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Appropriately enough for the holiday season, the Ghosts of America Past came to town this week. Like most ghosts, they were terrifying to behold. But, like Uncle Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, each of us has been forced by the appearance of these ghosts to confront the past. And, in particular, we have been forced to tackle some of the comfortable lies that many of us have been lulled into accepting.
Lie One: While America fights a war against international terrorism, it’s reassuring to know that our government consists of intelligent, tolerant individuals unlike so many prejudiced regimes abroad. Senator Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party last week should have debunked this notion once and for all. That a man who ran for president in 1948 as a “Dixiecrat” pledging to “stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race” should still sit in the Senate is a national disgrace. Thurmond is indeed a living legend—a potent reminder of America’s most disgusting historical legacy of slavery and segregation. The Senate will be a far better place after his imminent retirement.
Lie Two: Thurmond is an old man who is leaving office not a minute too soon, but at least no politician could get away with the same racist views today. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to the rescue. At Thurmond’s birthday bash last week, Lott voiced his pride that his home state of Mississippi had voted for Thurmond back in 1948. “And,” he continued, “if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.” Which problems, he declined to say. Lucky Thurmond—even as the frail old man is finally wheeled away from public office once and for all, he will be glad to know that his proud tradition of racial bigotry lives on in the Senate.
Lie Three: Boy, the South is such a different place. At least that’s a world away from Harvard Yard. Anyone hear of the Secret Court of 1920? Nor had I until last month, when Fifteen Minutes published the records of an 82 year-old investigation into homosexuality at Harvard that led to eight students being forced to withdraw from the College. These extraordinary proceedings show clearly how bigotry has been as much a problem in Cambridge as in other parts of the country. The weeds of prejudice have grown not only in distant cotton fields but also up the sides of our own ivory tower.
Lie Four (and I yield to University President Lawrence H. Summers for the phrasing of this one): “These reports of events long ago are extremely disturbing [but] they are part of a past that we have rightly left behind.” Wrong again. Step forward Gladden J. Pappin ’04. When The Crimson had the temerity to write a staff editorial advocating that the students expelled for nothing more than sexual orientation be awarded posthumous degrees, Pappin wrote in to challenge the promotion “of lifestyles better ignored and repressed by all of us.” In an e-mail interview on Wednesday Pappin sought to clarify his remarks, “All sexual acts that are closed to producing life are contrary to the very purpose of sexual intercourse, and so are morally repugnant. The disgust which humans naturally feel toward such activities is a reflection of their intuitive understanding of this truth.” Ignorant intolerance is, alas, clearly alive and well in the Harvard of the 21st century. And, just as it takes only one carcinogenic cell to give you cancer, it only requires one individual who holds such views to undermine the principles of enlightened tolerance that so many in the academy cherish but take for granted.
Lie Five: Well, those views are pretty shocking, but one loony isn’t symptomatic of a larger problem at Harvard. In addition to a number of hostile responses, Pappin claims to have received e-mails from nine undergraduates supporting his letter. Clearly, the view that homosexuality is vile and worthy of repression—if not quite suppression—is held by more people on campus than just he. Pappin mercifully appears to be in the sizeable minority on this issue, but he is not alone.
As any good Alcoholics Anonymous member will tell you, half of defeating your problem is realizing that you have one in the first place. Although we might want to, we cannot magically whisk away those individuals who hold views that disgust us, or for one minute ask them to forgo their constitutional—and moral—right to express those opinions, however loathsome. But for our own sake, we must start lancing the lies. For it is only through being alert to the ignorant and bigoted bile currently being spewed out by all sorts of figures, from Senator Lott to our fellow Harvard undergraduates, that we can ensure the Ghosts of America Past don’t become the Demons of America Future.
Anthony S.A. Freinberg ’04 is a history concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.
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