A Picky Nodder and America’s Deep Race Issues

I don’t know the name of the man standing just behind Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe’s left shoulder in the widely-circulated video of McAuliffe’s remarks today at Charlottesville’s Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church, but the man’s conspicuously selective nodding during the speech was the heroism we needed on a day of careless (and sometimes silly) reactions to yesterday’s white supremacist march and terrorist attack on the Virginia city.

In the video, our Nodder shows his approval when McAuliffe sends a simple message to the white nationalist and neo-Nazi marchers: “Go home.” Nod, nod, nod.

But the Nodder immediately freezes when McAuliffe invokes the patriotism of two Founding Fathers. “You wanna talk about patriots?” the Democratic governor asks. “Talk about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, who brought our country together.” Wait a second…

I can’t know for sure—our Nodder’s neck may have tired at just the moment McAuliffe mentioned Jefferson’s name—but I suspect his sudden stillness was a response to the absurdity of McAuliffe’s choice, at a moment of racial division, to hold up as exemplary unifiers two white people who had owned black people as slaves.

I don’t have a problem calling the Founders patriots. They did, of course, “bring the country together,” though not in the same sense it needs to be brought together today. And despite their personal imperfections and hypocrisies, they were inspired by some genius to fill our founding documents with an aspirational vision of equality that continues to drive our nation’s halting progress.

But Mr. Nodder’s reminder of America’s troubled history was useful today, when so many of us struggled to put the events of Charlottesville into their proper context. The president tried to diminish the clash’s importance by painting it as a flare-up of hatred from “many sides.” Likewise, the author of this truly ridiculous blog post, apparently forgetting that 63 million Americans were comfortable enough with Trump’s flirtations with white nationalism to elect him president, suggested the real problem in Charlottesville (and the reason for Heather Heyer’s death) was the left’s overreaction to “a few hundred nutjobs.” While McAuliffe did much better than these two, it was one well-placed listener—and his timely nodding—who reminded us that even the best-intentioned among us sometimes struggle to grasp the depth of our nation’s issues.