Wednesday, February 03, 2016

February 3, 2016--In the Spirit of Nelson Mandela

The Board of trustees of Amherst College voted last week to retire its traditional mascot--Lord Jeff. Actually, to kill him off.

"Lord Jeff" has been the affectionate name for Lord Jeffery Amherst, a British commander during the French and Indian War. It is after him that the town of Amherst, Massachusetts, is named, and then after the town Amherst College.

This is a critical distinction since protestors want to get rid of just the mascot, not the name of the college itself. In a clever have-it-both-way move, they say that the college's name can remain because it was not named after Sir Jeffrey but after the town of Amherst. And this will mean that the value of an "Amherst" degree will be preserved.

No one ever said that Amherst students don't put first thing first.

Lord Jeffery was a heroic warrior, but he is also known as an advocate of white racism, among other heinous things he arranged for the distribution of smallpox-infected blankets to Indians. As he put it, "to extirpate this execrable race."

As an offshoot to the Black Lives Matter movement, students at some elite colleges have been pressing administers and trustees to eliminate any evidence of racism--current examples but more usually from the past.

At Princeton, for example, student protestors are demanding that white supremacist and former Princeton and U.S. president Woodrow Wilson's name be taken down from various campus facilities and academic programs such as the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

At Amherst, the focus thus far seems to be on the college's mascot.

Lord Jeff (On the Left)
Not to be outdone, an activated group of students at Oxford University's Oriel College are demanding that statues of Cecil Rhodes be taken down and that all traces of one of its most successful graduates and benefactors be obliterated. Including the most prestigious of academic fellowships, the Rhodes Scholarship. Thus far there have been about 8,000 Rhodes scholars, including Bill Clinton.

After graduating, Rhodes moved to South Africa where he founded the De Beers diamond empire. In the process, it is claimed by a recent doctoral student, Brian Kwoba, that Rhodes was responsible for "stealing land, massacring tens of thousands of black Africans, imposing a regime of unspeakable labor exploitation in the diamond mines, and devising pro-apartheid policies."

All legitimate and serious charges.

But when thinking about Lord Jeff and especially Cecil Rhodes--about what I would recommend--I was reminded of an experience I had in South Africa in 1995, one year after Nelson Mandela had been released from prison and became the country's first feely-elected, black president.

I was a guest at a debate in the SA Parliament about one aspect of the legacy of apartheid. There was a movement among many newly-elected legislators to remove all statuary and portraits of apertheid-era presidents and political and military leaders such as Jan Smuts, Pieter Botha, and Willem de Klerk.

Mandela was present and listened silently for more than an hour as the arguments pro and con were passionately presented. It was clear that a sizable majority were prepared to vote for the removal of these reminders of the ugly past.

At that point President Mandela, still in physical pain from his long captivity, rose slowly from his chair and all members present turned toward him in silence.

Quietly, Mandela presented the case for leaving all the memorials intact.

"They are a part of our history," he said. "One doesn't legislate the elimination of history, no matter how painful. In fact, it is more important to remember the pain and suffering than our recent liberation. So we will never forget."

At first a few and than the overwhelming majority of those present on the floor nodded and murmured in agreement. And as a result, the paintings and statues were left in place. And today, years after Mandela's death they remain where they were originally placed. To assure that over the generations no one forgets.

Jan Smuts

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