In the past, I mostly visited the New York Times Magazine “The Ethicist” column to take issue with the succession of ethics amateurs and ethicist wannabes the Times employed as its ethics advice columnist. Once Kwame Anthony Appiah took over, this wasn’t as much fun, and I admit I don’t even check the column that often. Appiah is a real ethicist, and knows what he’s doing. I sometimes disagree with his conclusions, but he reaches them using valid ethical analysis, and seldom employs bias or rationalizations.
A recent column, however, deserves special praise. The inquirer asked what the ethical course would be to handle historical artifacts that reflected racist attitudes and artwork, like the card pictured above. The writer concluded her question…
I offered it to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. I never heard from them, so it moved with us. My husband thinks I should throw it away, but that feels wrong. I feel it is history that we should acknowledge, however painful and wrong. Your thoughts?
“The Ethicist’s” response is note-perfect, even with my intentional omission of its best and most surprising section. I’m doing this so you will hit the link and read the full column. Appiah wrote in part,
I am not a fan of the intentional destruction of historical artifacts….It’s a familiar thought that we need to understand our past, not least in order to help us avoid repeating the worst aspects of it. So your impulse to offer this souvenir card to a museum seems right. Of course, the sort of document you describe is well represented in collections already, and this may be why you didn’t hear back. But who knows whether there isn’t something about it that a historian might find useful in unpacking some detail of the history of American racial attitudes?
So if you think this card does have historical value, and you can’t readily find an interested archive or scholar, you could just put it up for sale on eBay, say, where it will join a large assemblage of racist artifacts. You can’t guarantee that you’ll approve of the motives of the buyer, but someone who is willing to pay for it is most likely to preserve it.
Given that your motives are honorable, I don’t share your worry about profiting from the sale. Selling an image isn’t endorsing its message. And my guess is that most contemporary collectors of such items aren’t motivated by racism. Still, if you want to avoid profiting, there’s an easy solution. Just send the proceeds to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. That’s an offer they won’t turn down.
This is an oasis of common sense and perspective in a nation where historical air-brushing, Soviet-style memory holes and statue-toppling have become a core part of dangerous efforts to constrain thought and independent beliefs. These efforts are especially popular among the primary audience for the New York Times. Just yesterday, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce offended CNN by announcing that Bill Cosby’s star on the “The Hollywood Walk of Fame would not be removed following his sentencing for raping Andrea Constand. “The Hollywood Walk of Fame” is a historical record of entertainment figures past and present. Once installed, the stars become part of the historic fabric of the Walk of Fame, a ‘designated historic cultural landmark,’ and are intended to be permanent,” said the Chamber, which oversees the popular section of sidewalk. Sniffed CNN, “He’s a ‘sexually violent predator,’ but Hollywood will not remove Bill Cosby’s star from the Walk of Fame.”
That’s right, you shameless panderer to whatever warped standards social justice warriors vomit up. This is because the Walk of Fame honors historical achievements in entertainment and popular culture, not personal character. The impulse that Appiah rejects, a societal requirement that every memorial or reminder of an event, belief, attitude or historical fact that causes controversy or discomfort in the hindsight of modern enlightenment must be sent to Hell, obliterated, and hidden from view, is the same illogical and dangerous one that thinks that Bill Cosby’s substantial positive contributions to the culture are rendered void by his personal flaws. CNN, an ethics corrupter, would apparently write a headline in the future that says, “He kept human beings as slaves, but the government won’t remove Thomas Jefferson’s Memorial from the National Mall.”