Current Affairs

“Cancel Yale” Is Silly—Or Is It?

Conservatives haven’t exposed activists as inconsistent. But why defend a name?

Some conservatives think they have found a very clever way to troll the activists who push for renaming things named after slaveholders. Yale University was named after a slaveholder, Elihu Yale. If we believe in renaming military bases that were named in honor of Confederate generals, what principled argument is there for not renaming Yale University? The “reductio ad absurdum” is designed to show that activists are extremists and that carrying their principles through to their logical conclusion would result in actions that none of them are presently encouraging people to take. And it’s a silly effort to troll activists, but it raises an actual serious question: What principles do we use to evaluate what should and shouldn’t be renamed? Is renaming a university so costly as to be unthinkable? 

Ann Coulter, naturally, is delighting in joining a fake conservative #CancelYale movement. They do not mean these things of course, but they think that they are “using the activists’ logic.” Right-wing pundit Jesse Kelly said

Yale University was named for Elihu Yale. Not just a man who had slaves. An actual slave trader. I call on Yale to change it’s [sic] name immediately and strip the name of Yale from every building, piece of paper, and merchandise.

Ann Coulter tweeted: “202 years of celebrating a racist, genocidal slave trader is enough. YALE. MUST. CHANGE. ITS. NAME.” Mike Cernovich, a slimeball of whom we have have written before, said that “Everyone who has ‘Yale’ in his or her biography is a racist who supports slavery.” I think they are hoping that they can get some famous Yale alumni to either become flustered and unable to explain why Yale shouldn’t be renamed, or to actually call for renaming Yale and thereby create a giant distracting controversy. 

Some seemed quite genuine in thinking that Activist Logic positively requires the renaming of Yale, and there could be no argument otherwise. Jesse Singal of New York magazine asked:

What’s the good-faith argument against changing Yale’s name, if we’re being honest? It can be a conservative trolljob but also be true, if you believe slaveowners’ names shouldn’t be honored in this manner.

Now, there is an obvious “good faith” argument against renaming Yale. But one reason conservatives are clever to have selected this particular target is that it’s an argument nobody will want to make. The argument is: “Yale’s name is important, and there would be a much more significant loss in getting rid of Yale’s name than in the case of bases named after Confederates.” 

The argument anyone who wanted to defend Yale against Coulter would make goes like this: 

The costs of renaming it would outweigh the benefits. This is because the associations between the name “Yale” and Elihu Yale the man are minimal; over time, the university has built up so much history that the name has developed an important identity completely separate from him, an identity that is different to that which is associated with living on a particular military base. Furthermore, the Yale name has a great deal of meaning to students, faculty, and alumni. Around the world, the name signifies a specific institution they are proud to be part of. Renaming it would destroy a significant part of the institution’s cache. It would also deprive students and alumni of color of a marker of social prestige that they have worked hard to earn. Thus, while one of our principles should be that things named after slaveholders should be renamed, we have other principles as well, and sometimes a particular renaming would carry a significant downside versus a limited upside.

But notice that this defense of Yale’s name, while logically valid, is also elitist, presuming the legitimacy of the kind of social prestige Yale grants. Yale would never give up its name because the name has come to mean something far more important than a tribute to a particular odious dead “philanthropist.” It has come to mean Yale, an institution with prestige and influence. It assumes that a person’s association with Yale as a word has some importance that we would not want to disappear. The reason why many Yale people would be horrified at the renaming suggestion clearly has something to do with Yale’s brand, which not only sells a lot of sweatshirts but is also valued as a marker of social status that sets people apart from one another. Yale may be proud of its “community” and “identity,” and would insist that, much like a city or any other university, it is simply trying to protect a name people take pride in. But it is also an exclusive club, one whose alumni get to be treated as if they are automatically knowledgeable. One reason the conservative “Cancel Yale” troll works so well is not because there’s no argument for keeping the name, but because arguing strenuously against the renaming of Yale requires Yale people to admit that they highly value being Yale people and would not want to stop being Yale people. It is demanding that those who have won in the “meritocracy” risk giving up their privileges for the sake of racial justice. (I say “risk” because I think ultimately changing the name on the sign wouldn’t change the institution’s social function much.) I’m sure the alumni of any university would fight hard to keep from having it changed, but going after Yale specifically is a satisfying poke at liberal elites who want justice as long as it comes at no cost to themselves.

Is it clear that Yale being called Yale is more important than Ft. Bragg being called Ft. Bragg? Perhaps it’s worth thinking about what a name means to people. As philosopher Juliet Capulet famously noted, roses are not roses simply because they are called roses. But perhaps Juliet was wrong: If we discover that the man roses were named after (Arnold Rose) was a trader in human beings, perhaps we would lose something by renaming the rose, since its name has come to have significant associations, and we have essentially forgotten that Mr. Rose even existed. And perhaps that ineffable something lost would be greater than the gain that comes excising tributes to odious men from the language. 

Perhaps the way to measure whether things should be renamed is to make a “cost-benefit analysis.” (Ew, I hate that term.) Renaming a city might not be worth it, if the city has a proud identity separate from the nasty guy for whom its named—New Orleans is named after Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, but I am not sure that any revelation about Philippe’s conduct in 1701 should cause us to ditch an identity that has built over hundreds of years. The costs are too high. It’s not worth it. On the other hand, renaming “Lee Circle” as “Tivoli Circle” (its original name, though I thought they should have gone with Circle de Fats) was perfectly sensible. No real loss there, nothing to debate. 

So there are more and less obvious cases, and activists will make judgment calls. For example, even if we don’t rename every street with a horrible person’s name, we could at least rename Jefferson Davis Parkway. We all know who the guy was and the associations are quite strong (especially when you’re standing at the intersection of Jefferson Davis and Martin Luther King), so renaming is obviously the right thing to do. In some cases, maybe there’s not much symbolic value in doing the change: If every street in the South that is named after a horrible person had to be changed, you’d have to rename half the streets in the South, and I think energy is probably best spent on symbols that matter the most—like a statue that sits in the middle of the town square—that are most associated with the person, and that cost the least to get rid of. I assume that logic is what leads Tulane University to rename a building—since who cares about individual campus buildings?—but not rename itself. It’s not necessarily “hypocrisy” since the principle isn’t that renaming things outweighs every other consideration, but that when we can rename, it provides a useful opportunity to educate people about history. (And of course, people should know about the deeds of Paul Tulane and Elihu Yale.) 

What about the bases? Well, one reason the Army itself doesn’t seem to be making too much of a fuss about renaming the bases is not only that the Confederates were literally traitors, but that this could be a phenomenal bit of P.R. for the armed forces. It will show they’re good and enlightened and progressive! Renaming bases is a relatively cost-free way to get rid of nasty slave-owners nobody cared about anyway and build pride in U.S. Army heroes, if that’s the sort of thing you think ought to happen. (If anything, as leftists, we should oppose renaming military bases because we shouldn’t and can’t sanitize the U.S. military’s function by giving its bases more “woke” names.) 

As for Yale, personally I am a socialist, and I think Yale ought to be expropriated and turned into a public school called New England University (New Haven campus), which would be free to all and admit anybody who met a set of clear admissions criteria (once there are too many applicants, they’d be selected by a pure random lottery). Harvard would of course become New England University (Cambridge campus). A political fight in favor of Yale changing its name—while keeping all of its resources and its basic function as a reproducer of the American ruling class—is probably not worth having. But it’s also not a name worth defending. 

I went to law school at Yale, but personally I wouldn’t object in the slightest if students rose up and demanded it be renamed. More importantly, it is a place that reproduces social inequality, and like renaming a military base, renaming Yale would be like Philip Morris rebranding as “Altria” and Blackwater becoming “Academi.” (Instead of “cancer sticks” and “mercenaries” they want you to think “altruism” and “education.”) If Fort Hood becomes Fort W.E.B. DuBois, it’s not going to take on any of DuBois’ values. A base by any other name still smells like PART OF THE AMERICAN IMPERIALIST WAR MACHINE. 

But losing slaveholders’ names is generally not particularly costly, and the basic principle ought to be that when things can be easily renamed and monuments to bad people taken down, they should be. It’s 100 percent positive when slaveowners’ busts are ripped down and tossed in the river. It’s great that civil rights activism has gotten us so far from the 1950s, when activists had to demand equal participation in an annual ceremony to honor a slaveholder. Now they say “fuck that guy” and throw him into the sea. Obviously we need to make sure we do not prioritize purely symbolic gains at the expense of material ones, but there is no reason we can’t have both, a society that treats people fairly and honors people who were actually honorable and did not own other people. Generally activists have actually shown that they’re pretty reasonable about selecting targets, and the conservative attempt to show that “the activists’ logic” is absurd has actually only revealed how sensible it is. 

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