To my students,
Like you, I am currently grappling with the shocking revelations and events from this past weekend’s neo-fascist rally in Charlottesville, and I write to you in the hope that my words can help in some small way as we navigate this difficult time.
As historians, we know there are multiple sides and perspectives to every issue, and we also know that human society has been and continues to be rife with problems. Exploring various perspectives challenges us to look at our own blind spots and prejudices, to learn from the past in order to improve the present. They should never lead us to entertain or replicate the vitriol that the past often contains. As I said frequently in our class, there are multiple right answers to the questions we ask, but there are also multiple wrong ones. The conclusions drawn by participants in the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville are as wrong as they get. Such ideologies (white supremacy, white nationalism, and neo-nazism) are hateful and loathsome, and they rely on pseudoscience, falsified evidence, and fear. They are baseless, but nonetheless dangerous. In the discipline of history, we read and analyze multiple perspectives, even the abhorrent ones, to understand why events happened and why problems persist so we can grow as a society. Let us work to understand what happened this weekend so that we can work to prevent it from happening again.
Our class last term dealt with important issues plaguing modern society since 1789, with the overarching theme being France’s struggle with human rights, inclusion, and the meaning of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Such issues continue to animate our public discourse, and as many of you rightfully stated last term, the unfolding of the French Revolution seems all too pertinent to recent events. Like all nations, France was and is an imperfect nation led by imperfect people, and in our class, we saw how the French fell under the sway of the Terror, authoritarianism, and fascist ideology, and we saw how many refused to grant freedom to slaves, dignity to colonized peoples, and assistance to the poor. In this, the rally-goers in Charlottesville have emulated the worst history has to offer. But we also saw how despite all this, many fought on in order to give truth to liberty, equality, and fraternity–not only in mainland France, but in the distant colony of Saint-Domingue, where slaves pushed the boundaries of what French revolutionaries meant when they proclaimed that “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” Today we should see France’s failings as a cautionary tale from which we can learn, and its successes as a model to emulate. Just as French society, at the behest of slave revolutionaries, committed intellectuals and social critics, and women authors and activists, expanded the meaning of “man” to include people of color, women, and even the “questionable professions,” so too should we do the same. And we must remember that white nationalism, beyond a shadow of a doubt, represents the polar opposite of liberty, equality, and fraternity, standing as a repudiation of the ethical values on which the sister republics of France and the United States were founded.
Like you, I am blindsided and upset. In last semester’s class, we read multiple voices from the oppressed, examined the terrifying allure of authoritarianism, saw how hard it was to create and keep a republic, and directly discussed the dangerous rise of the far right and what fascism does to liberty, equality, and fraternity. Now witnessing the vilest spectres of human history haunting Charlottesville, I would like to say I cannot comprehend how individuals can come to such hateful and wrong-headed conclusions. Unfortunately I cannot say this, because as we saw together, it happens time and time again. However I can say that when one knows history, as we do, there is simply no excuse worth abiding.
In conclusion, I ask you to continue to listen to the voices of those targeted by hate and oppression; understand the motivations of oppressors in order to resist them; speak out in defense of our fellow humans; and champion sound logic, reliable evidence, and empathy in all that you do. As a community of scholars and as engaged citizens, we must challenge anyone who would claim the ability to solve society’s complex problems with “simple” answers like violence, hatred, and jingoism.
If you would ever like to talk in person, my door is open. You are not alone.