The statue-toppling mania as a part of the Left’s cultural revolution and determination to remake history in its own image—a form of thought-control–hasn’t abated; it’s just been eclipsed in the news cycle. For the record, 28 cities have removed close to a hundred statues of Confederate figures alone. Meanwhile, the statue topplers, flushed with victory, are raiding their sights to include Founders like Washington, Jefferson and Madison, politically-incorrect Presidents like Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt, and others. You can read, if you have lots of time, most of the Ethics Alarms posts on this topic here and here.
It isn’t just statues, of course. It is honors of every kind: university dining halls and dorms, Democratic party annual dinners, and much more. The Boston Red Sox have petitioned the city to retract the honor of a having a street by Fenway Park named after the man who made the team the regional institution is is today, and who was primarily responsible for the team remaining in Boston.
The latest mutation of the culturally-rotting virus has Native Americans demanding that memorials and honors to any figure whose legacy offends them must be eliminated. Five years after President William McKinley was assassinated, George Zehnder presented the Northern California city of Arcata with an 8.5-foot-tall statue honoring him. Arcata home to Humboldt State University, placed it in the city’s main square.
McKinley was no Confederate: he was a Union war hero at the Battle of Antietam. He was also a popular and effective President. He was elected in 1896 while the nation was in a serious depression, and was successful enough in getting the economy back on its feet that he was re-elected in 1900, the first Republican to get a second term since Grant. He, not Teddy Roosevelt, led the U.S. into international significance, winning the Spanish-American War, and acquiring Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. He also gave his life for national service, as have all our Presidents who died in office. Ah, but President McKinley also oversaw federal policies that continued the decline of Native American tribes in the U.S., and reservation lands were reduced by as much as 90 million acres. during his administration. Now the Tribal Council of the Wiyot Tribe in Northern California senses a chance at revenge. It is demanding that the statue of McKinley be removed.
Almost four years ago, before the din of falling statues became a faint hum, like locusts, across the land, I wrote about a controversy in Chevy Chase, Maryland, where a fountain at the center of Chevy Chase Circle honored Francis Griffith Newlands, a U.S. Senator who also founded the Chevy Chase Land Co., which in turn created neighborhoods on the Washington and Maryland sides of the circle. Senator Newlands also was a racist, and a proactive one. He was a white supremacist who even attempted to have the 15th Amendment, which granted voting rights to African American men, repealed.
To assist in the analysis of when and whether any honor to a historical figure should be withdrawn, I offered a series of seven guiding principles:
I. The J. Edgar Hoover Principle. Don’t whitewash history. An achievement is an achievement, and a builder, inventor, discoverer, author or founder should be accorded appropriate credit. We can honor a worthy achievement without honoring the entire life of the achiever.
II. The John Paul Jones Principle. Some accomplishments of major value and significance outweigh even serious personal character flaws. The nation owes a debt to Jones, though he appears to have been a child molester.
III. The George Washington Principle. Avoid “presentism or cultural chauvinism, and harshly judging historical figures who held views and engaged in practices that were not regarded as wrong in their times and culture. Recognize a figure for evolving in his beliefs over time, and not blocking reform. Washington was a slaveholder in a culture that lived by slavery, yet he came to believe the practice was wrong, and acted on that belief.
IV. The Thomas Jefferson Principle. Separate the art, ideas and inspiration from the man. The cultural value of philosophers, artists and writers should be based on their works and their beneficial effects on society, culture and civilization. Their personal flaws and conduct, including hypocrisy, should not be used to diminish their contributions to the nation, the culture, and civilization.
V. The LBJ Principle. Motives do not matter as much as the conduct. The critical civil rights laws that passed under Johnson would not have been possible without his full commitment and political skills, as the tapes of Johnson’s phone conversations with reluctant legislators proves beyond the shadow of a doubt. What he may have thought about black people is insignificant compared to what Johnson did for the country and the black race.
VI. The J.D. Watson Principle. When a historical figure’s major contribution is in one field and the black mark on his legacy is in another, one need not diminish the other. Watson changed the world for the better with his discovery of the double helix. His later controversial comments in race does not diminish our obligation to honor him for that.
VII. The Abner Doubleday Principle. A truly mistaken honor can and should be retracted. If a figure was honored by mistake, if a critical fact about him or her was not known to the public when a memorial or honor was bestowed, or if subsequent scholarship demonstrate that the honored individual actually harmed the interests of those who mistakenly honored him, that honor can be fairly and justly retracted. Plaques giving General Doubleday credit for inventing baseball were based on rumor and faulty research. Posterity has no obligation to bolster a lie.
To these, I now add an eighth:
VIII. The William McKinley Principle. The fact one group views an individual’s life and career negatively and has legitimate grievances against him or her does not justify eliminating an honor bestowed by a community for other achievements.
I should mention that the Chevy Chase Fountain still honors Senator Newlands, and correctly so. Principle I applies.
(BOY, that’s a terrible statue of McKinley..)