Scrub ’em clean

June 14, 2016

1221 words

I’ve been away from the blog for a couple of weeks, writing the first draft of the proposal for the book Taking Offense. During that time, I’ve been musing about a problem that has loomed large in the news this spring, the problem of when to scrub away the names or symbols of honorees whom we now understand dishonor us.

It’s likely a fundamental human impulse to pay homage to those who have achieved great things: saved the community from enemies in battle, governed well, invented processes and machines to raise us from trouble and drudgery, created works of art that inspire, taught us to learn and grow, or helped or enlightened us in some other way. You no doubt have a hero or two in mind as you read this, as do I as I write. Some honorees are known to families, neighborhoods, or particular communities, others to whole nations and the world.

And then comes the moment when you wake up, or grow up, or learn something new, about yourself, the world, and your hero.

It turns out that the friendly wrestling coach who went on to become speaker of the House of Representatives has a dark and ugly side: he abused boys entrusted to his athletic care. It turns out that the master comedian with a happy countenance and a puckish look who provided a television family to the rapturous delight of millions, has a dark and ugly side: he was a serial abuser of women. And then there are the husbands you thought were terrific who you later discovered beat their wives senseless, and the priests who molested children over the decades, and the church officials who tolerated it. Fallen heroes. And if some of them have buildings or programs named for them, or if their statues stand in town squares or public parks, it’s not so controversial to remove those public reminders. That’s because the evil was hidden, and no one disagrees about the enormity of the sin when it comes to light.

But it’s not so easy to scrub ’em all clean. It’s now become obvious that other heroes have been honored for their depravity. Not by us but by our forebears. Sometimes the honorees were monsters honored by themselves. Think of the statues of twentieth-century dictators that came crashing down when their regimes finally toppled. That’s not much of a surprise. You tolerate a false claim only as long as you have to, or until you can get your hands on the statue.

Our problem is harder. Our problem is that the standard of virtue has changed. I don’t mean that everyone exalted the old standard. After the Civil War, lots of people excoriated Jefferson Davis, despite the profusion of statues and naming opportunities that were his; they just had no power to do anything about it. And lots of people today—more people, I suppose—would like to see his name and image vanish, but his hold remains strong in certain quarters. Still, here and there he’s been toppled, and it’s surely harder to bring forth new ways to honor the man.

The past year we’ve seen signs of the old order cracking or, to change the metaphor, signs that more people are pulling their heads out of the sand. Increasing numbers of people are taking a look at the accolades bestowed on historical figures or the references to them, and have resolved that what was once a matter of pride or indifference must now be seen as an outrage. Thus South Carolina finally lowered the Confederate flag on the Capitol grounds. Thus the debates over what to do about the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, Calhoun College at Yale University, and even a crest bearing wheat sheaves, the emblem of an early Harvard University benefactor who happened to make his living as a slave trader.

This is a blog. I’m not pretending to comprehensive coverage, certainly not in this post, of who’s been banished and who’s been saved. But from episodic newspaper clippings, the scrubbers are picking up the pace:

Though tarnished, Woodrow Wilson keeps his name alive at Princeton. Despite his increasingly widely-recognized personal racism, which brought new forms of segregation in American government and political and social life, he was the president of the United States, with enlightened views on other things. A mixed bag, though with much lower lows and higher highs than most of the rest of us.

John Calhoun, more surprisingly, gets to keep his college or, I suppose, the college gets to keep his name. Calhoun based his political activities on his dedication to slavery as a way of life. Honoring such a man today seems well over the top. The president of Yale, Peter Salovey, said “we cannot erase American history, but we can confront it.” Yale hinted at a marker on the college grounds that reflects on Calhoun and his times. But that seems backward. It doesn’t erase American history to remove Calhoun’s name from a college residence, and Yale could just as easily provide a marker reminding everyone what it once was named and why it was changed. Yale, I think, just can’t fathom what it would mean to shake off a name that so many of its alumni have hailed as their college home for three-quarters of a century—or what precedent doing so might serve to establish.

Harvard Law School decided to delete the wheat sheaves, even though their eighteenth-century origin in the family crest of a slave trader was entirely obscure.

Yale and Harvard did withdraw the name “master” from the title of the heads of their undergraduate student residences (colleges at Yale; houses at Harvard), but so what? No one supposed the title was meant to honor the word. It does leave Yale in an odd place: the association of “master” with “slave master” was too strong to bear, but not the association of an actual slave master with the college in which students live.

In Washington, Georgetown University decided to erase the names of two campus buildings. The Jesuit priests whose names they carried sold off 272 slaves in the 1830s to earn the funds to preserve what became Georgetown.

And a few days ago, Washington National Cathedral announced that it would remove Confederate battle flags  from two of its imposing stained-glass windows that honor Confederate Generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. But for now the windows themselves will remain in place. They “provide an opportunity for us to begin to write a new narrative on race and racial justice at the cathedral,” said a member of a task force charged with sorting it all out.

That, I think, is where we are at the moment: trying to sort it all out. The inconsistent answers so far are perhaps only seemingly so. Perhaps the answer is that whether to continue the honor depends on a fine weighing of particular facts. Or perhaps it will eventually become clear that a Round Earth Society need honor flat-earthers no longer.

And now I’m off for three weeks—on a road trip across the country, to get my head out of the papers and take a look for myself. Back in July.

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