Modern Heresy

Essayist William Deresiewicz recently lamented that modern college students, and college life in general, have become “profoundly unintellectual.” The “snowflake” generation is the byproduct of educational institutionalization. Will this be on the test, and will I get a study guide? Deresiewicz should also indict the faculty and administration who encourage this “unintellectual” environment.

This results in a crop of students who know little more than platitudes, slogans, and chants, and who seek “safe spaces” to be free from ideas or subjects that may cause them “harm.” It might be easy to make fun of these snowflakes, but they have become emboldened by the academy itself and have taken aim at anyone who refuses to toe the modern politically correct line.

Marshall DeRosa has come under attack for doing just that. DeRosa is the leading authority on the Confederate Constitution and Confederate case law, two subjects that have not received the scholarly attention they deserve. His crime? DeRosa has marginal ties to the Koch Foundation through a prison education grant. This somehow makes DeRosa a “white supremacist,” and students at Florida Atlantic University plastered his picture all over campus “demanding action” be taken against him. In other words, DeRosa is an evil man for wanting to rehabilitate incarcerated individuals, many of whom are minorities, because the money comes from an organization deemed inappropriate by these student insurgents. The horror! Prison education has been an important part of community education efforts for decades, and those who choose to participate often do so out of humanitarian and religious convictions. DeRosa is no different.

This charge would have been considered laughable just a few years ago, but the offended students who cornered DeRosa at a contentious faculty senate meeting (why students were allowed to participate at a faculty senate meeting is unclear) charged that DeRosa was unfit to teach students at a “diverse” college because of his ties to the Koch Foundation and for his outspoken Christian beliefs and conservative/libertarian “biases.” The students unearthed a few pieces DeRosa penned for the Abbeville Institute to make their case. One on Confederate case law published in August 2017 contained the following passage:

The tar-baby in any defense of the Confederacy is slavery, which has segued into “white supremacy”. That issue will be addressed in subsequent Confederate case law. But for now, suffice it to say that linking the two, slavery with white supremacy is a gross over-simplification. First, black supremacy is the origin of Southern slavery. It was blacks and Asiatic Muslims on the African continent that enslaved and sold other blacks to the slave traders. Second, after subjugated as slaves the North American slave owners, black and white, had a property right in the labor of the slaves. The conundrum for the rule of law was that although slavery is morally reprehensible, it was legal. In other words, it was a political question not a judicial one.

The student who read this passage to the faculty senate failed to quote DeRosa’s statement that “slavery is morally reprehensible” and instead focused on his claim that “black supremacy is the origin of Southern slavery.” It also became clear that neither the students nor any other members of the media who have attacked DeRosa for this piece have read it or have any understanding of the historical consensus on the subject.

First, DeRosa’s claim “blacks and Asiatic Muslims on the African continent” played an integral, if not dominant, role in the African slave trade is the commonly accepted position today. History departments across the world often use John Thornton’s Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World 1400-1800 as the standard textbook on the early American slave trade. Thornton contends that Africans in fact drove the African slave trade and dictated its terms to Europeans traders, and that African society as a whole was heavily dominated by slavery long before Europeans arrived in the 15th century. They were not passive victims of a “white supremacist” world but in reality shrewd and prosperous kings and emperors who viewed the trans-Atlantic slave trade as a means to further enlarge and enrich their kingdoms. Thornton concludes, “we must accept that African participation in the slave trade was voluntary and under the control of African decision makers. This was not just at the surface level of daily exchange but even at deeper levels. Europeans possessed no means, either economic or military, to compel African leaders to sell slaves [emphasis added].” (125)

Second, had anyone chosen to read the case DeRosa highlighted in his August post, they would have understood that the case emphasized the rule of law in protecting slaves from injustice. DeRosa wrote:

This case involves the alleged forcible rape by a slave of a white female. It should be kept in mind that the slave’s counsel were white trial lawyers, tried by white judges, and heard by white jurors. This case, which is not the exception in the South, puts to the lie the common narrative that slaves so accused would have been summarily lynched by a white mob. The trial judge’s instructions to the jury, in part, reads: “It is true that the prisoner is of the African race and a slave, but, so far as this trial is concerned, he has the same rights as a white man. All the rules of law which would apply to a white man, if put upon his trial for the crime of rape, must apply in this case. The laws of this State affix the death penalty to the crime of rape, whether it be committed by a freeman or a slave, and the evidence which has been placed before you has been brought to the test of the same legal principles and submitted to you under the same rules of evidence as would be invoked and applied if a white man were upon his trial.” These instructions dispel reams of academic lies that slaves were chattel property on the same level of livestock, without legal rights.

The slave in question was originally found guilty of rape and sentenced to death, but his conviction was overturned by a higher court after it was discovered he did not receive a fair trial. DeRosa cheered the opinion as being a victory for the “rule of law” against arbitrary power, a problem that plagued the South after the War when lynchings and other acts of violent racial injustice went unpunished.

To the gatekeepers of acceptable thought, these positions must be swept away as mere heresy regardless of the primary evidence and non-political academic material used in support. It should be clear, however, that no sound individual could claim DeRosa to be a racist, and no one has been able to dredge up anything he has written, said, or done to support such accusations, but the charge has been made and now DeRosa is spending productive time defending himself against an arbitrary public witch-hunt. It would seem that people who claim to be open-minded and fair would refrain from such actions, but as Deresiewicz wrote, college campuses are “profoundly unintellectual.” The case against DeRosa proves his point.

About Donald Livingston

Donald Livingston is the founder of the Abbeville Institute and Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Emory University. Livingston received his doctorate at Washington University in 1965. He has been a National Endowment Independent Studies fellow and a fellow for the Institute of Advanced Studies in the humanities at the University of Edinborough. He has been on the editorial board of Hume Studies and Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. Livingston's books include Hume's Philosophy of Common Life and Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. More from Donald Livingston

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