I’m a media historian, so that’s the lens I bring to everything. My scholarly focus has been the mediation of movements for social change in the 1960s — the era’s youth movements and the civil rights movement and their complicated engagement with media representation. I was mostly comfortable staying in the 1960s for my research and writing. Then Nazis came to my home town here in Charlottesville. And the whole world was watching — on cable news and on various social media platforms. In trying to process the trauma of white supremacists with tiki torches parading around my university chanting “Jews will not replace us” and marauding bands of fascists, “alt-righters,” Proud Boys, assault rifle-toting militia types, and assorted racists rampaging through this pretty college town, resulting in a terrorist car attack, I’ve been trying to figure out to what extent my historian’s’ tools can help make sense of what happened and is continuing to happen in our new era of street protest, mass mobilization, and polarized turmoil. “History doesn’t repeat itself,” the adage goes, “but it often rhymes.” Are there useful historical rhymes for this era of crisis? How significant are the new social media tools that were mobilized by the alt-right — but that anti-racist activists also used very effectively? How does media matter in this environment of highly visible protest? How do anti-racist forces counter the alt-right? Does “Charlottesville” have any lessons to offer? Can looking to the past and the “new media” environment of the 1960s around television help us determine what is fundamentally new now — and what may not be so new?
Those are just some of the questions obsessing me as I try to work through how something so formerly unthinkable could erupt in this country and that just happened (albeit not accidentally) to manifest itself in my home.
Aniko, being in Charlottesville you are in the heart of the struggle for America. It seems incomprehensible that this country would follow eight years of the first African American president with someone who uses racism, xenophobia, sexism to become president. But when I see protestors in the streets by the thousands denouncing the hatred, fear, divisiveness and the othering of most of America, I can hold on to the belief that there is an America that wants to be.
I also believe that we are facing a unique challenge as human beings. The vast majority of us are living among the most demographically complex set of people who have ever lived together in a democracy. And yet most of the cities, towns, neighborhoods in which we live have neither the infrastructure nor process that enables that demographically complex public to come together and do the essential work of a democracy that only the people can do.
Over the past few years, I have used to words of Carl Moore to shape how to approach this problem. Carl suggests the “democracy exist when people who are interdependent struggle with the traditions that bind them and the interest that separate them in order to realize a future that is an equitable improvement on the past”. Borrowing from Carl, my work at MIT and in my practice is supporting the design of new civic infrastructures and methods through which the peaceful struggle can happen.
Aniko Bodroghkozy is Professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia and has been on its faculty since 2001. She is the author of Equal Time: Television and the Civil Rights Movement was published in 2012 by the University of Illinois Press. Her first book, Groove Tube: Sixties Television and the Youth Rebellion was published by Duke University Press in 2001. In 2018 she published a major anthology, edited for Wiley-Blackwell’s
Ceasar L. McDowell is Professor of the Practice of Civic Design at MIT. His current work is on the design of civic infrastructures and processes to connect the increasingly demographically complex public. Ceasar teaches on civic and community engagement and the use of social media to enhance both.