The Virginia Justice Democrats hosted a packed house in at the City of Fairfax Regional Library on January 4, 2020 for a discussion of the Virginia Way.
The following speakers presented:
Kenny Boddye, Prince William County Board of Supervisors (moderator);
Jeff Thomas, The Virginia Way: Democracy and Power After 2016 (7:42);
Sean Perryman, Fairfax NAACP (29:22);
Liz White, OneVirginia2021 (38:40);
Michelle Woolley, Coalition to Repeal Right to Work (47:47);
Josh Stanfield, Activate Virginia (56:20).
Questions and answers begin at 1:07:28. Liz White offered an extended discussion on the current redistricting constitutional amendment from 1:17:27 – 1:30:15.
Concluding remarks were from Brent Finnegan (1:48:04).
The full text of the speech from Jeff Thomas is below.
“The Virginia Way in 2020”
Thank you all for having me, and thank you to Ali and the Virginia Justice Democrats for all your hard work in making today possible.
It’s an honor to be here today to talk about the Virginia Way. What it is, its problems, and its solutions.
I’d like to start first with a brief reading from the following book, Virginia: History, Government, Geography. This book was written by Virginia politicians in the mid-1950s and mandated in Virginia public schools from 1955 through the late 1970s. It’s extremely important for understanding the mindset of people who grew up during that time and who are the leaders of Virginia government and our economy today.
“Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those for whom they worked. They were not so unhappy as some Northerners thought they were, nor were they so happy as some Southerners claimed. The Negroes had their problems and their troubles. But they were not worried by the furious arguments going on between Northerners and Southerners over what should be done with them. In fact, they paid little attention to these arguments.”
Here is a page from Dominion CEO Tom Farrell’s Field of Lost Shoes, a 2014 film about the Civil War that he wrote, produced, acted in, and paid somebody to direct:
This really can only be described as a Soviet level of propaganda, something about which Tom Farrell was quite proud.
Now you understand why, when people like Henry Howell were fighting to give working people of all color a good job with decent wages, Ralph Northam and Mark Herring were running around fraternity parties dressed in blackface. Virginia Way practitioners are not evil people; they are acting on what they believe is true about our history and our values.
The Virginia Way is fake history, but it is far deeper than this. The Virginia Way is racist, too, and sexist, and homophobic, but it is far more than merely implanting the cancer of racism, sexism, and homophobia in the human heart. A scholar named Fred Eichelman wrote his dissertation on this history textbook and asked a commission member what its purpose was. The member replied: “to make every seventh-grader aspire to the colonnaded mansion, and if he can’t get there, make him happy in the cabin.”
What is the Virginia Way?
The Virginia Way is the dominant economic narrative of Virginia’s oligarchy.
The specifics have changed over time – the racism, the patriarchy, the historical mythmaking, these are all important, but the real purpose is and always has been economic: to keep the money in the hands of the plantation masters who own the state and own our government.
This has been going on for 400 years.
Virginia was founded as a corporation, The Virginia Company of London, where wealthy investors could buy pieces of our state, use violence to import African slaves and indentured poor white near slaves to grow tobacco, and make 1,000% profit on their forced labor. If they were worked to death, which they usually were, the life expectancy of indentured servants in Virginia was one year, then there were plenty more where they came from. But by virtue of our numbers, the majority of workers have always had the ultimate power, though we rarely choose to use it. During Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, a biracial revolutionary army found solidarity in their common exploitation, and a poor person’s army, half black and half white, burned down the capital and nearly overthrew their colonial masters for good. This should not be overly romanticized, as Bacon’s army also murdered innocent Native Americans. This threat to the ruling class led to the institution of the Virginia slave codes to turn black and white workers against each other rather than against the true enemy, the oligarchs. After Bacon’s Rebellion, there were no labor laws or improvement in economic conditions for workers, but a black person could not testify in court, a white man could; a black slave could be beaten for any reason, a white indentured servant could only be beaten for cause, as determined by the master.
A hundred years later, in 1776, we had the American Revolution, which was really a 1/8 revolution: white male property owners went into something resembling freedom, the remainder of the white race faced varying levels of legal and extralegal oppression dependent upon gender and property ownership, and the other half of the population went into a totalitarian gulag.
During this time, the colonial ideology of the Virginia Way was reshaped and renamed. It is not all bad, and we do have things to be proud of as Virginians. The First Amendment, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, are perhaps the foremost exemplars of those freedoms in the world. But when we severed our ties to the Church of England, Virginia’s founding fathers replaced the Church religion with our own state religion: the Virginia Way. Virginia is unique in America in using the term ‘rector’ to describe the chair of the board of public universities. This, again, is straight from the Church, and Thomas Jefferson, as we all know, was the first rector of the University of Virginia. In addition to Saint Jefferson, we have Saint Washington, Saint Madison, archbishops Lee and Byrd, and today we live in the reign of immortal people called corporations, chaired by Dominion Energy.
At the same time these founding fathers were preaching the most sublime virtues, they were practicing the most abject barbarity. Saint Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal but he raped his own half-sister, Sally Hemings, and enslaved their own children. It was very well known at the time that Jefferson had two families, it did not take DNA testing to prove that. But at the same time, in all his letters, you have no mention of his second family only mention of his property. It is an astounding degree of self-delusion.
This denial of reality is not limited to one person but this was what, according to historians, all white masters with two families did, with the true ancestry of many passed down only through family oral history. White masters’ two families existed in everyday reality but an entire society in thousands of independent decisions could not admit that even in private writing.
This extreme denial of reality continues to today. In Richmond, we have the state capitol designed by the author of the Declaration of Independence, and a mile away, we have St. John’s Church, where Patrick Henry said, Give me liberty, or give me death!
Halfway between, we have Shockoe Bottom, which was the largest slave trading center on the East Coast, where hundreds of thousands of innocent people were brutalized, were victims of tortured and died or sent to die. The reason for this is that by the 1700s the tobacco fields had ample labor, so human children were a surplus cash crop for Virginia slaveowners that could be sold for profit to the cotton and sugar gulags. In a city that claims to worship history, the site of this world-historical slave market in 2020 as we sit here today is a vacant lot with a plaque.
If you go to Richmond, there is a mood to the place. There is something different about it, you cannot touch it, but you feel it. One of the reasons I wrote this book is so people can understand that feeling – the sense that you have that something is wrong – is correct and ordinary people can have intellectual courses of self-defense against the plantation masters who continue to deny racism, patriarchy, oppression, exploitation. What you sense in Richmond is a collective trauma, which, as the Bible says, has been visited from the fathers to the sons and their sons and their sons and their sons to the fourth generation – and daughters, of course, we might add. We as a people cannot preach the most sublime words while perpetrating the most evil crimes without causing a spiritual crisis and trauma inside ourselves and amongst our people. We cannot live openly and our hearts cannot be free with such guilt and shame when this spiritual crisis has been paralyzing us since the beginning, and continues to do so today.
So why is it important that we have this fake history? Why is it important that we have old textbooks about happy slaves? The mindset, the collective unconscious, of the rulers of the Virginia is that there are no large problems in our society. If you cannot see color, if you cannot see racism, then racism cannot exist in your mind. You cannot solve problems that don’t exist.
The mindset of the Virginia Way is in some ways worse than the segregationists in Mississippi and Alabama. People like George Wallace and Bull Connor are the scum of the earth. But there is a certain honesty to saying those vile words in public instead of behind closed doors and claiming that one is genteel by using code words. If anything, our indoctrination is deeper than that of Alabama because embracing the Virginia Way means to live the lie. We all have natural human drives for creativity and freedom; the purpose of the Virginia Way is stunt those drives in order to control you.
The point of the Virginia Way is to make you docile so the people in power stay in power and the rich old men stay rich old men. The Virginia Way is not about the Civil War: the wounds long predated the Civil War, and the Civil War merely cauterized them. The purpose of the Virginia Way is to make you happy enough, as so many of our so-called leaders are, that they are walking in the footsteps of the sage of Monticello, that they were born in the hallowed breast of the mother of Presidents, that they are witnesses to a glorious history stretching back to Jamestown and the founding of Rome and so on and on and on. Go to the capitol and see the statue to archbishop Byrd and the honorable Mr. Lee and the bejeweled English scepter. The point is to distract you from the problems that actually matter.
People who must contend with this troublesome thing called reality are not taken in by the myth of the Virginia Way. When independent observers look at Virginia, they understand well how broken our state politics is. Bob McDonnell and Ralph Northam are laughingstocks globally. Oxfam, the world’s most respected anti-poverty charity, ranks Virginia as the worst state to work in America. According to the Commonwealth Institute, “Virginia is now the most unequal state in the country, and is more unequal than at any time on record.” In the national Health of Democracies project, Virginia was ranked fiftieth out of fifty-one states and D.C. in the health of its democracy. Rightly so: Virginia is an oligarchy. The last several years have also seen some limited electoral progress for women. While Virginia had been dead last in gender equity among elected officials in 2013, in 2018 it had climbed to thirty-seventh out of fifty.
Once you understand the Virginia Way, you knew very well that our Democratic leaders were going to betray their stated values as soon as they got in office. Understanding the Virginia Way is a useful tool for predicting how things actually will work, and not paying attention to campaign promises. The Virginia Way is bipartisan on economic issues, because there is only one dominant party in Virginia: the Money Party.
Dick Saslaw debated Republican leader Tommy Norment a few years ago. Saslaw said: “Go ask Dominion, go ask any of these companies—beer and wine wholesalers, banks, the development community—every one of them will tell you, they will tell you I’m the most pro-business senator.” Who says this? This is from a Democrat. The real election for the Virginia Way was held in June 2019, when Yasmine Taeb put on a heroic fight and lost to Dick Saslaw by less than 3 points.
The differences between establishment Democrats and Republicans are on social issues only – abortion, gun rights and gun safety, LGBTQ issues, and certainly these are all important. Speaker Filler-Corn and Majority Leader Saslaw have appointed the most corrupt group of hacks and clowns to be in charge of the committees that will kill any bill that hurts donors. There’s no difference on economic issues between what they will pass and what was passed last year under Republican leadership. If you understand the Virginia Way, you knew that we were going to get Medicaid expansion, because people could make money off of it.
The Virginia Way is not pro-business, and it’s tragicomic to hear our politicians proclaim that again and again, as if it were true, and as if anybody should care what some CNBC intern who made a list says about Virginia being the best place for business. When legislators raise Dominion’s electricity rates, it is bad for business, not good for business, and that is money that comes out of your pockets and every small and large business as effectively as any tax. The Virginia Way, as the dominant economic ideology of the Virginia oligarchy, is pro-donor, not pro-business. Virginia is the only state in the country where corporations can give unlimited amounts of money to politicians who can spend that money on personal expenses. Virginia politicians give Dominion what it wants – raising electricity rates – because Dominion is historically the state’s most profligate campaign donor. Dominion is just one of many examples, you can go down the donor list and see a straight line between the largest donors and legislative success. These establishment politicians just lie to you to get your votes, and then get into office and represent their true constituency, which is their donors.
So what should you do? So few Virginians have had the freedom that you now have, and you have a responsibility to use it to make our state better.
What should you do with your freedom? I can’t answer that question for you, other than to say that you have to solve the problems that you see need to be solved but that nobody else is solving.
Look to the people you admire who have had the most success challenging the Virginia Way. A few years ago, Josh Stanfield had no money, no contacts, no organization. But he had an idea that he was going to ask politicians to pledge never to take money from Dominion. And he actually got up and did it. Now, Josh would be the last person to tell you this, but he has become one of the most effective political operatives in Virginia, and he has given voice and action to something that we were all feeling and wanted to fix, which is Dominion is the head of the snake and the corruption of campaign finance is the source of its power. Josh Stanfield has done more to challenge Dominion than anyone since Henry Howell.
The Virginia Way is a mountain that we have to knock down using whatever toothpick or bulldozer we can. Sometimes, we can chip away, sometimes, we create an avalanche. Facebook and Twitter are not going to do it for you, you have to get up off your butt and do it yourself. And we cannot do it just amongst our own circle, we have to directly challenge the people in power. Directly. It’s not enough to work in a like-minded group like this and bouncing ideas around in a circle: we have to make the people in power to pay attention and to pay.
One clue how is to understand the Virginia Way and to do exactly the opposite.
If the Virginia Way is about oligarchy, then we need to be focused on poverty.
If the Virginia Way is autocratic, then we need to be democratic.
If the Virginia Way is about fake history, then we have to tell the truth about our own flaws.
If the Virginia Way is about secrecy and manipulation, then we need to work with transparency and trust.
If the Virginia Way is about dehumanizing racism, sexism, and homophobia, then we need to focus on humanity in a way that transcends artificial divisions of color, gender and sexuality. Those divisions were instituted amongst us by the plantation owners to benefit themselves. And to my white liberal friends, this does not mean asking people of color only about issues of race, to my male friends, do not ask women only about women’s issues, to my straight friends do not ask people who are different from you only about issues of sexuality, but about every issue, and to listen to what people who don’t look like you but who share your values say and to act on it. And to any rich white men out there who sincerely want to make a difference, try following for a change, and try giving away some of that money so people smarter than you can make a difference.
If the Virginia Way is about isolating people and making them happy in the cabin, then we have to bring people together to fight the plantation owners and focus on their pocketbooks to make them pay us back for the theft of our common wealth.
Most importantly, if the Virginia Way relies on ignorance, then we must fight for equal education for all. Every child in every holler and housing project must have a chance at a decent education. We have the political will to fund public education, and once we achieve a true meritocracy, the Virginia Way will no longer hold us back as a people, but will become something that only appears in history books.