Last week, the conservative troll Ann Coulter needled leftists by asking whether Yale would change its name to distance itself from Elihu Yale (1649–1721), who got rich plundering India and dealt in slaves before giving books to a cash-strapped university in Connecticut. Coulter is not just a troll; she is a Founding Mother of American trolldom. She is one of the modern inventors of saying things with no motive other than to rile and sow discord among one’s enemies. This particular golden apple of strife has landed to great effect. Conservatives have picked up on the #CancelYale hashtag and found allies among certain lefties excited about the renaming possibilities. Yale has not announced plans for any change, but last week’s decision by Princeton to strip the name of its former president Woodrow Wilson from its school of public affairs has put Yale under even more scrutiny.
I teach part-time at Yale, so if the university were not totally empty because of the pandemic, I might be able to hear the burbling of student opinion on these issues directly. (My position is not particularly exalted. I don’t speak for Yale and have no part in its decisions.) Instead, I am stuck listening to the chorus of trolls and imps who are driving this debate online, and occasionally fooling normal people into taking positions on their terms. We have a moral duty to avoid confected controversies such as these.
The evidence that this controversy is confected is overwhelming: Yale’s students and administrators have spent a lot of energy considering Elihu’s legacy, and have even sequestered two of his portraits in a closet of shame, while displaying a third, with curatorial stress on the enslaved Black child next to him, in the Yale Center for British Art. But almost no one seems to have thought reckoning with Elihu’s crimes meant changing the name of the university, which has long been divorced in meaning from the life of Elihu Yale. No one was venerating him; no one was trying to live up to his ideals. The name Yale does not belong to Elihu, but to the university, with its faults and virtues, not his.
The same cannot be said for Woodrow Wilson, Robert E. Lee, or John C. Calhoun, whose name was removed from a Yale dormitory in 2017. Wilson was not a casual bigot. He did a great deal to keep Black people down, and unless you are a Princeton alumnus, his name means more as a politician’s than as a school’s. He should be judged (harshly) as a politician. Lee is known for being a traitor—an even easier case. Calhoun, I think, was more complicated. He was a Yale graduate and a United States senator, a secretary of war and of state, and a vice president, and he is one of very few American political theorists of the 19th century whose work repays reading today. He was also a raging racist who worked tirelessly to ensure and prolong the enslavement of millions of Black Americans. Given that he is known now mostly for the last of these distinctions, the balance does not favor him, and Yale has renamed Calhoun College accordingly, after the computer scientist and the Navy admiral Grace Murray Hopper.
But this conversation is a distraction—not because the legacy of injustice at institutions such as Yale and the U.S. government isn’t worth discussing, but because it is worth discussing, and #CancelYale is a way to prevent that discussion by replacing it with a much stupider one that will, by proximity, discredit the one that should occur. For years, Yale’s critics have demanded that it respect and live in harmony with the city of New Haven, which is majority-minority. The university has tried to make students, staff, and faculty from underrepresented backgrounds feel like they are full members of its community. Changing the university’s name would not advance these goals at all.
Some other goals would be served splendidly. You can set your watch by the timing of these diversion campaigns: When President Donald Trump gets caught doing something inexcusable, such as tweeting a video of his supporter shouting “White power!” from behind the wheel of a golf cart, he will find an adjacent controversy to magnify, in hopes that it will distract from his own. Nitwits will always be ready to assist by pushing the controversy well beyond its defensible limits: ripping down or defacing statues of, say, Abraham Lincoln or Ulysses S. Grant or Miguel de Cervantes, and claiming the mantle of those who supported the orderly removal of authentic villains such as Lee.
Confected discord could overwhelm us and become real. What if this greater knowledge of Elihu Yale’s sordid past becomes widespread (and I hope it does) to the extent that it overshadows the reputation of Yale the institution, and when we hear Yale we think not of a university but of a colonial chieftain administering the slave trade in Madras? (I hope it does not.) In that case, the name of Yale might indeed require revision.
But in that case, the name of the university is the least of our problems. Far more serious would be our apparent helplessness when confronted with manipulators, who can, with little more than a tweet, commandeer our minds and dictate what we think about our history and our present. Many of those eager to change the name of Yale would scoff at the idea that Coulter controls their minds. But the evidence may ultimately prove that she does. In ancient Greece, the goddess of strife, Eris, was a minor figure, capable of starting trouble but rarely pivotal in deciding how it ended. She is possibly the most puissant goddess of our time. It is not too late to resist her.