized interaction.
Thanks, in part, to the work of my sixth-grade teacher, this separateness made me uneasy. I missed the multicultural experiences that I’d had while in her class and wondered why very little of the content she had covered ever made its way into my college-preparatory curriculum. Every time I drove into Washington D.C. with my dad, passing the neighborhoods where my African-American friends had lived and then the increasingly impoverished ones that ran almost to Capitol Hill, I was reminded that there was something missing in my education. Sometimes, I’d try to redress the imbalance, like the summer day when I took a series of buses to visit the National Arboretum, which was located in a very rough part of town along the Anacostia River. For the most part, though, I just didn’t have the time or resources to supplement the experiences I was getting in school.
It’s almost time to get back to Donald Trump, reluctant as I am to do so. But there are two memories from my years at this private school that are worth recording in greater detail. The first concerns my sixth-grade teacher. The summer after seventh grade, my mother, who adored the woman, invited her — I think they had met up a few times in the interim — and her son, who was a year younger than me, to come over for lunch, along with my best friend from sixth grade, whom I was at that point still in touch with. After we ate — I remember a delicious salad with homemade mayonnaise and pickled watermelon rind — I went for a walk with the other two boys while the grown-ups talked. As we neared the end of our street, a man whose son had always been rather mean to me called out to us: “Do you have swimsuits? Because we have a pool you can use.”
Not sure what to make of this unexpected friendly gesture, we walked back to my house to ask whether it would be possible to swim. My mother gave me detailed safety instructions and found something for the two boys to wear for swimming while I put on my own suit. Then we walked back to the house. The man seemed almost too eager to have us use his pool, but I figured it would be alright, since his wife and children were out of town on vacation and he was about to walk out the door. After telling us how to lock the gate when we done, he gave a wave and said, “Have as much fun as you like!”
And we did. But something about his fortuitous generosity didn’t sit right with me afterwards. For one thing, I stopped seeing him around. So I eventually asked his son about him. “My parents are getting a divorce, so he doesn’t live here anymore.” I decided to tell him about the unexpected invitation to swim. The boy gave me a strange look. “Don’t you get it? My dad can be a real dick. He was moving out. He only did that so my mother wouldn’t feel comfortable using the pool.”
The second memory is from my private school. Every student in my senior-year A.P. English class had to write a thesis of over twenty pages centered on one of the books that we had read. I decided on William Faulkner’s Light in August, largely because I had spent the summer obsessively listening to the music of R.E.M. Despite all the disappointment and disillusion that I had experienced since moving to Maryland, some part of me still held on to my childhood fantasies about the South. Even if I was no longer able to romanticize the Confederacy, I hadn’t yet abandoned the idea that white Southerners were in a special position to sort the good from the bad in their homeland and redeem the promise of agrarian living.
R.E.M.’s song “Little America”, on their Reckoning LP, seemed to capture this notion, if in the slantwise fashion of all Michael Stipe’s lyrics back then. I listened to it over and over, trying to make sense of each line. Some proved impossible to determine. But the ones I did finally pin down implied that the song was a critique of the New South. When Stipe sang “Another Greenville, another Magic Mart,” I couldn’t help but see the strip malls and subdivisions that were rapidly replacing whatever farmland remained outside of Atlanta and other major cities. And the refrain “Jefferson, I think we’re lost” seemed to confirm this suspicion, invoking the Founding Father who had most forcefully warned Americans about the importance of preserving a rural lifestyle.
That’s what I thought back then, at least. Years later, when someone explained to me that the “Jefferson” mentioned in the song was not Thomas, but the band’s longtime tour manager Jefferson Holt, I had to laugh at how certain my teenage self had been of his interpretation. Looking back on this misunderstanding now, I’d hazard that my desire to redeem the South and contradictory figures like the United States’ cosmopolitan third president was so strong that I was willing to believe that a band from Athens, Georgia would necessarily share in the project. And I certainly wasn’t the only one, when R.E.M. was becoming famous, who felt that way.
Although I didn’t refer to “Little America” in my thesis — my very proper, very Southern teacher hated me as it was — the passages from Light in August I focused on all concerned the agrarian lifestyle. It didn’t hurt that, when I went to the University of Maryland bookstore to find research material, I came back with literary criticism from New Critics like Cleanth Brooks, who had themselves sought to exalt Southern rural living as a potential remedy for the ills of urbanized, internationalist modernity. Like Faulkner himself, they weren’t particularly racist by the standards of Jim Crow. Yet the outsized influence they exerted over twentieth-century literary studies may have made them more damaging, ultimately, than less subtly prejudiced white Southerners. For it is through the tireless efforts of men and women like them that the romantic fantasy of the Lost Cause was gradually separated from the brutal reality of slavery and its aftermath.
In the case of many Americans, Gone With the Wind played a crucial role in encouraging identification with white Southerners. I know that my mother adored both Margaret Mitchell’s novel and the wildly successful film starring Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable. But popular culture proves a lot more influential when its messages are reinforced by the educational system. The literature and history professors who perpetuated the fantasy of the Lost Cause — or were at least unwilling to repudiate it — not only influenced the students they taught directly, but also those who were taught by their former students, whether in classrooms or at home. They bear significant responsibility for refining the sort of argument that can separate the deeds of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee from the fact that they everything they did in the war was on behalf of the Confederacy.
I remember once, shortly after we first moved to Maryland, taking a lovely family vacation in the mountains of northern Virginia. My father was keen to pass all of our time looking at fall foliage in Shenandoah National Park. But I was a fan of the black basketball start Ralph Sampson at the University of Virginia and wanted to see Charlottesville. The compromise we worked out was to spend one day touring Thomas Jefferson’s estate at Monticello and then turn our attention to nature. Although my mother and I loved seeing the former President’s home and gardens, my father — a son of immigrants, who did not grow up learning American history at home — seemed less than enthusiastic. Maybe I should have asked him why. I was too busy, though, taking in all the information being imparted by the tour guides: how Jefferson experimented with exotic plants; how he used the Renaissance architect Palladio’s buildings for inspiration; how he made a bed just the right size for someone of his height; and how he and the nation’s second president, John Adams, both died on July 4th, 1826, exactly fifty years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence that Jefferson had drafted and Adams had helped edit.
What I didn’t hear on that tour was anything about what it was like to be a slave on the plantation of such an enlightened gentleman or about the mixed-race descendants who bear Jefferson’s name, like George and Louise Jefferson and their son Lionel. Indeed, aside from a brief mention of the slave quarters, the tour guide’s only reference to the people who were compelled to serve Jefferson concerned his “ingenious” invention of a dumbwaiter that allowed them to convey food and drink to him without having to be seen. Whether for imperatives of aesthetics or conscience, the man who famously declared that “all men are created equal” sought to conceal the evidence that powerful men like George Washington, James Madison and himself benefited from artificially maintained inequality of the worst kind.
In suggesting that taking down the statues of Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee, as the city of Charlottesville was proposing, could eventually lead to a movement to dismantle the monuments to slaveholding Founding Fathers as well, the President was trying to provoke the outrage of today’s Archie Bunkers by invoking the specter of an American equivalent to the Cultural Revolution. For all of the condemnations Trump received for these comments, they were actually quite savvy. Nothing terrifies people who live in a nation born of revolution more than the possibility that the same logic that justified its break with the past will be redeployed to destroy it. In the case of the United States, the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “all men are created equal” is always threatening to undermine institutions that depend on denying its implications.
Reflecting on the influences that led my mother and, under her tutelage, me to exalt Confederate leaders despite our commitment to fighting racism, I am convinced that it wasn’t simply the carefully cultivated romance of the Lost Cause that bore responsibility, but also a broader effort to single out great men — and, much too infrequently, women — who are, to borrow George Orwell’s famous formulation from Animal Farm, “more equal than others.” Until World War II, most history books took this approach. And it persisted until well after then in the ones that children are likely to read. When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, school libraries were still full of these de facto saint’s lives, even if newer materials, like the Jackdaw folders of primary-source documents that I studied obsessively as a teenager or the displays at museums like the Smithsonian, were doing their best to promote a different approach.
It was largely through engagement with this kind of historical thinking, not revisionary so much as divisionary, that the foundation was laid for me to understand later how much my early education had been lacking. But the legacy of that traditional historical thinking continued to make itself felt subliminally long after I had begun to question it. For example, if I’d had access to the Jackdaw series in elementary school or, more pertinently, if my mother had been given the opportunity to see history that way at any point in her education, I might not have misinterpreted that R.E.M. lyric.
And even now, as I contemplate the tearing down of statues across the land, some part of me feels not only anxiety that this project may be proceeding too rapidly, but actual sadness that the “great men” they depict are being brought down to size. Andrew Jackson was a vicious man, totally lacking in the qualities that made redeeming figures like Robert E. Lee a little easier. Yet when I remember sitting in Jackson Square in New Orleans as an eight-year-old, looking up at the pigeons perched on the General and his rearing horse, or when I remember sitting in the same place on my honeymoon, trying to fight a surreal hangover with a muffuletta sandwich, I become stupidly sentimental.
By itself, the approach to history that left us a legacy of bronze and marble men wasn’t just overly simplistic, but deceptive and, at times, downright dangerous. I’m not convinced, though, that trying to erase evidence of its wrong-headedness will have the effect its proponents desire. If a white, male, cis, middle-aged man like me, who has had the privilege of being taught how to turn this privilege against itself, at least to a degree; if someone like me, who has literally spent his entire conscious life being reminded that all forms of discrimination are bad and that discrimination against black people is one of the United States’ “original sins”; if someone like me, who has also had the privilege of interacting with and learning from some of the nation’s brightest scholars of color; if someone like me, who has never once, since being admonished by his mother for saying “Jap”, even used an ethnic slur; if I can feel just a little bit spoken to by the President’s controversial statements, then it is extremely likely that people who haven’t had all these advantages will feel called to action in ways that should make us all apprehensive.
Like all things, even this essay — and I’m using this word in Montaigne’s original sense, to signal an attempt that was bound to fall short of its mark — must come to an end. I’m not sure that the world needed me to write it. But I know that I did. Because the minute I forget, in rushing to condemn others for their misdeeds and prejudices, that I am myself composed of contradictory beliefs and impulses, the value of what I do provide will be cheapened. If we are truly serious about making progress towards a nation where people are measured by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin or the pattern on their head scarf, then we must acknowledge that this content can never be reduced to a common denominator. Even the President, despicable as he may seem, deserves to be seen this way. As my daughter says, “Anyone who acts like he does must have suffered terrible abuse as a child.”
What I would propose, as we try to move on from Charlottesville — aside from not prematurely forgetting what happened there and how people responded to it, as the pace of the present-day news cycle inclines us to — is that we think long and hard about the ways in which different constituencies may be spoken to and try even harder to speak to them with care and respect about what matters to us most. By the time All in the Family ended its run on television, Archie Bunker had changed into a more decent, open-minded man. That may have been the result of wishful thinking on the part of Norman Lear and Carrol O’Connor, but it is far better to think wishfully than to succumb to political reflexes without thinking much at all.
Thomas Jefferson failed spectacularly to live up to the spectacular potential of his own words. Most of us do. It’s just that we haven’t been born into situations that make it possible for us to do as much good and bad as he did for the nation and the world or, for that matter, as Donald Trump is doing. Our challenge, going forward, is to open up those parts of ourselves and others that are spoken to by that potential, while becoming as aware as we possibly can of the our potential to be hailed in less salutary ways. Like Jefferson, we are bound to get lost along the way. But we might just find ourselves becoming better people in the process.
Featured image and all others courtesy of the author, including those documenting the white and black boards from his courses, except for the memes, which are all of indeterminable provenance, as memes will be.