“Power can only be resisted with power.”
You cannot understand the modern left without this axiom, which is so frequently invoked by self-professed vanguards of social justice. “Want a tolerant, multicultural society that respects everyone’s rights? Give minority groups more power! Can’t stand the patriarchy? Give women more power!” From defenses of affirmative action to demands for increased minority representation, the knowledge-making class has embraced the emancipatory politics of empowerment: Only by empowering minorities can we forestall the tyranny of the majority.
Now suppose there were a Yale graduate who constructed an elaborate framework for doing exactly that. Whose “principal legacy” was the development of a novel political system that would promote consensus-based politics within a diverse, pluralistic society. This person would be a serious contender for a residential college namesake, wouldn’t you say?
We already have such a college: John C. Calhoun, class of 1804. Among the greatest political theorists of his day, Calhoun argued that a democracy premised on “numerical majorities” alone would prove unresponsive to the diversity of minority interests within society. He therefore proposed a system of “concurrent majorities” in which each minority group could exercise a veto over the majority, making it impossible to govern without taking the preferences of minority voting blocs into account. Concurrent majorities, in Calhoun’s words, serve to undermine “injustice and oppression,” because they require the consent of every interest group in the polity.
Needless to say, Calhoun’s understanding of “minority interests” had a perversely narrow scope. But his ideas are still worth taking seriously, in no small part because they form the blueprint for many modern proposals to protect minority rights.
In recent years, political scientists have formulated systems of “group rights” that draw heavily on Calhoun’s concept of mutual veto authority. Some of these systems have been implemented in the real world. Lebanon, for instance, mandates that its highest offices be proportionately reserved for members of particular religious communities, on the theory that this arrangement promotes sectarian harmony. Indeed, the motivating principle behind such schemes — “power can only be resisted by power” — is a direct quote from Calhoun’s Disquisition on Civil Government. The fact that his ideas show up again and again in the history of political thought, especially on the academic left, confirms John Stuart Mill’s assertion that, as a speculative thinker, Calhoun “displayed powers superior to any one … since the authors of ‘The Federalist.’”
The positive case for retaining Calhoun is really quite simple: He developed a brilliant framework for constitutional design that indelibly shaped the trajectory of political thought. And unlike Atlantic slavery, that framework has actually survived to the present day. To insist that Calhoun’s only legacy was racism and bigotry is to ignore this crucial fact.
But you wouldn’t know it from the pro-Calhoun crowd, which continues to fall back on the far-fetched notion that renaming the college will somehow cause Yale’s student body — Yale’s! — to forget the University’s connection to slavery. Ironically, such claims have themselves done much to cripple our historical consciousness. They obscure the uncomfortable truth that bad men often have good ideas and that good ideas often have mixed consequences. They contribute to the false and misleading narrative that Calhoun did nothing worthy of commemoration, effacing the very history we ought to defend.
The counterargument, of course, is that Calhoun offered explicit and enthusiastic justifications for slavery as a “positive good.” His prodigious contributions to political theory cannot be dissociated from this moral error, therefore it is inappropriate to honor him with a residential college.
Yet that wasn’t the primary view aired last year, when the Never Calhoun movement gained steam on little more than catchy slogans and childish sobriquets. Instead of working out general principles of renaming, anti-Calhoun forces declared that principles didn’t matter in the face of students’ “lived experiences.” “The College Formerly Known as Calhoun,” we were told, inflicts “emotional harm” on its denizens — so much so as to absolve protestors of their many misdeeds, like throwing Monopoly money at administrators or waking them up in the dead of night.
Without these discourteous shenanigans, renaming would not even be on the table. And that, ultimately, is the best argument in favor of Calhoun. Changing the name would validate the dangerous premise that crude emotivism is a substitute for logical argument. Worse, it would signal to student protesters that, at Yale, you can get your way by using tactics that range from disrespectful to disallowable. In eliminating the Calhoun designation, campus administrators will not erase history but make it. They will install a new order at our University — and these students will be at the helm.
The Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming suggests that renaming should only be done in the service of fostering “an ethical, interdependent, and diverse community.” Affirming the unethical, disruptive and close-minded behavior of last Fall contradicts that goal.
Let’s hope the administration agrees.
Aaron Sibarium is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .