‘Tis the season for tearing down statues. And renaming schools and buildings and bridges. And removing the names of virtually all our important forebearers from the public square.
Does any of this make sense? To help us think less emotionally and more clearly, let’s traverse the Atlantic and consider the case of Isaac Newton.
There is a statue of him at Oxford University. Should the British tear it down? According to Stephen Hawking, who held the Newton chair, the man who was perhaps the greatest scientist in the history of the world, was devious, spiteful, revengeful, and generally unpleasant.
At one point in his life, Newton was appointed the Warden of the Royal Mint. In that capacity, he carried out a campaign against counterfeiting that sent several men to the gallows for passing counterfeit coins.
This is eerily close to what happened to George Floyd. He too was suffocated. What was his crime? Passing a counterfeit note.
Yet destroying Newton’s statue would be like destroying Michelangelo’s David because the Biblical David sinned. (He engineered the death of the husband of Bathsheba, after whom he lusted.) It would be like burning the Bible because the Old Testament seems to condone slavery and predatory wars that produced slaves.
We don’t do these things because as mature adults we realize that none of our ancestors were flawless. We acknowledge by way of a statue our debt to Newton – not because he executed counterfeiters, but because he invented calculus and was the father of classical physics.
Now back to our part of the world. If I were in the image-destroying and name-changing business, my first candidate would be Franklin Roosevelt. Why?
Because he presided over the worst depression in our nation’s history; and, as Scott Summer has meticulously shown, his policies unnecessarily prolonged the Great Depression and led to a great deal of avoidable human suffering. Roosevelt tried to destroy the framework of American democracy by packing the Supreme Court; he tried to remodel the entire U.S. economy after Italian fascism; and he consigned millions of freedom-loving Europeans to the evils of Soviet communism with the stroke of a pen. And that’s just for starters.
That said, I would be the first to acknowledge that these aren’t the reasons why Roosevelt’s image is on our dime or why the east side highway in Manhattan bears his name.
Yet, mine is not the kind of concession you will hear from the woke culture these days. They not only are relentless in finding fault with people who are honored, but they also make the ridiculous claim that the faults are the reason why the honor is there.
It wasn’t that long ago that liberals in this country decided to jettison the word “liberal” and began calling themselves “progressives,” harking back to the era of Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt.
Is it possible that these folks didn’t know that Wilson was a segregationist and a racist? Could they have possibly been unaware that early 20th century progressives were eugenicists, who believed in the forced sterilization of “inferior” people?
Of course they knew those things. But that’s not why they chose the name “progressive.”
Is it possible that Democrats who held Andrew Jackson dinners year after year didn’t know that Jackson was a racist who was incredibly cruel to the Indians?
Is it possible that Planned Parenthood members didn’t know that their founder Margaret Sanger held the same repulsive views as other progressives in her day?
Is it possible that members of the Sierra Club didn’t know that John Muir held racist views. (BTW, when Muir was alive, virtually everyone in the entire world had racist views.)
Here is what the cancel culture doesn’t understand: There is nothing wrong in finding fault with the people you honor, so long as it’s clear you are not honoring them for their faults.
Which brings us to our founding fathers. Why do we honor Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, both slaveholders? Because they created the first country in the history of the world whose founding document declared that people have the right not to be slaves, that they have the right to pursue their own happiness and that the only purpose of government is to secure those rights.
In Jefferson’s day, almost no one else in the world thought this way. Other people may have opposed slavery. They may have found it disgusting. But apart from our founding fathers and a few people back in England, virtually no one else on the planet thought you have a right not to be a slave.
Modern critics sometimes call Jefferson a hypocrite because the Declaration of Independence appears to not include black men, or women, or even white males who didn’t own property. This critique is incredibly shortsighted, however. In securing rights, you have to start somewhere. The founding fathers opened the door – one that eventually would be open to everyone.
The same reasoning applies to the Greeks and Romans, who were the ancestors of the idea of democracy. The average Greek household had 3 or 4 slaves. More than one-third of all the residents of ancient Rome were slaves.
We don’t acknowledge our debt to these civilizations because they owned slaves. (There was slavery almost everywhere in the world at that time.) We acknowledge a debt because they were a source of the ideas that made the American republic possible.
One of the puzzles about the cancel culture is its failure to focus on some obvious candidates for shaming and renaming.
What about New York City? How about New York State? How about The New York Times?
What about the Democratic Party?
I’ll address those renaming opportunities in Part II.