Cancel Thinking

Let’s suppose, not unreasonably, that current environmental practices cause some truly catastrophic environmental events within the next hundred years.  Let ‘s suppose that humans looking back on our behavior in this era from 180 years or so in the future, around 2300 CE, see that our small, inept, belated, half-hearted measures to improve the environment brought on the catastrophe.  They can see, with the advantage of 20-20 hindsight, that giving up internal combustion engines to propel cars and trucks should have happened much earlier, and much more rapidly, so that we’d have created a decade or two of diminished CO2 emissions that we did not.  Collectively we had the knowledge but not the will.

But some of us tried.  We bought expensive, inconvenient electric vehicles despite the absence of widespread,  quick, cheap charging stations, or of dealerships (prohibited by law!), or of accessible preventive maintenance.  We did the right thing!  Others of us held on to our beloved gas vehicles until they pried the fobs out of our cold, dead fingers.  The environmental survivors of 2200 CE might well justly say, having lived through and witnessed the suffering of a world overwhelmed by excess CO2, that internal combustion drivers were evil, selfish, destroyers of the environment, that what they did to the environment was so horrible that they should be remembered forever only as perpetrators of environmental catastrophe.  No matter what else they did in their lives, destruction was their true legacy.  No honor for their service as cancer-curing doctors, no respect for their star talent as dancers or singers, no exception for their tireless work for social justice.  They drove gas cars.  They ruined our planet.  That is all.  Take their names off the cures they discovered, the performance centers they endowed, the laws they passed in the name of racial equality.  Their names are consigned to the annals of infamy because they committed environmental crimes, as we see it from 2200 CE.

That very kind of thinking is going on today in the Commonwealth of Virginia, specifically within the Virginia Community College System.  No fewer than five Community Colleges of the 23 in the System, or 22%, are in the process, or have just completed it, of changing their names.  The names being changed are:

Lord Fairfax, sorry, Laurel Ridge Community College
  • John Tyler: The 10th American President, lifelong Virginian, became President shortly after being elected Vice-President, when my ancestor William Henry Harrison, President-elect, forgot to wear an overcoat to his inauguration on a raw March day, caught a bad cold, and died a month later.   
  • Thomas Nelson, Jr.:  Prominent Virginia landowner, signer of the Declaration of Independence.
  • Patrick Henry: Member of Virginia House of Burgesses, patriot, coined famed phrase “give me liberty or give me death.”   
  • Lord Fairfax: English-born aristocrat; owned vast tracts in England and America.  With Lees and Washingtons, most prominent Virginia family in the colonial era.  
  • Dabney S. Lancaster:  State Superintendent of  Public Education 1941-1946, when schools were segregated.  College professor and dean; later President of Longwood College.  Discovered recently to have been a member of “Anglo-Saxon Club” only after extensive research.

The first four men on this list owned slaves.  The other was a leader of state public education during an era when public education was segregated.  As for the first four, the real news would be if they had NOT owned slaves.  In those British colonies that were settled by Anglicans, a significant majority of those who could afford to own slaves did so.  They owned large tracts of land, and managing their agricultural enterprises assumed a source of inexpensive labor.  Slavery was the colonial alternative to tenant farmers or peasants.  The first three names on the list were all clearly supporters of American Independence, and played proactive roles in that cause.  The Fairfaxes were close friends of the Washingtons, but the Family split their loyalties when the Revolutionary War came.  The last name on the list is to me much less prominent.

So the colonial/federal-era leaders in question owned slaves in an era when it was generally regarded as both legal and morally acceptable to do so.  They contributed in significant positive ways to the American cause.  One of them became an American  President.  But despite these positives, their names are being removed from Virginia community colleges because they behaved in one aspect of their lives in a way that is now appropriately deemed reprehensible.   I am discouraged by how small-minded, arrogant, and judgmental that action is.  It’s the living embodiment of what is known as “Cancel Culture.”  These people are being reviled because they were not as “woke” in the 18th century as progressives want us all to be in the 21st.

The comments made to justify this move by VCCS leaders are stupefyingly inane.  “I don’t even know how John Tyler’s name got attached to a community college.”  Really?  He was a Virginian and an American President and you can’t figure that out?  AND you’re going to change the name of the school to “Brightpoint”??  You do know that’s not a word, right?  It’s a trade name; I hope your legal staff checked out the lawsuit issue before you announced it.  Or “why would you name a community college after a British aristocrat”?  Um, because he lived in Virginia on a five-million-acre land grant from the King of England, and was good friends with the Washingtons?  Just guessing.  Or “what do you say to students who ask about who [Thomas Nelson] was,” the assumption being that you’d need to say “he was an enslaver.”  You could say “he was a man with enough courage to publicly sign the Declaration of Independence, thereby defying the government of which he was a citizen in the name of the American cause,” and “he was part of a system that we know is immoral, but was accepted in his time, long ago.”  In the case of Patrick Henry, they’re putting an ampersand between the two words, ostensibly to change the reference to the two counties the college serves.  Any Cancel Culturist who buys that evasion without protest needs to hand in their bullhorn.  This is on the level of changing the name of Washington-Lee High School to “Washington Liberty,” which was done nearby recently.  We’re not quite woke enough yet to go all the way to “Enslaver-Traitor High.”

The approach taken by the VCCS is not a constructive approach to dealing with the past.  It refuses to acknowledge the truth that few if any people are free of negative, or regressive, character traits.  It refuses to acknowledge that societal standards for morally acceptable behavior can, have, do, and will change.  When we find out about the traits and the changes, we lose a teachable moment if we try to pretend these folks don’t exist, or have suddenly become unworthy of the acknowledgement and respect they have held in the past.  We ought to talk about how we understand our own history, and why that understanding can change.  We ought to be able to say how our society and our world are different than they were in 1775.  Institutions of higher learning have a special role to play in this conversation.  But Cancel Culture prevents this from happening by saying in effect “”na-na-na-na, I can’t hear you!”  If a student asks who Lord Fairfax was, we ought to be able to do better than say “don’t worry about it.  The college’s new name is—wait for it—Laurel Ridge Community College.  Isn’t that a lovely name?”

Copyright 2021, Arnold Bradford

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