Gag Me With Calhoun

After weeks of embarrassing publicity and political mobilization, Yale University has been forced to rehire Corey Menafee, an African American employee who was fired for smashing a stained glass window at Yale’s Calhoun College that depicted slaves shouldering bales of cotton. For over a year, Calhoun College has been the subject of intense national controversy because it is named after one of America’s foremost defenders of slavery and white supremacy. Menafee’s actions, firing, and now rehiring gave expression, and amplification, to the controversy.

But now there’s a new source of controversy: one of the conditions of Menafee’s rehiring is that he keep his mouth shut about the case.

But in a move more familiar in corporate labor proceedings than in an academic setting dedicated to free discourse, the university included in the agreement to rehire Menafee a provision that he will no longer be able to speak publicly about his case, the university confirmed….Provision #8 in the agreement reads: “The parties agree that neither Mr. Menafee, the Union, nor the University, nor counsel for any of these, will make any further statements to the public.”

The provision sparked outrage from demonstrators who stood in support of Menafee over the past two weeks.

While gag orders like this are indeed routine in corporate litigation and settlements, the restriction on employee speech is even more routine in workplaces across America. Indeed, for workers in the United States, it is the rule rather than the exception.

But that’s not what makes this particular gag order so interesting.

Throughout the controversy over Calhoun College I’ve maintained that the mistaken premise of both sides of the argument is that Calhoun is a voice from the nation’s past, a defender of slavery and thus a relic of the 19th century. But Calhoun’s real significance, I’ve argued, is that he was a theoretician of white supremacy, the proponent of racism as a way for whites to feel that they are the superior class, a racism that outlasted slavery and persists to this day. “His was less the voice of a dying institution,” I wrote, “than a vision of the future that was only just being born.”

But Yale’s gag order of Menafee evokes the long shadow of John C. Calhoun in another way.

Beginning in the 1830s, abolitionists sought to present petitions to Congress seeking restrictions or outright bans on slavery. John Quincy Adams, the retired sixth president of the United States and now sitting representative in the House, was at the forefront of this movement.

In response, pro-slavery forces imposed a series of escalating “gag rules,” which eventually were formalized as a standing rule against Congress even hearing these petitions. John C. Calhoun, Andrew Jackson’s former vice president and now leader of the pro-slavery faction in the Senate, was at the forefront of this movement.

It was in response to an effort to introduce such a petition to the Senate that Calhoun first offered, in 1837 on the Senate floor, his famous formulation that far from being an evil, slavery was in fact “a good—a positive good.” Here’s what he said about the dangers of allowing anti-slavery speech to be heard in the world’s greatest deliberative body:

Encroachments must be met at the beginning…those who act on the opposite principle are prepared to become slaves. In this case, in particular, I hold concession or compromise to be fatal. If we concede an inch, concession would follow concession—compromise would follow compromise, until our ranks would be so broken that effectual resistance would be impossible….The most unquestionable right may be rendered doubtful if once admitted to be a subject of controversy, and that would be the case in the present instance….As widely as this incendiary spirit has spread, it has not yet infected this body, or the great mass of the intelligent and business portion of the North: but unless it be speedily stopped, it will spread and work upwards…

Calhoun lost that vote. But almost 15 years later, in his last major address to that body, he would return to it, like an old sore.

Had my voice been heeded…the agitation which followed would have been prevented, and the fanatical zeal that gives impulse to the agitation, and which has brought us to our present perilous condition, would have become extinguished, from the want of something to feed the flame.

As I characterized that speech in The Reactionary Mind:

In his last major address to the Senate, John C. Calhoun, former vice president and chief spokesman of the Southern cause, identified the decision by Congress in the 1830s to receive abolitionist petitions as the moment when the nation set itself on an irreversible course of confrontation over slavery. In a four-decade career that had seen such defeats to the slaveholder position as the Tariff of Abominations, the Nullification Crisis, and the Force Bill, the mere appearance of slave speech in the nation’s capitol stood out for the dying Calhoun as the sign that that the revolution had begun.

Why, after all these years, did it so agitate him? As I argued in the book:

Every once in a while, however, the subordinates of this world contest their fates. They protest their conditions, write letters and petitions, join movements, and make demands. Their goals may be minimal and discrete…but in voicing them, they raise the specter of a more fundamental change of power. They cease to be servants or supplicants and become agents, speaking and acting on their own behalf. More than the reforms themselves, it is this assertion of agency by the subject class—the appearance of an insistent and independent voice of demand—that vexes their superiors.

Fast-forward to 2016.

After months of watching his social betters at Yale and throughout the nation politely debate the virtues of naming a residential college after a man who not only defended slavery but sought to impose a gag rule on any negative mention of it on the Senate floor, a black dishwasher at Yale decides to take matters into his own hands and smash a stained-glass icon of slavery. After weeks of bad publicity and even worse optics, Yale—an institution that fashions itself, like the Senate over which John C. Calhoun presided, to be a universal bastion of open exchange and deliberative reason—rehires this man. On the condition that he never speak publicly of this wrong again.

There’s a reason Yale decided to keep that name “Calhoun.”



  1. bystander July 27, 2016 at 10:20 am | #

    Just a random Thank You! for your skill in making plain:

    “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

    Although there are times when it makes me feel old, dispirited and very tired. Which, I’d add, is a worthy way for you to make me feel.

  2. John K. Wilson July 27, 2016 at 10:29 am | #

    I think that people who intentionally destroy artwork should be punished and perhaps prosecuted, and required to pay for the restoration of the original artwork. But they should never be censored.

    Colleges should enact policies establishing a ban on all gag rules in legal settlements. No college should ever seek to impose a gag rule on anyone.

    It’s noteworthy that many colleges in the 19th century dealt with the issue of slavery by seeking to ban contrary views.

  3. mark July 27, 2016 at 10:44 am | #

    To paraphrase Natalie Zemon Davis, ‘The Rites of Silence’.

  4. Carolyn Porter July 27, 2016 at 11:25 am | #

    Excellent piece.

  5. Roquentin July 27, 2016 at 11:48 am | #

    Whenever I hear this, I think of how in Minneapolis, where my folks live, they finally got around to renaming Lake Calhoun to Bde Maka Ska, the original Native American name, but now the signs list both. Names are hard to change, and people will probably keep saying Lake Calhoun for a long, long time. Not only that, numerous streets and buildings reference the former name of the lake. It wasn’t until recently that I even understood which Calhoun that was. Still, at least it’s a step in the right direction, however small.

    Really though, the stained glass depicting cotton picking is too much. I’d probably have thrown a brick through the damn thing too if I were him.

  6. xenon2 July 27, 2016 at 12:56 pm | #

    I’m in favor of outlawing all honorifics.’Mr’ derives from ‘master’. ‘Master John Smith’ is the way a boy would address the envelope, when I was a child. Princeton University should keep the name ‘WWS’. It deserves it.

    I’ve listened to ‘Ebony and Ivy’

    And that was before Georgetown had been found out by @arothmanhistory.

    What the US should do is elevate teachers by paying them more, at every level of teaching.Have them make what engineers, doctors and lawyers make.From listening to Snowden, I got this idea. He would make a great teacher at any level.Let the NSA and the CIA become teachers, and all those contractors, too.

    All it takes is the will to do it.

    • SqueakyRat July 28, 2016 at 7:08 am | #

      “All it takes is the will to do it.” And the absence of anything better to do with one’s time.

  7. JDB July 27, 2016 at 1:46 pm | #

    I certainly can see how destroying the offensive depiction would generate a short-term boost of feelings of victory, in a “Do the Right Thing” sort of way. But what about the next year’s class? or the next generation? Removing the glass and changing the name of the Hall also removes the evidence of past racism. Wouldn’t it have been more instructive to leave the stained glass intact, with a plaque explaining the historical context of Calhoun’s biography so that the entire controversy could be a teachable moment to teach future generations of elites to check their privilege?

    • Roqeuntin July 27, 2016 at 9:42 pm | #

      I don’t know, watching that, O’Riley’s remarks aren’t even half as outrageous as they were made out to be. He even explicitly states “Michelle Obama was technically correct.” While describing the slaves as “well fed and given decent lodging” certainly minimizes their suffering, it isn’t some outrageous defense of the institution itself. I say this primarily because such hysterical outrage 100% plays into O’Riley’s song and dance. Just imagine yourself sitting at home and watching Fox News, if you were someone who did so. It’d look like O’Riley was completely justified in calling everything thrown at him as mere “spin” and he’d be justified for saying so.

      I don’t think most liberals realize just how counterproductive this kind of manufactured outrage and grandstanding is. I also don’t think they realize the extent to the very people they direct it at feed on it. Maybe they’re too self-absorbed to realize that their constant outrage, warranted or otherwise, has consequences. I’m getting really, really sick of watching the mainstream liberal media tilting at windmills.

      Coincidentally, when in his response O’Riley kept labeling these people as “far left,” my first thought was “don’t blame the far left for these clowns. Most of them aren’t even really leftists in the first place.”

      • I fully understand. My only purpose in tossing that in is to note that this is the same as it ever was. What remains consistent is not the just the historical denial in service of racism, but that these suit-and-tie “klan-lites” don’t even have the intellectual novelty of a Calhoun. At least Calhoun is interesting and assumes that his co-racists are at least as smart as he is. In his own work, on the other hand, Billo relies on his audience’s ignorance. That is not necessarily an error on his part — but in relying on it he also sustains it.

        Same as it ever was.

        • Will G-R July 28, 2016 at 10:53 am | #

          Of course it’s worth pointing out that the broader “slaves were taken care of” narrative also plays a role in the leftist critique of the institution of wage labor, e.g. this monologue delivered by Marlon Brando in Pontecorvo’s regrettably forgotten Queimada. Not that Bill O’Reilly is ever going to segue into a lecture about primitive accumulation and the reserve army of the unemployed and whatnot, but for liberals to treat this point as prima facie taboo is a bulwark against criticism from their left no less than against criticism from their right.

    • Roquentin July 28, 2016 at 9:40 am | #

      I agree.

  8. nonmanifestation July 27, 2016 at 2:28 pm | #

    “Encroachments must be met at the beginning…those who act on the opposite principle are prepared to become slaves.” I love how he uses the threat of metaphorical slavery (so dear to liberals) as an argument in defense of actual slavery.

  9. xenon2 July 27, 2016 at 4:42 pm | #

    otoh, there is Abigail Adams saying the slaves who built the WH were ‘half-fed and destitute of cloathing’. Abigail Adams was there and Bill O’Reilly was not via @arothmanhistory

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