Homage to Outdated Idols?

In the last few years, apparently the younger generation has suddenly discovered history, and in discovering it, they’ve learned, and have been outraged in many cases to discover that historic personages not only had feet of clay, but often acted in ways currently unacceptable and even illegal, as well as holding views now regarded as unfashionable and sometimes despicable.

That one-time paragon of the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, was not only a slave-holder, who hypocritically declaimed on freedom, but who also made his dead wife’s younger half-sister (and a slave) his mistress. It also turns out that the noble Robert E. Lee savagely beat at least one slave, if not more. In the fourth debate with Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln stated bluntly, “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races…there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

Monuments and statues have been torn down, and buildings renamed because of the “discovery” and outrage about the dead men [and all of them have been men so far as I can determine] and their acts and beliefs. Two awards in the F&SF field have been altered or renamed as a result of protests about the earlier author and editor they honored because of the racist views each held.

There seems to be a view gaining credence, particularly among those of a more “liberal” persuasion, along the lines of that we as a society should not honor dead people who held views no longer accepted, no matter how important their contributions to literature, society, or history, because their contributions do not outweigh the harm of their views.

Those opposing such renaming and destruction make the point that many of these individuals held views that accurately represented public opinion at that time and that many [but far from all] were “honorable” by the standards of their times.

We tend to forget that those times were indeed very different. For example, slavery was an accepted practice in the majority of societies and cultures across the world until roughly two hundred years ago. So, for as far back as records go, some 6,000 years, if not farther, slavery was accepted for 5,800. Now, I’m not condoning slavery, but does that mean that every monument to past powerful slaveholders, including a plethora of rulers and military heroes, should be destroyed? If not, why destroy monuments to men who grew up in societies that accepted slavery, but found society changed around them?

Yet, as we know, some “historic” figures were rather awful individuals, and the question is how we balance past positive achievements against past beliefs and past actions that we now regard as despicable. Or should we just obliterate the memory of those with now-unacceptable social and political views?

10 thoughts on “Homage to Outdated Idols?”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    Washington, Jefferson, and Lee were complicated (and accomplished), and left considerable legacies in their accomplishments. Being complicated (and human), they’re not above criticism, but neither is any other mortal to whom a monument has been raised.

    As far as I can tell, in addition to being on the losing side of history and changing opinions (and slavery), Jefferson Davis was not particularly competent, about as unhelpful as he could get away with being post-Civil War, and didn’t really leave anything better than he found it. Worthy of a few lines in texts, but not of monuments, IMO.

    And that’s where I’d draw the line. However, there’s certainly room for additional monuments to persons of historical significance that were of groups that were often neglected in texts and memorials.

    One thing seems infrequently considered in re-evaluations of the Founders: many were less than secure financially. In a time when one’s future and that of one’s family depended on not being reduced to destitution, and with the additional distractions of their public responsibilities, there was a limit to how magnanimous they could afford to be; before assigning a measure of hypocrisy to the contradiction between espoused principle and conduct, I think that the burden of other obligations needs to be considered.

  2. John Prigent says:

    Alas, slavery is still practised (usually under another name) by some that follow the tenets of the inventor of Islam. Where is the condemnation of them?

  3. RRCRea says:

    Sometimes it is not actually the accomplishments of the person depicted or the historical event commemorated that is the point of people wanting the statues down (though, admittedly, sometimes that is also the point) but the growing awareness of the fact that many of the monuments weren’t put up to commemorate the good deeds of anyone at all, they were put up to remind those who had suffered through slavery or whose ancestors had, to remember their lesser place in society. Most of the monuments were put up immediately after Reconstruction, during the Jim Crow Era and during the Civil Rights movement. Should monuments that are specifically created for the purposes of psychological warfare to perpetuate a system of oppression be maintained because those depicted happen to also have made some contribution to society? Those accomplishments are, at best, window dressing on an abattoir.

    1. JakeB says:

      Like that statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest outside Nashville.

      Last time I was there the city was letting trees grow up around it so that it was getting difficult to see from the highway. Easier than knocking it down, I guess.

  4. Tim says:

    In England there was a great brouhaha over a statue of Rhodes at Oxford. Luckily commonsense prevailed and it was not removed. However I note that one of the activists later accepted a Rhodes scholarship. Dual standards still exist it seems.

    1. Gerald Fnord says:

      If the scholarship hadn’t been accepted some might have disparaged the activist as a fool not worth the listening-to.

  5. Wine Guy says:

    There is, apparently, no place in the modern world for nuance or context, unless it is one’s own. In psychiatry, there is a concept called splitting and it is commonly seen in people with borderline personality disorder: everything/everyone is either all good or all bad. Inevitably, the “good” group/individual lets the borderline person down (be it real or imagined) and then they become all bad. This is becoming a norm in our society, if not on a private level, at least on a public persona level.

    I’m not a christian, but one thing Jesus reputedly said has stuck: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Good words to live by.

  6. Christopher says:

    There needs to be discussion about “accurate history”…to the “victor go the spoils” is true also with written history…our nation was founded on the backs of human beings under the whip and the genocide of entire nation’s of indigenous populations…our history has been “white washed” so as to justify atrocities that pale the Holocaust in comparison… Mr Modisett I don’t think this “new generation” has just found history, they are just gaining access to more accurate information that for quite some time has been suppressed, and they are gaining a voice…you used Thomas Jefferson as an example, what you didn’t mention is that he paved the way for the systemetic eradication of more than 200,000,000 indigenous peoples (that being the low number) what should one do if one discovers that one’s hero is a mass murderer? As far as I am concerned I think Chief Joseph should be the bust on the nickel and there should be holidays celebrating the fact that Jefferson died broke and penniless…

    1. Christopher… I think you’re overstating the “systemic” aspect. Europeans, directly and indirectly, were indeed responsible for the death of possibly 200,000 indigenous peoples, but the majority of those deaths were from exposure to smallpox [mainly but not completely incidental to contact with Europeans, since a number of Cherokee Indians were given smallpox infected blankets] and to measles. Those illnesses made further exploitation and forced relocations far easier for the colonists… and, frankly, Jefferson couldn’t have been responsible for those deaths, because the majority of them occurred even before he was born. Others, such as Andrew Jackson, were far more responsible for the later deaths and brutalities than was Jefferson.

  7. Gerald Fnord says:

    In the case of Lincoln it is very worth noting that he seems to have greatly changed his mind on the basis of evidence.

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