After a swelling tide of protests, the president of Yale announced on Saturday that the university would change the name of a residential college commemorating John C. Calhoun, the 19th-century white supremacist statesman from South Carolina. The college will be renamed for Grace Murray Hopper, a trailblazing computer scientist and Navy rear admiral who received a master’s degree and a doctorate from Yale.
The decision was a stark reversal of the university’s decision last spring to maintain the name despite broad opposition. Though the president, Peter Salovey, said that he was still “concerned about erasing history,” he said that “these are exceptional circumstances.”
“I made this decision because I think it is the right thing to do on principle,” Mr. Salovey said on a conference call with reporters. “John C. Calhoun’s principles, his legacy as an ardent supporter of slavery as a positive good, are at odds with this university.”
And there we go!
How cowardly and equivocating Salovey is! If he’s concerned about erasing history, and he should be as an educator, then he should have the principles and fortitude not to engage in it. But “these are exceptional circumstances,” he says. This is right out of the Rationalizations list: The Revolutionary’s Excuse: “These are not ordinary times” and The Troublesome Luxury: “Ethics is a luxury we can’t afford right now.” For good measure, he adds a third rationalization, The Ironic Rationalization, or “It’s The Right Thing To Do.”
Of course it’s not the right thing to do. The right thing to do would be to teach the smug protesting young ignoramuses, who only know that Senator Calhoun was a slavery supporter as if that is the reason he is regarded as one of the great Senators in U.S. history (it’s not), any more than Andrew Jackson is defined solely by “The Trail of Tears,” that history is complex, cultures evolve, leadership is hard and even the most accomplished human beings are flawed gaspachos of greatness and sin. That would be the right thing because Yale is allegedly an institute of higher learning. This is the act of an institute of political correctness, intellectual laziness and stereotyping.
There were other rationalizations embedded in Salovey’s betrayal of history and culture, such as..
1A. Ethics Surrender, or “We can’t stop it.”
Sure you can, if you have any integrity and care about your obligation to educate rather than capitulate.
13. The Saint’s Excuse: “It’s for a good cause”
And what cause would that be, sir? Your sophomoric students are demanding that important historical figures be airbrushed out of existence like Soviet Politburo figures out of favor, and Yale’s cause is supposed to be teaching young minds to be more tolerant of the complexities of the real world. Now Yale’s cause is “Find the path of least resistance, and maybe they’ll calm down!”
15. The Futility Illusion: “If I don’t do it, somebody else will.”
This is only true if Yale is unable to articulate why it is important not to banish historical figures from the nation’s past as soon as activists get wind of a weakness they can exploit to bring themselves power.
22. The Comparative Virtue Excuse: “There are worse things.”
Yes, erasing Washington, Jefferson and the Founders would be worse, and thanks to craven administrators like Salovey, we are inching closer to that result. The Times article tells us that students are protesting the residence hall named after Benjamin Franklin, because he once owned slaves (before he formed the first abolition organization in the colonies). I’d say eliminating Franklin’s honors—is there a more essential American in the nation’s history?—would be worse, and Yale shows no reason to believe that it won’t agree to that, too.
25. The Coercion Myth: “I have no choice!”
No, there is always a choice for people of integrity.
40. The Desperation Dodge or “I’ll do anything!”
The refrain of the leaders who will abandon all in order to keep power he has no idea how to use responsibly.
44. The Unethical Precedent, or “It’s not the first time”
Oh, that’s true. Ethics Alarms noted last June,
Next step: anyone who ever defended slavery. South Carolina’s Senator John C. Calhoun was one of the three legislative giants, along with Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, who dominated the nation’s policy debates in the pre-war period. In Minnesota, activists are demanding that a lake named after him be renamed. If Calhoun is to be dishonored, why wouldn’t the same logic sweep out Clay, who crafted the compromises that allowed slavery to creep into the territories, or even slave-holding Presidents like Polk, Jackson, Monroe, Jefferson and George Washington?
Working forward, surely Woodrow Wilson can’t escape historical airbrushing off the scene.
Sure enough, Princeton has begun its non-personing of its former professor, Yale president, and President of the United States by removing a wall-size photograph of Wilson from a dining hall, saying that “Its size and prominence in the Wilcox Dining Hall has seemed to us ‘unduly celebratory’ and not in keeping with the spirit of Wilson College’s founding wish to have Princeton be a place that is truly diverse and inclusive, and one that embraces, respects, and values all its members.” Princeton will keep Wilson’s name on various building and the Wilson Institute, for now.
45. The Abuser’s License: “It’s Complicated”
It’s not complicated. We do not measure the worthiness of past leaders and statesmen by the standards of today’s culture, because to do so does them an injustice, and leaves us with a distorted understanding of history.
50. The Apathy Defense, or “Nobody Cares.”
It is true that few will be willing to stand up for a Senator whose career is barely taught in schools. Ignorance is the mother of ethics rot. One would think, however, that ignorance as a justification would not be sufficient to win the day at Yale…and one would be wrong.
The New York Times certainly does its usual job of obscuring and slanting the issues here. Describing Calhoun as a” 19th-century white supremacist statesman from South Carolina” is misrepresentation and deceit. Virtually all statesmen, industrialists, farmers, bankers, writers, professors, ministers and citizens who were white in 19th Century America were white supremacists, including Abraham Lincoln. Calhoun was a champion of states rights (when it was not just a euphemism for segregation) and the importance of maintaining a democracy in which minority interests and positions wer not dominated by the majority. Slavery was only one of many issues in which he asserted and fought for this philosophy, and his words and writings on the topic might prove valuable to Democrats and progressives today, if they had the wit and depth to understand them. Biographer Irving Bartlett wrote:
“What he had to say about the need in popular governments like our own to protect the rights of minorities, about the importance of choosing leaders with character, talent, and the willingness to speak hard truths to the people, and about the enduring need, in a vast and various country like our own, for the people themselves to develop and sustain both the civic culture and the institutional structures which contribute to their lasting interest is as fresh and significant today as it was in 1850.”
That is, if one is interesting in learning about the nuances of government, which protesting Yale students are clearly not.
If one is outraged over Andrew Jackson’s hostility to Native Americans, Calhoun was the anti-Jackson (they hated each other.) As Monroe’s Secretary of State, Calhoun had responsibility for management of Indian affairs, and promoted a plan to preserve the sovereignty of the eastern tribes by relocating them to western reservations where they could (he thought) avoid interference from state governments. Calhoun supervised the negotiation and ratification of 40 treaties with Native American tribes, and opposed the invasion of Florida launched in 1818 by then General Jackson during the First Seminole War.
History and our evolving wisdom about human rights have proven Calhoun wrong about a great deal, almost everything, in fact. Because nations evolve, and society’s knowledge and standards evolve, being “right,” a designation that is always shaky at best and often ephemeral, can not be the basis on which we recognize and honor our most influential predecessors. In 1957, a Senate committee chaired by Senator John F. Kennedy selected Calhoun as one of the five greatest United States Senators in history. Why? He was a great orator; he was a prodigious theorist and thinker, he was renowned for being professional and collegial always, and he represented his state with passion and effectiveness, which was his job. A Senator from South Carolina in Calhoun’s era would not and could not be other than an advocate for slavery.
I wrote in June that a friend, lawyer, and Democrat had chided me on Facebook for suggesting that the frenzy to make America a safe place for anyone troubled by the opinions and actions of American patriots of the past could reach as far as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, and accused me of engaging in wild hyperbole. Soon thereafter, the Connecticut Democratic Party purged the names and images of Presidents Jackson and Jefferson from its annual dinner, in order to kowtow to progressive activists. In November of last year, hundreds of University of Virginia students and faculty members demanded that President Teresa Sullivan stop quoting Thomas Jefferson, because doing so “undermines the message of unity, equality and civility that you are attempting to convey.” You know, quotes like,
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Jefferson founded the University of Virginia.
I believe it is fair to say that I was right to be alarmed, and my friend was wrong. (I’m still going to leave the statue of him in my backyard stay there, though.)
The cultural ethics alarms are sounding, as the toxic combination of the ignorant, the cultural bullies and the cowardly brings the United States closer to an Orwellian society where the past is remade to suit the perceived needs of the present. Yale’s treatment of Calhoun redoubles my conviction that I expressed last year more than once. We have to honor what deserved and deserves to be honored. If we do not, history becomes political propaganda, useful only to support current political agendas. A nation that does not honor and respect its history has no history.
And a nation that has no history is lost.