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Jewish World Review August 17, 2001 / 28 Menachem-Av, 5761

Diana West

Diana West
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Enlightenment at Yale -- NEWS FLASH: Yale University has just issued a press release to "regret and renounce" the evils of slavery. One-hundred-and-thirty-six years after the end of the Civil War, the New York Times reports that the venerable institution has now taken a stand on the issue. Yale went on to say that "we," institutionally speaking, "seek, through scholarship and communication, to better understand [these evils], but we cannot undo them."

Poor Yale. While to be commended for becoming the first university in the 21st century to come out against slavery, it has things exactly backward. The point of scholarship and communication today is to undo past evils--but not to better understand them. That, for example, is the obvious goal of "Yale, Slavery and Abolition," a political correction of a paper written by three Yale graduate students--and written up in a sizable New York Times article this week--that inspired the university's recent proclamation.

"Slavers in Yale's Past Are Focus of Reparations Debate," reads the headline of the article about the paper's findings. Of course, "Yale slavers" are hardly the focus of the reparations debate--that is, not yet. According to the newspaper, the paper's authors, all doctoral candidates at Yale, "hope their paper will force Yale to the center" of that debate. How? By indicting for their participation in, profit from, or tolerance of slavery the dead, white men of the 18th and early-19th century whom Yale has commemorated in the very stone, wrought iron and stained glass of the 300-year-old university.

The case against Yale opens like this: The college's first professorship and first scholarships in the 18th century were endowed with slavery-derived profits, the former from Philip Livingston (1716-1778), "whom," the newspaper reports, "historians record as one of the biggest slave traders in the colonies," and George Berkeley (1685-1753), a "plantation owner" who was insensitive enough in the early decades of the 18th century to refer to indigenous peoples as "savages."

There's more: Neither man recycled cans or bottles. Even so, Yale saw fit to honor the two philanthropists, naming a gateway after Livingston, a leader of the pre-Revolutionary movement against British trade restrictions and signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a residential college after Berkeley, the Anglo-Irish philosopher and clergyman. The list of these Yalie slavers--Slaylies?--goes on, from clergyman and educator Timothy Dwight (Yale class of 1769), to the author's main target, John C. Calhoun (class of 1804), the 19th-century statesman best remembered as a defender of states' rights and an apologist for slavery.

But having already convinced Yale to 'fess up to its opposition to slavery, what more do these graduate students want? Turns out they would like Yale and other universities to pressure companies in which the institutions have invested--the ones which once upon a time profited from slavery--"to make amends to the descendants of slaves." Another option is "to consider restitution, perhaps in the form of scholarships, to descendants of slaves."

(Question: Have the authors ever heard of affirmative action?)

In other words, for all the fancy footnotes, this scholarly paper is just one more jiggle in the Great Reparations Shakedown.

That these men now under attack lived when the chains of slavery stretched unremarkably around the pre-abolitionist world, from the hunting grounds of the tribal slavers within the African interior to the European colonies of North and South America, counts for nothing. Their religious leadership and inspiration, public service and sacrifice, intellectual achievement and invention are wholly nullified for a failure to have lived up to the moral standards of a modern era they did not live to see. Such enlightenment may have escaped their lifetimes, but it is fortunate indeed that they died before the day they were turned into political pawns.

JWR contributor Diana West is a columnist and editorial writer for the Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.


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03/30/01: The sweet sound of slamming doors and clucking feminists
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02/23/01: 'Ecumenical niceness' and other latter-day American gifts to the world
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02/12/01: If only ...

© 2001, Diana West