Throughout this blog on numerous occasions, I have emphasized how we cannot judge historical people by contemporary standards. Everyone is shaped by the cultural matrix they live in, us included, and many attitudes that are acceptable and thought of as a non-issue or mildly controversial could become unacceptable only a few years later! Even in the past century, our cultural attitudes have shifted drastically on many fronts. What was okay then is unacceptable now and vice versa.
As a historian, I’m disappointed in this new trend, where people have decided to tear down monuments of explorers like Columbus or dismiss figures like Thomas Jefferson or George Washington because they were slave owners. I get the arguments how explorers like Columbus started a new wave of European imperialism around the world, or how slavery shouldn’t be dismissed and history “whitewashed”. I understand that we do need to acknowledge history that puts us in a bad light, not just the history that puts us in a good light. However, going out of one’s way to tear down a monument reminds me of the old iconoclasm in the Byzantine era and the Reformation when people thought the old ways were idolatry and steamrolled over them. While this new movement is not religious, it’s an iconoclasm all the same of our cultural icons, such as Columbus and Jefferson. The people tearing down these sculptures are doing so because they don’t like these figures and want to erase them from our collective history.
Look, I myself don’t condone slavery or oppressive domination of non-European cultures. However, I was born in a different era with different values. To impose my own moral leanings on these figures is unfair as we would not want to be judged by standards we could never know about. Focusing on one singular aspect that makes people like Washington, Columbus and Jefferson seem like immoral people, dismisses all the good they did contribute to history. Washington was a good general and president in a world where near infallible kings were the rule, and a more democratic system of power, the exception. Columbus, while hard on the natives was just like every other explorer of his day, and conqueror for that matter. People like Columbus paved a new world with new resources for Western civilization to grow into the advanced one it is today. It seems like a double standard to look at Ancient Rome with awe at it’s vast influence on the world, yet condemn our own culture and people like Columbus for doing the same. Yes, Jefferson and Washington had slaves. Have you read history? Most upper class Virginian planters did at the time. It’s sort of like saying, a person from the 21st century had a car that ran on gasoline and fossil fuels vs. the car a century in the future that doesn’t and judge that person morally for owning a car that consumes fossil fuels. In the 21st century, most people have cars that run on fossil fuels and contribute to our carbon footprint. Does that mean that in a century or so when we have more environmentally friendly cars, us owning the fossil fuel powered car make us immoral? In 18th century Virginia, there were slaves. A century or so later they abolished slavery. While slavery, like fossil fuels that pollute the atmosphere were/are bad, the majority of people had them then/now, so judging an individual for having either thing is hypocritical.
Also, why do we feel some need to completely dismiss the points we do agree on with historical figures or their contributions to society such as inventions and ideas that we all agree moved us forward just because one aspect of them is one we disagree with? I read an article listing many famous scientists who the author thought should have their Nobel Prize revoked. Mind you, this wasn’t for plagiarism, or fraud, or anything having to do with their work in science, but for a now racist or sexist attitude that had nothing whatsoever to do with their great accomplishment in advancing science. They didn’t win the prize for social justice, so why dismiss their contributions based on their own personal opinion? I’ve personally observed that we give celebrities and athletes so much more leeway and still admire and idolize them even though they do immoral things. Somehow, our society has brushed their faults aside, yet is all too eager to dismiss a historical person who has contributed real, meaningful and extremely relevant things to our society today. Men like Columbus, Washington and Jefferson, who seem to bear the brunt of these attacks right now, have contributed far more towards society than say Justin Bieber or Kim Kardashian. Athletes and celebrities who have taken drugs, got in scandals, hurt other people, been to jail etc. have more of our respect and esteem than great historical figures that had something we now deem unacceptable such as owning slaves or having racist or sexist views.
Overall, our new attitude of just erasing and dismissing history and the people who made it will make history, history. :(