Let’s resist kneejerkifying history

Every few weeks, a group of enlightened teenagers, who have been raised since birth to believe such-and-such is wrong, will get together and demand that a long-dead man should be punished for not having been raised since his birth two hundred years ago to believe that such-and-such is wrong.

Sometimes, they’re onto something. I wouldn’t want to spend my afternoons bathed in the hues of a stained glass black man kneeling before John Calhoun. (I wouldn’t smash a window depicting slavery, but I would put up a fuss.) There’s a fine line between acknowledging the past and condoning its errors.

But it sure does get old to hear that Abraham Lincoln was “not the great emancipator” because his stated main goal was to preserve the union, and because he was against interracial marriage. No: Lincoln was a white man was born in 1809, and he thought like a white man born in 1809; and he was a great and good man.

Same thing for great thinkers of the Catholic Church. You refuse to employ your super-fine mind in the same room as Thomas Aquinas just because he had some dumb or hinky ideas about the ladies? Your loss. The rest of us don’t have much time to be offended; we’re too busy trying to keep up.

Just as irritating as the knee-jerk judgment of the past? The wholly unearned smugness that often goes along with that judgment. Let’s be fair: If I can’t blame Lincoln for thinking like everyone thought when he was alive, then why should I laud you for thinking like everyone thinks now? You’re not a courageous free-thinker for wearing an anti-racist T-shirt in 2016. You’re just someone who noticed that “NOH8” or “BLM” or whatever is trending right now.

Even worse than wagging our fingers at history is when we try to protect our paper-thin skins by blotting out the past altogether. What a horrible, self-defeating error. If our country is guilty of crimes, then there is one foolproof way to ensure that we repeat them, and that is to erase all evidence of them, to cleanse our living space of any exposure to them. Your body won’t fight back against a disease if you spend each day bathing in Purell, and the same is true for our collective soul as a country. You must endure some exposure.

Well, here’s an encouraging spot of sanity: Yale announces new procedure for renaming of university buildings. They’re not going to refuse to hear any argument against honoring a historical figure who held troubling views; but neither are they going to knuckle under to the mob and despise greatness when it comes dressed in historical clothing that clashes with current political fashion.

In an interview with NPR yesterday, Yale dean Jonathan Holloway said:

The fact is as human actors we’re all flawed. So I really wonder if you are going to be using the Oregon test [which applies strict, inflexible criteria] against historic figures who are operating in a world in which you – people did not even know or worry about the experiences or views of women or immigrants or minorities, you’re going to fail the test pretty quickly. And so I think any renaming test has to be mindful of the present and the past and also the future in trying to sort out what its litmus tests are going to be.

To my mind, when we wonder if we should honor someone who held views that most people now despise, there are four issues to be considered:

  1. Were these views widespread and unchallenged at the time? Would the person in question have to be an outrageously original and insightful thinker to even consider holding a different point of view?
  2. Are the unpleasant views he held even relevant to why he is being honored today? Are we honoring him for all aspects of his entire life, or can we say, “Even though he was terribly wrong about this issue, his achievements in that other field are immense and indisputable”?
  3. If he did do great things, were the bad things he did so bad (even if they were in an entirely different field from the great things) that they overshadow what was great?
  4. Have we done our research, really? Or have we just read a line or two off some Buzzfeed compilation of the Daily Snit?

Yale is apparently taking a measured approach to challenges from people laboring under what Halloway calls the “arrogance of your contemporary moment,”and is trying to slow down that locomotive of self-congratulatory outrage. He wants, if you can imagine such a thing in an institute of higher learning, for complainants to thoughtfully and dispassionately contextualize history, rather than just reflexively scratching whatever the current mob considers itchiest.

It’s especially admirable that Yale is choosing to do this now, in post election 2016. With Trump as president, and the alt right ascending, we’re likely to see more and more re-legitimization of historical figures who truly ought to be intolerable to everyone today — not because of current, changeable sensibilities, but because their views were intolerable to decent people even while they were alive.

I expect that a president who reportedly kept a copy of Hitler’s speeches at his bedside (just for the articles, you understand. He doesn’t even notice the pictures) will breathe new life and vigor into old, deservedly condemned causes. We’ve already seen some efforts, from a population indispensable to Trump’s victory, to reanimate fetid corpses of egregious racism, anti-semitism, denial of Bosnian genocide, and more. Confederate flag sales skyrocketed in 2015Trump himself praised the “strength” of China’s response to Tianamen Square; and Trump openly admired Saddam Hussein’s efficiency in dealing with his enemies.

This man is now our president, our representative to the rest of the world.

Anticipating the battles to come, we might be tempted to suit up with an extra, protective layer of righteous indignation. If we’re going to be led by a man who dabbles in horrors, we might decide ahead of time that we’ll have a prophylactic zero tolerance policy against anything and anyone that smacks of his ugly ideals.

But let’s not. Let’s not respond to kneejerk politics by jerking the knee in the other direction. This country isn’t over yet. We’re still writing our history, still making adjustments, still figuring out who we are. Let’s take a clue from Yale, and slow down, do our research, think things through — and above all, not respond to unthinking rhetoric with more unthinking rhetoric.

In an absurdly awful election, where there could be no winning for the American people, we lost. Yes, we did. But that doesn’t mean we need to surrender. We still have time.

 

4 thoughts on “Let’s resist kneejerkifying history”

  1. According to the four test probing questions, Lincoln succeeds with flying colors while Calhoun was even during his life time a negative role model of how to relate to slavery (he called it not a necessary evil, the consensus view in the south, but he called it a positive good).
    . . . We in Minneapolis still live with Lake Calhoun that was named after the young secretary of defense who hadn’t shown his evil side yet. Every five year, there seems to be an initiative to rename the lake, most often to his assumed traditional name White Earth Lake or Mde Maka Ska, but every time it is discovered that the city has no naming authority but the state, and the state doesn’t want to bother.

  2. Outstanding post. Truly.

    That’s one of my pet peeves. Lincoln may have had his foibles. We all do. Same with Teddy Roosevelt. But like them or dislike them to judge them by today’s standards is folly.

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