This post has been hacked by a UW-System prof (retired) who is holding the fort against the barbarians at the gate, quivering with righteous indignation.
By Gary L. Kriewald
“Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”
— 1894 report of the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents
Let the disinterment of the dead white men proceed!
This correspondent, a retired professor of English, had ventured onto the UW-Madison campus to weigh in on proposals to rename the Porter Butts Gallery and the Fredric March Theatre in the Memorial Student Union.
I knew a proper respect for history and fair play would be assaulted by the grievance mongering of the freshly “woke” and their insufferable identity politics. But the fervency of their intolerance always amazes.
“First, we should all acknowledge that this building sits on ground sacred to the Ho-Chunk nation, symbolizing the destruction of native cultures by white supremacists,” the young prophet proclaimed, quivering with righteous indignation.
The moral implications of his indictment were seismic in scale. No longer would changing out the nameplates on two rooms suffice. The stakes had been raised. The entire campus of the state’s flagship university was now in peril. Images of ISIS dynamiting the Baalshamin temple in Palmyra flashed before me.
Exhumed and expelled
UW administrators launched last week’s post-mortem show trials after a smattering of minority students objected to Messieurs Butts and March because, when those luminaries walked this campus way back in the 1920s, they belonged to a student organization called the Ku Klux Klan. THE WHAT?!!
As damning as it sounds today, the facts paint a much more nuanced picture. From the available evidence, the student organization seems to have been a male-only drinking society (a kind of proto-fraternity). It had no affiliation with the national terrorist organization of the same name. Shortly after he joined, Butts changed the name to the Tamus Society to distance the group from the national KKK.
Butts went on to serve as Director of Memorial Union for 40 years, during which time he greatly expanded its influence on campus life and implemented policies that made the Union a showplace of multi-culturalism. No evidence has ever been discovered of his advocating racist ideas or policies; in fact, as editor of the Daily Cardinal student newspaper, he published articles denouncing the national KKK. Racine’s own Fredric March went on to have a stellar career as a Tony-award winning Broadway actor and two-time Oscar winner, for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Best Years of Our Lives. Throughout his career, March advocated on behalf of people of color in the entertainment industry.
Race studies major at work
Which cut no ice with today’s social justice warriors. Give the college students credit, their facility with the latest social studies jargon was graduate level. Terms like “black and brown bodies,” “white patriarchy,” “institutional racism” buzzed around the hearing room like flies. Who says students of African-American Studies, Gender Studies, etc. won’t use their course work?
One student condemned the proceedings in which she was taking part as “an act of violence,” claiming that it placed an undue burden on minorities (she herself was white) by making them defend themselves against positions that were clearly motivated by racism.
By the end of the forum I had surrendered what few illusions I still harbored of the University as a marketplace of ideas or a defender of its proud tradition of “sifting and winnowing” as a means of discovering the truth.
I came to UW-Madison as a freshman in 1965 from a small town in northern Wisconsin where the cultural amenities were few and far between. One day, I stumbled on the art gallery in Memorial Union; though not yet named for Porter Butts, it was part of his effort to make the arts an integral part of the campus community. The exhibit on display was a collection of prints by the great Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch, creator of the iconic image, The Scream. This was my first exposure to great art, and it was a life-changing experience.
Calling Stu Levitan
It will not surprise you that my position to retain Butts’ and March’s names was in the minority. The only people who agreed with me were Porter Butts’ daughter and grand-daughter, who had to listen for over an hour as the legacy of their relative was subjected to sanctimonious denunciations, calumnies, half-truths, and outright lies. Most speakers shamelessly conflated the campus organization with the national KKK even though the two shared nothing but an admittedly unfortunate name. The few who grudgingly acknowledged the distinction argued that the name itself was so toxic that any association with it was enough to condemn the two men.
I had begun my remarks by asking if anyone in the room cared to defend the proposition that one youthful indiscretion was enough to negate a lifetime of positive achievements and decades of devotion to the University. By the end of the meeting, no one had taken up my offer.
No doubt at some time in the future, they will be forgiven for their own youthful indiscretions.
Gary L. Kriewald was born and raised in Merrill WI and graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He taught literature and writing in colleges and universities in California, Texas, Illinois, and most recently UW-Platteville. Recently retired, he lives on the near eastside of Madison.