Opinion | Morgan Liddick: Standing on the smug side of history
On your right
The Loons are flying.
Exhibit A comes from the University of Virginia, nestled into Charlottesville under the watchful eye of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Good thing he’s buried on the other side of the hill; if he could see what’s going on these days at the university he founded, his rest would not be peaceful.
In the aftermath of the last election, university president Theresa Sullivan thought it would be useful to remind UVA students that our third president called them to be “…the persons who are to succeed to the government of our country, and to rule its future enmities, its friendships and fortunes.” Poor dear, she thought Jefferson’s call would have a salubrious effect on all the adult children rending their clothing, wailing and pouring ashes on their heads over Donald Trump’s victory. It had an effect, all right — just not the one she expected.
Within three days, Ms. Sullivan received a letter signed by 469 students and faculty calling on her to stop quoting that racist Jefferson. In part, the letter snarks, “We would like for our administration to understand that although some members of this community may have come to this university because of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, others of us came here in spite of it. For many of us, the inclusion of Jefferson quotations in these e-mails undermines the message of unity, equality and civility that you are attempting to convey.”
To explain, assistant professor of psychology Noelle Hurd, the letter’s author, said Jefferson’s remarks were inappropriate because “…of the atrocities he committed against hundreds of human beings.” She said she heard in Jefferson’s words only “ a message of exclusion.” Away with “all men are created equal” seems to have been her point.
Nor is UVA alone. From UC-Berkeley to the University of Colorado, University of Michigan, Mizzou and Harvard, academic America is awash with indignation over the outrages of the past. Blind ignorance of the facts, or at least dishonest uses of them are at fault here — a particularly grievous situation when those who claim to be teaching history are involved. These academics are charged with preserving our national memory and introducing new generations to it; a grave responsibility since, as with individuals, a country’s past tells much about its character and prospects. And, as George Orwell observed, “He who controls the past, controls the future.”
Unfortunately, many thus charged seem to regard the past as the present in colorful clothing, with quaint habits of speech. They project their own values backward, and find past Americans wanting or, as in the case of our third president, morally weak since he does not share their superior values. This is reprehensible and childish but not unexpected: They live in a time and place where the greatest crime is not to think as they do.
Others among history’s interpreters have more pernicious motives: They reshape the past in order to bend the present to their will and to their idea of perfection. These are the actively malevolent who happily feed the memory hole, certain that as actual events and motivations are erased from the record others serving their ends may be substituted.
As with any science, in history there must be accurate description for analysis to be meaningful. Thus, the argument at the core of professor Hurd’s letter, which seems to run something like “Jefferson owned slaves, so he is bad,” fails by omission. Jefferson was a man of his time and at that time, slavery was permissible. It is clear from both his correspondence and his actions — he ended the African slave trade at the earliest Constitutionally permitted date — that he regarded slavery not as a good, but as a temporary and necessary evil. Jefferson also gave our nation many great gifts, including the announcement of its birth, a doubling of its size and the first peaceful transfer of political power between two factions as disputatious as those of today’s right and left. These accomplishments are left out of the superficial transmogrification of this complex man into a cardboard cutout slave-driver of the Simon Legree school.
None of which matters to UVA’s 469 objectors. Jefferson was imperfect, so he must go! What they do not recognize is the totalitarian impulse behind the thought: All things must be crushed in the name of creating the perfect society, which we alone can shape. Nor do they understand that their goal is something forever beyond reach, since they are working with flawed materials.
It is clear that professor Hurd’s letter exposes the rottenness at the core of modern America’s higher education: Millions of students are being taught annually not how to think, but what.
Therein lies the real tragedy.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily.
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