A comparison of Michael Signer, “Cry Havoc, Charlottesville and American
Democracy Under Siege” (2020), with Harry Clor, On Moderation, Defending an Ancient Virtue in a Modern World (2008)
Howling mobs thronged the city, bloodied the streets, swarmed City Council — and now that shouting dominates the national conversation. What happened in the pleasant leafy college town that was Charlottesville, Virginia, yclept by a local newsweekly C’ville? What happened to C’villity?
Two books of interest: one, former Mayor Michel Signer’s “Cry Havoc” (2020) about his embattled town. The other, the late Professor Harry Clor’s “On Moderation” (2008), a larger appreciation of civility in every city, everywhere.
Signer’s “Cry Havoc” asks how can a well-meaning, reasonable mayor cope with raucous extremists, first on the Right and then on the Left? Hint: it doesn’t go well.
Signer is a lawyer, a PhD, an adjunct professor who teaches a course on leadership at the University of Virginia, is a biographer of James
Madison. From 2016 to 2018, he was Charlottesville’s embattled mayor. If his recital of events savors of self-justification or better put, a plea for understanding, its saving grace is that Signer is reflective, a part-time political philosopher.
The bronze statue of Charlottesville’s Confederate General Robert E. Lee, a man of honor and dignity in defeat, has beautified a city park in Charlottesville for 100 years. Lee sits straight-backed, hat in hand, astride his beloved horse Traveler, walking back after the surrender at Appomattox to tell his men the war is over. Reconcile; we are now all one people.
But the meaning or message of Lee’s monument like that of all Confederate monuments, and now all historical monuments, everywhere — is morphing into something ugly in the popular imagination. Once revered for his dignity in defeat, Lee is now reviled for having fought for a regime based on slavery.
Charlottesville’s City Council voted a resolution to remove the Lee statue in February 2017. They violated perhaps deliberately, a Virginia law protecting war monuments and veterans’ memorials. This writer was among those who sued them, successfully. Like-minded folk included at the time Mayor Signer. He voted no on the resolution and warned his fellow Councilors that the law prohibited removal.
Six months later, Signer changed his mind.
The meaning of these statues has changed forever, he opines in his book. What accelerated their re-interpretation was the astounded, horrified citywide (and nationwide) reaction to the events in Charlottesville of August 12, 2017.
Unite the Right invaded our town in polo shirts and khaki pants with flaming tiki torches. Neo-Nazis claiming General Lee as their own lent credence to the redefinition of Lee as a White Supremacist, and only that. He’s no hero, he fought for White Supremacy and his statue was a Jim Crow monument, insist the indignant Woke. And just look at the rednecks in pickups flying Confederate battle flags who defend this so-called southern heritage!
Let’s be candid: Unite the Right came looking for a fight. Protesting the
vote to remove the Lee statue was just a pretext. They brought helmets and goggles and shields decorated with quasi-Nazi emblems, and flags on thick wood flagpoles that doubled as clubs.
Unite the Right was met by a Hefty Left. Make no mistake, the helmeted, goggled, shin-guarded Woke confronted them with clubs of their own and balloons of urine; one with a spray-can improvised flame-thrower.
False equivalency? Can’t compare an invasion of right wing extremists and neo-fascists with left wing extremists and neo-socialists defending their hometown?
Signer suggests that the two sides were in a way the same. “Human beings within both movements were, in a time of accelerating unreason, drawn to each other, and in that process, slipping into a pattern of mirroring each other’s extreme actions.” [emphasis in original]. Signer diagnoses the extremity of both Right and Left: it’s about passion, people “desire to fall deeply in love with one side or the other.” And of course, hate is the evil twin of love.
People love to hate and yearn to fight. Good people on both sides? Bad
people if, that is, unreason and violence are bad. More on this question below: it is a genuine, not a rhetorical question.
Back to Charlottesville. Ministers and rabbis caught up in the moment,
locked arms to obstruct the Lee park entrance, provoking violence as wannabe martyrs. One later explained, they hoped police would arrest Unite the Right demonstrators breaking their cordon.
Instead, as Signer describes, ranks of stolid police stood motionless in row after row behind steel fence barricades, watching fists fly and clubs smash heads. Under orders to stay put, they arrested nobody.
With media omnipresent, the city management was concerned “about
‘images’ of police using batons, or even weapons against the violence.” (Signer says he gasped at that revelation).
The subsequent Heaphy Report suggests the Chief of Police may have
invited violence, waited for it, used it as an excuse to declare an unlawful assembly and shut down Unite the Right. Content-blind free speech jurisprudence may have required granting them a parade permit — but city management evidently was not content-blind.
When police finally were given orders to clear the park, they actually pushed the angry armed combatants together in the street. Violence ignited and spread.
Afterwards, one man with a record of insane rage who had driven from Ohio to Virginia to chant slogans with Unite the Right — frustrated, denied his free speech right to express racial hatred — got in his Dodge Challenger to go home. Downhill on 4th Street milled a crowd of the Woke, jubilant, exalting that the city had shut down Unite the Right. Somewhere in the triumphant crowd, oblivious to the muscle car up the hill on 4th Street revving its engine, was Heather Heyer.
There was a Pulitzer prize-winning photograph of what followed, taken by a local news photographer on his last day at work. Chalked encomiums and epitaphs cover the brick walls of buildings at that spot still, three years later. The street sign proclaims its honorary new name: Heather Heyer Way.
The Chief of Police is no longer employed by the city. None of the 2017
leadership are, including Michael Signer.
Signer did not run for a second term, which was prudent. The angry Woke now despise him. Though a documented card-carrying Progressive, Signer finds himself reviled by his own people.
The searing anger of the crowd at the City Council meeting following
August 12 was so shocking, Signer says, that he’d blocked out much of that long evening. He does remember the Blood on Your Hands banner. This banner was carried by activists who clambered onto the dais and stomped about among the papers and microphones, forcing city counselors to retreat to an antechamber.
It did not stop with that. The trauma of his time as Mayor sent Signer into therapy; he felt a “wave of relief and lightness sweep over” him when his term finally ended. Anger flares and cools but the cold hatred lingers. This year, long out of office, Signer still could not risk a book signing for Cry Havoc in his hometown. At a book signing in Richmond an hour away, activists boasted on Twitter: We showed up to “help.”
Signer sighs: The hard left even redefines civility itself “as a sign of
oppression.” One activist said: “[c]ivility is actually used to shut down
discussion . . . it is often a way to ‘tone police’ the folks that don’t have power and don’t speak in four syllable words.” Signer here is quoting a tenured U Va professor with a Harvard PhD.
The Woke are the ones who regularly shut down discussion hereabouts. No platform for fascists. White Supremacist speech creates unsafe space. Worse, people might start to listen. “Likening Charlottesville to the Weimar Republic,” Signer notes that an activist wrote, “[w]e’ve seen what happens in history when the growth of fascism is ignored and the threat is not taken seriously.”
Woke violence against their adversaries self-justifies therefore: pre-emptive self-defense.
Unite the Right started what Signer calls the “cycle of antagonism” in 2017 but the Woke now keep it going, foraging for grievances, fresh reasons to be angry. As Signer narrates they’ve roiled City Council, the Planning Commission; our nascent Police Civilian Review Board.
And history is being ethically cleansed, in Charlottesville and elsewhere, as the Woke topple statues all over the country of Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Christopher Columbus. Anything named “Lee” is anathema. Virginia’s Governor demanded renaming a school that honors Revolutionary War General “Light Horse Harry” Lee; a North Carolina statue of World War II Major General William D. Lee, was torched by vandals.
Some of this may reflect a reaction against Trump; and (in this writer’s view) too many people with too little to do in the COVID-19 lock-down. Ennui and anomie, feeling empty and needing purpose, contributes to the spread of an infectious political contagion.
Signer generalizes from his experience of disruptive activists in city politics, to the view that extremism subverts American democracy. The very possibility of self-governance he says, now is under siege: “the most ancient underpinnings of democratic self-government: civility, efficiency, and deliberation.”
Signer asks based on personal experience, how can a deliberative body
deliberate, how can democratic government function, without order?
But for anarchists, order is anathema. If City Council can’t function — they’ve won that night. If they demonize (relatively) moderate Signer and drive him out of politics, they’ve won that year.
It is a time of “an extraordinary flare-up of political furies,” Signer
concludes, a time in which “passions reigned.” Perhaps we can learn something from all this. “Wisdom is produced by trauma in ancient Greek tragedy.”
Learn what? Signer concludes with an unsatisfying, seemingly ritual end-of-book optimism: “There’s hope” curling like wisps of smoke up out of the “ash and agony of Charlottesville.” Hope? The city is still here but at for now at least, an intelligent and good-hearted man’s once promising political career looks like a
Political passion took over. Passion should not rule. But Signer does not answer: how can reason de-throne it?
In “On Moderation” Harry Clor posits at least a partial answer. Clor was a political philosopher. He earned his Masters and PhD at the University of Chicago when Leo Strauss was there; the book’s introduction honors
his mentor Herbert Storing. Clor then taught at Kenyon College from 1965 to 1999. He died at 89 in 2018. “On Moderation,” his last book, was written after his retirement.
Like Signer, Clor wrestles with the problem of political passion, the perennial adversary of moderation. For example: terrorists. Clor’s book in part reacts to 9/11 and its Bush administration references now seem dated. But terrorism does not settle the case against immoderation, says Clor, it is only a preface to the inquiry. Moderation would still be worth exploring even if terrorists did not exist.
Here is the fundamental problem. Though we are rational animals — Clor says, channeling Aristotle — also we “are full of imperious passions, some benign and some antisocial, even bestial, which can overwhelm reason and even turn it into their instrument.”
Then, personal unreason multiplied becomes political. Hyper-connected Social Media and cable news might spread a “widely shared opinion that may be unjust” and ”extremist.'” As Signer says, “sparking blazes that could spread contagiously.”
So far Clor and Signer would agree. But Clor gives a fair hearing to the
argument for immoderation, for whole-hearted belief (his ideal of impartiality, “moderation at its pinnacle” is a judge weighing both sides). Clor gives a fair hearing to that question whether anger, iron determination, and even violence, are political necessities.
Clor addresses “irrationalism” as practiced in politics, and as preached by the likes of Nietszche. Instead of simply decrying political passion and its proclivity for the extreme, Clor offers a somewhat more nuanced view: it’s part of who we are, and it can be needful, useful.
Political effectiveness requires mobilizing the People. A rally is cheerleading, chanting slogans, reinforcing prejudices and habits of thought. Doubt or rational debate has no place there. The “pervasiveness of inspirational rhetoric — even on behalf of the most defensible principles — is testimony to the fact that reason can seldom govern alone,” says Clor.
And that is just politics as usual. Radical change, a revolution — requires determination, certainty of rightness; Will. Moderation, and its concomitant openness and tolerance may be in gentle tension with revolutionary Will.
Clor recalls that while teaching the virtues of political moderation in his course on the American Founding, a “congenital debunker” responded with a challenge: “So you would have been against the American Revolution or you would have looked for some compromise to avoid it?”
Clor replies that the late Martin Diamond comes “partly” to the rescue, citing his essay The Revolution of Sober Expectations (ours was after all a temperate, moderate revolution). That’s only a partial answer though. The truth is that temperance and forbearance does not an activist make, nor doubt a revolutionary.
Clor asks: “Should we say with Nietszche, that whole hearted belief is the prime condition of resolute action . . . ?” If so, it’s “bad news for the concept of moderation.”
Clor offers Lincoln as an example that moderation is not always inconsistent with being resolute, nor with greatness. But he concedes moderation tends to preserve the status quo (Lincoln was willing to keep slavery in states where it already existed, to preserve the Union). In this, moderation is conservative. The moderate’s only real answer to the revolutionary is: reconsider, are you sure revolution is such a good thing?
Clor speaks of the radical Socialist, “filled with righteous rage at the world’s abominable deficiencies, and he is tempted to use massive violence to replace the reign of abomination with the reign of brotherhood, equality and justice.” That’s “dangerously Utopian.” Too late, after all the impure are purged and killed, we rediscover the impossibility of “a wholly different, unselfishly communal type of
person (the ‘New Man’).” Then after all the upheaval — meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
There is a striking parallel in Signer’s recalling the wisdom of his Grandfather: “everything becomes its opposite.” The Left and Right extremes mirror each other, just as Communism orginally “so idealistic, so aspirational — had become fascism instead.” In his book’s Conclusion Signer ruefully decides his grandfather was right: “if we can, we must stop democracy too, from becoming its opposite.”
But again — for the Woke, revolution is the point: the regime of White
Supremacy, by White Supremacy, and for White Supremacy, should perish from the earth. Signer’s rejoinder that actual change happens incrementally by hard work and consensus building, not suddenly by virtue signaling; and his hope we all might learn something from Charlottesville’s experience — do not seem an adequate response.
Clor extolls learning too, though in his case its a specific kind: liberal
education. “Classical perspectives . . . concentration upon the enduring questions provides us some distance from partisan opinions and demands of the present moment . . . ” he says. If you want a real challenge, let greater minds challenge your own verities.
Not that we can really expect the Woke to drop their placards and tribal
truths, and rush back to school to exercise (exorcise?) their minds with the liberal education they missed, or which didn’t take the first time around.
Who does Clor aim to persuade, then? Clor defines his audience as in part academia, but also “educated people with an interest in large questions of public affairs.” Clor has kept “one eye on the citizen.” Further clarification: “the essays are addressed to those who are in a position to be educators in the broad sense of the term.” Clor leaves it at that.
We pause to note the structure of Clor’s short but dense book. “On
Moderation” is divided in five parts: an Introduction and Conclusion, and the meat of the matter in three sections between. The first is Political Moderation: Balancing the Extremes. The book ends with Philosophic Moderation: Tempering the Mind. Clor puts Personal Moderation: Taming the Excess, in the middle. Why?
Those familiar with Straussian hermeneutics — a 17th century word from the Greek for “interpretation,” reading carefully with a critical eye — recall that Straussians look to the center. Clor was taught by Straussians. And he is an avowed Aristotelian. Virtue lies in a mean between extremes. At Kenyon College where Clor taught, the major buildings connect via its cherished Middle Path.
Perhaps personal moderation is central because it is the indispensable
political virtue, in a self-governing democracy? Signer would certainly agree: Extremists cannot govern and are ungovernable. They only create chaos.
Or is personal moderation central because it’s the right way to live, good in itself and conducive to personal happiness? Temperance, a virtue not just needed for living well in a good regime, but also to cope with a bad one. Like Voltaire’s Candide and perhaps like Signer, after bruising experience of the rough and tumble — we may need to retreat for a while to tend our own garden.
And for thoughtful souls also — is moderation requisite for reasoning? Clor reflects obliquely about the philosophic mind in his book’s last section.
Clor is an Aristotelian. In gauging the goodness of a person (or a regime) Aristotelians look for the virtue called justice. A just soul is a harmonious unity, balancing different parts. Reason in charge; passions supportive. Not insatiable passions in charge, and reason running around with the impossible job of satisfying them.
Like activists shopping for grievances to feed their unquenchable fury.
In a good city the harmony of the soul is reflected in a larger harmony of different parts of the community (this from Aristotle, and also Plato’s Republic, the City in speech with a human soul writ large). And a good city can change for the worse if passion wrests the scepter from reason and begins to gratify its hungers: the difference between being governed selflessly for the good of all, or selfishly for the benefit of those in power.
“You’re either with us or you’re against us,” Signer’s “Cry Havoc” quotes a fellow city counselor saying. And: “it’s OUR turn now.”
A lot to think about. In Clor’s “On Moderation” we encounter Aristotle, and Jane Austen, Isaiah Berlin, Edmund Burke, Winston Churchill, John Donne, T.S. Elliott, Stanley Fish, Foucoult, Felix Frankfurter, and Freud; Galston, Ghandi, Hobbes and Huxley . . . rather than go through whole the alphabet I’ll just mention Clor’s focus on Montaigne’s essays. Montaigne tried gently persuading his native France in the grip of bloody religious strife to step back from their certainties. Clor also respects Rousseau (surprising, given that Rousseau was step-father to the immoderate French Revolution, and like a great-uncle to Karl Marx).
Nietszche is not Clor’s preferred thinker, but Nietszche offers the most
compelling counter-argument to moderation. And as Clor points out, Nietszche’s depreciation of rationality is the unacknowledged progenitor of many modern and post-modern views (including, inter alia, the boundless equality of Progressives, and value-free cultural relativists).
Philosophic perplexities may have a fraught relation with the political, and with moderation. Plato’s Socrates makes but a brief appearance, in Clor’s appreciation of the virtue of moderation.
Civility matters. On this, practical politician and political philosopher agree. Signer’s “Cry Havoc” walks us through a fractious C’ville, telling a cautionary tale in meticulous detail and lively, engaging prose. Yet — go up in the mountains better to see the city below. Clor spent his long life in a college on a hill in rural Ohio, reading Great Books, and he did not disdain merely good ones, either. Clor’s “On Moderation” is a harder trek, but what a view.
Jock Yellott, a student of the late Harry Clor at Kenyon College, is executive director of The Monument Fund, Inc., a Charlottesville nonprofit and a plaintiff in the Charlottesville statue litigation. Mayor Signer was a former defendant in that case.There are currently no comments highlighted.