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A cloudy Saturday afternoon in January 2017 at the University of Virginia. A friend and I show up at a hastily organized march in response to Trump’s latest executive order, a cruel, poorly conceived attempt to ban Muslim immigrants from entering–or re-entering–the U.S.

After listening to rousing speeches by several young women and men, we make our way from the Rotunda down the Lawn. Students yell, “Show me what democracy looks like!” Crowd of 600 or so responds, “This is what democracy looks like!” I notice all the bright signs and the rushed, charming ones scrawled on brown cardboard.



We continue toward Old Cabell Hall. Baby in stroller gets an early taste of peaceful assembly.

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The crowd rounds the corner and heads toward the walkway in front of Bryan Hall. “No hate, no fear!” A few tears sliding down my face, I feel moved by the occasion but also, truth be told, a little nervous. This is the closest I’ve ever come to being part of a mob. Pressed together, yelling, hearts pumping–what are we capable of?

And what about those young white men with their arms crossed, standing on the steps of Old Cabell and smirking at us? What are they thinking? What are they capable of? If one of them yelled a slur at this group, would I stay silent? Would I join in a loud chant of rebuke? But they don’t yell; they just stand on the steps and watch us go by.

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In front of Small Library, home of several extremely rare copies of the Declaration of Independence, a student stops and asks me, “Is this an anti-Trump rally?” “No,” I say, “it’s more of a pro-immigrant rally.” “Great!” she says and goes on her way.

It occurs to me yet again that some UVa students have no idea what’s going on at their own school. There was a time when they all would have known this march was happening because they would’ve read an announcement about it in the Cavalier Daily. But the CD is no longer a daily, and I rarely see students reading it. It is available on the web, of course, but who has time for that when you have Facebook and Twitter to wade through? This is a problem at lots of universities, not just UVa. The absence of objective print journalism by and for college students is an example of what democracy doesn’t look like.

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As I look out at the people milling around as the march winds down, I think about Thomas Jefferson. A genius, a complicated man not without flaws. Today, though, I think particularly about his “Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.” It is relevant to our current president’s not-so-veiled attempt to keep out immigrants who practice the Muslim faith.

“Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” speaks across generations in Jefferson’s characteristic language of cool, eloquent reason. This is what democracy is:

… Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities. –excerpted from “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” by Thomas Jefferson

The news is not good these days, yet I keep coming back for more. I live out in the country and can’t get a national newspaper delivered to my house. Nor can I get TV reception without one of those big ugly dishes planted in my yard–and I refuse to defile the property in that way. This means I depend on the web for news.

I could ignore the news sites and spare myself a daily dose of sorrow and anger and Schadenfreude. But I’m not there yet. I read the articles about the Presidential campaign and North Korea and global warming and then scroll down past the clickbait to the comments. With few exceptions, they are spiteful, repetitive, bullying, and staggeringly unoriginal. They are cowardly in their anonymity. They are the essence of frustration, hard little cubes of excrement put out there for fellow keyboard jockeys to sniff and kick.

The Washington Post‘s Gene Weingarten has compared a news story with a comments thread to a steak dinner with a side order of maggots. Just as one would be hard pressed to look at the steak without taking note of the maggots, I can’t read an online news story without peeking at the comments. This is a habit I need to break, for my own mental health.

Nobody ever said free speech would be pretty. And I understand that publications want readers to linger on their sites, commit their eyeballs to a commercially profitable experience, and maybe even read the pop-up ads. But I miss the days when I used to open my front door in the morning and find the newspaper hidden at the base of the azalea. I read it while eating breakfast and continued in the evening after work. I didn’t read it off and on throughout the day.

Sometimes I would read the letters to the editor, and occasionally those letters made me mad. But those writers had taken the time to organize their thoughts and compose a lucid letter with a beginning, middle, and end; they signed their names and gave their towns. Their submissions had been vetted by an editor and their publication was an honor, not a given.

Newspapers still print letters to the editor, of course. But the real action, such as it is, takes place in the comments threads. Those too-often vitriolic threads are ropes that strangle hope and goodwill and take the birdsong out of an early spring morning.

The candidates keep saying they get it, they know Americans are angry. I bet we’d all  feel less angry if we got off our computers and took a walk around the block or strolled around the yard. I think we all need to be quiet for a while so we can learn to listen to each other again.

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