Ethics Hero: Kwame Anthony Appiah, a.k.a. “The Ethicist”

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.”



14 thoughts on “Ethics Hero: Kwame Anthony Appiah, a.k.a. “The Ethicist”

  1. The city of West Hollywood voted to remove Trump’s star. However, since the walk is not in West Hollywood they cannot legally have it removed. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce said it would be brought up in their next meeting, but had no plans to remove any stars.

  2. A few years before my wife died, we visited the National Park at Vicksburg. I recommend it highly, for all those who believe that All Things Confederate should be expunged from our history.

  3. I used to run an antiques booth across the way from a stand full of pickaninny dolls and other black face style artifacts. At first I assumed the folks running the stand & their customers were racists. However the staff were lovely people & their customers often saw me as they left the booth & were respectful, and to my surprise, utterly unashamed. This colored my perspective as I came to see these items as more than just artifacts to remind “white supremacists” of the good ‘ol days.

    Recently I almost bought one of those dolls from vintage shop for historical and artistic merits, but feared (ironically) my white liberal friends would be offended. Maybe next time I won’t hesitate.

  4. As I mentioned before re Virginia schools changing their names because they were named for Confederate heroes, I assume that soon every founder who happened to own slaves (men of their times) will soon be erased from history as well. What better (or easier) way to teach history than to erase it? Thoughtful teachers and administrators could use the school name to TEACH. But apparently that’s too much trouble…

    Anecdote: When I was growing up we lived next door to a Soviet Admiral attached to the US embassy. I was good friends with his daughter, until she had to return to the USSR at age nine, before she became too ‘Americanized.’ Several years later this Admiral (good friends with our family, talked art and politics all the time) told us he was being reassigned the very next day, and wanted to say good bye. Four years after that my mother toured the Soviet Union with a women’s group and asked her guide to look up the Admiral for a brief reunion. Answer (finally): No such Admiral, or person by that name, ever existed in the USSR. Devastated, we assumed he spent the rest of his life in the Gulag.

    We don’t have a Gulag (yet), but we are becoming very, very good at erasing history that does not fit our 21st century “sensibilities” — if you want to call them that. Our kids are ignorant of history already — law school grads who can’t tell me the dates of the Civil War? — so soon we’ll live only in a quasi-fascist present. And then pretend to vote and have a democracy.

    • Around the time Christopher Plummer was brought in to replace Kevin Spacey, there was an internet meme going around with Plummer’s image on “The Cosby Show” set surrounded by black actors (taken from Plummer’s appearance on the show) and a caption along the lines of, “They’ve already replaced Dr. Huxtable!”..or something like that.

  5. pickaninny dolls

    Had to google that phrase. I have never heard the word, much less knew what it means. Grew up in rural Texas, and traveled the country extensively for years, too.

    Is this a northern thing?

      • Ugh. I discovered that site back in the early 2000s, and it was way better organized then. But here’s the general categories of anti-black stereotypical “archetypes”:

        Tragic Mulatto

        Each category has a good explanation on the site.

        I don’t know how much has changed since I first found it…it could be a whole pile of race grievance tripe or it could still be the solid source of info when I first found it.

    • Hi Slick, According to the Wikipedia entry (go there! it’s got a lot of surprises!): the earliest entry in the most respected dictionary: ‘the Oxford English Dictionary quotes an example from 1653 of the word “pickaninny” used to describe a child.’

      The word appears in a bunch of children’s classics, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the original Peter Pan (British author) which, like the word itself are not themselves read today (at least not by children; they were already unpopularly old-fashioned when I read them) — but their titles and general plots have survived in the changing cultures since the 1800s on stage and film, in forgotten verses of old lullabies and folksong, and clichés (aka “tinkerbell” and the … aaah! … “fairy”). Only certain words are now deemed racist – even though any word out of context should carry no offense – such as Mark Twain’s ironic naming of “Nigger Jim,” the one person of high character in the entire novel, “Tom Sawyer.”

      As a fan of ragtime, I’m still a bit uncomfortable around the exhibits of sheet music covers for sale or trade. There are thousands, literally – people have no idea how popular that music was!. The sheer number of different titles tells half the story; the fact that they are hidden from sight by the collectors tells the other half. (I have met only three black collectors: two are ragtime pianists, the other a music historian). You can find samples of the —- —- —- bad taste (fill in the blanks) on your own – from black and white composers both. Sorry. My hobby horse ran away with me there for awhile. Back to “pickaninny.”

      Here’s a neutral use of the word. By the king of classic ragtime, Scott Joplin, composer of Maple Leaf Rag, The Entertainer (used in movie ‘The Sting’) and many more, who was asked by lyricist Henry Jackson, (also black) to write the music for his song, Joplin did so, producing a melody more hymn than rag that could easily be acceptable today . . . IF the title and p-words were omitted. [and the word “darkey” too] Take a look and a listen:

      • Sorry, wrong song. That was an example I was going to use before I realized I was going out of control: composer Arthur Marshall, probably c.1906 unpublished until 70 years later, played by African-Latino-he says ‘never mind what’ ragtime pianist John Reed-Torres. Picture of Joplin on the wall.

        Here’s the pickaninny song. You can sing along:

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