Initially well-intentioned, the movement for historical erasure is picking up steam and will soon be speeding out of control. We should use caution before sweeping too much of our history away from the public eye.
A History of Compromises
The fate of Confederate artifacts is not a new problem. In 1887, Grover Cleveland, our 22nd (and 24th) president, considered what to do about the hundreds of captured rebel battle flags being stored in the War Department. His solution was to return them to their respective state capitals, a decision he regretted almost immediately.
Cleveland was the first Democrat to occupy the White House since before the Civil War, and to a Northern population already suspicious of the party that tried to destroy the Union, this was just one more bit of evidence of Democratic treachery. Amid the furor, Cleveland repealed the order, and the flags remained federal property until 1905, when tempers had cooled and Congress authorized the transfer.
More recently, the presence on state land of the flag of the Confederate States of America (or, more properly, its naval jack) was the target of people’s ire. This was not an unreasonable reaction. Flying the flag of an enemy of the United States atop the South Carolina statehouse dome was provocative, and intentionally. When it was moved to the war memorial, but still on statehouse property, that was deemed a compromise, and the end of the matter.
A few years later, that too was unacceptable, and in 2015 the flag was removed from state property. Again, this was a not-unjust reaction to the crimes of Dylann Roof, a white man who murdered nine black churchgoers in an attempt to start a race war. Roof was fond of the rebel flag and featured it on his website along with his hateful screeds, so the connection was reasonable. And the flag was removed.
The ground has shifted again, this time to the Confederate memorials that the Daughters of the Confederacy and others scattered across the South in the period after Reconstruction when segregation rose to its post-bellum heights, along with nostalgia for the Old South. Again, the objection to statues of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate officers on public land is not without reason. No other nation that waged war on the United States has its heroes enshrined in bronze and stone across our nation.
So far, removing these items makes some sense. As Rich Lowry wrote this week for National Review, “Lee himself opposed building Confederate monuments in the immediate aftermath of the war. ‘I think it wiser,’ he said, ‘not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.’” Removing them to a Civil War battlefield, as many have suggested, makes a great deal of sense and would be an artful compromise.
Slipping Down the Slope
But even a fair compromise raises concerns for people who have seen fair compromises of the past—even the recent past—pushed aside as left-leaning opinion finds a new angle to push. Beyond the substance of their claims, the pace of change is itself disorienting. Ordinary people are not given time to adjust to the new reality before being buffeted into some new and baffling set of rules.
The bleeding hearts’ bleeding edge is already calling for more. Despite the near-consensus across the mainstream media, the Left’s current demands are far from universally accepted. As a poll conducted by Marist for NPR/PBS News Hour showed recently, 62 percent of Americans want Confederate statues to stay in place. Surprisingly, that figure includes 44 percent of all Democrats and 44 percent of African-Americans. The campaign to memory-hole all of the monuments goes farther than the average American would, which suggests the need for a pause and a compromise as we contemplate our path forward.
Instead, the radicals press on with increasingly unhinged demands. Already, we hear activists on the Left denouncing memorials to non-secessionists who were slaveholders. On Thursday, Bre Payton compiled a list of their various demands, and it beggars belief.
Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland removed a statue of Chief Justice Roger Taney from statehouse grounds in Annapolis. Taney, America’s first Catholic Supreme Court justice, is eternally remembered for his authorship of the odious 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which held that black people could never be American citizens. That decision was controversial even then, and is obviously something to revile, not celebrate, but it is worth noting that Taney was not a secessionist and served on the court his death in 1864. So the line dividing acceptable from unacceptable is pushed a little farther, now to include non-secessionists.
The Widening Gyre
President Trump was mocked for suggesting that tearing down Lee’s statue would lead to defiling those of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but there are already rumblings along those lines, and not merely from the masked radicals of Antifa. Former Democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton suggested that the Jefferson Memorial in Washington should no longer be maintained with public funds because Jefferson owned slaves. CNN political analyst Angela Rye echoed Sharpton’s sentiments, and extended them to include Washington.
Even Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, has come under attack, with his memorial in Washington and a statue in Chicago being defaced. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is calling for all statues of former Confederates to be ejected from the U.S. Capitol, something that failed to occur to her in her four years as House speaker. For that matter, the Democratic Party itself is the legacy of two slaveholders, Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Maybe the Democratic National Committee should disband itself out of an abundance of caution.
Activists in Northern cities free of Confederate imagery don’t want to be left out of the kulturkampf. In Boston, legislators are pushing to re-title the transit stop named after former Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, whom they blame for the Sox being the last team in baseball to integrate its roster. In Philadelphia, city council members are agitating for the statue of 1970s mayor Frank Rizzo to be demolished because they believe he was racist (the lawmakers’ call no doubt encouraged the vandals who defaced the statue the next day.) In New York, they plan to rip out subway tiling that merely bears a passing resemblance to the rebel flag. The social justice tempest is spinning out of control.
Even Old New York Was Once New Amsterdam
Where does it end? Most places on Earth have a connection to injustice. New York has not been the site of slavery for a long time, and was (mostly) free of secessionists in the Civil War. But New York is named for James, duke of York, a man who not only approved of slavery but actually presided over a slave-trading monopoly, the Royal African Company. The duke, who later became King James II, also briefly reigned over Britain and its colonies in a tenure best remembered for the trampling of his subjects’ civil liberties. Perhaps the name of New York, too, should be cast aside.
But what to call it? When the Dutch founded the city they called it New Amsterdam, but that name is also freighted with problematic history. The Dutch introduced slavery to the region and Peter Stuyvesant, the colony’s most famous governor, made his fortune in slave trading, among other pursuits. Should we go back to the original Lenape names, where they are even known? Or would that count as cultural appropriation?
That example might sound absurd, but it is not as extreme as it would have been a few weeks ago. We are approaching levels of secular iconoclasm previously unknown in the West. It is not complete hyperbole to say that soon no human form will be safe for memorialization, and nothing named for anyone can long endure. All humans are flawed. Eventually, all of us will be disowned by our grandchildren.
History Is Suffering
The movement to remove the relics of secession and slavery began with a decent thought, but now risks tipping into a cultural revolution against history itself. It does so because its practitioners misunderstand history, and mankind itself. They seek a world where everything we see reflects perfect, idealized humanity. But the ideal human will never be found, either among us, our ancestors, or our descendants. We are all flawed, even in ways we don’t yet understand.
The history of humanity is the history of oppression, of slavery, of death. Every place we walk has seen tragedy. That suffering is a part of what makes a place. To rename everything in the world in words that inspire warm, fuzzy feelings mistakes who we are as humans. Plenty of places have names like Hell’s Kitchen and Fishtown that no real estate developer would have chosen. But the names have become a part of the place and are not easily dislodged.
To do so is also impossible, because the rules are always changing. Australian Prime Minister John Howard once said that “a conservative is someone who doesn’t think he is morally superior to his grandfather.” But progressives hold the opinion that they are morally superior to their grandparents, while believing that their own grandchildren will somehow not feel the same way about them. That lack of humility makes it easier for them to be certain; it also makes them certain to be wrong.
We cannot know what the future holds. When we make changes that will have lasting effects, we must avoid hubris and focus on posterity. Removing Confederate memorials from state property may, indeed, be the correct decision. But we must use caution at each step of the way to avoid burying all of our history, however we feel about it.