Honor over Secession: A Lesson in Public Discourse

Honor over Secession: A Lesson in Public Discourse

By Charles Correll III '17

It seems that John C. Calhoun has taken up new residence.

In California, secession has become a hot topic of discussion for disenchanted Democrats. With sixty percent of the Golden State having voted for Clinton, many believe that election results underscore deep divisions between California and the rest of the United States. “I want California to be all it can,” Louis Marinelli, President of the secession group “Yes California” said in 2015. His group “feels that political and cultural connection to the US is holding us back from our potential.” With #Calexit trending after the election, it is clear many Californians agree with Marinelli.

There is a certain amount of irony in California, the state whose entrance into the Union almost triggered Southern secession, considering the same methods for securing its political future. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Unsurprisingly, the ballot proposal is unlikely to succeed. “Yes California” has sponsored previously four ballot measures for secessions, but has failed to garner the necessary number of signatures each time. But in the wake of widespread protest against Trump’s election, given the passionate dissent of Californians and others against his incoming administration, one wonders from what foundations we might rebuild mutual trust and affection.

Californians were on to something when they looked to the South for inspiration. But they chose the wrong man and the wrong tradition. Rather than adopt the separatism of Calhoun, they should learn from the honor of Lee. Our honor system is not the perfect guide for reconciliation, and it is certainly not the only foundation of civility and community. But you and I know from experience that it promotes the prerequisites of a good society: openness, civility, and friendship. Let’s examine what Lee’s one rule can do for political discourse.

First, liberal arts education promotes an open society properly understood.

Culture stems from a complex web of social interactions and institutions that we cannot fully understand or control. Like the economic order, it benefits from impersonal interactions across groups and borders. F.A. Hayek called this the “method of creating an order of human cooperation which far exceeds the limits of our knowledge.” “We stand on an enormous framework into which we fit ourselves by obeying certain rules of conduct that we have never made and never understood, but which have their reason.”

It is impossible to know fully the institutions and interactions from which we benefit. But better than any other social arrangement, an open society provides individuals the intellectual freedom to more fully understand our institutions. Indeed, since “reflection and choice” establish and maintain good government, it is imperative that we seek to better understand the reasons our institutions promote freedom, even if we cannot fully understand them.

Education in the liberal arts, precisely the reason you and I came to W&L, serves as the principal means by which we improve our understanding of human liberty. Petrarch exemplified this humanistic commitment to education in the letters he wrote (in Latin!) to emulate ancient writers like Cicero and Virgil. As Heather Mac Donald said in the City Journal, this “constant, sophisticated dialogue between past and present” both educated and innovated Western civilization. Universities became the “natural home” for debates that gave birth to ideas about constitutional self-government, the arts, and architecture, adding more complexity to society.

The liberal arts, then, instruct us that openness not only cuts across borders, but also across time. One of the true tragedies of homogeneous societies is how they impose a collective lethargy on intellectual creativity. Of course, newness cannot be favored for its own sake, and the institutions and interactions that have solidified throughout time impose a powerful burden of proof on radicals who suggest breaking with past practices. But, as Madison said in Federalist 14, there is yet a difference between the “blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names” and a respect for traditional institutions. An open society allows people to utilize their “good sense, knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience” to act better within a moral order.

Yet many elite universities have failed to promote an open society predicated on intellectual freedom. They have traded humility for “shallow narcissism,” as Mac Donald put it. Instead of encouraging respectful and reflective dialogue with past forms of genius, they have contorted timeless texts into mere expressions of modern relevance. Thus, multiculturalism is, on the one hand, broad and inclusive, and on the other hand, shallow and self-interested. Coupled with postmodernism, it has betrayed our fundamental ignorance of the true sources of the rules that Hayek rightfully revered.

On this subject, Trump supporters have accurately diagnosed the problem, but prescribed the wrong medicine.

Many Americans view the postmodernism and multiculturalism exhibited at elite universities with distain because they disagree with the academy that standards should not be set in stone. But rather than promoting an enlightened return to true openness, they have countered that conflict is unavoidable. According to the writer Leon Aron, supporters of Trump’s more populist posturing conclude that since “some hatreds are inexpiable, that conflicts they lead to are unappeasable and cannot be resolved by negotiations or concessions but only by a victory of one side over the other.” As a result, Aron argues, a “deep weariness” for the “euphemism and obfuscations” of political correctness has partially produced this “almost reflexive, near-cathartic enthusiasm… for those who are ‘telling it like it is.’”

At the heart of liberalism is the desire to protect rights from conflict. Through the lenses of postmodernism and multiculturalism, liberalism merely seeks to protect the ability of each individual to establish their own truth based on their own cultural experience. As the push for secession indicates, liberals are willing to pursue these things outside of the conflict of the political process. If we push the logic of the Trumpian position to the extreme, the desire for conflict will only isolate more people from the political process because they will equate might with right. That will further atomize individuals.

Given that conflict is part of the human condition, we cannot simply avoid conflict. Political discourse is, at its core, a clash of ideas—an attempt at persuasion through reasoned arguments. Therefore, openness needs standards of decency to benefit society. That need brings us to my next point.

Second, the honor system promotes civility during vigorous debate.

Washington and Lee has proven itself the exception to distorted discourse on display at other elite universities because it has institutionalized standards of civility through the honor system.

Dr. Angela Smith, director of the Roger Mudd Center for Ethics at Washington and Lee, affirms the value of civility in public discourse to resolve situations when all sides want the best for a community but have reached different conclusions about what is best. “Parties,” she said, “may be brought to see reasons they had not considered before” and therefore can make a more “informed decision that everyone can accept (even if it is not a decision everyone agrees with).” She cites Third-Year housing and the Cultural and Diversity FDR as examples of this point for the community of Washington and Lee. It is critical to note that debates over student housing and multicultural core curriculum requirements have caused tumultuous controversies at other universities, but have not caused that type of unproductive divisiveness at Washington and Lee.

But we face a sticky situation with the election of Donald Trump. To wit, each side doubts that the other has a commitment to the common good, believing that civility is useless when conversing with someone who does not want to be convinced. When facing reactions to the election, then, we face not a debate over economic policy or healthcare, where civility is more easily established, but a debate about, as Hillary Clinton said, “who we are as a country.”

Perhaps the closest our school has come to such a debate was the controversy over the eight Confederate battle flags that were displayed in Lee Chapel. A number of factors contributed to the relative smoothness of the outcome, but it seems that a key factor was common sense. This debate calls to mind Madison’s wisdom expressed in Federalist 14. In this instance, civility benefited two sides that fundamentally disagreed about the institutional nature of Washington and Lee University. Perhaps, in a way, both sides were wrong - this University neither blindly venerates symbols of racism, nor forgets the way in which aspects of the social order out of our control have influenced the development of our community.

Finally, the honor system binds our community together through the bonds of friendship.

Edmund Burke called such a standard the “school of mankind.” And the fine example set by the honor system has taught Washington and Lee students the value of friendship. “The honor system functions for many students at W&L as a cherished moral ideal that makes them feel bound to one another and to this institution in a way that is special and distinctive,” Dr. Smith said.

What Abraham Lincoln called the “mystic chords of memories” strum still at many institutions, making our honor system an instructive example for the larger task of building mutual affection between members of a university community.

Like healthy cells in a well-functioning body, small communities that practice virtuous visions grow and divide. In the economic sphere, division of labor has led to one of the great boons of prosperity: specialization. Politically, we see mixed results from the same phenomenon. On one hand, division prevents the uniformity of thought that strengthened the common effort of individuals in small communities. On the other hand, division inevitably derives in some form from our federal system. Simply put, we identify with many different communities for many different reasons.

But ultimately, this multiplicity of communities is a benefit for a civil society, even if it is difficult to fully understand why. The real and true friends we make multiply through our interconnected web of common experience. In Federalist 14, Madison reminds us that those bonds provide a foundation for our political society: “Hearken not to the unnatural voice which tells you that the people of America, knit together as they are by so many cords of affection, can no longer live together as members of the same family; can no longer continue the mutual guardians of their mutual happiness.”

John C. Calhoun failed to understand that in an open society, civility and friendship provide the foundations for public and private happiness. His California imitators are now making a similar mistake. But when we look to that deeper, more cherished Southern tradition, honor, we see why our own experience with the honor system suggests that the United States can and shall remain e pluribus unum

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