Prudence Over Radicalism
by Nathan Richendollar ‘19
It’s hard to believe, but the 2018-2019 academic year has commenced, an event with especial importance for me, as it is my last. As the first ashes and basswoods turned yellow-green, convocation officially opened the academic year on the colonnade lawn September 5th. Therein, Professor DeLaney of the history department delivered a poignant message before the students and faculty, one that centered on his experience at Washington and Lee. Rarely do we see and feel the transformation of the last sixty years embodied by an individual as clearly as it is in the person of Prof. DeLaney.
Born in the 1940s in Lexington, Prof. DeLaney could not apply to Washington and Lee because of his race in the early 1960s, and worked as a janitor at the college before his promotion to laboratory technician. He then began classes, earned his doctorate, and returned as a professor. The most powerful parts of his speech focused on opposition to desegregation and coeducation from the board of trustees of yesteryear (including one instance in which the board forbade the president of the college from announcing our desegregation!), untenable positions today. In explaining his interpretation of Washington and Lee’s slow transformation from regional southern college to nationwide liberal arts powerhouse, Professor DeLaney said that we should not “Defend tradition for tradition’s sake,” as did those who opposed desegregation and coeducation.
This column agrees wholeheartedly with Professor DeLaney that the board of trustees and many Washington and Lee community members made a gross moral mistake in opposing both these innovations. Shedding the yoke of arbitrary racial discrimination brought our university closer to America’s founding ideals and opened opportunity for meritorious minorities, and admitting women has enriched and enlivened the university community. Further, Professor DeLaney correctly observed that defense of tradition for its own sake is a self-fulfilling and anti-intellectual circular argument. Especially in the case of morally questionable traditions, subjecting the status quo to rigorous criticism and examination, rather than blind deference, is an eminently desirable course. To defend tradition out of habit with no examination of whether the tradition is necessary, whether it is good or bad, is not a conservative impulse, but a radical reactionary one. But we should recognize the reciprocal truth as well: advocating change simply for change’s sake is an equally anti-intellectual, circular mode of thought, one that captivates too many of our friends on the left. To advocate change for its own sake is merely radicalism of another form.
I must say at the outset that I did not interpret Professor DeLaney to mean that he is in favor of change for its own sake, but that his life and times, and the reaction of Washington and Lee to the social change of the last half century, is a cautionary tale for all those who run in thought herds. A cautionary tale that exhorts us to imagine being in the other man’s shoes, to contemplate right and wrong, to obey the Golden Rule, and to use reason rather than impulse to grapple with weighty issues. This lesson, and not a radical desire for change regardless of the thing to be changed or its place in our social, economic, or political ecosystem, is what I took from our convocation address.
However, many progressives of late have become infatuated with change for its own sake, and I fear that this attitude may permeate Washington and Lee in the absence of an alternative mode of thinking. A friend from church explained why young people should be progressive this way: “You’re young. You should want to move this thing forward and change some things.” I asked why, and what he meant by “moving forward,” and the answer was something along the lines of, “Don’t you think we can always improve?” Of course, we can always improve, but improvement does not always mean changing fundamental elements of society or long-standing mores. In fishing, throwing the reel to the bottom of the lake in frustration is change, but it is not improvement. In the Soviet Union, “progress” toward total communism meant regression toward tyranny and material poverty. In Venezuela, “progress” toward Hugo Chavez’s promised utopia produced a dearth of basic human necessities.
On issues from socialized medicine, astronomical taxation, astronomical minimum wages, abolishing the nation-state system by eliminating border enforcement, and the suppression of free speech and thought, progressives are embracing change for its own sake, unwittingly treading down the road to serfdom in the name of “progress.” There are plenty of arguments for all these progressive proposals, some more sensible than others (all of which are ultimately unpersuasive to me, however), but “because it’s time for change,” or “we’re moving forward,” or, “It’s 2018, not (insert year),” are not among them. An appeal to change, just like an appeal to custom, is not an argument. In the words of the alleged comedian Michelle Wolf, it’s “stopping an argument from happening.”
In sharp contrast to both the reactionary radical who wants to preserve all tradition and the progressive radical who always seeks change, the conservative practices prudence. He sees society as an admixture of change and continuity, where no institution, no force, no overriding moral principle is completely old or completely new in the history of civilized humans. He recognizes that tradition is to be respected but not blindly revered. Where in conflict with overriding American principles, such as equality before the law, liberty, meritocratic spirit, and social mobility, such traditions (such as segregation, slavery, and state-established churches) are better laid aside. When there is no obvious conflict with the interests of the living, however, preserving tradition is a sensible default position, as tradition represents the accumulated wisdom of previous generations. As George Washington said, “If we cannot learn wisdom from experience, it is hard to say where it may be found.” Much like tinkering with the economic system has unintended market consequences, tinkering with the social institutions and cultural mores that have sustained Western Civilization for centuries produce unintended societal consequences. Some things have reached their pinnacle of advancement already, and others never need to change (prohibitions on murder, rape, and theft come to mind for the latter category). Of course, reasonable people can disagree on which things have reached their pinnacle or otherwise don’t need change (I’d certainly put natural rights, including the right to self-defense, in that category), but that we should not always default to change, but rather use our reason and accept the fact that all decisions involve trade-offs, is critical in curing the disease of radicalism.
To invoke one example of the trichotomy between reactionaries, progressives, and conservatives, take an issue that has been hot on campus for the last few years: diversity of the student body. Reactionaries want to preserve the current racial makeup and character of the student body for all time, because it’s always been that way, and they cannot envisage a Washington and Lee with 30, 35 or 45% minority students. It’s a circular argument. Many progressives want more diversity because they see diversity as a core value in its own right, and though they often buttress this argument with one about greater perspectives, racial and economic diversity for its own sake, a circular line of reasoning, lies at the heart of their logic. Conservatives such as myself, meanwhile, recognize the trade-offs at hand and competing principles of fairness, and then form judgments from there. Should our desire for a diversity of political and life perspectives, a goal with which I sympathize, override equal treatment for applicants of different races and economic backgrounds? Not in a society that professes to judge individuals one at a time rather than as constituent parts of sub-groups. As Sargent Kilrain explained the central idea of America in Gettysburg, “I’ll be treated as I deserve, not as my father deserved.” If we commit ourselves to diversity, then will give black conservatives, many of whom reject the notion of “social justice,” the same admission points as black liberals in how much “diversity” they’d contribute? It seems that, though admissions officers already make judgment calls based on test scores, GPAs, character, and the like, introducing race, economic status, and viewpoints into the equation as acceptable judgment criteria leaves much too much room for “unconscious bias” in our admissions process.
Personally, I would like to see our university increase diversity of opinion and perspective, largely by recruiting in non-traditional areas. This focus on diversity of opinion and perspective in the applicant pool, without compromising standards or imposing unfair penalties on any race in the admissions criteria, would still increase racial diversity as a side effect. As a Midwesterner who found Washington and Lee by happenstance, it seems obvious we could increase our diversity without changing standards simply by getting more working-class, poor, geographically distant, and minority students into the applicant pool through recruiting. Then by judging on traditional criteria within this larger applicant pool with more diverse perspectives and more minorities, we’d get just that without creating a hierarchy of preferred in-born and ideological traits in a student. But to think that we can increase diversity by fiat without changing our admissions criteria or making any trade-offs with other core values, or to dismiss conflicting interests such as equal merit-based treatment as mere inconveniences (another point of contention here is that conservatives don’t see diversity as a core value, even if it’s a good thing on balance) is to be blinded by want of immediate change.
Our condition of prosperity, felicity, and security is not the norm in world history, but an anomaly—a striking one. The great lot of human beings who have ever lived did so in poverty, sorrow, and insecurity. We are some of the lucky few to know not only civilized life, with its guarantees of justice, greater economic security, and basic rights, but in a wealthy country founded on a mix of Enlightenment and Judeo-Christian principles, a nation that recognizes our God-given natural rights and (not always but more often than almost any other government) protects them. This reality does not mean that change is never necessary or desirable, but it does mean that we should think twice before pursuing change, especially change that removes or weakens our connection to the wisdom and experience of the past, which formed the present. In the years after we are all long gone from this campus, monumental decisions about our heritage and community will continue. I can only hope that in these future deliberations, those on both sides of every issue let reason and respect, the hallmark of our institution and the spirit of Professor DeLaney’s convocation address and President Dudley’s response to the Commission, not knee-jerk reactions, guide their actions.