LARSON: Discussion, not distance

For almost 100 years of our country’s history, slavery was an institutionalized, legally sanctioned and brutal reality. We all know how it ended — over the course of the Civil War, Northerners realized that it was not enough to hold on to the Southern states; slavery itself had to end.

Perhaps less well-known is the movement supported by radical abolitionists to promote secession of the free states to form a nation that would be untarnished by America’s original sin of slavery. The heart of their thinking was this: we are morally pure, but slavery is morally abhorrent. By sharing a government and a nation with slaveholders, we pollute ourselves. We contaminate our moral character.

They were right. From returning escaped slaves to allowing them to be counted as three-fifths of a person, Northern states were complicit in this great moral failing.

Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine that the Civil War could ever have been fought if the free states had simply withdrawn. To the extent that such a sin as slavery could ever be absolved, it was absolved by the blood of those who fought against it, much more than it ever could have been absolved by those who simply wished to divorce themselves from it.

But the withdraw-from-what-we-hate attitude is very much alive today, fueled by the notion that by engaging with those with whom we disagree, we somehow endorse their actions and corrupt our own.

I have no doubt that a poll of Yale’s student body would show that many students think of former president George W. Bush as an arrogant isolationist, who, by refusing to talk to America’s enemies, made them stronger, not weaker. Certainly this was the vogue position during the 2008 campaign, when large majorities of Yale students supported pro-dialogue Senator Barack Obama.

Now, however, it seems equally vogue to count larger and larger groups of people with whom we should not associate. Gabe Murchison ’14 and Hillary O’Connell ’14 (“Defend trans students, YCC,” April 10) attacked Yale’s decision to invite ROTC back to campus because of the military’s refusal to accept transgendered individuals in its ranks. And throughout the Yale-NUS debate, opponents of the college, despite valid concerns about the effects of Singapore’s restrictions on free expression, have essentially argued that because Singapore’s government restricts Singapore’s citizens in ways with which we disagree, we should not partner with it in any way lest we be seen as endorsing its government.

I am sympathetic to these concerns. As Shaun Tan astutely argued (“Truth is Arrogant,” April 9), the fact that Singapore’s government holds different views from us does not make its views valid. Whether we speak of Singapore’s restrictions on free speech or homosexuality or the military’s restrictions on transgender rights, I would hope Yale could claim a moral upper hand.

Still, we do not make anyone come around to our way of thinking by refusing to engage with them. In his piece, Tan derided Fareed Zakaria’s citation of the former Singaporean Minister of Education’s contrasting America’s “talent meritocracy” with Singapore’s “exam meritocracy.” Tan rightly argues that the point of exams is to gauge merit, so how can an exam meritocracy be as valid as a talent one? As I read it, though, the Minister was endorsing our focus on talent over Singapore’s attention to test scores — he was arguing that his country was deficient, and that it could improve itself by looking to ours. And yet, Tan paid no attention to the admiration inherent in the quote, instead lamely arguing that Singapore lacks our standards, so those that want to partner with it can’t possibly recognize its deficiencies.

Of course, there are cases when engagement legitimizes bad people. Those who sought to negotiate with Hitler were infamously wrong-headed. Still, there is a difference between cooperation and moral indifference, and apart from the most extreme cases, we can better spread our values by talking to as many people as possible. True moral rectitude involves a willingness to engage with the world. It does not spring from a sanctimonious insistence on distancing ourselves from every potential source of moral contamination.

Harry Larson is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at


  • eli2015

    You should be careful about how you use the term “isolationist”

  • SY10

    Basic history lesson, people:
    The common misunderstanding of why counting slaves as 3/5 of a person was bad is really distressing. Counting slaves as whole people would **not** have been inherently better. The question was only about how many people the Southern states should have been considered to have for the purposes of apportioning taxes (here the South wanted them not to be counted at all, the North wanted them counted as whole people) and for determining representation in Congress (here the South wanted them counted as whole people and the North did not want them counted at all). Perhaps a bit counter-intuitively, counting slaves as whole people would have meant increasing the power of slaveholders in the US government and wouldn’t have actually helped slaves in any way. The moral failing was slavery itself; referring to the 3/5 Compromise as if it was what dehumanized slaves is complete bunk.

    • River_Tam

      ^ This. So much this.

    • hlarson

      I realize that my allusion to the 3/5 compromise may have been vaguely worded. I understand that counting slaves as full people wouldn’t have given them suffrage and would, in fact, have empowered their masters. The point I was trying to make was about symbolism–can anyone argue that there isn’t something dehumanizing about counting some people as 3/5 of all other people? Especially when it’s put down in writing in one of our founding documents? There’s an enormous callousness to it, especially when contrasted with the lofty goals expressed in the document’s preamble. I was trying to draw attention to the sorts of ways that Northern, anti-slavery advocates had to commit themselves to compromises they believed were fundamentally flawed–and certainly there were some, going into the Constitutional Convention, who wanted to set in place a plan for slavery’s gradual elimination (in the same way that the constitution did begin to lay the groundwork for the end of the slave trade). Instead, the document they produced institutionalized it and protected it in multiple ways, from provisions made about fugitive slaves to its explicit treatment of how to count slaves as a part of the general population.

      • River_Tam

        > can anyone argue that there isn’t something dehumanizing about counting some people as 3/5 of all other people?

        Disenfranchisement is dehumanizing. Whether they count as 0 people or 3/5 of a person or 1 whole person is irrelevant.

  • ignatz

    Yes, some of his history is wrong. But his philosophy is much worse: “True moral rectitude involves a willingness to engage with the world.” Excuse me? True moral rectitude involves doing what is right (check out a dictionary, Larson)! Even down at the level of mere talk, which is where Larson seems to be holding, true moral rectitude involves championing what is right and opposing what is wrong.

    Incidentally, given his smug nod of approbation to “pro-dialogue Senator Barack Obama” as a 2008 Presidential candidate, Larson might ponder the fact that 3 years of Obama’s “engagement” with our enemies have done nothing but persuade them of our diminished strength and our vanishing resolve. Syria’s President Assad greatly appreciates the freedom to slaughter thousands of his own citizens while America “engages” with him and Larson nods approvingly.

  • ernie

    @ignatz: “True moral rectitude involves doing what is right” is a tautology. Point Larson.