History under further review
The late Hunter S. Thompson, or some like-minded soul, put it best: “When the going gets weird, the weird get going.” That’s about as good a summation of what’s happening these days in the previously hallowed, but now hollowed out, halls of academe as I can find.
Case in point: The Black Student Union at Lebanon Valley College is demanding that the college rename Lynch Memorial Hall. The building is named after Clyde A. Lynch, an alumnus who served as president of the college from 1932 to 1950 and who died in office. As far as anyone knows, Lynch was not a racist and was never associated with any racist practices or statements. And he was widely praised for managing to keep the college open throughout the depression. Students of color, however, find the name itself an offensive reminder of lynching.
It occurs to me that the city of Lynchburg, Virginia, is equally insensitive. Lynchburg was named after John Lynch, who received a charter to found the city in 1786. Given the tenor of the times, Lynch may or may not have been a hateful racist or even a slave holder. But that’s irrelevant. His name alone is liable to remind people, especially people of color, of the practice of lynching.
But a river runs through it — the James River. Hence, I suggest Lynchburg be renamed New Jamestown.
Closer to home, the current DEX directory reveals that at least 11 people and one business bear the name Lynch here in Kitsap County. I recommend they change their names lest they find themselves accused of a “micro-aggression” — academe’s current term of art for expressing attitudes or invoking associations deemed to be offensive or politically incorrect.
As if by uncanny foresight, the bard of my generation, Bob Dylan, put it best: “Look out, kid./It’s something you did./ God knows when,/but you’re doing it again!”
And no one’s safe. The liberal ideologues on campus today feel entitled to judge the quick and the dead.
At Princeton, in mid-November, students occupied the president’s office demanding that the university rename the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. The school was named after Wilson because of his leadership in founding the League of Nations after World War I. The problem, however, is that Wilson was not so progressive on the racial front.
While he campaigned on a promise of fair treatment of blacks, once elected, he segregated the federal government. Only after being promised that the university would consider renaming the Woodrow Wilson School would the students leave the president’s office.
As of this writing, Princeton’s trustees have not reached a decision. The issue, of course, is whether Wilson’s progressive accomplishments outweigh his regressive position on race. In all fairness, Wilson may have been a visionary about international affairs, but he was not able to convince his own country to join the ineffectual and shortlived League of Nations. Hence, I’ll punt on this one.
A more problematic figure is Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was a slaveholder who not only bought and sold slaves but also fathered a child with one. Because of that, students at William and Mary, Jefferson’s alma mater, have begun posting disparaging notes on his statue there, and students at the University of Missouri are circulating a petition demanding the removal of his statue from their campus.
Historians have given Jefferson mixed reviews on the issue of slavery. His economic security depended on the institution. But, later in life, he did support a gradual end to slavery, believing that African-Americans were inferior in intelligence and that a sudden emancipation would be a disaster for both races. To fall back on modern psychobabble, he seems to have been deeply conf licted about slavery throughout his life.
But Jefferson was also the author of our Declaration of Independence, and without his moral courage on that front, American independence may have had to wait a century or so. Still, his detractors tend to compare him to Washington, who in his will freed his slaves. The debate centers on which man more accurately reflected the attitude of his day regarding slavery.
That debate, however, is moot.
As the late professor and cultural critic Edward Said reminded us, no one completely transcends the cultural and social constructions of his or her time. We’re all shaped by the manners and mores of the times in which we live, and it is inherently unfair for future generations to summarily dismiss all our accomplishments because some of our practices or attitudes may fall outside of their enlightened standards.
In the end, we’re all subject to the balance scale of history, and to my mind, Jefferson’s positive accomplishments outweigh his commitment to slavery. And I suspect that he, and not Washington, reflected the conventional wisdom toward emancipation in his day.
Ed Palm of Silverdale is a Marine Corps veteran and former dean at Olympic College. Contact him at efpalm@ centurylink. net.