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Cast Out The Sinners? But Which Ones?

Thumbnail image for Wilson Portrait1.jpgWill the National Museum of Ireland have to take down this 1917 John Singer Sargent portrait of Woodrow Wilson now that the 28th President of the United States’ racist past has been put into the spotlight?

There is no doubt that Wilson did bad things to good people for the worst of reasons, but I am having trouble establishing a principle that will govern future cases of this type. What do we do about the fact that Eleazar Wheelock owned slaves (quartered near the site of Thornton Hall); and that Ernest Martin Hopkins and probably more than a few other Dartmouth Presidents were openly anti-Semitic?

Clearly someone revealed to have been a supporter of the Nazi Party would have no place having a named building or statue on our campuses, but how do we rank sins such that a person becomes non grata in the iconography of academia?

Plagiarism is a grave transgression among scholars, yet we just celebrated Martin Luther King’s life for an entire week despite the fact that he copied other researchers’ work without attribution in his Ph.D. dissertation. And King’s documented fondness for the sexual attentions of women not his wife rivaled the philandering of Bill Clinton.

The destructive power of dynamite has killed more people than perhaps any other invention, while doing much good in mining and excavation. What to do about the prizes awarded in the name of TNT’s inventor: Alfred Nobel?

The English are facing the same problem with regard to Cecil Rhodes’ statue at Oriel College at Oxford (though nobody is being asked to give back their Rhodes Scholarship money). Oxford’s elected chancellor, Lord Patten, a former governor of Hong Kong, has ably summed up the problem:

Our cities are full of buildings that were built with the proceeds of activities, the slave trade and so on, which would nowadays be regarded as completely unacceptable. The building on which the statue stands was put up with Rhodes money. So do you knock the building down? … What do you about other colleges which may have been founded by somebody who killed three of his wives? I mean, what do you do about our history? Any views that Cecil Rhodes had about the British empire, about race, were common to his time.

If people at a university aren’t prepared to demonstrate the sort of generosity of spirit which Nelson Mandela showed towards Rhodes and towards history, if they’re not prepared to embrace all those values which are contained in the most important book for any undergraduate, Karl Popper’s Open Society … then maybe they should think about being educated elsewhere.

In an Oxford Union debate, Professor Nigel Biggar made a similar argument:

If Rhodes must fall, so must Churchill, whose views on empire and race were similar. And so probably must Abraham Lincoln. While Lincoln liberated African-American slaves, he doubted they could be integrated into white society and favoured their separate development — their apartheid — in an African colony. If we insist on our heroes being pure, then we aren’t going to have any. Last year the shine on Mahatma Gandhi’s halo came off, when we learned of his view that Indians were culturally superior to black Africans. Should this blot out all his remarkable achievements? I think not.

The Chronicle of Higher Education also quoted remarks that Tony Abbott, a former Australian prime minister and Rhodes Scholar at Oxford made to The Independent:

It’s a pity that Rhodes was, in many respects, a man of his times. We can lament that he failed to oppose unjust features of his society while still celebrating the genius that led to the creation of the Rhodes Scholarships. Rhodes was not a campaigner against racism but many of the scholars who are his legacy have been.

Perhaps there is there no principle to be discerned here, beyond that the squeaky wheel gets the grease? The College regularly derided bored@baker for its random racist posts, yet b@b’s many anti-Semitic comments, perhaps the work of the same few fools, never received any public mention from Dean Ameer and her multitudinous staffers. Why not? Ameer’s Army certainly saw the posts, but I expect that there was no pressure from Jewish students to have them removed.

Can anyone help here? It seems hard to imagine that any building on Dartmouth’s campus is named after someone who has not sinned in some manner.

Addendum: The Sudikoff Laboratory, home of the CS department, was built with money donated by Jeffrey Sudikoff ‘78 — money that was earned in part as a result of egregious securities fraud and insider trading by Sudikoff, crimes for which he did jail time.

Addendum: A regular reader writes in:

Just a quick note to commend Thursday’s post on throwing stones at successful forebears who had the temerity to not live up to our contemporary moral expectations. (We will leave aside the fact how things gets defined morally today is a minefield in itself.)

When talking with enlightened students or adults who are quick to throw stones at those who came before us — on whose shoulders we are all standing, particularly at a place like Dartmouth — I simply ask these self-assured interlocutors one question:

“So, how are you doing living up to the moral standards of people 100 years from now? Or 200 years from now?”

The person usually sputters a little, then complains that he would be willing to consider aspiring to that, but we can only speculate as to what those loftier standards will be. And taking a quick glance back at the way these cultural shifts tend to go, what we guess people will prioritize 100 or 200 years from now will prove to be wildly far off the mark.

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