Gerry Bell: The weathervane and other misplaced priorities

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I graduated from Dartmouth College, founded 251 years ago when the Earl of Dartmouth — landed nobility in England —granted a few hundred acres in the New Hampshire colonial wilderness to a minister named Eleazar Wheelock. Wheelock, as a hallowed Dartmouth song goes, "was a very pious man/he went into the woods to teach the Indian/with a gradus ad parnassum, a Bible, and a drum/and five hundred gallons of New England rum."

So anyway, Eleazar started Dartmouth in what was regarded, for most subsequent history, as a noble undertaking. We Dartmouth people revere Eleazar so much that the current president of Dartmouth is referred to as the "Eighteenth in the Wheelock Succession." (I know. We can take ourselves a little too seriously sometimes, but whatever.)

Fast forward to 1929. Dartmouth erects Baker Library, at the time and for the next 40 years the largest undergraduate library in America. Atop the clock tower rising from Baker is placed a brass weathervane, depicting in profile the legendary Old Pine of Dartmouth (where Eleazar built the first classroom); a seated Eleazar (holding a Bible); instructing a Native American youth (with feathers in his hair); and the apocryphal barrel of rum.

For 91 years the weathervane sat there, 200 feet above the campus, minding its own business. No one paid any attention. I suspect that few if any Dartmouth undergrads and alums (including myself) knew it was up there, and we certainly weren't aware of what it depicted or how it did so. Until a few weeks ago, when a petition started to take the weathervane down due to its "racist" overtones "completely antithetical to Dartmouth's values."

Interesting: There are no students on the Dartmouth campus at present because of the pandemic; most of the faculty is absent as well; but the petition garnered over 600 signatures overnight, after 90 years of Rip Van Winkle slumber. Wow.

Please don't misunderstand, and don't paint me as an unreconstructed old grad opposed to all change. By all means, take the weathervane down if it's that objectionable to that many people. And really, there's no need to replace it — there are apparently plenty of people on the ground at Dartmouth who can tell you which way the wind is blowing, and they are all resolutely "correct."

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I tell this story not to object to removal of the weathervane, but to sorrowfully acknowledge Dartmouth's silliness. We look more ridiculous than righteous. We look like latecomers to the Sensitivity and Sanctimony Gala, desperate to prove to everybody — somebody — anybody — that we were there all along. But the reality is, we're just near the back of the line in a disproportionate revisionist history orgy.

Look, I understand the pain and resentment felt by millions of Americans who experience systemic racism every day. I am 1/128th Native American (my five-times great grandmother was a Massachusetts Pocumtuck) and I am very proud of that blood in my veins. But I am under no illusions that my life experience wouldn't have been a good deal different if that 1/128th were 1/2 or 100 percent. So take down the really objectionable racist stuff — the statues of the likes of Calvin Griffith and George Preston Marshall, bigoted sports franchise plantation owners — and throw them on the ash heap of history. They deserve no better.

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But let's not over-react. Let's not do a Stalinesque rewriting of history and "cancel" everything. Yes, take down the statues of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis from Monument Avenue in Richmond and put them in museums in "proper historical context." (Proper context: "Traitors and Slaveholders.") But I see no need to rename Yale University and Brown University because Elihu Yale and Moses Brown were slave traders way back when — just acknowledge that, for all the good they did, they were also tarnished supremacist products of their times whose internal moral compasses were seriously flawed. Then let them go.

My point is this: we can waste enormous amounts of time, and probably deepen the divisions we already have, by trying to cancel or eradicate every sin in our history that we need to live down. But what will all that solve? Half of America screaming, "In your face! You and yours are horrible people!" to the other half is hardly a prescription to make things better.

The plain truth is, all we have left is the future. Yes, we will always have bigots and supremacists and haters among us, but I am convinced that we outnumber them. If we play their game, if we give them an opening to control the agenda, then in a sense we're letting them win. Far better to identify our historical misdeeds, and by all means write them up in history — nobody ignores Hitler or Stalin — and then move forward.

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We have huge problems and challenges on this planet, in this country. We need to make sure the Earth will be habitable 100, 200, 1,000 years from now. We need to reduce violence in the world, including — especially — among militarized police forces. We need to recognize and practice racial equality. We need, as the Preamble to our Constitution says, to provide for the common defense, and promote the general welfare.

But we don't need to topple every statue in the land. We don't need to rename every landmark. We certainly don't need to categorize racial "micro-aggressions" into three different subsets. (I read that and I thought, ""God, give me strength ")

We just need to be kinder to each other. As Jack Kennedy said 57 years ago this month, "Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."

We need to move forward. Together. For myself, I'm going to call Dartmouth College and offer to buy the damn weathervane, and try to help put this nonsense behind us.

Gerry Bell lives in Shaftsbury.


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