Commentary, Education, Higher Ed

UNC law professor: Silent Sam deal an “investment in falsehood”

Just before the holidays, five members of the UNC System Board of Governors defended the Board’s decision to pay $2.5 million to the Sons of Confederate Veterans to house and display the Confederate monument known as Silent Sam.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans are purveyors of what historians call the myth of the Lost Cause – the story that “the preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight” what they call “the Second American Revolution.” The group insists that “the war was not fought in order to keep African Americans enslaved.”

It stands to reason that these are the historical claims Silent Sam will bolster in any museum they build with the $2.5 million.

The five Board members said that this was the best deal they could strike to try to resolve what they saw as “a deeply divisive and personal issue.”

“Divisive?”  I suppose the centrality of slavery to the Confederate cause remains divisive in some circles.

But “personal?”

There is nothing remotely personal about this issue.

To see why, think about a few hypothetical $2.5 million settlements the university might reach with others to help them tell their story.

  • The university settles litigation with a soft drink company by setting up a fund to support a series of conferences about how sugary sodas do not contribute to the obesity epidemic.
  • The university settles litigation with an anti-vaccination group by setting up a fund to finance a social media push against childhood immunizations.
  • The university settles litigation with a religious institution by funding a geology museum proving that no rock can be more than 6,000 years old.

How would the public react to any of these expenditures?

With near-universal outrage, and for good reason.  However “divisive” the causes of obesity, the merits of vaccinations, and the age of the Earth may be in some quarters, these university expenditures would be serving untruth.  They would be doing the opposite of what a research university does, which is to study things carefully, using rigorous standards of inquiry, and thereby to increase knowledge and uncover truth.

There is nothing “personal” about whether the perpetuation of slavery was central to the Southern cause in the Civil War.  It is something that brilliant historians – including many in the UNC System – have devoted their lives to documenting.

This is one of the things that is so deeply disturbing about the decision of the Board of Governors to pay a huge sum to an organization to preach the myth of the Lost Cause.  It’s a $2.5 million investment in falsehood.

To watch this unfold is devastating.

But it’s nothing personal.

Eric Muller is the Dan K. Moore Distinguished Professor of Law in Jurisprudence and Ethics at UNC-Chapel Hill.