Watching the Charlottesville spectacle from halfway across the country, I confess that my first instinct was to raillery. Vanilla ISIS, somebody called this mob of would-be Nazis. A parade of love-deprived nerds marching bravely out of their parents' basements carrying tiki torches from Home Depot.
The odor of citronella must have been overpowering. Was this an attack on the campus left or on mosquitoes?
"Blood and soil!" they chanted. "Jews will not replace us!"
Jews? Had Jews somehow prevented these dorks from getting laid?
Deeply offensive, but also deeply ridiculous. The iconography of the torch-lit parade was straight out of "Triumph of the Will," Leni Reifenstahl's epic film glorifying Hitler. Deliberately so. These Stormfront geeks get off on trying to frighten normal people with Nazi imagery.
"Hogan's Heroes" is more like it. I mean Confederate flags are one thing, but swastikas? Politically, nothing could be dumber. Why not just have "Besiegte" tattooed on your forehead? That's German for "loser."
Speaking for the overwhelming majority of Americans, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah tweeted: "My brother didn't give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home."
Then things went from laughable to tragic overnight.
The University of Virginia has always been hallowed ground to me. When I first arrived, the sheer, serene beauty of Thomas Jefferson's architecture affected me almost viscerally. Was the orderly life it implied even possible in this world? Well, certainly not in Jefferson's own life, but art is art.
I was first introduced to my wife in a serpentine-walled garden maybe 50 yards from where the would-be Nazis assembled around Jefferson's statue. If I close my eyes, I can still see her standing there in her little shirtwaist dress — an Arkansas girl more exotic to me than anybody I'd known.
The dean asked if I'd ever heard of Hendrix College, her Arkansas alma mater—a potentially embarrassing question.
"No sir," I said. "They must not play football."
She laughed because I was right; also because it was a cheeky way to talk to the graduate school dean.
For that matter, I played several seasons worth of rugby games on Nameless Field, where the would-be SS-men lit their little torches. We got married in Charlottesville two years later. So, yes, it's doubly distressing to see the university and city turned into a stage set for fascist street theater.
"Charlottesville," wrote UVA professor Siva Vaidhyananathan, "is an ideal stage for them to perform acts of terrorism. This was the home of Thomas Jefferson, the man who codified religious tolerance in colonial Virginia and who declared 'all men are created equal.' It's also the home of Thomas Jefferson, the man who owned, sold, raped and had whipped people he considered racially inferior to him. It's the site of the University of Virginia, an institution steeped in conservative traditions that echo the Old South. And it's the site of the University of Virginia, an elite, global research university with a cosmopolitan faculty and student body."
It's definitely all that. Old South or not, Charlottesville is also a liberal college town that voted to remove an equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee from its courthouse square and relocate it to a park on its outskirts. Like many of the thousand or so Confederate monuments across the South, it was erected long after the Civil War, in 1924 — hence more an expression of white supremacy than Virginian ancestor worship, precisely as Stormfront wants to use it today.
Lee himself steadfastly refused to be so memorialized in his lifetime. He would not contribute to the building of Confederate monuments and steadfastly advised white Southerners to leave it all behind. To an embittered Confederate widow, Lee once wrote, "Madam, do not train up your children in hostility to the government of the United States. Remember, we are all one country now. ... Bring them up to be Americans."
Vaidhyanathan regrets that he and his wife stayed away Saturday for fear of precisely what happened: a mad act of violence by a deranged young man. He vows to bear peaceful witness when the would-be storm troopers march again. Maybe he can help to calm campus hotheads as well.
Meanwhile, if Virginians need monuments, and they do, the state's covered with Civil War battlefields. The Lawn at UVA remains; also Jefferson's Monticello. For all the terrible ambiguity of his life, the man was the great genius of his age.
For that matter, Appomattox Courthouse isn't far away.