by Kyle Smith · August 11, 2017
Yale’s determination to take a giant jar of Wite-Out to history has reached a new level of fatuousness.
This week the Yale Alumni Magazine reported that a stone carving of an Indian and a Puritan over an entrance to Sterling Memorial Library had been bowdlerized, with the weapon the latter was holding covered up. A head librarian, Susan Gibbons, said that she and the university’s Committee on Art in Public Spaces found that the carving’s “presence at a major entrance to Sterling was not appropriate.” Yale ordered the musket of the Puritan to be covered up with a layer of stone that Gibbons said “can be removed in the future without damaging the original carving,” the magazine reported.
It’s instructive that even as Yale’s administration rampages through history with a censor’s eye and a vandal’s paint pot, someone like Gibbons can tacitly acknowledge that the hysteria might die down in some future generation and that we should therefore make some of the cover-ups reversible. At the same time, though, it’s impossible not to rue the irony of a period when librarians take on the duties of literally covering up the past. Perhaps the definition of librarian will gradually morph over the coming decades to “one who protects us from the historical record.”
In their haste to preemptively ward off any sudden triggering episodes by continuing to display a carving that has been visible in the heart of the campus for many decades, Yale’s historical-demolition squad appeared not to notice a few things. For instance: Although the Puritan was holding a weapon, so was the Indian. Only the Puritan’s musket was plastered over, not the Indian’s bow. Now that only one of the two men is armed, does Yale mean to imply that persons of color are irrationally violent or untrustworthy? Troubling, very troubling. A reasonable interpretation of the work now is that an Indian is sneaking up on an unarmed Puritan with intent to do him harm. Why must Yale perpetuate such harmful stereotypes?
Moreover, although the exigencies of placing two characters and two objects in a small setting meant that each man’s weapon was close to the other’s head, the two principals are not looking at each other. Each is looking away, as though they are working in alliance, perhaps to hunt. Given the two types of weapons being deployed, the chances that any game spotted will be felled to nourish all are increased. Diversity is our strength, indeed! Has an innocent instance of simple multicultural cooperation been frantically blotted out because easily triggered dunderheads misinterpreted the meaning of the carving?
Yale’s insistence that all of history be made to conform with current political attitudes is difficult to distinguish from vandalism. After a black dishwasher imbibed campus hysteria so thoroughly he was moved to use a broomstick to knock out a stained-glass window at Calhoun College because it depicted slaves, he became a campus hero. Yale, which had initially fired him, rehired him a few weeks later. Then it pressed ahead with his work, removing other windows depicting enslavement. The principle of authorizing freelance politics-based vandalism had been established.
Yale’s insistence that all of history be made to conform with current political attitudes is difficult to distinguish from vandalism.
Calhoun College is named for Vice President John C. Calhoun, antebellum America’s most prominent defender of slavery. In April of 2016, Yale President Peter Salovey declared that he wouldn’t give in to critics who had called for it be renamed, saying that, “Universities have to be the places where tough conversations happen. I don’t think that is advanced by hiding our past.” After an outcry, Salovey reversed course within a year, saying Calhoun’s legacy of backing slavery “fundamentally conflicts with Yale’s mission and values.” The mission of hosting tough conversations and the value of acknowledging the past were forgotten. All that mattered now was the short-term gratification of the mob.
Yet campus activists are always looking for something to be outraged about. Giving in to their demands simply whets their appetite for more. Salovey insisted that campus symbols of Calhoun would remain, including a statue of Calhoun on the campus’s most prominent landmark, Harkness Tower. How long before these start being stripped away, too?
There is no limiting principle in play here, at least none that I can detect. Once you establish that an artwork or artifact that gives offense to any minority must be hidden, removed, or destroyed, and that’s it perfectly acceptable for any individual to appoint herself to take on this important work of expunging and correcting, it becomes open season on history. Window-breaking and musket-covering are just the beginning. As Roger Kimball points out, a person intimately associated with Yale was deeply involved in trading slaves. His name? Elihu Yale. He founded the place. Expunging his name from campus will take much more work than merely spackling over an image of a gun. The ecstasy of the mob that succeeded in getting the name Calhoun expunged from Calhoun College will be nothing compared to that experienced by whatever future gang of activists succeeds in getting Yale itself renamed.
— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.