History Is Beautiful Things Made by People With Ugly Ideas

A Northwestern grad student's refusal to sing a song with words by Walt Whitman, who was a racist -- and why the student is wrong.
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A 25-year-old graduate student at Northwestern University is making headlines this week in a dispute with his music professor. For his final exam, Timothy McNair "is required to perform three songs at a June 8 concert as part of his music class," a Chicago television station reports. "One of them contains the writings of American poet Walt Whitman." But the student says he won't perform anything that includes the words of  "one of the most historically racist poets of U.S. history" who "called African Americans baboons" and favored suppressing voting rights. Nothing offends him in the particular song he is being asked to sing save the identity of the artist.

The song isn't racist. Just the guy who wrote its words. (This surprises a lot of people about  Whitman. But it's definitely true. Here's a treatment of Whitman's racial attitudes and their complicated relationship with his work.)

The debate I've followed has focused on whether it would be right to fail the student, as his professor has allegedly threatened, or if he should be permitted to sing something different for the exam. I'll leave that question to folks more familiar with the major, the assignment and its purpose. But I would respectfully suggest that McNair is taking a stand and jeopardizing his academic standing for a terribly flawed idea that would make the world a worse place were it widely accepted.

Humanity must bear the consequences of historic racism, along with every other historic sin. The burden is heavy enough without judging every work of art or contribution to an academic field according to the moral standing of the person who produced it. Let us judge the thing itself. In that way, historic scourges don't rob us of any more good things than they already have. Knowledge progresses and art edifies without being stymied by dead people's transgressions. We ought to grapple with those transgressions, but they need not dictate broader stigmas. 

The opposite approach -- the one that McNair invokes -- can be employed inconsistently without doing much harm. But to take it seriously is to see its folly. Imagine medical residents refusing to mimic a surgical technique pioneered by a racist doctor, or English majors declining to recite any poems written by sexists. Imagine people in all fields being made to feel as if opposing racism or sexism requires that sort of boycott. What a waste that would be in a world where there is a perfectly good alternative, one that hardly requires airbrushing history or human pathologies. It is to say that some people, Whitman hardly unique among them, had wrongheaded, offensive beliefs on some subjects, but still managed, through the best of what they produced, to render things so wonderful that generations of people have seen fit to pass them on.

That isn't to say that everyone must appreciate Whitman, or any larger than life figure from the past. It is to say that 25-year-olds like McNair, along with 33-year-olds like myself, would be wise to stay open to the possibility that inhabiting the art of someone whose aesthetics or personal moral beliefs we find abhorrent might nevertheless end in our gleaning something valuable from the experience. The opportunity to learn in that way won't survive, for most students, in a world where rejecting bigotry is thought to require rejecting everything produced by every dead bigot. Let's reject that standard, and the attendant fantasy that it's possible to shun the part of our cultural inheritance contributed by people who held ugly ideas. To really confront the horrific scale of bigotry, and American racism in particular, is to know that is impossible. Too much would have to be shunned. The timber of humanity is too crooked. We'd have nothing left.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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