Yes, it’s the conservative Wall Street Journal, but who else is going to report on the Authoritarian Leftist shenanigans of American universities? The author is Roger Kimball, and his article is aptly titled, “The college formerly known as Yale.” I swear this could be from either The Onion or Soviet Pravda, but it’s in America, and it’s true:
On Aug. 1, Yale University president Peter Salovey announced that he is creating a Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming. There has been a craze for renaming things on college campuses the last couple of years—a common passion in unsettled times.
. . . A point of contention at Yale has been the residential college named for John C. Calhoun, a congressman, senator, secretary of war and vice president. Alas, Calhoun was also an avid supporter of slavery.
Mr. Salovey is also perhaps still reeling from the Halloween Horror, the uproar last year over whether Ivy League students can be trusted to pick their own holiday costumes, which made Yale’s crybullies a national laughing stock. In the wake of that he earmarked $50 million for such initiatives as the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration.
He then announced that Calhoun College would not change its name. Apparently, he has reconsidered. After the Committee on Renaming has done its work to develop “clearly delineated principles,” he wrote, “we will be able to hold requests for the removal of a historical name—including that of John C. Calhoun—up to them.”
Another name for this censorious group might be the Committee for the Expurgation of History. Yes, ’tis true, and you can find the President’s announcement here. The problem is in this bit from the Committee’s charge:
The charge of the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming is to articulate a set of principles that can guide Yale in decisions about whether to remove a historical name from a building or other prominent structure or space on campus—principles that are enduring rather than specific to particular controversies. The committee will review the experience both at Yale and in other institutions and communities that have addressed the question of renaming. In doing so, it will consult with experts, communicate and coordinate with other universities that are addressing similar issues, and collaborate with other groups at Yale that have been charged with related work, such as the Committee on Art in Public Spaces. After the committee’s recommendations have been articulated, approved, and disseminated, Yale will be able to apply these principles to requests for the removal of a name.
The only criteria that can be applied here are these: how many people are offended by an existing name, who they are, and why. If 10 people are offended, should the name be changed? If someone had 20 slaves rather than 100, is it okay to keep his name? Ultimately the debate will come down to an exercise in virtue signaling, since there are not even quasi-objective standards here. And since someone whose name is on a building, or whose portrait hangs in a dining room, obviously did something considered good, we now have to weigh good versus bad.
Of course there are no-brainer cases. We wouldn’t want a picture of Hitler, Pol Pot, or Father Coughlin, hanging in a dining hall. But most cases involve judging the past by the different moral standards of today. Many of the Founding Fathers had slaves, and those include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin (all of these have been on American currency). So did John Hancock, Patrick Henry, and James Madison. That’s about the worst offense conceivable in modern society, and rightly so. And most men from a century or more ago were sexists as well, not even conceiving that women should have the right to vote.
As Steve Pinker has shown convincingly in The Better Angels of our Nature, morality in the West has improved over time, with reviled and oppressed minorities losing opprobrium and gaining rights. Who, two hundred years ago, could stand up to the scrutiny of modern moralizers? Even Charles Darwin, though an abolitionist, viewed blacks as an inferior group.
Who are we to discard? Surely the Founding Fathers must be expelled, so Mount Rushmore must go the way of the Bamiayan Buddhas. And we have to purge all currency of the visages of slaveholders. The Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorials, since they can’t be renamed, must be destroyed. Even Darwin should have a trigger warning pasted in his books: “Content note: written by a patriarchal bigot.”
But Yale has a bigger problem than Calhoun. It’s Elihu Yale, the man after whom the college is named. As Kimball writes:
I have unhappy news for Mr. Salovey. In the great racism sweepstakes, John Calhoun was an amateur. Far more egregious was Elihu Yale, the philanthropist whose benefactions helped found the university. As an administrator in India, he was deeply involved in the slave trade. He always made sure that ships leaving his jurisdiction for Europe carried at least 10 slaves. I propose that the committee on renaming table the issue of Calhoun College and concentrate on the far more flagrant name “Yale.”
See this article at Yale’s Digital Histories for more details on Elihu’s slave-trading.
Here’s another case. Henry Ford, who founded the philanthropic Ford Foundation with his son Edsel, was a notorious anti-Semite. He bought a newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, to run Ford’s anti-Semitic columns, fully worthy in their vile Jew-hatred of publication in Der Stürmer. Should we then change the name of the Ford Foundation, or even rename the company? I’m an atheistic Jew, have been taunted for a religion I don’t even accept, and I should be offended, right? But I’m not; I couldn’t care less. Ford was an odious anti-Semite but also a philanthropist and a talented industrialist; let’s move on.
The solution to this problem is not to constantly change names to keep up with current morality, but recognize that our forebears were imperfect and, by modern lights, sometimes deeply immoral. What is acceptable behavior in one century changes in the next. Even our own descendants will see us as immoral.
By all means publicize our history. But do not sanitize it by effacing names, for by so doing we’re effacing the history as well, wiping out of existence the very episodes that made us who we are. This makes us no better than those Communists who airbrushed Trotsky out of their photographs.
Those who censor the past are doomed to forget it. But maybe that’s what they want.