How to Avoid an Inquisition

Like many readers I recently encountered the sad tale of how James W. Wagner, President of Emory University, had to apologize for praising the Constitution’s three-fifths compromise (treating slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of congressional representation).

A letter to Wagner from the Department of History and African American studies called his analysis “an insult to the descendants of those enslaved people who are today a vital part of the Emory University community and our nation.”

Wagner’s apology, “To those hurt or confused by my clumsiness and insensitivity, please forgive me,” closely resembles a Soviet-era show trial where the already guilty defendant tries to save himself with a self-humiliating confession.

Alas, this self-degradation is apparently insufficient and the College of Arts and Sciences faculty has formally censured president Wagner. Perhaps like Soviet show trial victims, he should immediately confess even more grievous sins so the faculty will spare his family.

Wagner’s travails strike a personal note: In some twenty years of teaching the Introduction to American Government course at the University of Illinois-Urbana I have often made the identical argument, that the three-fifths compromise was a brilliant political compromise to solve a grave political problem. I made that point in front of as many as 1400 students including many African American students (and who knows how many apprentice PC commissars). I informed them that the compromise was about representation of the states—the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives—and in principle had nothing to do with slavery per se. I explained that anti-slavery New England delegates wanted slaves to count as zero for purposes of representation, while Southern delegates pressed to have each counted as a full person. Without these artful compromises, I said, both the slave states and New England would have left the Union.

And that wasn’t the end of my heresies. My lectures also explained how the Founders cleverly finessed the slavery issues with multiple compromises, including that the word “slave” never appeared in the Constitution.

Let me suggest that President Wagner’s troubles offer important lessons for those who fear the proverbial “knock on the door” from the PC police.

First and foremost, never assume that historical accuracy is any defense. Constitutional history isn’t my specialty, but I have some familiarity with the topic and I have never seen any scholarly treatment of the three-fifths compromise assert that it demeaned African Americans.

Yes, everybody agrees that while many Founders had a low opinion of slaves, others believed that slavery was a horrible wrong, but the consensus was that all these slave-related constitutional compromises were unavoidable adjustments to an unpleasant political reality if the Union was to survive. Only the most strident ideologue would insist that the Constitutional Convention could have abolished slavery and still kept the Union.

None of that matters to people who are looking for an excuse to attack because you have supposedly offended them.   

It is far safer to assume that many of today’s hyper-sensitive academics will retrofit current trendy ideology so that they can manufacture a case against you. For example, the Founders are described as just another gang of rich white males anxious to silence impoverished people of color. Defend anything they did and you will find yourself in boiling water. And it only compounds one’s sins to rebut this retrofitting.

Second, always presume that PC enthusiasts are perpetually on the lookout for some offense, real or imagined, to keep the flame alive.

Without regular outrage, the movement wilts and so organizational vitality (and personal sense of moral virtue, for that matter) requires endless hunting and gathering. Witness how rage hardly ends when, for example, an alleged hate crime is exposed as a hoax or a supposed rape victim recants her story. It’s only a matter of time before the next campus uproar occurs and the target may be perfectly innocent—in the wrong place at the wrong time, as they say with crime.

Tellingly, even an unblemished history of political correctness will not guarantee immunity. The slightest slip of the tongue, an “inappropriate” laugh, even in a private e-mail or a Facebook posting, can energize those whose very existence requires the 24/7 battle for their vision of cosmic justice.

Several years ago, the impeccably politically correct president of Rutgers let it slip that black affirmative action enrollees had lower SAT scores than regular admittees and he suggested that some part of the difference might be genetic. All hell broke loose, including the disruption of a college basketball game, despite the president’s stellar public record of helping African American students. Think the old Soviet Empire where even a harmless joke by some dutiful apparatchik could be a one-way ticket to the gulag. Our PC Inquisition operates the same way.

How can an academic survive in this toxic political climate?

Forget about trying Calvin Coolidge-style silence. Most academics cannot stop talking.

A second possibility is to fervently embrace the orthodoxy even if you don’t really believe it. Alas, not everybody can fake sincerity all the time and even then, accidents happen, as in the case of Rutgers’ president.

Here’s my solution: Administrators should study the press conferences of President Eisenhower and learn the art of confusing garble. Remember that Ike was a general who knew that loose lips sink ships, so he mastered the art of speaking in public without saying anything. I recall those briefings and how post-conference commentators would try to figure out what Ike really said, might have said, or didn’t say. Academics might find safety in Ike’s stealthy speaking tactics.

One of the true joys of the academy is brilliant conversation, speaking “in clear” (i.e., without encryption). But, as Emory’s hapless president will attest, this has become too risky.

Still, take heart—obscurantism may return the university to the Dark Ages, when potentially heretical views were expressed in convoluted Latin. Did I say “Dark Ages”? Sorry about that—I really meant Tenebrosi Ages.