My alma mater is looking foolish.
In the last few years the UW administration, led by Chancellor Rebecca Blank, has made three decisions that are now coming back to haunt them. They sifted and winnowed and somehow still managed to miss the truth. Or, more accurately, they knew the truth and chose to ignore it for the purposes of political expediency.
The first two decisions are related. Both Frederic March and Porter Butts had spaces in the Memorial Union named for them. March was an alumnus who went on to have a distinguished acting career. Butts is credited with sparking a national movement to create student unions while he directed ours for decades.
But there was a problem. Both men had the misfortune, back in the 1930’s, of belonging to a student group called the Ku Klux Klan. When this came to light, Blank called for a study and it concluded that the UW’s KKK had no affiliation with the national white supremacist organization and never did anything that was racist. It seems as if somebody just picked the world’s worst name for a fraternity.
No matter. The student committee that governs the Union voted to scrub the names anyway. Blank didn’t intervene. Facts didn’t matter. Untethered feelings were at stake.
Not long after March and Butts lost their reputations to fact-free, but politically correct, attacks, a group of students decided it would be cool to be offended by a rock. The boulder in question, honoring UW leader and geologist Thomas Crowder Chamberlin, sat until recently on a hill overlooking Lake Mendota. But it had committed the sin of having been referred to by a racially offensive name. Once. In 1925.
No matter. Blank ordered the boulder banished. The harm was no longer being done. We could all start to heal. Of course I’m being snarky here, but the truth is that there was real harm done. A lot of people look at this and think to themselves that if you have to dig up a near century old slur against a rock and that’s as bad as it gets, well, things must be pretty good. The rock incident did positive harm to the cause of equality.
All this would have been just in the family, if it didn’t come to the attention of people like John McWhorter. McWhorter is a linguist at Columbia and a frequent contributor to the New York Times. A few weeks ago he took the UW to task for the rock fiasco and then again last week for the March mess. He’s also Black.
In an August 24th column, McWhorter wrote: “The students essentially demanded that an irrational, prescientific kind of fear — that a person can be meaningfully injured by the dead — be accepted as insight. They imply that the rock’s denotation of racism is akin to a Confederate statue’s denotation of the same, neglecting the glaringly obvious matter of degree here — as in, imagine pulling down a statue upon finding that the person memorialized had uttered a single racist thing once in his or her life… The Wisconsin rock episode was a textbook demonstration of the difference between sincere activism and playacting, out of a desire to join the civil rights struggle in a time when the problems are so much more abstract than they once were.”
Ouch. But well deserved.
McWhorter returned his attention to Madison on September 17th when he took up March’s cause. He began, “What is it about the University of Wisconsin and race? The administration’s recent decision to move a rock from view because a journalist referred to it with the N-word almost 100 years ago was goofy enough. But there has been more at the school in this vein.”
He went on to report that the NAACP had joined with other prominent Black leaders, including several actors, to document March’s long history of supporting civil rights at a time when it was unpopular and to ask that Blank reconsider this decision. They had copied McWhorter on their letter. The Wisconsin State Journal caught up with the story this morning.
In a letter to the Times and in response to McWhorter, Blank doubled down on anti-intellectualism.
“While it is good that March went on to become a fighter for civil rights and equality, the fact remains that while a student here he aligned himself with a student group that echoed the K.K.K. name,” she wrote. “There are some things in our country’s history that are so toxic that you can never erase the stain, let alone merit a named space in our student union. Membership in a group with a name like that of the K.K.K. is one of them.”
So, wait. Let me see if I understand what Blank is saying. If an eighteen-year old kid joins a group with an offensive name (but which does nothing offensive) and then goes on to spend a lifetime fighting racism, he should still be cancelled. One transgression (even one that does not seem to actually be much of a transgression) may never be forgiven. Do I have that right, Chancellor? And, if that’s the case, what message does that send to anyone who has actually done offensive things? What’s the point in trying to make amends when there are only mortal sins and no absolution?
This deserves, unfortunately, to be a national story and thanks to McWhorter for making it one. It deserves national attention because it is the purest example of what’s going on on campuses. Places where facts and reason should rein supreme have now become places where easily offended feelings, even those that run contrary to facts, trump all else.
Look, the UW has long had an earned reputation for not being a welcoming place for Black students. That’s a real problem and one that the UW has had a dismal record in addressing. In fact, I’d suggest that that’s a big reason that Blank has made such horrible decisions about this stuff. She’s grasping. She’s looking to do anything that makes her look sensitive to the problem. In a way, it’s easy. Just go along with the latest online mob. It saves you the trouble of doing anything meaningful. It also frees up time to defend the NCAA’s ability to exploit students who play big time college sports and who, by the way, are disproportionately Black.
Here’s what is etched in stone at the top of Bascom Hill, just steps from Blank’s office:
“WHATEVER MAY BE THE LIMITATIONS WHICH TRAMMEL INQUIRY ELSEWHERE, WE BELIEVE THAT THE GREAT STATE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN SHOULD EVER ENCOURAGE THAT CONTINUAL AND FEARLESS SIFTING AND WINNOWING BY WHICH ALONE THE TRUTH CAN BE FOUND.”
Blank should take a short stroll and read that some time.
Welcome to the 218th day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!