Living with History, Part II

National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr.
What to do with John C. Calhoun? and other matters

Editor’s Note: In the current issue of National Review, we have a piece called “‘Rhodes Must Fall’: The rights and wrongs of a movement,” by Jay Nordlinger. This week, under the rubric of his Impromptus column, Mr. Nordlinger is expanding this piece in a series. For Part I, go here.

There is a galling side to the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement — well, several, but I’m thinking of one in particular. Cecil Rhodes is demonized as a destroyer of Africa. Colonialism is demonized, too.

But what about the African rulers who succeeded the colonialists? Did Rhodes, or King Leopold, ever dream of anything as destructive as Bokassa, Mengistu, Amin? And I have named only the most gruesome killers (some of them). How about the everyday socialists and kleptocrats, who have immiserated their country, or kept it miserable?

At the University of Michigan, in my hometown of Ann Arbor, we had a celebrated professor from Kenya, Ali Mazrui. He created a PBS series called “The Africans.” A running theme was that everything bad on the African continent was the fault of colonialists.

This is maddening, or, as I said above, galling. Nonetheless: The errors of others do not excuse the errors of Rhodes. Still, we may cry out for a little perspective, a little balance, a little weighing of good and bad.

‐And if Rhodes “must fall,” who else must tumble with him? Queen Victoria? She presided over the whole thing — the colonial and imperial enterprise, certainly in the relevant era. Should Victoria Station be razed, or renamed? What about Victoria, British Columbia?

‐It’s axiomatic: Every generation is appalled by the failings of previous generations. Every generation thinks, “How could they have?” and pats itself on the back for being infinitely better.

Someone once said, “Will people in the future say, ‘Can you believe that human beings kept dogs on leashes and owned them as “pets”?’” That may be fanciful, but it’s useful as a thought exercise.

I wonder, in all seriousness, how future generations will look on our policy of abortion-on-demand. Some of the best people I have known have been pro-abortion (or “pro-choice,” they would probably say). I think they have a blind spot.

What are my blind spots? I don’t know.

‐If we subjected historical figures to our present highest standards, few would ’scape whipping. Those words are from Hamlet, of course. I also think of the Bible: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.” I also think of a plain old expression: “You take the good with the bad.”

‐Take the Myrdals. Gunnar and Alva. They are progressive heroes. From Sweden, no less! Gunnar won the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics; Alva shared the Nobel Peace Prize, with a Mexican diplomat. No one would say they “must fall.”

But do their fans know about their early flirtation with eugenics? What they wrote in the 1930s might curl your hair. They said that society had to confront the problem of how to “root out all types of physical and mental inferiority within the population, both the mentally retarded and the mentally ill, the genetically defective and persons of bad character.”

Persons of bad character, huh? Well, we can’t all be Rhodes Scholars, like Bill Clinton.

‐David, of the Bible. Someone once said, “When he wasn’t doing great and holy things, he was whoring around.” Martin Luther King Jr.? The plagiarism and the adultery — especially the latter — are hard to take. But the man as a whole is easy to take.

‐I often think of the title of a book: “Thinking in Time.” Its subtitle is “The Uses of History for Decision-Makers.” It is by two Harvard scholars, Richard E. Neustadt, the political scientist, and Ernest R. May, the historian. The latter was a professor of mine. He stressed that you needed to “think in time”: put yourself in the minds, and the times, of the people you study. For example, when you study World War II, don’t assume that the Allies knew they would win the war. For a while, they did not.

Think in time, please.

‐Now, hang on a minute. I may be reluctant to “whip” erring figures of the past. At the same time, I would not want to be too loosey-goosey. Too relativistic. I’m practically the only person I know, left or right, who liked George W. Bush’s second inaugural address — which was loaded with absolutes. Do you remember?

“We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: the moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right.”


‐Once, William F. Buckley Jr. and the Reverend William Sloane Coffin were arguing on the former’s television show, Firing Line. I believe the topic was the United States and the Soviet Union. Coffin didn’t like WFB’s moral stance (too firm). He quoted Goethe, to the effect that “I’ve never heard of a crime that I could not imagine myself committing.”

WFB said (something like), “Oh? You can imagine yourself pushing them alive into ovens? Really?”

‐In a sentence: There is a line between judgment — proper judgment — and judgmentalism. And it can be an effort to stay on the happy side of it.

Okay, that’s two sentences.

‐Oriel College, Oxford, is having a controversy (“Rhodes Must Fall”). So are our own campuses. Consider Yale. On that campus, there is a residential college named after John C. Calhoun. He had an impressive résumé, Calhoun: House rep, senator, secretary of war, secretary of state, and vice president. He was also an alumnus of Yale, one of its brainy southerners.

You know who had maybe the most impressive résumé? James Buchanan, our 15th president (not so illustrious). Lincoln’s immediate predecessor. He was — get comfortable, this may take a while — a state rep; a U.S. House rep, and chairman of the Judiciary Committee; ambassador to Russia; a U.S. senator, and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee; secretary of state; ambassador to Britain; and, finally, president.

Also, he turned down a seat on the Supreme Court.

Back to Yale, and John C. Calhoun: There is a move to take his name off that college. I will quote the petition, which explains that Calhoun

was respected during his time as an extraordinary American statesman. But he was also one of the most prolific defenders of slavery and white supremacy in American history. At a time when many of his southern colleagues viewed slavery as a necessary evil, Calhoun infamously defended the institution as “a positive good.” His legacy is built on his vociferous defense of a state’s right to enslave blacks.

So help me, I agree with them. And if I had a say, or an interest, at Yale, I would be in favor of striking Calhoun’s name.

Therefore, do I want to rename Washington, D.C.? Or raze the Jefferson Memorial? Or boycott Madison Square Garden? Come now. Let’s not give in to extremes.

It consoles me about Jefferson that he said (concerning slavery), “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” Calhoun never did any such trembling, so far as anyone’s aware.

‐When I was discussing the question with him, Jason Steorts, NR’s managing editor, said the following: “My way of thinking about this is that if something morally abhorrent was the defining purpose of someone’s life, or is the thing he’s most remembered for, I would not have him publicly honored (though I would not necessarily have him dishonored). So I would not name things after Calhoun. But I’m fine with Jefferson.”

‐There is another campaign at Yale: to banish the term “master,” to refer to the head of a residential college. Other universities, including Princeton, have already done it.

“Master,” the charge goes, connotes slavery. Okay. In music schools, what are we going to do about master classes? (The master is the eminent musician who teaches the class, get it?) More generally, what are we going to do about master’s degrees?

Christians refer to Jesus as “Master.” Uh-oh.

At any rate, Jonathan Holloway is the dean of Yale College. He is also black. Once, he was master of Calhoun. “Deliciously ironic,” he said in an interview.

‐Annville Township, Pa., is the home of Lebanon Valley College. The college has a building, Lynch Memorial Hall. It is named after a past president (1932-50): Dr. Clyde A. Lynch, who, by all accounts, was an admirable fellow.

There is a move, of course, to take that name — Lynch — off the building.

Remember that the attorney general of the United States is a woman named Lynch. Loretta Lynch. She’s black, but never mind: Should she resign forthwith? Or be fired by the One?

‐The name-removal business, or the statue-felling business, can be a slippery slope. Where will you wind up? Yale is named for Elihu Yale, who evidently had ties to the East Indian slave trade.

Something occurs to me: If you sold the naming rights to Yale University, how much could you fetch for them? Would even Trump have enough? Trump U? Gates U? Zuckerberg U?

I will continue this series — in a mainly serious vein — tomorrow. Thanks so much for joining me. See you later.


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