Self-Soothing by Way of Erasing the Complexity of Human History, by Clay Jenkinson

Statue of Thomas Jefferson at his Memorial in Washington D.C., photo 2015 by Amy Cools My beloved mentor in the humanities, Everett C. Albers, taught me the most important of all lessons: “Judgement is easy, understanding is hard.”

You probably have been following the recent spasm of righteousness on some of our college campuses. Some students wish to erase all traces of Woodrow Wilson at Princeton University, because he was a racist who undid what little integration his predecessors had managed in the federal government; because he was a sexist, who actively worked against women’s suffrage. Some students wish to have statues of Thomas Jefferson removed from the campus of the University of Missouri, because he was a racist, a slaveholder, and a sexual predator (if you read the Sally Hemings story in the darkest possible way). Some students at Oxford University wish to erase all traces of Cecil Rhodes, after whom Rhodesia was named, because he was a racist and an imperialist.

And so on.

It is true, by our standards as exemplars of perfect enlightenment, these men were all racists and indeed apartheidists. I have a close connection with two of them: Jefferson, whom I have been studying for thirty years, and Rhodes, whose scholarship I freely accepted back in 1976, and under whose financial legacy I studied for four wonderful years at Oxford University. I know the life and achievement of Woodrow Wilson less well, but I have read a handful of books about him over the years.

I regard this growing trend of purification rituals as wrong-headed and misguided for a number of reasons. I’ll list them as briefly as possible.

1. What will they say of us? Sometimes I try to anticipate what the righteous ones of the future will say about us? I met a petrochemical engineer a number of years ago. We talked for several hours about oil as a miracle carbon. I asked her what the epitaph of Western Civilization would be. She said. “They burned oil.” This morning I’m wearing shoes, socks, boxers, trousers, and a shirt, not one item of which was made in the United States. If I could trade each item of clothing back to the factory of its manufacture, I doubt that I would sleep well tonight. I’m with Jesus, John 8:7, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

2. The whole man theory. As Jefferson wisely explained to his daughter Martha (see above), every human being is a mixed bag: enlightenment and blind prejudice, generosity and narcissism, benevolence and malevolence, good day and bad day, clarity and blind spot, outstanding in some ways, deplorable in others. Think of Lance Armstrong, Bill Cosby, Benito Mussolini, Bill Clinton, Mother Teresa, Margaret Thatcher, for example. In selecting our culture heroes, we have to assess the whole life and the entire achievement.

Jefferson was a racist and a slaveholder. These factors should weigh heavily in any rational assessment of his life and character. But we must also place in the balance his magnificent labors as a benefactor of humankind: decimal coinage, the rectangular survey grid system, separation of church and state, the University of Virginia, the organizational principle of the Library of Congress, the Louisiana Purchase, the design for the Capitol at Richmond, VA, fundamental work in paleontology, the Declaration of Independence, and the software of the American dream.

For all of his faults–and they do not begin and end with slavery–is Jefferson, in the final analysis, a benefactor or a degrader of humankind? On balance, how shall we evaluate him? Looking at his whole 83 years, his mass of writings, his range of practical achievements, his acts of greatness and his weakest moments, how shall we finally assess him?

3. Hamlet’s view. When the aging courtier Polonius tells Hamlet he will treat the visiting theater group “according to their desert,” Hamlet responds passionately: “God’s bodykins, man, much better! Use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping.” — Precisely. Where does this erasure of the past, more reminiscent of Stalin’s USSR and Orwell’s 1984 than of an enlightened democracy, end exactly? George Washington was a slaveholder. Lincoln had race views that would get him razed from Mount Rushmore by the narrowly righteous. Elizabeth Cady Stanton said remarkably ugly things about African-Americans when black men got the vote but white women did not in the wake of the Civil War. Franklin Roosevelt was an adulterer. Theodore Roosevelt was at times a warmonger. His views on American Indians are so dark at times that one hates even to read them in a scholarly arena. John F. Kennedy, LBJ, Ronald Reagan, Eisenhower, Bill Clinton, (where does this list end?) broke their marriage vows. Martin Luther King was a womanizer and he plagiarized his doctoral dissertation. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush evaded military service during the Vietnam War. Presidents Obama, Clinton, and GW Bush smoked dope. JFK dropped acid in the White House!

The only political figure I know who seems to have passed the righteous test in full purity is Jimmy Carter. That alone should give us pause. Where does this wave of righteous expurgation end?

4. ‘Tis better to wrestle than erase. My mentor Ev Albers believed that the duty of the humanities scholar is to examine and explore, to try to put any text or historical act or individual in its context, to try to understand how things shook out as they did and not otherwise. The duty of the humanist is to explore the past for its complexity, richness, unresolvedness, nuance, paradox, and problematic nature, and not to engage in the lazy enterprise of making glib judgments. Judgement is easy, understanding difficult. It does no good to portray Jefferson as a lover of liberty who unfortunately was born into a world of slavery, but who treated his slaves well and tried to change the world of Virginia and the United States to the extent that he could; and equally it does no good to portray Jefferson as a contemptible hypocrite who talked the language of liberty and equality, but who was quite content to breed slaves for the marketplace, and who dismissed African-Americans as physically and mentally inferior. One could make either argument plausibly enough, for there is a huge and not always consistent body of evidence in Jefferson writings and actions.

But surely we gain more by wrestling with the paradoxes in Jefferson’s life, illuminating, clarifying, teasing out nuance, attempting to understand his own (changing) thinking about race and slavery, his own strategy for preserving his reputation as an apostle of liberty while buying and selling human beings, who, as he freely acknowledged, “did him no injury.” After spending thirty years thinking and writing about Jefferson, I am not at all sure I understand his relationship to race and slavery. I’m not done trying. But I refuse simply to condemn him before I fully understand him.

We cannot understand ourselves if we do not understand the unresolved and perhaps unresolvable complexities of our heritage. Jefferson’s greatest biographers have said that the contradictions and unresolved principles in his life (1743-1826) are also the contradictions and unresolved issues in the American experiment. To understand ourselves, we must try to understand him. To judge him in a simplistic and self-satisfying way, means that we are short-circuiting our attempts to understand ourselves.

It would be insane, I think, to refuse to name an elementary school Martin Luther King, Jr., because he broke his marriage vows, or plagiarized his dissertation. It would be equally insane to remove Jefferson’s statue from the campus of the University of Virginia or the University of Missouri or William & Mary. Much better to use the “offending” icons as a text to discuss, debate, wrestle with, maybe even throw eggs at on occasion. But to remove those statues because Jefferson has disappointed us, US!, is to lose an opportunity for a very serious conversation about the dynamics that produced the America of 2016.

The Culture of Outrage represents a very dreary path in our pursuit of happiness and justice. In my view, on the whole, all things considered, Thomas Jefferson (as well as Woodrow Wilson, though I’m not quite as sure about Cecil Rhodes) must be seen as a net benefactor of humankind. But I would not remove a statue of Jesse Helms, George Wallace, or for that matter Pitchfork Ben Tillman from its pedestal. Better to deliberate and debate, perhaps at the top of our lungs, than to erase that which we think we have transcended.

– Clay S. Jenkinson is the author, educator, and scholar who created The Thomas Jefferson Hour, and is a sought-after historical impersonator, speaker, and media commentator, providing a deep but playful context to today’s events. (Bio credit: The Thomas Jefferson Hour, edited by A.C.) To discover more about Clay and his work, please visit


Further Reading:

» American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, by Joseph Ellis
» Thomas Jefferson: America’s Paradoxical Patriot, by Alf Mapp, Jr.

On Free Speech and Political Correctness: A Response to Lindy West

In reading a recent op-ed in The Guardian, ‘‘Political Correctness’ Doesn’t Hinder Free Speech – It Expands It’ by Lindy West, I was initially intensely annoyed.

Free speech, political correctness, and whether the two necessarily conflict are hot topics of debate at the moment, as they perennially are in this nation of ours. The right to freely express ourselves is foundational, among the first rights specified in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights, yet the full enjoyment of this right in our country was hard-won. It was only several decades ago that one could be prosecuted under the obscenity laws of the time for informing people about birth control and the workings of their own reproductive systems, for example, or for expressing certain political views (we now recall McCarthyism with a shudder). With a few exceptions mostly relating to public safety, any infringement of our right to free speech still has the power to make us fearful of that old, tried-and-true, oft-used method of social and political oppression.

My first impression of West’s piece was that it was yet another misguided liberal misapplying traditionally liberal values to make a perhaps well-intentioned, but ultimately illiberal argument.

When I re-read the piece, more slowly this time, I was still annoyed and in overall disagreement, but found myself at least sympathizing with some of her arguments, and in full agreement with others. As West points out, when people routinely hear derogatory, discriminatory, or insensitive remarks, even if relatively minor or unintentional, it can and does undermine their sense of confidence, dignity, and worth over time. And there are many groups in this country, such as black people, Jewish people, gay people, and religious minorities among others, who have had to deal with these slights as they struggle to get by in a historically racist, intolerant, and zenophobic country. It is incumbent on all of us, as West points out, to realize that the things we say have an effect other people, and therefore we should govern our tongues responsibly. We should strive to remain courteous and respectful in our speech, especially towards those who have suffered, and still do suffer, these slights and insults the most. And we should definitely call each other out when we are cruel, rude, or careless enough to use offensive language gratuitously.

Yet when it came to the central argument of her piece, the ‘silencing’ argument, she lost me. And when she went from disagreeing with to railing against Jonathan Chait, a columnist with New York Magazine who explains why he thinks free speech is being threatened on college campuses, to the extent that she accuses him, no, downright slanders him, of ‘imply[ing] that black Americans being shot in the streets by agents of the state are the real puppetmasters of an authoritarian regime’, she really lost me.

When West equates expressing disagreement with ‘silencing’, she makes me doubt that she has enough respect for the immense value of free speech, or grasps the true horror and dire ramifications of actual attempts to ‘silence’ it. She gives many example of what she considers ‘silencing tactics’: ‘white students parading around campus in blackface’, ‘telling rape victims that they’re “coddled”’, and ‘teaching marginalised people that their concerns will always be imperiously dismissed, always subordinated to some decontextualised free-speech absolutism’.

I just don’t agree that these things can be reasonably construed as ‘silencing’, not unless we stretch the meaning of the world out so broadly that it loses shape and force. Laws and regulations which threaten expulsion, arrest, and prosecution for expressing unpopular ideas are ‘silencing’ people. Police driving civil rights protesters from the streets with clubs, dogs, and fire hoses are ‘silencing’ people; the Cuban and North Korean governments’ imprisonment of political dissenters are ‘silencing’ people; issuing fatwas against Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are ‘silencing’ people; shooting Medgar Evers for his human rights activism and stabbing atheist bloggers and filmmaker Theo Van Gogh to death for their religious dissent are ‘silencing’ people. There’s a very real sense in which applying the term ‘silencing’ to any use of insensitive, politically incorrect, and offensive speech sounds like indulgent grandstanding that minimizes the horror of what people suffer when they are really being silenced. In that sense, the over-application of the term ‘silencing’ can be offensive in itself.

First, of course students putting on blackface for a Halloween party are doing the wrong thing; they are idiotically out of touch at best, or are behaving disgustingly, insultingly, even cruelly assholish at worst. Sometimes these sorts of behaviors, especially by bullies, may discourage some people from speaking out. But charging these misguided students with ‘silencing’ people? Since when? I’ve heard volumes of speech, free speech, vigorously criticizing this bad behavior, properly shaming people who are ignorant or jerkish enough to indulge in it. Second, I’m not sure if rape victims are generally accused of being “coddled” so I don’t know exactly what she’s referring to; I really hope she’s not equating this with any open discussion of rape without a ‘trigger warning’ preceding it. While some believe trigger warnings are appropriate in some circumstances, showing appropriate regard for the feelings of someone known to be wounded by past events, others believe that trigger warnings are intellectually insulting, implying that others are not strong or capable enough for open, honest, and challenging discussions of important issues. Third, reasoned debate over whether regulating forms of speech many people find offensive really promotes greater understanding and protects human rights is not the same thing as ‘imperially dismissing marginalized people’. And lastly, I don’t find that proponents of unfettered free speech routinely ‘decontextualize’ it either; rather, their arguments usually focus on the historical fact that suppression of free speech has always been a favored tool of social and political oppression (a very specific and important context) and therefore, we must protect this right at nearly all costs, even if people are sometimes offended and inconvenienced as a result.

When re-reading West’s article, a striking counterexample to her argument that political correctness expands free speech came to mind. As I write this, I’m also in the process of researching the life and thought of Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became one of America’s greatest antislavery activists and orators (this is for an upcoming O.P. Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series, stay tuned!). In his autobiographies, Douglass recounts the episode that he credits with setting the course of his life. When he was a child, his mistress thought it would be a good idea to teach him how to read, since he was companion and body servant to the young son of the household, and could thus aid in his education. When her husband came into the room and saw what she was doing, he stopped her, telling her in Frederick’s hearing, that ‘[he] should know nothing but how to obey his master …if you teach [him] how to read, there will be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave…’ As Douglass tells it, this is the moment he realized the full inhumanity of the slave system, and learned exactly what he needed to do. Knowledge equals freedom, so he must learn to read and educate himself, at all costs. And not only does slavery inflict physical suffering and the loss of every kind of personal liberty, its most dehumanizing element is its reliance on forced ignorance, so that even the mind is completely subjected. In the end, it was precisely because Douglass heard his slaveowner express that cruel, offensive, and inhumane idea that he learned the truth and became the great man he was. And like Douglass, we must observe the effects of evil and hear its arguments if we are to combat it.

Of course, the flip side is true too: people free to express bad ideas influence and convince others to believe them. But, repressing speech rarely stops this: it just drives the ideas underground, to be shared in secret, shielded from the healthy and corrective criticism of public discourse. And as we can see from our vibrant history of ever-increasing freedom of speech, bad ideas that are subjected to vigorous and open public debate are refuted and ultimately rejected, one by one. While I think that bad ideas will always remain with us, I have much, much more faith that the market of ideas will weed out bad ones than repression will, again, as history has shown us. Name me one oppressive institution that has not been ultimately overthrown because of the power of speech, because people chose to liberate themselves through dissent, to offer better arguments than those of their ideological opponents and to back up them up with action, and I’ll gladly reconsider.

Unlike the case with guns, the only one who can defeat someone with a bad argument is someone with a better one. Only when speech is unfettered can it reveal its true power to liberate us from the grasp of bad ideas. The good ideas of Frederick Douglass ultimately triumphed over the bad ideas of Stephen Douglas, pro-slavery advocate whose series of heated exchanges with Abraham Lincoln were dubbed The Great Debate, because Douglass spoke out on the evils of slavery though it was contrary to mores and laws of his time. Likewise, we must rely on ourselves and on one another to overcome bad ideas by speaking out, as Erika Christakis recommends in the email that started the Yale free speech controversy, and not by co-opting the power of governing bodies to silence our ideological opponents for us.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

*This piece is also published at Darrow

Sources and inspiration:
Douglass, Frederick. ‘My Bondage and My Freedom.’, Mineola, NY: Dover, 1969, originally published 1855.
West, Lindy. ‘Political correctness’ doesn’t hinder free speech – it expands it’. The Guardian, Nov 15th, 2015.

Ordinary Philosophy Recommends: IQ2 Debate – Are Liberals Stifling Intellectual Diversity on Campus?

Office for Emergency Management War Production Board Free speech doesn't mean careless talk circa 1942 1943 Public Domain via Wikimedia CommonsWhen I first read the title of this debate, my immediate reaction was ‘Yup!’

I consider myself more of a liberal than otherwise, yet I found myself generally in agreement with the proposition ‘Liberals are stifling intellectual diversity on campus’.

Many of the examples of effective censorship were already familiar to me: the students who called for UC Berkeley to dis-invite Bill Maher to deliver a commencement speech; constant overzealous insistence on ‘politically correct’ terminology; the perceived need to prefix nearly every class lecture or statement with ‘trigger warnings’ so that students’ feelings, apparently of the delicacy of fine china within their tender little minds, wouldn’t suffer in the slightest.

If I sound sarcastic in the latter remarks, it’s intentional: all this hyper-sensitivity, I fear, is helping to dumb down public discourse, which is especially worrisome in the very institutions whose mission it is to enlighten. It’s important to understand the difference between respect for others, which I think includes the respect for their intellect which informs open and honest discourse, and the squeamish fear of arousing any emotional response beyond placid approval.

To be fair, there’s plenty of non-liberal censorship going on too, as the debaters against the motion pointed out, and were some examples of purported liberal censorship that I don’t think are valid. For example, Kirstin Powers, in favor of the motion, referred to universities refusing to approve student club constitutions that require their members or leaders to hold certain beliefs, such as at Vanderbilt University. I don’t think this is an example of censorship at all. The reasons students are not allowed to command belief in their members are derived from generally applicable laws and principles that prioritize full participation in the public square. An institution that accepts money and resources from the public, such as a university, is well within its rights to say that a club can’t accept those resources and then turn around and allocate them in a discriminatory way. Likewise, the university, and in turn its approved clubs, can’t command their members not to believe certain things either. The students who decide to join these clubs will thus freely self-select their own membership, and those who join who hold dissenting beliefs will bring in a little healthy debate and strengthen the club’s own grasp of the ideas they promote. That’s how the marketplace of ideas works.

Likewise, the students who call for dis-invitations of speakers they don’t agree with would show themselves much more faithful to true liberal values if they support the right of people with opposing views to speak at their campus. If they disagree with the views and actions of the speaker, they should show up to the speech and challenge the views of the speaker in person, in the question and answer session, or with signs for the speaker and audience to read, or if no other means of expression is available to them, plainly express their dissent by getting up en masse and walking out.

Sources and Inspiration
‘Liberals are Stifling Intellectual Diversity on Campus’, Intelligence Squared U.S. debate, Feb 24, 2015.….

‘Vanderbilt University: Refusal to Approve Constitutions of Student Groups that Require Leaders to Share Beliefs’, FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) website, 2012.