Around the country today, impassioned opponents to historical figures have increasingly demanded the razing of monuments to them. It is a troubling trend – for me, not on an emotional level, but an intellectual one. I have no personal loyalty to Robert E. Lee, Woodrow Wilson, or Thomas Jefferson. I have an intellectual respect for them, but they do not hold a spiritual sway over my course of life.
The reason it is troubling is because we as a country are imputing generational moral priorities on those generations of the past, and condemning them for not conforming to our conventions.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not arguing for moral subjectivity here – i.e., the idea that racism was morally acceptable for previous generations because a majority of people were ok with it (“who are we to judge?!”). I am arguing for moral objectivity – that racism was then, as it is now, just as objectively wrong. But that doesn’t mean society then placed the same level of importance on that violation of objective moral law.
Two hundred years ago racism was wrong – just as deliberate abortion two hundred years ago was wrong. Today, racism is wrong – just as deliberate abortion today is wrong. To commit either does not conform with objective moral law.
But in Revolutionary America, smuggling was also just as wrong then as it is now, and to continue its practice was a motivating factor for some revolutionaries. Likewise, the slave trade – perpetuated in large part by heroes of Massachusetts – was just as wrong then as human trafficking is now.
What is the difference then?
The difference lies in the priority each culture placed or places on the violation of that law. Slavery and racism was, to a large extent, socially acceptable in America’s formative years. Abortion is today, to a large extent, socially acceptable. There are and were, of course, opponents to each practice, but our society now places a larger value – or moral currency – on opposition to racism and slavery than it does on opposition to abortion.
This alone is no reason to blackwash American history. To blackwash history is to highlight the faults of historical figures or cultures and define them ontologically by those faults. It is the opposite of whitewashing history (which is just as wrong), which refuses to discuss the faults of historical figures, and only lionize their merit.
It is bad intellectual history to impute our moral currency, our moral priorities, on generations of the past only to condemn them wholesale. It ignores, rather it refuses, a broader understanding of that foreign culture that can in turn enlighten our own outlook.
No individual, no culture, wants to be remembered for their sins. We are all very aware that none of us is perfect – we lie, cheat, steal, and violate our moral obligations on a routine basis – and at any time our violations could become a debasement of the richest moral currency our society esteems.
Today is no different than early America – we prioritize our actions based on how it could affect our relationships and standing. We abstain from the appearance of greed; from the appearance of prejudice; from the appearance of murder; from the appearance of theft. We do so, not only because we instinctively know they are sins, but because to not abstain would diminish our capacity for influence, personal gain, or the prevention of personal loss.
In a word, we are no better than our predecessors, and they are no better than us. Using today’s logic and methods, we would be on the chopping block if our generation were judged by the moral lens of generations past. And we may likewise be condemned by future cultures – future generations, for what they see as misplaced moral priorities.
The destruction of a monument does not correct the moral priorities of the past; nor does it help us assuage us of our own sins. Monuments stand both as memorials and reminders of what a culture once was – warts and all. They should remind us, yes, of the good that was done; but they should also remind us of how modern culture has changed.
Would we destroy Michelangelo’s David because David was a fornicator and adulterer? Would we destroy Faneuil Hall because Peter Faneuil was a notorious slave trader? Would we raze the Washington Monument because our first president owned slaves? Would we level the Lincoln Memorial because Lincoln overtly argued against equality for blacks?
One hundred years from now, when the moral priorities shift, will we wish to destroy monuments to Barack Obama because he was in favor of expanding abortion rights?
I hope we don’t. A monument to Barack Obama is fitting for his historical contributions, and I hope future generations will be kinder to ours than we are to our predecessors.