The Great Toppling of 2020

August 8, 2020

3102 words

Whether or not the spring and summer of 2020 will be seen in hindsight as a Great Tipping Point, it is already clear that we are witnessing a remarkable popular revulsion against a major strand of offensiveness in American life. All around us are the signs that public patience with the display of phony heroes and false icons has worn out. We are surely not done with the impact of offensive speech and behavior in the public sphere, but we are living through the consequences of rising disgust at our tradition of amiably countenancing monuments to a past age’s sins. The social contract between the generations is being redrawn in the court of public opinion: significant majorities are repudiating the comfortable but immoral precept that regardless of our ancestors’ iniquity we, their grandchildren, great grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren, should let it lie unremarked and unrebuked or worse, should sanitize it and let bygones be bygones.

Of course this tipping point, if that is what it turns out to be, didn’t just happen. Tipping points are never moments of pure spontaneity. Things get to a point; they don’t just start there. You know as well as I the particular incidents that have brought us to our present moment: mass shootings, the rise of white-supremacy agitprop and violence, a long series of dehumanizing damage and death of blacks at the hands of police, and all the rest. In the past, an outrage might prompt a riot and perhaps even some local reform (the killings of Erik Garner six years ago in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018); but sooner or later, despite early claims that this time there will be change, the fury subsided nationally. This time, with the March death in Lexington, Kentucky, of Breonna Taylor and the June death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, from another chokehold while in police custody, the mood seems dramatically altered. (See here for a list of 32 other “I can’t breathe” deaths since 2010, and here for historical lists of school shootings nationwide.)

Central to the unfolding drama is the emerging understanding that the visible signs of our antecedents, the statues and monuments and symbols on cloth and paper and cans and boxes, no longer merit our adulation merely for being “part of our history” because, as it turns out, much of what we honor was never part of our history. It was only part of our antecedents’ bigotry and, by persisting in the honoring, ours.

Then again, as the great ranter of yore Dennis Miller used to put it: “That’s just my opinion, I could be wrong.” Still, consider these developments, all in the past few weeks.


The Confederate flag as a celebration of white supremacy and black slavery is now at long last dying, despite supporters’ claims that it symbolizes regional heritage and pride. The signal event came in Mississippi, where the state legislature enacted and on June 30 the governor signed a bill abolishing the Confederate battle insignia on its state flag, the last state to do so. Two weeks earlier the Marine Corps drummed out Confederate flag displays from any of its installations, including those on mugs, posters, and bumper stickers. Two weeks later came reports that the Secretary of Defense has “effectively ban[ned]” displays of confederate flags from U.S. military bases. Private organizations have joined the groundswell, perhaps most notably the decision by NASCAR to ban the flag from its arenas, though enforcing the ban, once fans reassemble, may prove difficult.

Statues Toppled, Dismantled, Dispatched

The George Floyd protests have prompted a wave of removals. Statues honoring a variety of one-time nationally or locally respected American figures have come down or are about to be removed from their pedestals in scores of places around the country (and abroad). Not all of the removals were entirely sensible and not all were lawful, but down the monuments have come, tarnished heroes finally understood as embarrassments or villains. Perhaps most noteworthy are the removals from Richmond, Virginia, capital of the Confederacy. The timing is largely attributable to the state legislature’s coming into Democrats’ hands following the 2019 elections: the new legislature repealed an old law prohibiting removal of historic monuments, effective July 1, 2020. The most well known of the figures sent packing are statues of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, J. E. B. Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, many of them in multiple versions; others less well known nationally have also fallen. More generally, Confederate statues and monuments have been toppled or removed in multiple locations in 20 states and the District of Columbia. Some pre-Civil War notables have seen likenesses tumbled; for example, Thomas Jefferson in Portland, Oregon, and Richmond, Virginia.

Beyond the post-Floyd outcry over commemorations of southern heroes of the Civil War and other white supremacists, a common target has been statues honoring those who participated in brutality toward and genocide of Native Americans, including several statues of Father Junipero Serra in southern California; John Sutter, of Gold Rush fame, in Sacramento; and Juan de Onate, a sixteenth-century colonial New Mexico governor, in Albuquerque. Wikipedia has posted a list of nearly 40 statues and busts of Christopher Columbus that have come down, some as matters of policy, some to prevent injury and further protests while deciding where the statues should be relocated.

Dis-Honor Role

After resisting calls to drop his name four years ago, Princeton University in late June reversed course and removed the name of Woodrow Wilson from its eponymous public policy school. Princeton’s president, Christopher Eisgruber, said that the university’s board found that Wilson’s “racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school or college whose scholars, students and alumni must stand firmly against racism in all its forms. Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time.” Various trolls and wits immediately suggested that Yale University change its very name because its namesake, Elihu Yale, had significant slave-trading roots. Yale President Peter Salovey said the university had no plans to do so. But Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, is taking seriously a demand by more than three-quarters of its faculty that its name be changed to avoid referring to Robert E. Lee.

The New York chapter of Planned Parenthood announced it would be dropping the name of the national organization’s founder, Margaret Sanger, from its Manhattan health clinic because of her ties to the American eugenics movement in the early part of the twentieth century.

On August 3, the University of Buffalo dropped the name Millard Fillmore (remember him?) from its Millard Fillmore Academic Center and also the names of two other prominent nineteenth-century Buffalonians, James O. Putnam, UB’s fourth chancellor and a state senator with “openly expressed racist views,” and Peter B. Porter, a Buffalo resident and, among other things, U.S. Secretary of War, a member of the House of Representatives, and a slave owner. Fillmore was, you’ve now recalled, the thirteenth president of the United States (1850–1853) and a supporter of the Missouri Compromise and the Fugitive Slave Act; he was also a founder and first UB chancellor.

Although the National Park Service says it has no plans to change the name of Muir Woods, the San Francisco area park named for John Muir, the father of American national parks, the Sierra Club says it’s time to start telling the truth about Muir’s racist views and his belief in white supremacy.

And close to home (my home, anyway), the Chevy Chase (MD) Advisory Neighborhood Commission last week asked the National Park Service to remove the name of Senator Francis G. Newlands (D-Nev., 1903-1917) from the 60-foot Francis Griffiths Newlands Memorial Fountain that straddles Connecticut Avenue between the District of Columbia and Chevy Chase, Maryland, a landmark familiar to anyone who enters the District along the well-traveled boulevard. Newlands was a supporter of women’s rights, but also a classical racist who believed America should be for whites and who advocated revoking voting rights for blacks. He has no statue but a large plaque records his name. An act of Congress is required to fully blot out his eponymic status.


Not a new theme, of course, but the parade continues. In mid-July a Lincoln Project video editor was fired over sexist remarks. A writer for Tucker Carlson, the highest rated Fox News performer, resigned when his “abhorrent” online posts came to light, including racist, sexist, and obscene remarks. And USA Today listed a dozen minor or wannabe media and Hollywood celebrities fired in June for one or another choice displays of racism. And just before this piece posted came the news that Jerry Falwell Jr., successor to his father as president of Liberty University, was taking an indefinite leave of absence because of a photo that surfaced days earlier showing him with unzipped pants and a bare midriff and with his arm around his wife’s pregnant assistant on a yacht.

Retirements of commercial names and icons

Last but scarcely least, in fact, perhaps most significantly, dozens of old monikers or icons are being swept away from products known throughout the country, some in use for more than a century. As you’ve no doubt been reading or seeing, these include the 131-year-old pancake mix Aunt Jemima (Quaker Oats), Uncle Ben’s Rice (Mars Foods), Mrs. Butterworth’s pancake syrup (ConAgra Brands), Cream of Wheat porridge (B & G Foods), Land O’ Lakes butter, and Eskimo Pie, the chocolate covered ice cream dessert (Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream). Once a chain of 1,100 restaurants in 47 states, the last remaining Sambo’s in the U.S., an eatery in Santa Barbara, dropped the name in early June.

Trader Joe’s seemed on the verge of shutting down some of its food brand names, but has since partially recanted, including Trader Jose beer and Trader Giotto’s olive oil. Under its new policy it will not use names like these hereafter but will retain the names used historically, rejecting the criticism that these names “exoticize other cultures.”

And for more than 20 years, the Washington, DC, football franchise, the Redskins, indignantly resisted every demand, push, nudge, bludgeon, and lawsuit aimed at getting it to change its name. But in early July, Dan Snyder, the team owner, finally axed the word that had adorned the team for 90 years, caving in to a threat that the team might lose its stadium if the name persisted. For the moment, it will have the placeholder name of Washington Football Team until it can reach consensus on a new one. The Cleveland Indians franchise is apparently next in line, announcing in early July that it will begin consideration of a new name.

The Claims of History

If you agree with all these changes, if you think they are long overdue, you need no argument about their moral virtue. You may have dismissed out of hand the objections that come in a variety of forms but that mostly boil down to the claim that in dropping names and images of what was once esteemed we are cravenly spurning our heritage and history. This claim was made in perhaps its most histrionic and hyperbolic form by the President, who put it this way: “The unhinged left-wing mob is trying to vandalize our history, desecrate our monuments, our beautiful monuments, tear down our statues, and punish, cancel and persecute anyone who does not conform their demands for absolute and total control. … They want to demolish our heritage.” In an executive order aimed at resisting the removal of various historical monuments, he stated: “Key targets in the violent extremists’ campaign against our country are public monuments, memorials, and statues. Their selection of targets reveals a deep ignorance of our history.”

Much of the commentary by the online rabble, like that of the president, consists of wheezes, grunts, burps, and tsk-tsking — pure noise. You can search for yourself. But there are some sober voices who wonder whether the political winds are striking unfairly at our historical foundations. Rarely, though, are the concerns expressed at a concrete level. The claims and counterclaims circle around concepts expressed in words and phrases like “our history” and “our past.” From almost none of it do we reclaim a notion of what history we ought to be preserving or honoring. Though a monument itself may be “historical,” simply from its continued existence through the passage of time, a statue of Robert E. Lee is not a history of anything. It is not a picture worth a thousand words. Ask a school child to explain the statute, and all she can say is “it’s a man on a horse,” little more than a cat sniffing around the edges can make explicit. It takes words to make sense of the sculpture.

And when we read the plaques affixed to confederate monuments, we still learn nothing about the history of the war or of the men who were honored by the sculptures and monuments erected in their names. You read that the honorees enlisted in the army of the CSA. You read that the man with the sword held high stood by his state. You read that in later years he went on to noble occupations.

But you do not read what it was about his state that he stood by. You do not read that in bearing arms for his state he committed treason against the United States. You do not read that the state sovereignty he claimed to be fighting for was a power to enslave and then abuse an entire people. You do not read that a significant population in the state that was taxed to memorialize this great hero holds for an obvious reason a wholly different opinion — or that for going on a century these dissenters had no right to enshrine their opinions in state policy because they could not vote. You do not read on Robert E. Lee’s statue that more than a century later the entire understanding of people everywhere is that slavery was evil at its core. You do not even read that there is, at the very least, a substantially different view that can be pondered at greater length in a nearby municipal museum. Perhaps because for the longest time, and perhaps still, that museum provided no such view. You see no sculptures of those who on moral grounds opposed the views of these confederates. You see no monuments to those oppressed by the men fixed in memory by these stone figures. Nor, finally, are you offered an explanation of how the political history of the time was cooked up in a broth jealously guarded, stirred, and simmered by textbook censors and a culture that would brook no narrative other than the “Lost Cause” — what today, if I could coin a phrase, I would, with complete insouciance, dub “fake history.” These mute statues, these monuments to a time without context, are not even the ghost of a shadow of history.

So what is it that we are not remembering of our history when a city council or state legislature determines to pull the old mute stone man off his perch? What have we lost? That once upon a time, a long time ago, the local establishment chose to pay a sculptor to honor a man whose place in history does not deserve to be elevated over those of greater moral courage?

In 1865, Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois pushed a bill to place a marble bust of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in the Supreme Court. Taney, who died the year before, was the author of the Dred Scott decision, declaring that blacks are constitutionally incapable of being American citizens, perhaps the single worst decision in the Court’s history. Trumbull said that even if Taney had erred, he was “still a great and learned man.” Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts retorted that “the name of Taney is to be hooted down the page of history. Judgement is beginning now; and an emancipated country will fasten upon him the stigma which he deserves.” Sumner was right on the merits, a century and a half off on the timing. But finally, in 2017, the Maryland legislature removed the statue of its native son from the State House in Annapolis, and on July 22, just about two weeks ago, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to remove Taney’s bust from the U.S. Capitol. That Taney otherwise performed meritoriously in his 28-year run as chief justice may justify an even-handed museum exhibit but is not an argument for erecting a monument to a man who was, on the occasion that counted, so monumentally wrong.

Of course, to articulate a principle does not mean that protestors who might sign on to it will accurately or adequately live by it. Not every removal has been orderly. Mobs are rarely prudent or consistent. So we must upbraid those who forget their own purposes and in condemning sin commit it. Among the statues pulled down this season was one in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park of President Ulysses S. Grant. It is unclear what these protesters found foul in Grant’s history. Some commentaries pointed to his ownership of a slave. But the record is clear that abolitionist Grant’s possession came from his wife’s family, and that within months, before the Civil War, Grant emancipated him. Throughout his life Grant denounced slavery and played a major role in ending it.

But the tales of Taney and Grant’s statues provide an object lesson in the Great Toppling now before us. Though it is always for the living to determine those whose names deserve to be honored, the criterion can never be absolute moral purity. We are all human. If we demand moral perfection, we can have no heroes, whoever we are. If we persist in building monuments to those we offer as beyond reproach, the next generation will all the more easily rip the fig leaves off our phony saints. All we can hope to celebrate is a life lived in the right direction. What rising voices throughout the country are insisting in this summer of woe is that most of the people memorialized in the monuments now being shorn of public honor were pointing in the wrong direction. Those who were steering the nation toward a better future deserve our thanks and, despite their infirmities and shortcomings, their places of honor. Distinguishing between the two is the urgent task.

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