Jamelle Bouie's Remarks at PST Alumni Event

Remarks for the Reunion of Political and Social Thought Students and Alumni

First, I want to say thank you for inviting me to give these remarks. It’s an honor, and I am happy to see so many familiar faces. When Isaac Reed asked me to speak, he gave me strict instructions not to talk about previous PST director Michael J. Smith, who we are here to celebrate. I will not do so, though I do want to express both  real nostalgia for being in a seminar room with MJS, and yet also a familiar feeling of anxiety — and not a small amount of terror — about being in a seminar room with MJS. This talk… is effectively a PST response paper. Will MJS approve? We will find out…  

Instead of talking directly about MJS, I am going to talk a little about what the program means in this particular moment of political and cultural reaction, both here in Virginia and nationwide. That sounds, maybe, a little dramatic. But many of you are graduating very soon, and eventually you may find yourself in positions of influence, even power. When you do, Political and Social Thought will have influenced, whether you realize it or not, the way you think about the world, its problems and potential solutions. This is to say that there is good reason to think about PST as part of a world broader than just this university.

Every so often someone asks me what I studied in college. And I tell them I was in a program called “Political Social Thought.” That sounds a little vague, so then I tell them that it was kind of like a “great books” thing, centered on a seminar, which culminated in an independent study and a thesis. But I always strongly emphasize this wasn’t a hidebound, crypto right-wing “the old canon is the only source of wisdom” course of study. With MJS we read Plato and Sophocles, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, and Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. We read texts by these authors,  and many other classics of the Western tradition of political thinking. But Professor Smith also had a broad and inclusive vision of what that tradition was. In his seminar, Leo Tolstoy was paired with Toni Morrison, and Max Weber was paired with W.E.B Du Bois. This latter pairing, in fact, should be standard—though it was not when I was at the University of Virginia from 2005 to 2009. After all, Du Bois knew Max Weber and studied in Berlin. You might be surprised at

how many people are very familiar with Weber and could not tell you much of anything about Du Bois’ comparably influential and foundational work.

For me, the great virtue of Political and Social Thought was that it gave students a vision of the Western political tradition that flowed as much from the experiences and insights of subjugated and subaltern peoples as it did those of our more traditionally canonized thinkers.

The reason this was important is because, in reality, “The West” — such that we can talk about a singular “West” — isn’t just the white, or Anglo-American, or WesternEuropean (e.g. French and German) world. Black Americans are “The West.” Latin Americans are “The West.” South Africa is “The West.” The various diasporas produced as a result of colonialism and imperialism are “The West.” And the Western intellectual heritage is inclusive of a broad set of ideas and commitments that often challenge what we might consider “the canon.”

I can’t say enough about how this way of thinking has influenced the intellectual journey I’ve been on in the fourteen years since I’ve graduated. What I didn’t realize at the time, but what is apparent to me now, is the extent to which it also has real political stakes.

It is always difficult to articulate the vibe of a political climate when you’re in the midst of it. But looking back, the vibe of 2007 and 2008 and 2009 — when I was at the university — was one in which a certain amount of cosmopolitanism was taken for granted. The leading presidential candidate was a biracial man of white and Kenyan descent who was raised in Indonesia and Hawaii and got rock star crowds wherever he went around the globe. The president that Barack Obama replaced, George W. Bush, despite his buffoonish gaffes and disastrous policies, was

was attuned to the need to project an image of inclusivity, with a diverse cabinet and a political agenda that sought to incorporate the Black and Hispanic middle-class into a broad, conservative majority.

Perhaps an indication of this different vibe can be communicated via an anecdote. In 2002, a Mississippi senator, Trent Lott, set his own career in mainstream politics on fire when he praised Strom Thurmond’s 1948 presidential campaign at Thurmond’ 100th birthday in 2002. Ignoring for the moment that such a birthday celebration was deemed appropriate, the defenestration of Lott indicated that there was a time, not that long ago, in American politics wherein saying something prejudiced could actually get you banished from mainstream society. Indeed, this anecdote communicates a time when many political and intellectual elites were looking forward to a “majority-minority” future and embraced the “browning of America.” If there were dissenting voices, they were on the fringes of American politics.

In that environment, the idea of a broad and inclusive West, expressed in the Political and Social Thought Program,was not  particularly noteworthy. It simply was, how it was.  

We know where the story goes from there. After the initial euphoria of his election, Barack Obama was met with a ferociously racist backlash from a significant segment of the American public. A powerful political movement emerged that was devoted to turning back the clock, as much as possible, on the changes that allowed an Obama to happen. The reality of a Black president revealed the limits of a Black president. And so, we witnessed both the quotidian violence of American race hierarchy — captured in increasingly high-fidelity cell phone video — and the response to that violence, a significant grassroots movement.We then saw the backlash to that — and to movements for immigration justice and LGBT inclusion — and how it erupted into mainstream politics.

We saw a frighteningly reactionary and authoritarian movement capture the heights of American politics and unleash a wave of both imitators and radicals who hoped to go even further. We had Nazis on the ground here in Charlottesville; crypto-Nazis on the air at 8 P.M. primetime; and right-wing apparatchiks in the executive branch who were suspiciously interested in closing our borders, ending birthright citizenship, and keeping the United States clear of people from “shithole countries.”

And with this political project came an ideological line. America was not an “idea,” it said. We weren’t a “melting pot.” We were a discrete nation defined by a specific and particular Western heritage. But this was an exclusive West, in person and in thought. It was only white and European; Anglo and American. And, when it came to its thinkers, mostly male at that.

This version of the “West” had room for Robert E. Lee but not for Robert Smalls. And in the words of the president, it was under assault. “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive,” said Trump in 2017. “Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”

And who would subvert and destroy it? There were outsiders, of course. The usual litany of Muslims and immigrants and refugees and asylum-seekers. But there were also internal enemies. And as the Trump years went on, it would become abundantly clear who those enemies were: racial minorities, sexual minorities, people who challenged our past worship of slavers and settlers, people who wanted to tell a more inclusive story of our nation, who had a broader story to tell of what it might mean to belong to “Western Civilization.”

Trump was defeated at the ballot box, thankfully. But that was not the end of this crusade against a more open society. The reverse might be true; it might be just beginning. For, I would argue that the highly exclusive vision of “the West” has not lost energy, but rather gotten  stronger and more aggressive.

Right now, we are in the midst of a national crusade against “CRT” and “DEI” and “wokeness,” which all just seem to mean the integration, on an equal basis, of formerly excluded groups. Multiple states have passed broad laws essentially banning classroom discussion of basic American history because it offends the sensibilities of a few racial reactionaries. The former president is still on the scene, fighting for the power he needs to make his narrow and exclusive vision of this country and its heritage a reality.

And all of this is before we get to the larger assault on higher education — and public higher education in particular. This is an attack on the idea that school is for something more than just vocational training, and that there is real value in training people — citizens, in a representative democracy — to think and to reason and to empathize and to understand.

It’s in this context that I think Political and Social Thought is absolutely vital. Not just because both the University of Virginia and the Commonwealth of Virginia are themselves a stage on which this battle is being fought, but because the basic questions of inclusion in this country are still unsettled: who belongs to the political community and what do we owe to them?

In fact, the basic question of who and what we are as a society is unsettled. It is a live issue what kind of society this is and will be. The most fundamental questions about how to live together are up for debate. In this context, And it is critically important to have people ready to go into the world and say that this country, this society, this tradition belongs to us all.

That it includes us all. That we all are its heirs, and that we ourselves also constitute it. That there is a canon, yes. But that this canon is also broader and more inclusive than traditionally conceived. The American Revolution is part of our heritage — and so is the Haitian one.

In conclusion, I want to leave you with two quotations that I think get to the heart of how I think this program can help us conceive of the world and tradition to which we belong. Both stand as rebukes to those who might want to exclude whole categories of people from this thing we call “The West.”

The first quote requires a little bit of context. The writer Saul Bellow once famously (or infamously) asked “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans” He added, “I'd be happy to read them.” Some years later, a Black sportswriter and essayist, Ralph Wiley, answered him in what I think is the definitive response to such a question: “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus.”

The second is a bit more straightforward. I have here mentioned W.E.B Du Bois. Du Bois is one of my intellectual heroes, someone from whom I am constantly learning. Someone I greatly admire for his ability to keep learning and keep changing over time. This quotation is from the Du Bois of The Souls of Black Folk. I should say here, as an aside, that although Souls is a wonderful book, it is really important to know that Du Bois kept producing work, including monumental work, for the next 60 years after its publication. I know that in Political and Social Thought today, students also read from his Black Reconstruction.  

But for now, I’ll leave you with this, which comes at the end of a chapter on the purpose of education.

“I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.”

“So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?”