Editor's Note: This column was co-authored by Loyd Pettegrew.
Cancel culture through its usual media, Twitter and Facebook, have struck an unfortunate and potentially devastating blow to Brigham Young University, our alma mater. As graduates, Class of 1970, we have great respect for the institution, its teachings, rigor and reputation as a hallmark of conservative political views when most universities in this country are embracing democratic socialism and Marxism.
In an effort to achieve personal meaning, young people are adopting the “woke” mantle as social critics. A cadre of BYU students have joined the GenZ cancel culture. BYU’s administration building is named after Abraham O. Smoot, who records show, was a slave holder back when Brigham Young brought followers to Utah from Missouri and Illinois where they were being persecuted.
L.P. Hartley wrote in The Go-Between, "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." This quote was referenced recently by Mindy Smoot Robbins, an ancestor of Mr. Smoot, responding to BYU student and staff activists urging the renaming of campus buildings, and the university itself, which they associate with slavery or expressed racism. BYU and Hillsdale College are among the few conservative universities left. This puts a target on their backs.
Abraham Owen Smoot owned three slaves when he moved to Utah in the days before the civil war. Ms. Robbins shares in her response that he freed his slaves and one even chose to live with Abraham and his family until the end of his life. Miss Robbins goes on in her reply to the cancel culture activists, "when we visit the past, we don't want to be an ‘ugly tourist’ but we should try and understand them within the context of their own time and culture and be patient with what we perceive as their faults.” She also provided some context and a lengthy list of impressive public offices and service assignments filled by her great-great-grandfather. Why? Because time is an important, even essential, context although it is routinely ignored by the activists of the cancel culture.
BYU’s cancel culture mayhem was instigated by Déborah Aléxis, the aggrieved president of the Black Student Union. She raised a tried if not true progressive allegation of institutional racism against BYU saying its “deafening silence persists to our detriment.” In a Salt Lake Tribune article, Aléxis pontificated, “We are living in the shadow of that. And it’s painful. We are honoring these people and creating this narrative that they’re perfect and untouchable. They’re not though. They caused harm to people like me.” And in a letter to the NAACP, Ms. Aléxis lamented, “From personal experiences as Black students, we know that it is physically impossible for us to feel like we matter or that we belong at BYU when arguably the most important building on our campus is named after a literal slave master. Thus, retroactively applying BYU's current policy and ‘unnaming’ all buildings on our campus will not only be an acknowledgment of the pain in our history, but an opportunity for the church to follow your counsel to repent.”
During our educational experience at BYU we never saw any of the discrimination against athletes or students of color Ms. Aléxis alleges. In fact, just the opposite was true.
Journalists also chimed in. Progressive journalist Kennedy Madrid wrote in Change.org, “It is not a secret that a majority of BYU students have traditionally been white, and they still compose a majority of the student body at these campuses. Further, a large majority of the students who come to BYU have not had a lot of experiences with people of color where they grew up…it is not a secret that BYU does not have a stellar reputation when it comes to racism. There is both active racism and ignorance that is rampant on all three BYU campuses.”
The cancel culture activities at BYU are not unique. In many colleges and universities across the nation members of the cancel culture are passionately engaged in trying to erase the recognition of prominent and important lives of historical figures that contributed so much to what we now possess and enjoy. Natasha Hoare wrote in The White Review, "Distant, intangible, unreliable, lost, our histories, at the levels of personal and national, are at best half-remembered and at worst actively misrepresented."
Still the cancel culture claim they have perfect knowledge of all that has transpired and consider themselves omniscient when adjudicating the lives and events of the past. It is clear that their actions are void of meaningful research and scholarship. They act out of ignorance and emotion and are fawned over by progressives and the mainstream media for their activism. Efforts to erase America's past do nothing to promote America's future.
Passing judgement on ancestors with present standards is a fool’s errand; it is impossible to make things foolproof since fools are so ingenious. If we did, none of the great ancient philosophers like Aristotle, Plato, Quintilian, etc., from which we have learned so much that informs us, would be acceptable. After all, in his Politics, Aristotle defined an Athenian household as containing both freemen and slaves.
One is left to wonder who the next target of our cancel culture might be. Perhaps Samuel Clements (Mark Twain) who briefly served in a confederate militia, not because he was a slave owner but out of loyalty to the South. Or Abraham Lincoln because he served as a captain in the Illinois militia fighting against Native American Indians in the Black Hawk War. They were certainly what might be considered an aggrieved population. Will buildings and memorials of many of our founding fathers be renamed and/or torn down. Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser created the DCFACES committee, which has named more than 50 monuments and buildings that should be renamed or removed. On the list were seven presidents, Francis Scott Key, and Ben Franklin. Along with Ms. Robbins, we believe it is patently impossible to judge someone who lived more than 150 years ago in a totally different reality.
In a placatory gesture, BYU's President Kevin J. Worthen responded, “BYU stands firmly against racism and violence in any form and is committed to promoting a culture of safety, kindness, respect and love. With the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others over the years, and the confluence of recent events, important conversations are happening throughout the nation, including at BYU. We extend our love and concern to all members of our university community who are impacted by these events. We know there is work to do, on campus and throughout the nation, for us to better come together, to address injustice and to truly love one another. It will take sustained effort from all of us to make things better. We remain committed to doing that. As we continue to move forward together, let us do so with charity. Let us be kind. Let us respect others. Let us listen. Let us follow the example of Jesus Christ.”
The United States stands without peer in its greatness as the world's oldest democracy. Its Constitution has become the blueprint for nations, old and new, around the world as they seek limited government, a guarantee of personal liberty and freedom for and by the people. It has rescued the nations of the world from oppression and tyranny. Its economy, based on free market capitalism, has produced the most prosperous and inventive society, with the highest standard of living the world has ever known. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the United States is the opportunity it affords all its citizens to achieve in every conceivable human endeavor, based on their own abilities and determination. Hard work and perseverance pay off in America. Why is it that so many in our nation call it racist, flawed from its origin, and want to transform it into a socialist nation?
Jim McCoy is an Associate Professor Emeritus at Southern Utah University and Loyd Pettegrew is a Professor Emeritus at the University of South Florida.