Examining the Derby Debacle

When campus liberalism ceases to advocate freedom, intellectual expression, openness, and civility it can no longer claim the “progressive” label. Across the United States and the Western world colleges and universities have been plagued by the rise of the regressive left and their brand of shrill liberalism. Liberalism is no longer an ideology of free thought and expression, but has morphed into an endless list of things you cannot do, say, or think without the threat of being outcast as some bigoted degenerate espousing fundamental evil. Across western colleges and universities, the regressive left has weaponized political correctness and identity politics to threaten a centuries-long curriculum of Western canon, demand modern incarnations of segregation, and silence any opposition as “violent.” Their ideology is synthesized by the refrain, “your rights end where my feelings begin” and manifest in their refusal to do much of anything save for aggressive, spiteful protests and the endless search for more things to ban.

The Kentucky Derby: An American tradition since 1875.

The Kentucky Derby: An American tradition since 1875.

Our opinion is that when compared to other elite institutions, Dartmouth tends to fare a bit better in this regard. Most efforts to reform student culture unfortunately come from our administration, which sacrifices genuine improvement in lieu of cosmetic changes to dispel a perceived stigma against our College. It is therefore troubling that the climate of fear surrounding the potential to give offense has extended to the epicenter of social life: Dartmouth’s beloved fraternities, sororities, and co-ed houses.

Recently, the Kappa Delta Epsilon sorority voted almost unanimously to end its Derby party — a springtime tradition occurring ever since the inception of the sorority — in wake of protests against the event last year. The demonstrators, roughly twenty people, protested police brutality against people of color at Derby as well as Alpha Chi Alpha’s “Pigstick” party. After meeting with the protesters early this term, the KDE executive board pushed changing the theme of the party, stating that it was related “pre-war Southern culture” and had racial connotations liable to offend students.

Upon closer examination, Derby itself is not a legacy of the Antebellum South but an import from Hanoverian England. In 1872, grandson of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. traveled to England and attended Derby, a horse race run since 1780. Impressed by the event, Clark brought the spectacle across the pond to Kentucky. Since 1875, the Kentucky Derby has been run annually and is perhaps the most prestigious race in the American Triple Crown. How one could possibly conclude that Derby has racial connotations is a mystery to me. Like many social events at the College, it’s a theme in which students have the opportunity to dress in excessive clothing.

Clearly the true history of Derby is lost on protesters and the KDE executive board alike, for if they took time to research the event they would understand that if anything the United States has committed the grave sin of cultural appropriation against the English by bringing the Derby to Kentucky. It’s a wonder why British international students haven’t beaten Black Lives Matter to protesting the party!

The connection between Derby and the antebellum South is dubious at best and leaves the theme change lacking a legitimate justification. One of the social chairs of KDE offered an alternative perspective that we believe more accurately explains the switch. In a statement to The Dartmouth, Jehanna Axelrod ‘17, a KDE social chair, said, “We realized that if anyone on campus felt uncomfortable or upset with the theme, then we obviously shouldn’t have it.”

The current campus climate has imposed a culture of sensitivity putting any social event in danger of cancellation if “anyone” feels uncomfortable. I wonder if it’s even possible to please such a large assortment of people spanning both ends of any ideological spectrum. With the broad range of social options afforded by the College and the Greek System, what stands in the way of students simply picking and choosing which ones to attend? Why must protesters single out objectively benign events enjoyed by many rather than simply spending their time elsewhere? One might even ask what these students gain from their minor victory? Will they be able to rest easy knowing that the harmless tradition has fallen or is this just the first step in a campaign to end the Kentucky Derby itself? Or perhaps these protestors only wish to keep Dartmouth relevant by drawing more and more press to the college in such a turbulent time. It seems likely that their time would be more productively spent devoted to a legitimate method of starting a campus conversation and shedding light on a difficult subject.

Passing the change with the support of 96% of members in attendance, the ladies of KDE succumbed to the pressure of a slim yet vocal proportion of campus delusional enough to tie the Kentucky Derby to antebellum southern culture. Campus activists desperately search for any insignificant or even counterfactual correlation with which they can justify their point, but how can people supposedly so in touch the feelings of students on campus lack the empathy necessary to realize the cultural groups they are attacking? We ask our liberal friends to flip their perspective. Could Southerners, especially students who associate their culture with the pageantry and revelry of horseracing, feel stigmatized and attacked by the false characterization and repression of their cultural tradition? Campus activism professes to respect the cultures, traditions, and identities, yet any traditions associated with the south or Western civilization in general are under attack from the regressive left.

Horse racing and the Derby do not harbor a climate of hate or racial resentment. The $115 billion industry profits not by the subjugation of minorities, but instead by the basic human instinct to wager money on nothing more than a gut feeling. This betting tradition dates back thousands of years to the time of the Romans, for whom horse racing was a staple entertainment spectacle. Albeit gambling is a dangerous vice, it seems rather harmless compared to the protesters allegations against Derby. Apart from gambling, horse racing is mostly synonymous with good company, food and drink, and outlandish fashion. It’s hard to see such a merry southern tradition lambasted only to fit the agenda of clueless protesters.

The decision has been made to change the party’s theme to Woodstock, thought by the KDE officers to promote an image of peace and love associated with the eponymous music festival. Woodstock represents a turning point in current musical history, but it was not all peace, love, and wholesome fun. The festival connotes a counter culture of peace and trendy music, but underneath this historical revision we find that the event was overshadowed by incredible levels of drug abuse. One can only guess that with KDE’s Woodstock party being dry, we may see it devolve into such drug fueled debauchery as the original Woodstock. It seems as a whole that the college is moving in this leftward direction when a theme rooted in blatant drug abuse is permissible, but an American tradition like Derby is not. As cultural libertarians we believe students should have the freedom to hold both parties, but to claim moral high ground by switching the theme is questionable considering abuse of hard drugs at the original Woodstock. To borrow the rhetoric of our well-meaning liberal friends, could not a recovering addict be triggered by the event? Perhaps KDE should consider another theme change lest one Dartmouth student is inspired by the party to consume schedule-1 substances posing a risk to him of herself.

Even if the historical context for Derby were different and its origins were in fact rooted in the antebellum south, would that be reason enough to cancel it? Should we expel all aspects of our culture that have any connection to the antebellum south? Surely we must be able to separate our country’s ugly racial past from the benign and unrelated traditions of the era. The left is well within their right to ask questions and explore our past. It would be ridiculous to say otherwise. The regressive left has led us astray, however, when they have cultivated a climate of fear that shuts down discussion and intimidates our social organizations into ending traditions with false historical justifications. We at The Review do not resent discussions about our heritage and traditions, but do take issue with the culture of fear surrounding conservative dissent and extreme sensitivity that has led to the condemning of Derby under the pretense of historical falsehood. We hope for a climate in which political correctness is not used to silence dissent and excuse historical inaccuracy. In order to truly claim that they are “progressives,” campus liberals should examine their ideological roots: freedom of expression, freedom of speech, and even the freedom to offend.