Where Angels Fear to Tread

by Dr. Tom Vaughan '55 | Dean Emeritus

It’s bad form to use yourself as an example, except as a bad one. So, to enter this little discussion on an autobiographical note would seem to violate that maxim at the outset. Nevertheless, I proceed on this exercise of temerity, not with abandon, but with awareness of the burden of proof in hopes of making my point. 

History affords ample example to refute the notion that ours is the worst of times. We didn’t invent strife between opposing ideologies. In answer to the question, “Why is politics in academia so vicious?” the response, “Because the stakes are so low…” is matched by vivid accounts of the “stained-glass jungle” of church intrigue. Recent debate in Protestant policy barely balances the one as to whether the President may be censured by the Catholic church on issues over abortion and same-sex foster parentage. 

Wordsworth’s lines from “The Happy Warrior” are worth remembering: 

“Tis he whose law is reason; who depends upon that law as on the best of friends; whence in a state where men are tempted still to evil for a guard against worse ill, and what in quality or act is best doth seldom on a right foundation rest.” Added at this point, their bones interred under the epitaph of “Stillborn Good Intentions.” 

No better illustration of the paradox of politics can be found than in the 19th century when the Whig Party was formed in about 1834 in opposition to the Jacksonian Democrats, succeeded about 1854 by the Republican Party which became known by the Democrats as the Radical Republicans, who ardently supported the abolition of slavery and Lincoln’s election to the presidency. Subsequent the Civil War, it was the “Radical Republican Congress” that imposed the Carthaginian peace on the South that left Union soldiers occupying all nine of the Confederate States for 12 years after the end of the war, until the end of Grant’s administration. The recession that followed, under the oxymoronic euphemism of Reconstruction, left the South economically crippled for generations, and more certainly contributed to the cancel culture of segregation and regional animus. Thus, the Solid South which emerged from the Civil War remained firmly Democrat until after the mid-20th century, after World War II. How ironic the Red States are now so strongly Republican and the Blue States Democratic, and all their political philosophies diametrically opposed to those of the mid-19th century. What do you suppose Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln must be thinking in their graves? 

As we embark on these turbulent waters, an assumption: everyone has a grievance, some petty (tattoos), some profound (climate change). To challenge it, without the opportunity to be heard, puts the advocate on the defensive and closes the door on dialogue, to the exchange of ideas and opinions, and any hopes of compromise or agreement. Avoidance of jumping to a conclusion before hearing both sides of an issue is one of the hardest lessons to learn for the neophyte administration. So, with that life preserver firmly secured, we set sail. 

Anyone aspiring to public service — in fact anyone — would be better off to heed the advice of Polonius to Laertes (Hamlet): “Give thy thoughts no tongue, nor any unproportioned thought his act. Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar. The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel. But do not dull thy palm with entertainment of each new-hatched, unfledged comrade. Beware of entrance to a quarrel, but being in, bear that the opposed may beware of thee. Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice; Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.” 

Ought to be required reading like taking oath on the Bible. 

So, to continue, ostensibly sound policies, laws and principles of government based on rational logic become misinterpreted or purposely distorted to represent certain views or favor selfish goals that may never have been the original intent. Thus, we confuse the issues with extreme claims and identities that arouse the passions and abandon the reason, with argumentum ad hominem, the personal attack philosophy against the man rather than the principle or political ideology. In other words, identity politics. Or argumentum ad absurdum that appeals to the extreme and attempts to establish a claim by showing that the opposite scenario would lead to absurdity, contradiction or impractical result. Remarkably, some of these gain notoriety and public acceptance, and are recognized as vernacular, language of the street. A now familiar example is woke — intended to mean alert to injustice and oppression in society, now interpreted as racism, a brand which is thrown about so loosely today as to replace Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter A with the cancel culture’s letter R. 

Another is critical race theory — a body of legal scholarship and academic movement of civil rights scholars and activists in the U.S. that seeks to critically examine U.S. law as it intersects with issues of race in the U.S. and to challenge mainstream American liberal approaches to racial justice. Another is equity — impartiality, a system of law designed to protect rights and enforce duties fixed by substantive law. Cancel culture is a modern form of ostracism in which someone is thrown out of social or professional circles for reasons or behavior deemed unacceptable and has mostly negative connotations. Diversity implies multiculturalism and diverse ethnicity. Inclusivity embraces these origins into mainstream society. Black Lives Matter addresses historical oppression and discrimination and modern-day concerns over injustice. (Terms are as defined online including Wikipedia.) 

What is regrettable is the misuse of these ideas to indoctrinate those impressionable groups, such as young children, with bias towards certain ethnic groups (the opposite of inclusivity) creating confusion and misunderstanding as to their own identity. 

Also under attack is history, which has always been a target of revision, but now faces the possible fate of eradication, on the Biblical (Old Testament) reparation of the sins of the fathers visited upon successive generations — the yet unborn. As Santayana, warned, if we forget history, we may be doomed to repeat it. 

It would be patently inappropriate in this space for the author to express an opinion, other than to acknowledge the considerable debate these subjects have provoked, especially concerning children’s curricula taught in public schools. 

So, dare we address resolution of the conflict? By other means than armed revolt which has accomplished only more deeply entrenched division? 

I return to personal experience. My father descended from antebellum Virginia plantation stock which risked civil disapproval by providing tenants with instruction to read and write. They were so loved and appreciated that the tenants remained on the farm after emancipation. Continuing this tradition on his own, after the turn of the century, my father became close friends with Tuskegee Institute faculty, including Dr. George Washington Carver whom I knew as a child. 

H.A. Vaughan started out as Macon County’s first Cooperative Extension Service agent in 1914 before opening his own small business, an old-time farmer’s exchange, selling livestock feed, seed and fertilizer, as well as mule harness and plows for cultivation of cotton and corn. He also farmed himself in a diversified operation of row crops, range cattle and timber. He treated his tenants with as much care and consideration as he did the Institute faculty. During the civil rights protests of 1957-61, the H.A. Vaughan Feed & Seed Store was the only business in Tuskegee that was not boycotted. It is no exaggeration to say that his family was loved and respected by the entire black community — town and gown. The store is still in operation — by the third generation for an uninterrupted century. 

My mother, the poet of the family which consisted of four sons and no daughters, instilled in me a love of verse, one of which was James Henry Leigh Hunts’ “Abou Ben Adhem.” The theme was captured when Ben Adhem told the angel, “I pray thee, then, write me as one that loves his fellow-men,” which earned Ben Adhem God’s favor: “And, lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.” 

Never presuming so daunting a task as composing acceptable — and enactable — public policy that would satisfy all our grievances and bring peace to the land, how would it be if we could individually adopt Ben Adhem’s philosophy and practice it with everyone we met in daily life? I have had innumerable black friends in these 90 years — friends that I have loved and respected. I would as soon impugn a member of my own family as I would say or do anything to bring discredit on them. God forbid! 

This, then, is my humble proposition. Starting today, no, yesterday, to the beginnings of time, treat our fellowmen, all of them, with respect and love and forbearance, and see what happens.


Yr humbl and obdt svt,