Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Emory Racism Controversy Part II & Roth's The Human Stain

I previously posted about Emory University President James Wagner's three-fifths compromise statement, and I can't believe that in my haste to post about one of my favorite novels (Russo's university-infighting satire Straight Man), I forgot to mention a novel seemingly tailor-made for the Wagner story.

First, let's revisit the Wagner story. Here are the exact words from his column in Emory magazine:
One instance of constitutional compromise was the agreement to count three-fifths of the slave population for purposes of state representation in Congress. Southern delegates wanted to count the whole slave population, which would have given the South greater influence over national policy. Northern delegates argued that slaves should not be counted at all, because they had no vote. As the price for achieving the ultimate aim of the Constitution—“to form a more perfect union”—the two sides compromised on this immediate issue of how to count slaves in the new nation. Pragmatic half-victories kept in view the higher aspiration of drawing the country more closely together. 
Some might suggest that the constitutional compromise reached for the lowest common denominator—for the barest minimum value on which both sides could agree. I rather think something different happened. Both sides found a way to temper ideology and continue working toward the highest aspiration they both shared—the aspiration to form a more perfect union. They set their sights higher, not lower, in order to identify their common goal and keep moving toward it.
A part of me is hesitant to make the following book recommendation because in the novel I'm about to mention, unlike in real life, we can definitively know that the academic who "misspoke" is not racist.  Also, in the novel the academic's comments are "willfully misconstrued," which certainly isn't the case with all criticisms of Wagner's words.  Oh well:  few pairings of novels and headlines are in all ways perfect.  For a novel about a somewhat similar situation, try The Human Stain by Philip Roth:
Roth's hero, Coleman Silk...has been driven from his position as Dean of Faculty at a small New England liberal-arts school called Athena College because of a remark willfully misconstrued as racist. Coleman, a professor of classics, wonders why he has never seen two of his students in class. "Do they exist or are they spooks?" he asks his class. The absentees are, of course, black, and a decorous mob of the politically correct immediately launches itself at Coleman's throat, despite his honest protests that he had used the word only in its primary signification, as a synonym for "ghosts"...

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