The Professor’s Blackface Salute: An Ethics Mess

oregon-blackface-mashup

Halloween costumes, political correctness, law, privacy, and the Niggardly Principles—this one has it all.

Last Halloween, University of Oregon law professor Nancy Shurtz dressed as Dr. Damon Tweedy, the author of Black Men In A White Coat , as an homage to the African American physician and author. She did this at a Halloween party in her own home. Nobody at the party appeared to misunderstand the gesture or the intent of the costume, in part because she could explain it on the spot, and because they knew that Shurtz was no racist. Shurtz had also told the students who were invited that she would be “going as a popular book title,” hence the blackface, Afro wig, white coat, and  stethoscope.The university report on the episode states that Shurtz “was inspired by this book and by the author, that she greatly admires [the author] and wanted to honor him, and that she dressed as the book because she finds it reprehensible that there is a shortage of racial diversity, and particularly of black men, in higher education.”

But as always happens now because there is no such thing as a reasonable expectation of privacy even in one’s own home, reports of Shurtz in costume and make-up got out into the campus at large, and inflamed the predictable outrage. The university launched an investigation that culminated in a critical report prepared by an attorney and the university’s Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity.  Shurtz issued an apology—for her private conduct within her own home that was pounced upon by Political Correctness Furies, since she appears to be one herself-–on November 1. Some of her colleagues on the faculty and many students demanded that she resign, and she may have to yet. Shurtz has been censored and suspended, and is now on paid leave. It being claimed that her wearing the costume–within her own home as a gesture that all agreed was intended as benign and that nobody at the party either objected to or failed to understand— created “a hostile environment” at the school. This is apparently because

“as part of the uproar, students said things of which the administration disapproved: The report specifically notes that students used “other offensive racially-based terminology during class times in the context of discussing this event and broader racial issues.” It related that “some of the witnesses reported that the students’ reactions to the event were racially insensitive or divisive.” And it apparently viewed such statements as relevant to whether Shurtz’s own speech was properly punished.”

The report, meanwhile, concludes that the costume constituted “harassment,” and that her intentions are irrelevant.

Writes First Amendment expert Prof. Eugene Volokh: Continue reading

Observations On The Gadsden Flag Controversy

Gadsden Flag

On the Volokh Conspiracy, now featured on the Washington Post website, Prof. Volokh applies his First Amendment expertise to a recent EEOC decision which ruled that a complaint from an African-American that a fellow worker who repeatedly wore a cap with the famous “Don’t Tread On Me” insignia from the Gadsden flag may have created a hostile work environment at the federal agency both worked for. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission called for further investigation, including an interview of the cap-owner’s intention in wearing the symbol, concluding,

“In light of the ambiguity in the current meaning of this symbol, we find that Complainant’s claim must be investigated to determine the specific context in which C1 displayed the symbol in the workplace. In so finding, we are not prejudging the merits of Complainant’s complaint. Instead, we are precluding a procedural dismissal that would deprive us of evidence that would illuminate the meaning conveyed by C1’s display of the symbol.”

Observations:

1. Now this is the slippery slope. Because murderous racist Dylan Roof posed with the Confederate flag, a tipping point was reached that resulted in the symbol and the flag being effectively and in some respects officially banned. The EEOC had already ruled the wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt constituted racial harassment,. Now the banning of historically significant symbols is threatening to spread to a flag that had no relationship to race whatsoever, in large part because of who has chosen to display it.

2. There is a whole website devoted to the Gadsden flag, from which we learn that…

  • It first appeared in October of 1775, as the British were occupying Boston and the desperate Continental Army was dug in in nearby Cambridge, lacking sufficient arms and ammunition.  In October, a merchant ship returning to Philadelphia from a voyage to England brought private letters to the Second Continental Congress informing it that  England was sending two cargo ships to America loaded with arms and gunpowder for the British troops.
  • Congress decided Washington’s troops’ plight required that those ships and their cargo be captured. It authorized the creation of a Continental Navy, then only four vessels, to take the ships. Congress also authorized the mustering of five companies of Marines. Some of the Marines enlisting that month in Philadelphia carried drums painted yellow, emblazoned with a  rattlesnake with thirteen rattles, coiled and ready to strike, accompanied by the motto “Don’t Tread on Me.”
  • That same December, a citizen calling himself  “An American Guesser,” anonymously wrote to the Pennsylvania Journal, saying in part:

“I observed on one of the drums belonging to the marines now raising, there was painted a Rattle-Snake, with this modest motto under it, ‘Don’t tread on me.’ As I know it is the custom to have some device on the arms of every country, I supposed this may have been intended for the arms of America…the Rattle-Snake is found in no other quarter of the world besides America….She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage. … she never wounds ’till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her..

I confess I was wholly at a loss what to make of the rattles, ’till I went back and counted them and found them just thirteen, exactly the number of the Colonies united in America; and I recollected too that this was the only part of the Snake which increased in numbers. …Tis curious and amazing to observe how distinct and independent of each other the rattles of this animal are, and yet how firmly they are united together, so as never to be separated but by breaking them to pieces. One of those rattles singly, is incapable of producing sound, but the ringing of thirteen together, is sufficient to alarm the boldest man living.”

It is generally agreed that the writer was really Benjamin Franklin. Ben had a hand in the design of the flag, since the first use of a rattlesnake to represent the colonies was his own “Join or die” cartoon,

800px-Benjamin_Franklin_-_Join_or_Die

…published years earlier. Continue reading

Ethics Quiz: Ann Rice O’Hanlon’s Fresco

Fresco

In 1934, under the auspices of the New Deal’s Public Works of Art program, artist Ann Rice O’Hanlon painted a fresco (the largest ever painted by a woman up to that time) in the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Hall. It has become famous and is much admired by art historians, and thousands of Kentucky students have walked past it through the decades. The large, six section artwork depicts many events, industries, traditions and activities that were significant to the state, invented in Kentucky or by Kentuckians, as well as historical events. Among the scenes shown are black slaves picking tobacco and black musicians serenading whites.

Ann Rice O’Hanlon’s masterpiece became the target of choice at Kentucky as the University ‘s black students were seeking to emulate the power plays by their equivalents at the University of Missouri, Yale, Amherst, Harvard Law, Dartmouth and other institutions. The Kentucky students held a meeting with president Eli Capilouto and argued that the fresco was offensive, as it relegated black people to roles as slaves or servants, and did not portray the cruelty of slavery and the later Jim Crow culture that existed in the state.  Capilouto capitulated, agreeing to move the work to “a more appropriate location.” In the meantime, Kentucky will cover up the 45-by-8-foot fresco while adding a sign explaining why the mural is obscured.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is this:

Should a university remove works of art on campus because particular groups of students or individual members of such groups find the artwork upsetting, offensive, or a negative influence on their experience?

Continue reading

Down That Slippery Slope They Told Me Didn’t Exist: Connecticut Democrats Drop Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson From The Name Of Their Annual Dinner

Jefferson Jackson Dinner

In the recent post, Stop Your Cultural Bulldozing, America: Disney World Taking Down Bill Cosby’s Bust Is Like Removing The Jefferson Memorial, I described the danger of removing well-earned cultural honors and memorials for individuals who later are found to have engaged in less than admirable conduct by current standards. I wrote in part…

“Sure, it’s uncomfortable having a bust of an unapologetic sexual predator in a Disney World attraction, and it might prompt some uncomfortable question from the kiddies. Well, good. It’s never too soon to learn that human beings are flawed, complex creatures, and that even the most brilliant and talented have dark sides, do terrible things,  and can be cruel, selfish, dishonest and even criminal. We honor Thomas Jefferson for his crucial role in giving this nation life, and defining its mission and values for the ages. We’re not honoring his hypocrisy, his cowardice, his own rapes,  or his slaveholding….

“First they came for Cosby, and we did not speak out…”

There is no stop to this slippery slope, and the political correctness mob will never stop.”

Some people I respect a great deal really went after me for that pronouncement, particularly on Facebook. “Hyperbole!” “Scaremongering!” “Just because a theme park doesn’t want to sport the bust of a rapist and stunning hypocrite in a TV Hall Of Fame doesn’t mean that there is any danger of politically correct zealots toppling the statue of Tom from his memorial!” “There is no such slippery slope,” I was scolded.

News Item: Continue reading

Stop Your Cultural Bulldozing, America: Disney World Taking Down Bill Cosby’s Bust Is Like Removing The Jefferson Memorial

airbrushingNews Item, from the Orlando Sentinel:

Bill Cosby’s statue is being removed from Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park, a Walt Disney World spokeswoman said Tuesday evening. The statue was to come down Tuesday night after the park closed. Disney did not have further comment. The bronze bust’s removal comes after court documents unsealed Monday revealed that Cosby testified in 2005 he had obtained Quaaludes with the intent of giving them to women with whom he wanted to have sex. The Associated Press had gone to court to get the documents released. Dozens of women have come forward in the past year saying Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted them as far back as 40 years ago.

That’s funny; last I heard Bill Cosby was still recognized as a major trailblazer in stand-up, TV comedy, and television integration (remember “I Spy”?), an important positive cultural force for race relations and black community self esteem, and a spectacularly talented comedian with a unique voice and presence. None of that has changed. Those were the achievements that prompted Cosby’s bust’s inclusion in Disney’s Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame Plaza, along with celebrities such as Lucille Ball and Oprah Winfrey who, like the Cos,  have been inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. O.J. Simpson is still honored in the College Football Hall of Fame, because he was one of the greatest college stars ever. His post-career hobby as a murderer, like Bill’s extra-curricular activities as a serial rapist, have nothing to do with the honor, just as Cosby earned and still deserves, his honor for what he achieved on stage and screen.

Sure, it’s uncomfortable having a bust of an unapologetic sexual predator in a Disney World attraction, and it might prompt some uncomfortable question from the kiddies. Well, good. It’s never too soon to learn that human beings are flawed, complex creatures, and that even the most brilliant and talented have dark sides, do terrible things,  and can be cruel, selfish, dishonest and even criminal. We honor Thomas Jefferson for his crucial role in giving this nation life, and defining its mission and values for the ages. We’re not honoring his hypocrisy, his cowardice, his own rapes,  or his slaveholding. Disney World, of all places, should understand this, since its progenitor was both a genius and a man who left a lot of circumstantial evidence in his legacy that he was anti-Semitic.

“First they came for Cosby, and we did not speak out…” Continue reading

Introducing A Third Niggardly Principle, And A Dilemma: Does It Apply To The Confederate Flag?

Scarolina flag

Before unveiling the new Third Niggardly Principle, indulge me some observation  on the emergence of a renewed controversy over the Confederate flag as a response to the Charleston, South Carolina shooting of nine black churchgoers last week:

1. The Confederate battle flag did not cause Dylann Roof to start shooting. If  all the Confederate flag had been retired to museums 100 years ago, it would not have turned him into a civil rights advocate.

2. The effort of anti-flag advocates, who are frequently advocates of censorship and restrictions on free speech as well, to exploit this tragedy to advance their pet grievance is transparent and obnoxious, and is even more attenuated than the furious efforts of anti-gun zealots to do the same thing.

3. The flag, like many symbols, represents different things to different people. Racial hate and bigotry is only one of them. The flag legitimately represents pride in a family legacy (“My great grandfather died bravely in Pickett’s Charge”), the historical record, opposition to federal government overreach,  aesthetic appeal, or defiance of authority generally (“I’m a rebel”). Old Glory also represents different things to different people, and we do not ban it because what it symbolizes to some people is unpleasant for them. (Yes, I know some schools have done exactly that. One hopes they are outliers)

4. Mitt Romney’s much praised tweet—“Take down the #ConfederateFlag at the SC Capitol. To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred. Remove it now to honor #Charleston victims.” —is simple-minded and irresponsible. (See the previous post.) Is Mitt arguing that any speech, symbol or expression that “many” find offensive should be suppressed? It sounds like it to me. Since Roof’s act had nothing to do with the flag, nor was it related to slavery or the Confederacy, how does taking the flag down “honor” his victims? Sure: Roof liked the flag, because of what it symbolized to him. He also liked Gold’s Gym:

dylann-roof1

Would closing down all the Gold Gyms in South Carolina honor his victims? The fact that the attack was racially motivated and that racists often display Confederate flags does not make a state flying the flag complicit in the shootings. Stop using Twitter to discuss complex issues, Mitt! Continue reading

A Niggardly Principle Quiz: The Politically Incorrect Statue

Jesuit-Missionary-Pierre-Jean-De-Smet-slu

A  statue in the middle of the campus of Saint Louis University, a private Jesuit institution, depicted famous Jesuit missionary Pierre-Jean De Smet S.J. praying over two Native Americans dressed in traditional clothing. There had been increasingly intense demands from some faculty and student activists to remove the statue. Summarizing the objections, a student editorial recently argued that the statue sent an unacceptable message to Native Americans and others that

“You do not belong here if you do not submit to our culture and our religion…The statue of De Smet depicts a history of colonialism, imperialism, racism and of Christian and white supremacy.”

[ The editorial also said that “As the protests surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner have shown us, just because racist policies are off the books doesn’t mean that racism is no longer practiced.” I am trying not to allow that fatuous, counter-factual and ignorant statement cause me to regard the writer and his piece as unworthy of serious consideration.]

Naturally, as is almost always the case, the spineless, path-of-least-resistance driven administrators at the university capitulated, and moved the statue into some museum.  Note that this is a Jesuit university, and teaching is one of the primary things that the Jesuit order does.

De Smet was a remarkable individual who, far from imposing his beliefs on Native Americans, began his obsession with starting far West missions for the native tribes in the U.S. after the Salish and the neighboring Nez Perce sent four delegations to St. Louis, where he was stationed, to find a “black robe” to live among them. Continue reading