We have reached a moment of crisis. Most Americans, whatever their party, have lost confidence in the national government. Few can disagree any longer with Charles Blow, who writes in The New York Times this morning:
“We are leaderless. America doesn’t have a president. America has a man in the White House holding the spot, and wreaking havoc as he waits for the day when a real president arrives to replace him.”
The past week has seen a public resurgence of the darkest currents in the American psyche: white nationalism and neo-Nazism. Rather than condemn and repudiate these forces, the President has lent them encouragement. He has used his office to legitimize an extreme and violent fringe. He does not appear to read history, but the rest of us must.
Many of our members—authors, scholars, historians—have been heard this week. There is more to come, but meanwhile we want to highlight a few:
The Harvard historian and Authors Guild Council member Annette Gordon-Reed knows Charlottesville well, having spent time there researching her Pulitzer-winning book The Hemingses of Monticello. In The New York Review Daily she writes about the torch-bearing white supremacists marching on Thomas Jefferson’s statue at the University of Virginia and the counterprotestors, “staking a defiant claim, in the face of superior numbers, to ideas about human equality and progress that they correctly perceived were under siege that night.” She provides a heartfelt perspective on Jefferson’s flaws as an individual and the ideals—fragile as they are—that have transcended his flaws.
Also speaking out have been our former president Roy Blount Jr., who covered the civil rights movement, saying on CNN that the situation is scarier now—“We have a president who can’t tell the difference between Nazis and anti-Nazis. And that’s very unsettling.”—and our Council member Rich Benjamin, here discussing the “drumbeat of white nationalism ever since Trump declared his candidacy.”
The President’s Committee on Arts and the Humanities, formed 35 years ago, resigned en masse. Their letter, signed by, among others, the author Jhumpa Lahiri, said: “We have fought slavery, segregation, and internment. We must learn from our rich and often painful history…. Ignoring your hateful rhetoric would have made us complicit in it.”
“American ideals have always clashed with harsh American realities,” says Gordon-Reed. Scholars are sometimes thought to enjoy the luxury of detachment, studying events after they have passed safely into history. We are reminded now that history is never safe and detachment becomes impossible.