University of Virginia students and faculty have signed a letter criticizing University President Teresa Sullivan for invoking the words of Thomas Jefferson. In an email apparently intended to salve the all-to understandable confusion and anxiety stimulated by the election of Donald Trump, Sullivan quoted Jefferson on the importance of U. Va. students, who “are not of ordinary significance only: they are exactly the persons who are to succeed to the government of our country, and to rule its future enmities, its friendships and fortunes.” In other words, “don’t let the election of a deranged demagogue lead you into hopelessness: you are the future, so act accordingly.”
The heart of the complaint is unsurprising: Jefferson owned slaves. Slavery was (and is) an ethical abomination. This is indisputable. That Thomas Jefferson – among other American founders – owned human beings as ranchers today own cattle is a telling stain on the American myth. For many, it gives lie the words Jefferson penned – “that all men are created equal.”
But this is a fallacy. All men are created equal. The truth of the idea exists independent of its originator. For centuries, powerful men in the United States have repeatedly failed to make this truth manifest in the lives of all citizens. Some rancorous bastards have even worked against that lofty proposition, exploiting the poor and the dispossessed, brutalizing those unfortunate enough to have been born without white skin, rich parents, and a penis. That places some of these people on an ethical spectrum somewhere between pitiful disappointments and full-bore monsters. For others, it clouds a veneer of heroic righteousness, leaving us to puzzle over what to make of people who have done both good and awful things.
Yet America’s history of racism and oppression says nothing of ideas about the equality of human beings. Either all humans are born with equal intrinsic value or they are not.
The same is true of the votive to intellectual pedantry and banality some of the students and faculty are building at U. Va. Either Jefferson’s statement is true and valuable, or it is not. His personal crimes are immaterial. To think otherwise is to sink into the trap of ad hominem thinking and, doing so, help perpetuate the rancid stew of identity politics currently corroding political discourse in the United States. It suggests not only that human beings should be judged entirely in terms of their worst behavior, but also that ideas cannot rise above the inevitable flaws of the humans who create them.
This is truly bizarre thinking. It’s hard to imagine what ideas and expressions would remain permissible in a climate where they must first be sterilized of any murky or odious associations. If the proscription is that ideas can’t come with any baggage, either in terms of the person who dreamt them up or the context in which they originated, then most ideas automatically become verboten. If readers were to judge my arguments entirely in terms of the worst things I’ve done or said, then my humble attempts at persuasion would be irrevocably impotent to a huge swath of the population.
Insofar as this view seems extreme, it is nonetheless implicit in the complaints of people who would rather not have to suffer under the tyranny of a Thomas Jefferson quote. This is ironic, because U. Va. was founded by Jefferson. If a Thomas Jefferson quote is an ethical provocation beyond anyone’s capacity to bear, what are we to make of a salary or education provided by a school that wouldn’t exist without him?
In the sweep of history, the insipid criticisms of a well-intention email will be (or at least should be) a mote of dust. But it is nonetheless illustrative. It tells us that becoming an enemy of reason clearly demands no specific political allegiance. All it takes is that perennially destructive commitment to ideological purity captured under the sprawling umbrella of fundamentalism. Religious fundamentalism. Communist fundamentalism. Free-market fundamentalism. Libertarian fundamentalism. And now, liberal fundamentalism: the belief that everyone’s personal experience is a window of unassailable insight and everyone’s opinion – except those with “privilege” and “power” – is infinitely precious. To satisfy this belief, its proponents are willing to wage war against the climate of open and free expression that gave rise to everything from life-saving vaccines to the very notion of individual human rights. There is very little good in this world that isn’t due to people who cherish reason and accept the premise that ideas should flourish or fail on their individual merits.
Perhaps President Sullivan’s email had other flaws. If it normalized Trump, for instance, it would present a prime target for serious criticism and a springboard for worthwhile debate. Maybe the idea that U.Va. students are special is false, in which case it should be refuted. But the idea that the it ought to be censured because it echoes an idea from a man who was, in terms of racial justice and human equality, quite clearly a hypocrite is dubious at best.
Consider an historical anecdote, at once usefully reductive and logically instructive. In the late 19th and early 20th century, agricultural production was limited by the availability of fertilizers. Using the technology available at the time, producing food required more land to feed far fewer people than it does today. A couple of German chemists changed this, developing a method to capture atmospheric nitrogen and turn it into ammonia for use in fertilizers. Billions of people are alive today who would never have existed had those German chemists not made those breakthroughs, inventing what is today known as the Haber-Bosch process.
Thing is, Fritz Haber (the Haber, in the Haber-Bosch process) was a real son of a bitch. Not only did he treat his family terribly, putting his professional ambitions and nationalistic impulses ahead of familial loyalty – thereby likely contributing to the suicides of his first wife and, later, two of his children – he is also considered the father of chemical warfare. He pioneered the weaponization of chlorine and other poisonous gases, directly contributing to the agonizing deaths of tens of thousands of Allied soldiers. Later, scientists working under Haber developed a form of cyanide gas known as Zyklon A – the predecessor to the Zyklon B pesticide used to murder Jews during the Holocaust.
Under the theory of discourse the complainants at U. Va. are implicitly advocating, the Haber-Bosch process – and all descendent technologies – should be immediately abandoned. After all, Fritz Haber was, to put things in disturbingly mild terms, a real dick. Of course, millions – if not billions – of people would starve to death, but the descendants of those who died miserably in the trenches of WWI or in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany wouldn’t have to deal with eating food tainted by Haber’s hideous legacy.
Ideas and opinions should be judged by their qualities, irrespective of the confusion of dastardly or enlightened deeds left in the wake of the people who produce them. The Haber-Bosch process should be weighed in terms of its effects: is it better that billions of people exist today who very likely wouldn’t have otherwise, or does it matter more that the Haber-Bosch process has contributed to overpopulation and all the attendant environmental and social costs that come with it? That’s an interesting question. Whether or not we should do away with the good works and useful ideas of people like Fritz Haber and Thomas Jefferson because the character of those men was blighted by the misery they inflicted on others is not. In fact, it’s not even a question. Those ideas exist. They are worthwhile or dispensable on their own merits. Only a reckless, enthusiastic embrace of authoritarianism could ever get rid of them. And that, I worry, is precisely where the postmodern left – in its urgent pursuit of ideological purity and boundless inclusivity – is headed.
In the world of ideas – that is, in other words, the world of higher education – what matters is not whether they make people feel welcome and offended. It’s whether or not they are true and make sense.