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Letter from the Editor

Eric Metaxes: Honorary Degrees and the Dishonorable

Spectre Readers, Friends, and Community Members, 

In recent weeks, the Sewanee administration has been inundated with calls from students, faculty, staff, and alumni to revoke the honorary degree of far-right political pundit Eric Metaxas. This movement was spearheaded by and began with an online petition written by Dr. Royal G. Cravens III, an alumnus of the University. The full text of the petition can be found here. 

If you’re reading this piece, chances are you are either a member of the Sewanee community or Eric Metaxas. If you are the former–Welcome! If you are the latter, (Hi, Eric!)  we invite you to reflect on the vitriol and bigotry of your beliefs, and return your honorary degree—no further reading of this piece is necessary. 

Eric Metaxas is an individual undeserving of recognition, and even further undeserving of praise. As a leading figure of the Christian right, Metaxas has a long history of making homophobic, racist, and otherwise bigoted comments. Recently, he has used his influence and power to sow dangerous misinformation about vaccines and the Covid-19 pandemic contributing to the tragic deaths of more than half a million Americans. Furthermore, he openly rallied support for the January 6th insurrectionists,  undermining our democracy through the propagation of thoroughly debunked conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election. In short, he is a political grifter who has weaponized the sincerely held religious beliefs of many in this nation to further a political agenda of hatred and division. 

In response to the calls for revoking Metaxas’ honorary degree from Sewanee, critics have accused those who support degree revocation of “canceling” Metaxas and hindering his right to free speech. As an openly leftist news publication, we at the Sewanee Spectre recognize and continue to fiercely defend the merits of free thought and expression in society. However, as an organization composed of queer individuals, allies, and supporters of democratic institutions we cannot in good conscience sit idly by as Metaxas continues to be rewarded for his vitriol. The Sewanee Spectre is an organization committed to the total liberation of all people, and the abolition of the structures of power that have allowed men like Eric Metaxas to design, build, and spread their false gospel of hatred. These actions undermine our core beliefs and go directly against the values of the University that we as a community have agreed to uphold. 

Eric Metaxas is not the only one with a right to free speech and now is the time for us as an organization and as members of the University to exercise this right by disavowing the ignorance and hatred represented in Metaxas’ public  persona,

Honorary degrees serve as a symbol of Sewanee’s recognition that an individual has presented notable contributions to society and has an upstanding moral character. By and large, Metaxas has neither of these qualifications. Through continuing to allow Metaxas to bear an honorary award from The University of the South we as an institution choose not just to ignore, but to endorse the oppression of students of marginalized identities. In the spring of 2018, when Sewanee chose to revoke the honorary degree of Charlie Rose, it was because we, as a collective community, agreed and loudly decreed that his actions were unacceptable and irreconcilable with the values of the University. It has now become clear that Eric Metaxas has also violated the principles of our institution, and must now, like Charlie Rose before him, face accountability for his actions . 

If any student at the University behaved in the way that Eric Metaxas has in the last few years, they would face severe disciplinary action. The staff of the Spectre questions how our institution can, in good conscience, continue to lend their support, even in a symbolic way,  to a man who has so clearly violated the community standards and values agreed upon by our University.  We believe in the worthwhile goals of the University and our values. If these values are to be more than words on a page, we must hold our students, alumni, and recipients of honorary degrees accountable for their actions and subscription to these ideals.

Eric Metaxas has a right to free speech. While Metaxas’ speech is primarily composed of alt-right Christian nationalist drivel, he has a right to it nonetheless. However, when that speech manifests in the form of violence, Sewanee has not just the option to hold him accountable, but a duty to do so. 

It is with these points in mind that the Sewanee Spectre staff lends our full support towards the petition to revoke Eric Metaxas’ honorary degree. Accountability, while hard, is critical to our ultimate goal of collective liberation. We can only hope that those in positions of power at this University choose to act with ethical conviction, rather than political cowardice. 

Revoke his honorary degree. 

Sincerely, 

The Staff of the Sewanee Spectre

Categories
Letter from the Editor

Dear Dr. Berner

Note: We’ve received multiple requests that Dr. Berner’s email be linked within this article. As it was not a public post made on any website, but rather an email to Sewanee students and faculty, we’ve included the full text in the comments below.

Dear Dr. Berner, 

We write regarding your recent email encouraging students to refrain from “individual action” against racist artifacts and symbols at Sewanee. The University’s unwillingness to celebrate a material protest against an artifact of the Lost Cause is discouraging, especially after the Board of Regents’ decision to finally disavow the Confederacy and the Lost Cause last September. 

The individual who removed the sculpture sent two letters explaining their decision and treated the bust with respect, despite Leonidas Polk deserving little in life, and even less in death. It’s not that Polk, and many other people who are enshrined as icons across campus, “might be considered problematic.” Unquestionably, “Sewanee’s Fighting Bishop” was a vile, murderous, treasonous slaver who tried to overthrow the United States government by force of arms. Even by the standards of 19th century ethics, Polk’s legacy is indefensible. Any critic of the anonymous student concerned with “presentism” would do well to remember that roughly half of the United States was against slavery when Polk died. His greatest service to Sewanee (and humankind) was his generous decision to step in front of a cannonball at Pine Mountain. Are we really expected to wait until June of 2022 for a committee of academics to confirm what a five minute Google search would reveal about Polk, or any other bigot commemorated on this campus? 

Many of the greatest revolutionaries, peace makers, and activists throughout history began their work as individuals precisely because larger groups and systems were not doing enough. An anonymous student at Sewanee thought critically about the harm that this institution caused their peers, then acted on their conscience. The act of taking Polk’s bust was a profound statement of individual morality over institutional bureaucracy. It took the University over a century to confirm what the Union Army decided in 1865; it’s no wonder students have lost trust in University committees. 

We should encourage students to seek justice within harmful institutions. It’s defeatist to assert that real change cannot be introduced by the actions of a single person, and that’s the message that comes across in your email. Reckoning with the past begins with discomfort in the present, and that was demonstrated by the necessary and ethical removal of Polk’s bust from duPont. 

Respectfully, 

The Sewanee Spectre