Effective Progress and Illusionary Victories

Leave a comment

This week, the Princeton University Administration agreed to the demands of some students (and the Masters themselves) to rename the faculty leaders of their Residential Colleges from “Master” to “Head of the College.” The demand was apparently predicated on the role of “Masters” during the time of Slavery and other eras, and found the title a type of Micro Aggression making the Colleges “Unsafe Places” for Students of Color.


Is This Change Important?

In itself, the change of title is of virtually no importance. It does not change the administration of the Colleges. In fact, the very unimportance of this change is the issue here.

Let me state very clearly: I could not care less what Princeton calls the faculty leaders of their Colleges. I also abhor Slavery and oppression, and, as I will discuss later, believe it, and race hatred, to be a lasting stain in our Nation’s history, with repercussions even today. I want our youth to be strong and empowered, youth of all ethnicities.

That is why I must ring the alarm for my fellow Ivy Leaguers: You are being duped, young, well-meaning Princetonians, and College Masters! Changing the title from “Master” to “Head” has no real effect whatsoever. It has not lessened racism one whit. You are no safer in real world terms than you were a month ago.

Students at Yale have made the same demand, among a list of other demands. I read through Next Yale’s list, and while I cannot judge as I am not active on Campus now, some of them seemed aimed at making some real changes. Just not the cosmetic change about the title “Master.” (I also don’t think the Christakises should be removed from Silliman College.)

Those who have power and influence want you to keep thinking that you are making great strides, while a cosmetic change like this does not endanger their oppression of all of us to any degree.


Don’t get me wrong. Words matter. It is a Rosicrucian principle that thoughts, and words, manifest reality. That’s why I use inclusive language for human beings and God. I am seeking to manifest an inclusive world where women and men are truly equal. I do not, however, seek to impose that on anyone else. I am lucky enough to work for the Rosicrucian Order, AMORC, where inclusive language is the policy for our publications, which I have the privilege to assist with.

It’s just that the word “Master” has many other uses than as a Slave Master. The other uses are actually the reason it was used for Slave Owners, not the other way around. Should we also eliminate the word “Owner,” and “Holder,” because these words were used during Slavery?

If we want to eliminate the word “Master,” we have a daunting task before us. Just off the top of my head I can think of these:

  • Master’s Degree
  • Lodge Master
  • Master Mason
  • Mastering a skill
  • Master as the original of any document, recording, or file
  • Master’s Cup
  • Mastery of Life
  • Master Bedroom
  • Master of a craft–Master Craftsman
  • Martial Arts Master
  • Master Bruce Wayne in Gotham
  • Master Cylinder
  • “Masters in this Hall,” a Christmas Carol

You will note that I omitted “Master” as one who has a dog. We all know dogs own us, not the other way around. After all, who picks up whose waste in little blue bags?

Now, in the field of computing, we are moving away from calling systems “Master/Slave” components. That’s fine with me, as the terminology was very recent and is easily replaced.

Yale, Harvard, Princeton and other Universities with Residential Colleges can certainly rename their leaders “Heads.” It does not matter to me. I just want to make it clear that it is essentially meaningless in actually ending race hatred.

We Do Lose Words

As an aside, occasionally, we do lose words for non-linguistic reasons.

One case in particular is the word “niggardly.” Its etymology is completely different from that of “the N word.” It is from Middle English nigardnygard ‎(miser), from nig ‎(niggardly person), possibly of Scandinavian origin (Old Norse hnǫggr ‎(miserly, stingy)). Possibly cognate to niggle ‎(miser). It is an adjective and adverb meaning parsimonious and stingy.

It was already fairly rare, and its closeness to “the N word” is just too much for me to want to use it freely when I can use “parsimonious” and “stingy” just as well.


Another is “queer.” From the Scots, perhaps from Middle Low German (Brunswick dialectqueer ‎(oblique, off-center), related to German quer ‎(diagonally), from Old High German twerh ‎(oblique), from Proto-Germanic *þwerhaz, from Proto-Indo-European *terkʷ-‎(to turn, twist, wind). Related to thwart.

It was much more active in recent times, such as in the popular 1943 song:

If the words seem queer,
A jumble to the ear…

It then became a slur against LGBT people, and for anyone who did not follow the larger societies sexual norms.  It is fairly hard to use it in its original meaning nowadays.

Oppressed groups sometimes appropriate slurs for their own use. Some in the African-American community use “the N word” in music and in conversation, but those outside that community use the word at their peril.

The LGBT community has embraced “Queer” as a name, and it is sometimes incorporated into the initialism LGBTQ.

So sometimes history changes words.

The Evil That Is Slavery

Except for the evils of human trafficking and Sex Slaves, no one has been a Slave in the United States since the end of the Civil War. It is as tragedy that many of our citizens have ancestors who were Slaves.

Since parts of my family on the Irish-Scots-English side have been here since the 1600s, I imagine I may have slave owners in my lineage. I believe their doing so was horribly wrong. On my Hispanic side, where the family has been here since the 1500s, I may have ancestors who mistreated Native Americans. That was tragically wrong too if it happened. I make no excuses for any who did. I’m a sinner too (one who misses the mark).


European-Americans have sometimes blundered into this divide when they innocently, but naïvely, quip to an African-American  who bears the same family name, “I guess we’re related.”

“Actually,” their interlocutor says, “it means your people owned my people.” That’s a conversation-stopper. With the exception of families of mixed ethnicities, that would be true, since African Slaves sometimes took the last names of their “Owners.”

It is not healthy, however, to dwell so intensely on the wrongs done to our ancestors, that we embrace their victimhood. Our goal has to be positive, forward thinking.

Lies We Have Been Told

We have a great deal of work to do, because even though Race-Slavery no longer exists, racism and inequality are all too real. And we are being lied to about it by our High School History Textbooks, many monuments and commemorations all over the country, politicians, and our popular culture.


The work of Sociologist James W. Loewen, in many studies, including Lies My Teacher Told Me, and Lies Across America, is invaluable in revealing the truth. I urge everyone to read both, and his other works. He has the facts to back up what he says. With regard to race in the United States, here is a summary.

White Supremacy, that is, the supremacy of European (and in particular Northern European) descendants is a lasting and continuing theme in our Land, ever since the first “colonists” (really invaders) landed on the East Coast. (I’ll talk about this and the “First Thanksgiving” next week.)

Two disclaimers: I am not Anti-American. I am, in fact, very Pro-American, and I want our Country to live up to its highest ideals. I am also not Anti-White. I simply hold that we must see the truth that the ideals of our guiding documents, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution–with Slavery now removed, and the Bill of Rights, are not equally given to all, even today. That way we can fix the situation.


In a terrible* and shining moment, we abolished slavery in the United States, and paid for slavery in the blood of the Civil War. For a brief time, during Reconstruction, we were on the way to making equality work,  and this continued, for a decade or so after Reconstruction ended in 1877.

*I use “terrible” in its meaning of “formidable,” “fearsome, “and “powerful,” just as encountering the Living God is terrible. Hebrews 10:31:

φοβερὸν τὸ ἐμπεσεῖν εἰς χεῖρας Θεοῦ ζῶντος.
It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.

The Nadir of Race Relations in the United States

Historians differ on the exact dates, but there is consensus that the United States experienced “the nadir of race relations” from the late 19th century to the mid 20th Century. Loewe argues for 1890-1940. This would be from the period when northern Republicans stopped supporting the rights of Southern African-Americans to the beginning of World War II, where we all pulled together more effectively than at any other time in our Nation’s history.

During Reconstruction, the forces of the Neo-Confederacy kept trying to undo the progress being made. After Reconstruction, and especially during the Nadir, they succeeded all too well on two fronts.

The Overt Front

First, whenever African-Americans succeeded, and they did in great numbers, their successes were taken from them. There are documented cases of successful Black business men having their houses and lands torched by white mobs. The KKK arose, and was a national force. President Woodrow Wilson (a former President of Princeton) was a racist who re-segregated the Federal Government.

A debate is going on at Princeton to remove his name from one of their Colleges, just as Yale is debating renaming Calhoun College. Wilson is a major example of an American who had a very good side and a very bad side. We need to stop “heroizing” figures from our history, Loewen argues. We must tell the whole truth about them, which is more interesting and humanizing, giving students realistic, achievable role models, not plaster saints.

Another good example is that of Baseball. African-Americans played professional baseball in the late 19th century, until they too good. In the 1880s, they were relegated to the Negro Leagues, where African-Americans and Hispanics could play. This ended only on April 15, 1947 when the Brooklyn Dodgers started Jackie Robinson at First Base.

During this period there were thousands of “Sundown Towns” in all parts of America where African-Americans (and often Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans, and even sometimes Jews) had to leave before sundown.

1955 Travel Guide for African-Americans to avoid prejudiced locations.

1955 Travel Guide for African-Americans to avoid prejudiced locations.

From its Statehood in 1859 until 1926, it was illegal for African-Americans to move into Oregon. They could not live, work, or own property there. This was in the Oregon Constitution, and no one called them on this blatant violation of the 14th Amendment until 1926! The State was deliberately founded as a “White Paradise” and the KKK was very active there.


This is not to berate Oregon, they were just more open and honest about it. All across America, voting rights, success in education, success in business were actively denied African-Americans. Native Americans also suffered, as well as some Asian groups. Jews, Catholics, Orthodox (and other non-Protestant Christians) were also looked on with suspicion. Discrimination against African-Americans was more wide-spread, pervasive and debilitating than any other, however.

I rehearse this shameful history not to beat up America, or make anyone feel guilty. It’s past, and we are working to erase that legacy. I bring it up because I sometimes hear people say, “There hasn’t been Slavery for 150 years, how come so many African-Americans didn’t make anything of themselves in that 150 years?” Their assumption is that there is some inherent flaw in character or culture of an entire ethnicity that prevented them from achieving.

The reality is that African-Americans were actively prevented from succeeding during the period 1890-1940. They succeeded before the Nadir, and do today. That some of their community did succeed during the Nadir, is a tremendous tribute to those men and women. The Union might have won the Civil War, but the Confederacy’s racist attitudes dominated the Country for 50 years, and in some ways still do.

The Propaganda Front

The Second Front was the deliberate falsification of history by Neo-Confederate groups such as the Daughters of the Confederacy. Their project was, and still is, to perpetuate lies about the Civil War and Reconstruction. And they have succeeded wildly. Up until a few years ago, here was the story that High School students learned, and even African-American students bought the lie:

  1. The Civil War was not really about Slavery. It was about industrialization vs. plantation agrarian life, about the cold and moralistic northerners and the warm and genteel southerners and about States’ Rights. Abolition was a late attempt by President Lincoln to win the war.
  2. During Reconstruction, Northern “Carpetbaggers” invaded the South and forced foreign ways on them, taking rights away from whites and gave them to blacks who, just having been freed from Slavery, were unable to properly use them. Therefore Reconstruction failed.
  3. The Confederates were noble, fighting for high ideals and Southern Culture. The Daughters of the Confederacy have created monuments all over the country to their heroism. Many African-Americans fought for the Confederacy.
  4. I’m not sure if the DOC make this final point, but other Neo-Confederates do: Slavery was good for the Slaves. The Plantation owners took good care of them. The Slaves enjoyed the security of Slavery.

Historians even fell for these lies for a while. Here’s the truth, based on what the people of the day recorded:


  1. The Civil War was precisely and primarily all about Slavery. In the bills of Succession of South Carolina and most of the other Confederate States, the preservation–and expansion–of Slavery is the primary cause of their Succession. If course there were ancillary issues, but Slavery was paramount. Further, the Southerners were against States’ Right, in that they demanded that all States and Territories accept and enforce Slavery. They didn’t just want Slavery for themselves, they wanted to force it on everyone. Their “right” to own other people trumped everyone else’s right not to.
  2. Reconstruction ultimately failed, but not for the reasons given. It largely failed because it began with Governmental rights, rather than working in the economic sphere primarily.
  3. The Confederacy fought for nothing noble since they fought for Slavery. They fought to continue the evil of Slavery, the evil of one person owning another, and profiting from that slave labor. The North was right, the South was wrong on the issue of Slavery. The Daughters of the Confederacy and other Neo-Confederates have done our Nation a tremendous disservice with their duplicitous monuments and publications. While some African-Americans fought for the South, far, far more fought against the South. Should there be memorials for the fallen Confederate Soldiers? Of course. But the monuments need to tell the truth.
  4. Slaves hated being Slaves (duh!) and the poor white southerners knew it. They were terrified of Slave revolts, and that was one reason they wanted to make the whole Country Slave-owning, to strengthen the owners’ legal protections.
"Children of the Confederacy Creed Plaque at TX Capitol" by Author - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons. This offshoot of the DOC signals its intent to lie about history.

“Children of the Confederacy Creed Plaque at TX Capitol” by Author – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons. This offshoot of the DOC signals its intent to lie about history. Confederates were not patriots, they were traitors to the United States. Yes, there were two sides to the Civil War: the right side (Union) and the wrong side (Confederacy).

Read modern histories and historiography about these issues to get a clear view. Here’s a great sourcebook to find out what Confederates and Neo-Confederates actually believe in their own words:


Stepping Down From My Yankee Pulpit For a Moment

Now let me step down from my Yankee pulpit for a moment, and my Righteous Indignation.

First, for anyone who has read David Hackett Fischer‘s seminal work Albion’s Seed, it is clear that I have abandoned much of the Boarderer and Cavalier folkways that my genetics and my place of birth (Arizona) might have made me heir to. I have firmly embraced the folkways of my Catholic-Hispanic heritage, and the ways of Greater New England and the Quaker Delaware Valley.


That having been said, was there anything good in the South? The answer is yes. For white, wealthy southerners, life was good. The architecture was beautiful, the pace of life was easy. Poor whites did not benefit as much. The culture had many reminiscences of the more class-conscious British. I have no doubt of the bravery of the Confederate troops, and some may have bought the party line that they were fighting for “their way of life.” They were in some sense defending their homes and families. I am sure that Ante-Bellum scholars can point to other good features of Southern Culture.

But the price for the good of the few was just too high. It depended on the cruel domination of millions of people, and the poverty of poor whites. I recommend that you read Ursula K. LeGuin’s short masterpiece “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” to understand the point better.

Was there anything Bad in the North? Yes, of course. As in all human society, there was corruption. In some ways, the North indirectly benefitted from Slavery, especially during Colonial Times. They were complicit, but decided to end that complicity. They might have been wrong about a great many things, but they came to be right about Slavery.

Facing the Truths of Our History

My parents were Texans, I spent much time there. I have many friends in the South, and relatives as well. I want all of us to be successful, happy Americans. We cannot do that if we do not face the truth of our history.

By opening our eyes about the truth of our history, we can take control of our destiny as a Nation. The recent dust-up over the “Confederate Flag” (actually the battle flag of Northern Virginia) shows how pervasive the Neo-Confederate lies are in our culture.

I am not calling for guilt or shame. These don’t get us anywhere. We must move forward, and make this a truly free and just society for all.

Therefore, Princetonians, my fellow Yalies, and students and faculty all over our Country, let’s work for real, effective change, which is not really about whether we have Masters of Colleges, etc. Students, learn history, gain skills in law, politics, communications and all other fields, and dedicate yourselves to making America the Shining City set upon a Hill (Mt 5:14) that we still can be, with all our warts and problems.

Ὑμεῖς ἐστε τὸ φῶς τοῦ κόσμου. οὐ δύναται πόλις κρυβῆναι ἐπάνω ὄρους κειμένη·
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 


Steven A. Armstrong, Silliman Collage at Yale 1976
Tutor, Editor, Consultant

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s