Here in Charlottesville, as in most places, we like our stories simple. Most books by local author John Grisham have good guys and bad guys. When a UVa sports team wins, everybody says “Yay, we won!” When it loses, three-quarters of the people say “Boo, we lost!” Reality that gets messier than a coyote and roadrunner adventure gives us trouble.
When we’re fed a fictional tale of sexual assault at a UVa fraternity by Rollingstone magazine, we like to declare that every other tale except that one is true or, alternatively, that every other tale is, just like that one, false. We’re less comfortable with the notion that a lot of tales are true and a lot of other ones false, and yet other ones partially true and partially false. It seems too sloppy. What are people supposed to wear, gray hats? How do we distinguish the angels from the demons, the bunny from the lisping hunter?
We particularly struggle with our national and international news stories that involve someone local dying: Humayun Khan, Otto Warmbier, Heather Heyer.
Humayn Khan’s father Khizr Khan has become a Democratic Party celebrity. We’re supposed to celebrate his political positions that we agree with, and his ethnicity or religion (or rather our own self-righteous lack of bigotry), . . . and also the criminal and genocidal campaign of mass slaughter and destruction in Iraq that his son died participating in. That last bit trips some of us up, because even though it complicates the childish simplicity, it seems importantly different from the other things.
Despite our appreciation for those who participated in the destruction of Iraq, we Charlottesvillians nonetheless manage to take no pride in George Norris and Robert Campus, the two local military contractors who were given big bonuses for doing what nobody at numerous agencies in D.C. had been willing to do, that is, articulate the desired lie about Iraqi aluminum tubes so that Colin Powell could use it, against the advice of his own staff, in unsuccessfully marketing the war to the United Nations.
Otto Warmbier was a UVa student who died shortly after being freed by North Korea, which had arrested him for trying to steal a poster. Warmbier’s grief-stricken parents and President Donald Trump claimed North Korea had tortured Warmbier. But a serious investigation of the affair found that the doctors who had examined Warmbier disagreed with that conclusion and its details, reporting that the young man’s teeth had not been damaged, that he had no significant scars or bone fractures, and that he did not seem to have suffered head trauma. The evidence suggested the strong possibility of attempted suicide. How’s that for a messy story? A young man commits a foolish petty crime. An abusive government arrests him for it. He’s so traumatized that he tries to kill himself. His grief-stricken family and his own abusive government lie about what happened for purposes of propaganda that could get us all killed. Who’s the godlike protagonist? Who’s the purely evil monster? Aaaargh! I don’t get it!
Heather Heyer was murdered with a car during a fascist rally that took over downtown Charlottesville. The possibly mentally ill man who did it is locked up in a cage for the rest of his life. Local media and people proclaim justice served! But the U.S. President who encouraged hateful violence goes unsanctioned, as do the police who stood by and watched it, as do the legislators who forbid the banning of guns, as do the courts and officials who refused to ban an armed event by people threatening violence and having engaged in it the night before, as do many of the public voices and activists who made it happen. The ban on banning guns remains. The ban on removing the statues that the turmoil centered on remains (or is accepted as supposedly remaining). And the ban applies to all war statues, those recognized as racist and those imagined to be non-racist. Few have learned anything about the actual suffering of people who are easily recruited by violent racists. Few of the racists have learned anything about the people they hate. Few on either side have learned much about the superior tools of nonviolence. But a man who will most certainly no more be the same person next decade than you will has been locked in a cage forever. This hardly even qualifies as a Hollywood ending, but we do our best.
I came to UVa because a brilliant thinker named Richard Rorty and a great many other intelligent and open-minded people were there. Charlottesville has as many smart people in town as anywhere else, if not more. Over-simplification is a global problem. But it’s a good idea to start at home, and Charlottesville provides fertile ground. Our town is far more complex than any cartoon. Most of the fascists came from far away, but Charlottesville has its own racist past and present. Local founding fathers articulated noble sentiments they never, ever acted upon. The local government often speaks up for peace and justice, even while it’s invested public dollars in weapons of war and fossil fuel production. We’re an independent liberal oasis, but with a hill nearby inside of which the CIA plans to shelter during a nuclear apocalypse (about which it will apparently have ample warning but not bother to warn the rest of us, much less avert the disaster).
Here’s the painful truth that we ought to apply at all levels of society, though I really do not understand what is so painful about it: there are no good guys and no bad guys, no noble political party, no saints, no devils, no dictators who don’t do things right once in a while, nobody you could put up a statue of who wouldn’t merit serious criticism, no perfect martyrs, no inhuman monsters, no hell below us, above us only sky.