Letter to the Editor: Replace Lord Jeff
Issue   |   Tue, 01/27/2015 - 23:32

As an alum of the college, I’m heartened that students have reset the institutional momentum to get rid of the Lord Jeff mascot. I’m still puzzled, though, by the responses of those who hang their support for keeping the mascot on a saccharine notion of the college’s traditions that withstands little scrutiny. For example, in his op-ed for the Dec. 10 edition of The Student, Michael Johnson ‘16 asks us to contextualize Lord Jeffery Amherst and his documented support of biological warfare against the Delaware and insists that we not “judge … his actions by today’s standards.”

If we go by Johnson’s account, Amherst’s actions and attitudes are mere relics of a sordid past no longer with us. Johnson also argues that such actions should be treated as the choices of an agent operating in an uncertain moral world. He is wrong on both counts. His appeal to the intrinsic fogginess of war faced by Amherst obscures broad continuities in U.S. history: British colonials like Amherst foreshadowed the 19th century U.S. wars of conquest aimed at eliminating Native communities from their own lands, violence which elites justified ideologically as the inevitable disappearance of “savage” or “primitive” peoples whom they viewed as subhuman. Amherst was not operating in the fog of war but in the vice-grip of a powerful and enduring ideology of Euroamerican imperialism. This discourse of civilizational supremacy gave cover to no-holds-barred military practice against Indigenous peoples, including the biological warfare Amherst advocated. What’s more, that discourse has stayed fairly consistent from the colonial period and into the 21st century, where it remains the stuff of U.S. counter-insurgency jargon — with terms like “Indian country” and “Operation Geronimo” sprinkled liberally as reminders of the continuities between Anglo-American militarism then and now.

Johnson seems especially concerned that changing the name is merely symbolic, and in one respect, I agree: Any more-than-symbolic move to rename Amherst would have to be addressed not as an easy disavowal of a racist bogeyman of the distant past but by reckoning with our own complicity in these continuing histories of U.S. imperialism. The problem with Amherst is not that he no longer represents “our values” but that he unfortunately represents them much better than we’re willing to acknowledge as a nation.

Furthermore, Johnson fails to distinguish between contextualizing a given individual — again, a fair burden for historians — and the serious moral choice before the college now as to whether he properly represents the diverse community the college aspires to build. There is little evidence to indicate that Amherst’s subordinate officers in fact carried out his suggestion to give smallpox blankets to the Delaware. But why should this fact redeem him? I would ask those intent on keeping Lord Jeffery around: What are the positive values you believe he represents as an historical figure? British imperial vigor? Genocidal intent? Why call, as Johnson does, for the facile relativism of historical distance when the name so clearly invokes the violence of colonialism for colonized communities? Johnson’s appeals to the “common ground” connecting past and present students carry little weight when these supposed commonalities become the very source of contention to begin with. He is correct to point out that such a standard for collective symbols is a high one to meet, but that’s a good thing. The fact that the college took the name from the town proper, as Johnson mentions, is a superficial way of deflecting responsibility; it became the college’s moral burden to bear as soon as we took the name as our own.

Johnson invites us to appreciate the intergenerational community and tradition created by rallying around Lord Jeff. For those like Johnson still bound to the idea that this tradition might be worth holding onto, I would note that Amherst is not the first university in the US to question its own connections to racism and colonialism: For example, on the strength of a commissioned study of David Nichols’ role in the horrific massacre of nearly 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho people in 1864 at Sand Creek, Colorado, the University of Colorado at Boulder changed the name of Nichols Hall to Cheyenne Arapaho Hall in the late 80s. More recently, the University of Denver and Northwestern University — institutions both claiming John Evans, then-governor of Colorado territory, as a founder — have created committees to investigate and acknowledge Evans’ role in the same massacre and are looking to expand their Native American studies programs. Each of these institutions has decided — contrary to Johnson’s suggestion — that we can and ought to judge these historical figures and reject tradition.

Finally, Johnson asks the college community why we can’t instead pursue other meaningful initiatives, such as efforts to increase the number of Native American applicants to the college. While I applaud and support Johnson’s suggestion that the college do more to recruit Native American students, symbols also matter in tangible ways. Mascots are material: We build statues, contrive holidays, and sing songs to celebrate these figures. The line in the fight song — that Lord Jeff didn’t do “a thing” to the Indians — serves as an egregious example. In singing that song, we create material spaces and institutional memories that honor Lord Jeff and we forgo opportunities to celebrate and build on alternative, anti-colonial legacies. I’d suggest as an alternate starting point to Lord Jeff the Abenaki, Mashpee and other Native nations’ practices of cultural and political reclamation eloquently narrated by American Studies Professor Lisa Brooks in “The Common Pot.”

By enabling communities of fans, students, alumni and administrators to suppress these histories, racist mascots embolden institutional racism and colonialism and give tacit shelter to the rampant ignorance of and vitriol often directed towards Native American communities in the present. Whatever the ultimate outcome of such a debate at the college, it is all the more important that it be sparked in the Northeast, where the very presence of American Indian nations has only recently — and very tenuously — been acknowledged by the federal government. Replace Lord Jeff now. Let’s begin the work of constructing an anti-colonial and genuinely democratic vision linking the college’s past and future.

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Wed, 01/28/2015 - 18:32

I blame Amerigo Vespucci for finding this damn continent! Let us not forget he is the one who was integral in establishing the land mass of North America on the map, therefore allow Jeffrey Amherst to be here in the first place. Down with history and historical figures!! Down with explorers and pioneers!! Rename the United States of America to reflect how his actions adversely affected all the native peoples of this continent!!#RenameTheCountry George Washington owned slaves, too!! The moral corruption of the white male is everywhere!! #RenameTheState #EraseHistory

white male '15 (not verified) says:
Wed, 01/28/2015 - 19:06

Thank you for addressing that horrendous article.

On the thesis of "war makes genocide okay" - you could have also mentioned that nearly every genocide ever has been under the "fog of war." Armenian Genocide apologists, Nanjing apologists, Serbian/Bosian genocide apologists all use the excuse of war.

If we can't judge the past, as Johnson suggests, why can't we just become the klansmen? At least they set foot on this college. They were just doing what they thought was the right thing at the time.

Pro-Jeff advocates are missing a basic compassion for those different than them. It is not okay to dismiss to suffering of a cultural minority. This is why women are stereotyped as "whining" and minorities as "reactionary" and "think everything is racist" - it is a cultural system to delegitimize marginalized groups from asserting themselves in any way.

Thank you David.

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Fri, 01/30/2015 - 21:41

we should definitely seek a new mascot

John Herzog '52 (not verified) says:
Tue, 02/03/2015 - 14:48

Just read your fine letter. You make a clear case for DOING something! You probably haven't heard of our efforts to organize two panels during Reunion Weekend (LJA: Emblem or Embarrassment?), May 29 & 30. "We" are Jim Fernandez '52 and me, John Herzog '52, both anthropologists, and Peter Crane '15, campus leader of the effort to dislodge LJA. We have ourselves and Dean Epstein, Frank Couvares, Dean Vasquez, and Coach E.J. Mills confirmed at the moment, and are working on others. We think you would be an excellent contributor to the panels, and note that June '15 will be your own Fifteenth. Will you be back, and would you like to speak to the alumni who will be there? Look forward to hearing from you.
This is an odd site for further discussion of your participation. Please reply by email at . We have published an article on this issue in Anthropology Today which I would like to send to you, but can't via this site.

LKLundwall64 (not verified) says:
Sun, 02/15/2015 - 18:48

I find myself now, at least in one respect, quite like Robert Frost who, it has been said, thought all men wanted to be poets until on the boat to England he met a businessman who thought all men wanted to be businessmen (let's assume Frost would now include women). I had expected that a poll like this recent one on Lord Jeff would very quickly confirm the presence of overwhelming support in the Amherst College community for finally exorcising the stigma of an odious as well as quite accidental mascot who has been falsely honored far too long by a great college. A close vote, never mind a losing vote, is to my mind a disconcerting judgment.
Lord Jeffery Amherst made a mark in history by, at the very least, enthusiastically embracing and advocating for genocide/extermination. He was a man so thoroughly repugnant that he has made his way onto the the short-list of the most despicable men in the history of Canada. How does he remain more or less lionized elsewhere? How can anyone or any community knowing about him tolerate the image of this grisly character as a mascot or any kind of representative at all?
The poll results, regrettably, put one in a mood to cast about for blame. Are the culprits mostly alumni as some might expect? Did we unearth a well-fed, self-satisfied Amherst community of elite reductionists relatively unmoved by or unconcerned with the need for "mere" symbolic moral victories?
Such questions are, I think, something of a distraction. I place the blame on what might be aptly termed a banality. I say it's the charming Lord Jeff song. We all have partaken in the great fun of taunting opponents with it, sassy (a tongue-in-cheek "we are superior" conceit) in its essence as a delightful anti-fight fight song that mocks the overused but ever loved sturm und drang, strutting, beer chugging march songs of most college sports encounters. That experience always evoked a sense of redeeming, self-satisfying virtue and is, I suggest, at the core of the emotional clinging to Lord Jeff.
The song, however, has very little to do with the vile man it pretends to celebrate and upon whom it bestows much undeserved honor. [One thing to be kept in mind is that the enjoyment of the song can be maintained, even enhanced, through an equally charming successor with a more worthy, genuinely enjoyable bearer.]
Yes, in times past we all derived more than our share of "esprit de corps" singing our song while proudly assuming Lord Jeffery Amherst must surely have done great and noble things though, in truth, we knew not any. That was the full extent of our involvement with Lord Jeffery Amherst. Nowadays the ugly truth is much more thoroughly known and though distressingly discomfiting it results in a response that seems strangely spiritless, eliciting rather mild desire to contend against an unseemly symbol which lends itself to institutional racism and all its abhorrent accoutrements.
The Lord Jeff phenomenon does evoke a hint of the nested Russian dolls, not quite "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma" but, perhaps, a sketchy anachronism inside a sketchy anachronism wrapped under a now somewhat shabby, rancid Red Coat being dragged into the 21st Century.
The setting in which Amherst College first gained recognition was that of a Norman Rockwellian narrow world of primarily white, indeed WASP, small-town, male dominated, rustic New England folk. Somehow the smaller doll of Lord Jeffery Amherst, parasite like, snaked into the nest and found a good, if strange, fit (well, he was "WASP" even if British, colonial, royal, genocidal military).
Amherst College has evolved and flourished far beyond the provincial context of its early move to prominence but, apparently, not without the burden of an unwholesome nostalgic fog which seems to weigh upon the atmosphere like a not quite gone virus clouding perception and placing a drag against full consciousness and conscience.
LBJ said to Martin Luther King "Martin, make me do it." With respect to getting rid of Lord Jeff, we could, in the recent poll, have helped to "Make Martin do it." but an odd loss of perspective or failure of imagination, it seems, still tarnishes the vision.
Sad it is since anyone who has been at Amherst can (one way or another) view the Holyoke Range from behind the War Memorial and reflect on how many (Native Americans and vast numbers of others) through history have lost their lives to the efforts of men addicted, in pursuit of personal conceit, to power and gone bizarrely mad in avid promotion of and indulgence in the horrors of genocide/extermination.
And, still, it seems certain Lord Jeffery Amherst (Lord Jeff) will one day be gone. A sad remaining question is whether it will eventually take outside pressure to force that change. It would be much more heartening to see the Amherst community bring this about from the core of its own morally responsive character, one able to cut through a small-minded, smug, mascot hubris to a vision in resonance with a fuller, more humane sensibility, perhaps strengthened by overcoming this banal, accidental, encounter with a charming, seductive but essentially loathsome conceit providing, yes, "good old boy" fun but also the burden of rough strife when faced with necessary passings through the eye of the needle and chastising rubs against the rusting gates of life along a hardscrabble road less travelled by in the messy, lurching journey bending towards wisdom.

Alan Kaufman (not verified) says:
Tue, 02/24/2015 - 10:34

If one wishes to judge Lord Jeff some hundred years after the fact, then perhaps we might examine all alumni who have played important roles but performed beneath moral standards. John McCloy, former chairman of the Amherst trustees comes to mind. He vigorously opposed any effort to bomb the concentration camp trains in World War II. Wasn't that a tad impolite?

I'm confident we can find other alumni who have done dastardly deeds. And if they contributed to scholarship funds, by Mr. Temin's moralistic retroactive judgments, shouldn't Amherst divest of funds received from imperfect alumni? And shouldn't students who benefited from scholarships contributed by wrongdoers return the dirty money?

As for the rest of Mr. Temin's sweeping generalizations, I sure hope he didn't major in American Studies. And by his standards, we surely must be grateful that Thomas Jefferson didn't found Amherst. USA's shame would then be ours. It's difficult enough to make correct moral judgments in our own times. So I find it better to stick to our own century. Moral posturing rarely does much good.

Go Jeffs!