“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana (1863-1952)
I am amazed at the efforts around the country to remove and destroy painful mementos of our history. One would think that historical figures need to be perceived as perfect to survive the winds of change that buffet their statues and portraits, and the employment of their names.
Some of this is decent and civilized. Some of it is misguided and violent. All of it is unnecessary.
When a statue is erected to a historical figure, it is a statement about the balance of the person’s life worth. It is not a claim of perfection.
The father of our country owned more than 100 slaves. When the capital of the U.S. was in Philadelphia, at a time when all slaves were deemed by Pennsylvania law to be freed after six months of their entry into the state, George and Martha Washington – he, the president of the United States at the time – rotated their slaves into and out of the state, so that none would qualify for freedom.
The same man who wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” also fathered numerous children with one of his 600 slaves. Do you think Sally Hemings was free to reject a years-long sexual union with Thomas Jefferson, the man who owned her?
And the author of the Constitution, who owned at least 100 slaves, defended his exploitation of them into his presidency. The same James Madison – who artfully and articulately defended natural rights for white people – hardly considered blacks to be in the same category.
Should we really forget Washington, Jefferson and Madison?
We have come a long way since the attitudes and the eras that permitted the most grotesque exploitation of human beings by others, the most abominable legal institution in our history, and the most hypocritical suppression of human worth in the history of the Western world – slavery in America.
Though it legally ended with the adoption of the 13th Amendment in 1868, slavery has had an afterlife almost as hateful as the institution itself.
The afterlife has consisted of laws, customs and attitudes intended to repress the lives and liberties of African-Americans.
We need to be reminded from time to time of our horrible past so that we can labor mightily to avoid repeating it.
These repressions included Jim Crow laws, lynchings, official and forced segregation, denials of constitutionally guaranteed liberties on the basis of skin color, the Ku Klux Klan and, in the post-World War II era, and the generally accepted attitudes on the part of white police officers and the politicians who fund them that brutalizing blacks was somehow acceptable and even lawful.
What is the common thread in slavery’s afterlife? The use of government for hateful purposes.
In my heart, I have cheered on the peaceful, courageous Black Lives Matter folks because they are quintessentially exercising constitutionally protected rights to expose government hatred and wrongdoing.
Cops can only use deadly force when they reasonably believe it is being used on them or another person. Even then, it can only be used proportionately to save a human life. When it is used for any other purpose, it is criminal, and cops who use it without legal justification should be prosecuted and sued personally, irrespective of their uniforms.
The police brutality directed against blacks in America today is the natural progression and extension of the government hypocrisy that brought about and protected slavery. We need to reverse that progression.
But we cannot reverse the memory of it.
We need to be reminded from time to time of our horrible past so that we can labor mightily to avoid repeating it. Does this mean changing the names of federal institutions? Does it mean tearing down statues of the long-dead because we finally realized that there was more evil than good in some of them?
Or does it mean tastefully confining these statues and portraits to museums and academic institutions where those once thought to be great can be exposed – warts and all – for fair-minded Americans to judge them?
I understand the impulses to knock these guys off their pedestals. But doing so runs the risk of rewriting history and acting as if they never existed. We also run the risk of demanding such human perfection as a precondition to erecting an instrument of memory that only Jesus Christ can meet the standard.
Once we start pulling down statues – whether of Robert E. Lee or Christopher Columbus or Theodore Roosevelt – there will be no end.
Anyone who owns private property is free to display on that property any opinion about any historical figure in any form. The problems arise when government does this.
The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that government itself has the freedom of speech. I disagree. People have the freedom of speech because we are born with it and other natural rights.
Government is not a natural creature; it is an artificial creation. When the government acts as if it has the freedom of speech, whose speech is it exercising? The power structure of those who control it.
Don’t take my tax dollars to advance your speech.
Yet, pretending that these figures never existed, or eradicating the memory of the good they performed, will continue the march toward a false sense of place – one that is not based on what was, but on what the folks in power wish had been. That is a self-delusion that escapes reality.
We must live in the real world where bad men did good things and good men did bad things – and intelligent people recognize this.
You can escape reality. But you cannot escape the consequences of escaping reality. Those consequences will be the inevitable repetition of a past we should never forget.