We are busy taking today’s idea of morals and correct principles and applying them to yesterday, rooting out anything that does not “fit.” There are no set rules, no committee and no governing body. No “civilian review board” has promulgated agreed-upon criteria by which to make judgments, a thumbs up or thumbs down on historical personalities, yesterday’s heroes and monuments. The crowd has become the Emperor in the Coliseum.
We cannot predict what the morals and concepts of correct behavior will be fifty to a hundred and fifty years from now, but very likely much will be different. Whose memories, whose statues, will be vilified and erased then? Perhaps the very people who are doing the vilifying and erasing now will be erased–cancelled–then.
That is the subject of today’s 10-minute episode.
“Let him who is without sin, cast the first stone.” No one threw a stone–or even a pebble. Everyone walked away, hopefully to contemplate their own faults, and not anyone else’s.
Imagine for a moment, the stunning and ongoing societal progress that would result if all of the energy that is being devoted to “correcting” the sins of the past were redirected with every involved person looking inward, focused on making changes in themselves. But that would involve hard work over time. Work like that never really stops. Protesting monuments and other people’s actions in the past is relatively easy, involves no self-correction, and allows for two of the most dangerous of all human emotions: self-righteousness and self-congratulations.
Let’s make another overall point here before we get to actual names. Every historical figure was deeply flawed. All human beings are deeply flawed. Why can’t we see the whole person, rather than either just the good parts, or just the bad parts, with the pendulum swinging wildly. You know, the holistic view. And looking at the whole person, the good, the bad and the ugly, will allow us to better understand the different, the good and bad, parts of ourselves.
Growing up I was taught that historical figures like George Washington and Christopher Columbus were flawless heroes. George Washington was the Father of our Country who brilliantly defeated the British with a ragtag army and never told a lie. The cherry tree myth is the most well-known and longest enduring legend about George Washington. In the original story, when Washington was six years old he received a hatchet as a gift and damaged his father’s cherry tree. When his father discovered what he had done, he became angry and confronted him. Young George bravely said, “I cannot tell a lie…I did cut it with my hatchet.” Washington’s father embraced him and rejoiced that his son’s honesty was worth more than a thousand trees. All a manufactured myth.
Today, the almost exclusive focus is on Washington the slaveholder. George Washington was indeed the Father of our Country, and miraculously defeated the British Empire with little more than a ragtag army. He lied like the rest of us, and he was a slaveholder.
Columbus was once portrayed not only as a visionary in standing alone knowing that the world was not flat, but as tenacious and brave as well. Put all of that together, I was told, and here you have the man who discovered America. Today, all I hear about is his often brutal treatment of indigenous peoples. Columbus did not discover America, but he did open it up for European exploration. He was indeed brave and tenacious, else he would have failed in his historic adventures. And he was often guilty of brutal treatment of the people he found in the new lands.
Robert E. Lee, along with other Confederate leaders, is much in the news, focusing on his role as a slaveholder. My issue with Lee, greater and far more damaging even than his being a slaveholder (and by all accounts not a kind one) was his decision not to lead the Union Army, as requested by Lincoln, but his choice to lead the South. Driven by his devotion to Virginia, Lee spurned Lincoln’s offer, and brilliantly led the Army of Northern Virginia. Had Lee led the Army of the Potomac, instead of the parade of incompetents prior to Grant, the war would have lasted 6 months, not four years, and might have cost 60,000 lives, not 600,000.
Let’s jump from Lee to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.–how’s that for a leap? Dr. King was a heroic figure, a man who changed a nation, and perhaps much of the world. Yet he along with other famous men, e.g., Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, was an adulterer for the entirety of his marriage. And not one of them made any attempt to hide their philandering from their wives. And Dr. King was also a plagiarist. Now you might say that adultery is not nearly as bad as slavery, and you would be right. But if we are going to tear down statues and rewrite history, where do we draw the line, what are the criteria for erasing our historical figures in the same way that Russia erased Joseph Stalin, the man credited with defeating the NAZIs who seriously threatened Russian in WWII, and transformed the Soviet Union into one of the two international superpowers? The next two men never owned slaves, but the word “racist” is now being attached to their names in the push to rewrite their histories and erase their legends.
Winston Churchill and Mohandas Gandhi were political enemies, yet they share the title “racist” today. Churchill was clearly the catalyst who rallied Britain and allowed her to stand up to the Nazi onslaught in 1940–the very same onslaught that had conquered much of Western Eurppe in a matter of weeks. Gandahi is just as clearly the Father of Modern India. Gandhi’s early writings were clearly racist and Churchill was a lifelong, enthusiastic supporter of keeping the British Empire intact–including Gandhi’s India. Additionally, though he lived to age 90, Churchill was roundly criticized as a lush; Gandhi is being held at fault for his Hindu beliefs on the male and female roles in marriage. All those things are true about both of those men. What is also true, is that the world is a far better place for them having been here.
If we need a reminder that monument destruction is often more based in passion and adrenaline than facts and research, I offer two additional examples: Vandals spray painted “colonizer” and “murderer” on the statue of Matthias Baldwin, a 19th century businessman and ardent abolitionist. Among other things, Baldwin founded and funded a school for poor black children, and pushed for black voting rights well ahead of the passage of the 15th amendment.
Boston protesters painted graffiti all over the Robert Gould Shaw and the 545th Regiment Memorial, the first Black Regiment to fight in uniform for the North in the Civil War. The graffiti included phrases like “Black Lives Matter”, “No Justice, No Peace”, and “Police are Pigs”. Oh, the irony.
“So, Will, what should we do?” Glad you asked. Ready?
- Get over ourselves, and stop ripping apart the history of people whose deep flaws were simply different from ours.
- Leave the Confederate statues up; partly as a reminder that we need to know and come to grips with history, and partly to, in this case, honor the simple soldiers who fought innocently and bravely on both sides.
- Teach both sides–all sides–of people like Washington, Columbus, Churchill, and Gandhi.
- Learn, really learn, from those flawed but successful and contributing people, about how to come to grips with the reality of our own deep flaws. And to come to grips with them in a way that we don’t allow those flaws to keep us from becoming great and memorable in our own unique and wonderful way.
As we get ready to wrap up, please do respond in the episodes with comments or questions about this episode or anything that comes to mind, or connect with me on Twitter, @willluden, Facebook, facebook.com/will.luden, and LinkedIn, www.linkedin.com/in/willluden/. And you can subscribe on your favorite device through Apple, Google, or Stitcher.
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Will Luden, coming to you from 7,200’ in Colorado Springs.
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