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Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Erase the Past? Shame for a Collective Past? Calling Out Williams College

My alma mater, like so many of its ilk, is at present engulfed in a paroxysm of guilt over centuries of success. It, like its brethren institutions, is consumed by the frail sensitivities of the micro-aggrieved. The administration is overwhelmed by the manufactured obligation to prevent even the slightest of emotional discomfort in a single one of its young charges. The most recent “trigger” is a decades old mural of Col. Ephraim Williams and a Mohawk Chief. As we know this is but a mirror of what is happening in our society at large, so fearful are we supposed to be of hurting someone’s feelings, so badly are we to feel if we are–gasp!–successful. Williams College is being asked to rid itself of any historical figure or image that raises a discordant note in our modern societal symphony. While it, and its students and faculty, profess to want honest, open, inclusive dialogue on topics that have the offended seeking a sponsored safe place, they have pre-judged this and other issues while seeking to nullify the contributions of large parts of the College’s community based on gender and race.

I call bullshit, and I’m neither sorry nor ashamed to do so.

Let’s take two of the issues raised by the Williams administration, similar to those at Amherst College (spawned, incidentally, from Williams in 1846), Princeton, and elsewhere: the attempt to cleanse the campus of any references to historical figures or events that do not fit in our modern philosophical canon, and the notion that some monolithic groups are somehow not entitled to success, not worthy to have their opinions noted, and that they must somehow atone for a sort of sin of being.

The first, that history that does not jive with present sensibilities should be expunged, should be such a revolting concept that it is beyond amazing that it is even considered. We may rightly recoil from any modern version of conquest that necessarily includes the subjugation or destruction of the vanquished, but we simply cannot escape the fact that our country as it is today was built upon just such a campaign. It was called “Manifest Destiny”, and you can probably only find mention of it now in used history texts pre-1970 on Amazon.com. ¬†How can we learn from history if history is varnished to remove the stains of lessons we ought not learn again? Is there not a profound lesson for today’s leaders in the devastation wreaked upon the Mohawks of New England by Lord Jeffrey Amherst when he “gifted” them with smallpox infected blankets?

There appears to be no evaluation of the net contribution of historical figures, only room for condemnation of their very real faults. Woodrow Wilson was an unrepentant racist, and yet it is the height of intellectual dishonesty to disregard his monumental contributions to not only Princeton but to his country in spite this. Removing his name from Princeton for his racial views is as silly as renaming Amherst College because of Lord Jeff’s actions in a declared war, and almost as silly as renaming the eponymous town in which Amherst resides. We study the flaws of historical figures so that our contemporary leaders might be equally profound but less flawed. Historically significant individuals such as Woodrow Wilson, and historical images such as the meeting between a Mohawk Chief and Ephraim Williams hanging in the Williams’ college pub, should be pushed front and center for just such historical consideration. They shouldn’t be shunned or covered in sheets.

As far as the second goes, that large groups of Americans need to somehow overcome some sort of “original sin” that makes their success illegitimate and nullifies any opinion they might hold, well, perhaps we should take a look back at the evolution of that group a bit before we decide to lay on a mandatory guilt tax. It turns out that “white males” is not such a monolithic, homogenous group at all. Done any reading on the Irish in the Northeast in the 1800’s through the late 1960’s? Funny though, although certainly not a people of color, there didn’t seem to be a whole heck of a lot of privilege coming the way of the Irish in their first 100 or so years on our shores. Not only was it tough to get a job if you were Irish, there were neighborhoods that were off limits and colleges that all but had a “No Irish Need Apply” sign on the front door. In the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s lunch in the White house in Waltham, MA was more often than not a “wish sandwich”: two pieces of Wonder Bread and you “wished” you had some meat to put in the middle. White privilege? Hardly. My father was the first member of his family to go to college, the only member until my generation came along. Dad was the first to “shower before work”, the first to make a living with his mind rather than his hands. His generation lived as what we would now call “working poor”. No privilege to be found there.

How, then, am I supposed to feel guilt about my own success, built as it is on the foundation of one man’s climb? Despite his success my father faced subtle but real discrimination throughout his entire working life. Richard White was blackballed for his entire career from a number of business associations because he was Irish Catholic, discrimination that affected his livelihood. Why is the fact that the discrimination that my father faced through the 1990’s is now nearly gone, that for a single generation white Irish males do not feel the sting of discrimination somehow now my shame to carry? There is a danger in the broad-brush approach to assigning anything to a group as superficially defined as Irish. Or even white. Or male. The fact that the Irish in America no longer fear discrimination is a victory to be savored by Americans of all colors, a badge of honor for our society. It is not some sort of scarlet letter, not a collective shame or sin for which the Irish are now inherently guilty, a stain that nullifies my very right to opine or renders illegitimate the success of the men in my generation.

The fact that we no longer see prejudice agains the Irish does not in any way diminish the fact of the existence of discrimination against other groups. Discrimination is real and exists today. There is a larger point, however. Without historical context we risk applying the same type of unacceptable bias and prejudice to any group whatsoever–in this case white males– to whatever bias and prejudice we are attempting to prevent. The notion that I have no standing in the conversation about cultural issues at my Alma Mater is just such an example. It is this backward-looking effort to somehow atone for historical wrongs, and the energy expended in the effort, that so hinders our more laudable goal of removing all barriers placed in front of any group defined by how they look, or where they came from, or who their parents are, or where and how or if they worship. The feel-good notion that we can somehow make the forward-going efforts easier by cleansing our environment of the mention of past wrongs, misdeeds, or unsavory beliefs is at best naive and at worst an Orwellian trap that should be inconceivable in our country as a whole, let alone on any college campus. To compound this wrong-headed approach by questioning the legitimacy of the successes of any group simply by dint of their existence is not worthy of those who claim the high moral ground on behalf of those who may truly suffer real discrimination today.

Neither erase nor forget a difficult past. Do punish present day acts of real discrimination or moral decrepitude, but do not shield the young from the discomfort created by history and historical remnants of either. Hold them up to the bright light of the day and learn from them lest we see their faults and failures repeated. Cherish and champion the successes of any and all. Forgive a past over which your peers had no influence and move forward together.

 

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