Reversing the Verdicts: The Case of Reed College

Article excerpt

Poet Gary Snyder began his commencement address to Oregon's Reed College class of 1991 by paying homage to some of the professors who inspired him when he was a member of the class of 1951. Then he paused and, referring to one of the professors, declared: "Reed still has some unfinished busienss with Dr. [Stanley] Moore."(1) Snyder's words evoked a sharp and sustained burst of applause, but the majority of the audience probably wondered: "Who's Stanley Moore and what unfinished business does Reed College have with him?"

Simply said, Stanley Moore taught philosophy at Reed from 1948 to 1954 and retired from the University of California at San Diego in 1975. The "unfinished business" Snyder referred to is the puzzling refusal of a succession of Reed presidents to invite Professor Moore to give a lecture on campus, as a group of alumni first urged almost ten years ago. But the reasons Stanley Moore has become a cause celebre at Reed go back almost forty years, and illuminate the meaning of historical absolution and "political correctness" in our time and place.

Historically, the facts are also clear enough: Professor Moore, a Marxist scholar,(2) was fired by the Reed Trustees at the height of the McCarthy era in 1954 for declining to tell them whether he was a Communist.[3] Twenty-seven years later, after intensive pressure, alumni were able to wrest an expression of "regret" for the firing from the resistant trustees. Officially inviting Professor Moore to visit the campus seemed naturally to follow as a gesture of reconciliation. Instead, the college went on ignoring its glaring failure to uphold academic freedom. At the recent commencement, then, what Gary Snyder was referring to was this history of Reed's refusal to "do the right thing." His words confirm that this cold-war outrage has haunted Reed College for thirty-seven years and remains an embarrassment today.

So what does Reed's institutional behavior in the case of Stanley Moore tell us about the meaning of historical absolution? Appeals to history's judgment, after all, have been common cries, raised by dissenters and heretics in circumstances from formal debate to last words before execution. If absolution ever arrives, it frequently takes explicit form: in this sense history "absolves" when the correctness of actions or opinions previously condemned is generally acknowledged. Less often, absolution also brings formal rehabilitation of the dissenter or heretic--even, on occassion, raising yesterday's victims post-humously to hero status and presenting them as models for the present.

While few heroes have been nominated from the ranks of McCarthy-era victims, more modest forms of historical absolution began to be granted to some of them by the late 1960s. There were occasional reinstatements and some monetary compensation, but--more often--formal apologies and invitations were issued, or blacklists were quietly forgotten. Probably the majority of victims have never been formally rehabilitated, but no demands have ever been raised on behalf of most of them. In any case, American society has for two decades generally acknowledged that McCarthyism is a pejorative term.

But there is another dimension to historical absolution, and it is raised by victims as a warning to their judges to be aware of the present as history. "What will become of your reputation, power, or even your neck," they ask, "if your verdict is reversed?" This warning, based on credible evidence that those who enforce political correctness may some day themselves be judged, argues that history must not simply absolve victims, it must hold their judges to account--and even punishment. Debates over just this question are currently raging in several former socialist nations. And in 1954, Stanley Moore challenged the trustees in an open letter. Noting that his colleagues on the faculty had judged his fitness for academic positions by promoting him from assistant to full professor in only five years, he warned: "If those decisions are reversed now, who will stand condemned? …