The Washington Post on 29 August reported that nationwide movements to remove Confederate statues have now led to calls for the dismantling of monuments to J. Marion Sims, a white 19th-century doctor, known as the “father of gynecology:” Sims had performed surgical experiments on enslaved black women without anesthesia. A Sims statue in Central Park in New York City, where he established the first hospital for women in 1855, was vandalized with the word “RACIST” spray-painted, while red paint was applied to the statue’s eyes and neck, making him look a bit like a villain out of superhero movie. Many prominent New Yorkers were calling for the removal of the memorial, including New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and the New York Academy of Medicine. A post on the Facebook page of The Black Youth Project 100, a group of social justice activists who protested in Central Park, read, in part: “He repeatedly performed genital surgery on Black women WITHOUT ANESTHESIA because according to him, ‘Black women don’t feel pain.’”
Anyone who has been paying the slightest bit of attention to the news since the violence in Charlottesville in August will not be surprised by this development. From the city’s Robert E. Lee statue, to Monument Drive in Richmond, Virginia, to monuments Confederates across the United States, our nation is undergoing a serious reevaluation of who — and what — we honor as part of our collective memory. I am not particularly interested in defending the preservation of Confederate statues — though I’m inclined to agree they should probably be removed to private, less politically controversial locations. Nor am I interested in defending the preservation of the Sims statue in New York. He, like Lee, is a complex figure, responsible for both good and evil. Rather, I’m interested in seeking a reprieve from what has become an aggressive, overly emotional battle of polemics defined by capital letters and outrage that I fear is doing irreparable harm to our nation’s collective memory.
George Orwell observed that, “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” If we do engage in a wholesale desecration of any part our past viewed as unsavory, as many in our nation seem committed to pursuing, the end result will likely be a form of intellectual violence that tears asunder what Lincoln reverently called the nation’s “mystic chords of memory.”
The History of Anti-History in Summary
Our current national historical cleansing is not necessarily a new phenomenon, though its historical progenitors are not exactly those one would want to emulate. The ancient Roman practice damnatio memoriae, the “condemnation of memory,” involved the purging from public memory those deemed traitors, to include deposed emperors. Property would be seized and names removed from public monuments. This extended even to the dead, whose burial statues would be destroyed and their writings torched. Centuries later there was the notorious Pope Stephen VI, who dug up his dead predecessor, Pope Formosus, to convict him of heresy. The Soviet regime in turn altered photographs to excise images of individuals labelled “enemies of the people.”
Those deemed historical undesirables, to include our ancestors, cannot defend themselves against our charges. Like Stephen VI, we metaphorically exhume them and place them on show trials. They remain silent, and suffer our rebukes. Ironically, we abuse those we so callously accuse of abusing others. As one writer recently observed: “It does not take political or moral courage to target a dead Confederate soldier.”
History Via John Stuart Mill
I would argue that the first predominant criteria employed by progressives in this historical cleansing is a form of utilitarianism reduced to identity politics of race or ethnicity. Its adherents claim that those who in any way helped perpetuate racism in America must be cast aside as on “the wrong side of history,” because an individual’s racism necessarily counts for more than any good he may have done. As we are now seeing, this extends far beyond Confederates: Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Woodrow Wilson, among others, have also been targeted by outraged progressives.
History, pace utilitarianism, is however an amorphous, subjective enterprise determined by the latest socio-cultural mood. Right now we are focused on racism. What about other beliefs censured by the Left? How many of the men who founded and led this country for two hundred years held sexist beliefs, or, God forbid, embraced exclusivist truth claims regarding religion? Will their heads be next on the chopping block? Alternatively, if our cultural mood shifts to an ideology perhaps influenced by the far-right, angry crowds may ironically demand the elimination of those memorials representing liberal thought. Moreover, in the overzealous project of purging our souls of ancestral sins, we are likely to forget why we sought to remove them in the first place. Indeed, American historical memory is so poor few citizens were outraged when Hollywood made cinematic heroes out of such scoundrels as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. “How could anyone played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford be wicked?” audiences asked.
History — in all its complex, commensurate beauty and suffering — matters less and less, and our intellectual horizons narrow. The past becomes a void, a nothingness. We slowly regress to what St. Paul called "the times of ignorance" (Acts 17:30-31); ignorance in large part because people forget their origin. The narrative arc of the Old Testament is a story of a people who forgot from whence they came, embracing all manners of false gods in the process.
History Via Marx
These historical reckonings also evince a depersonalization and removal of individual responsibility and guilt reminiscent of Marxist commitments that reduce people to whatever expedient political or economic roles best fit the ideological aim. The people we honor are the ones we barely know anything about — native Americans who didn’t leave any written records, the vast majority of black slaves who couldn’t read or write. I suspect one for this is that when we actually study and get to know people, be they contemporary or in the past, we discover they are complicated individuals who don’t fit neatly into ideological categories.
There is a certain juvenile simplicity and naivete in appealing to the largely voiceless oppressed of the past. For example, as a society, the poor Indians whom Columbus and his friends enslaved (a wicked deed, no doubt), were themselves perpetrators of all manners of cruelties: abortion, genocide, human sacrifice. When we get our hands dirty in the annals of history, we find few people are the near-perfect idealized heroes or victims we had hoped. Most people, like ourselves, are full of good and bad, waging wars against the evils within their own human nature and without against the malevolent actors and evils of the world.
Validating the crude logic of Marxist depersonalization, America’s younger generations are increasingly oblivious to their own humanity as persons with intellects and wills. In a glaring act of hypocrisy, the kinds of students and faculty who hector people like Charles Murray, Anthony Esolen, and Paul J. Griffiths off their campuses blame everyone but themselves for abuse and mistreatment. They themselves are in turn excused of their misbehaviors — told by teachers, administrators, and psychotherapists: “it isn’t your fault. It’s your upbringing, the microaggressions of your society and culture, your parents, the wealthy, the whites, the Europeans, the Christians.” The progressive doesn’t know himself well enough to see his own moral limitations, so he seeks the kinds of historical allies who cannot question his own faulty premises.
History Via Hegel
Finally, our culture — deeply informed by a positivist, Hegelian ideology of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis — sits in judgment over past generations with an air of self-satisfaction in our contemporary, enlightened moment. Previous generations were ignorant, superstitious, and immoral. Through scientific and intellectual progress, we now know better.
The more realistic truth is that if we had been presented with the same challenges faced by Southern whites in the Civil War era, many, if not most of us, would probably have made the same errors. It is the natural human predilection for survival that leads men to go with the flow, to conform, and to avoid risking persecution or ostracization. Few people in any generation take the right, proper moral imperative, precisely because the consequences are typically so dire. The prophets of the Old Testament — many of whom were murdered for their attempt to inform the public conscience — were always in the minority against a sluggish, selfish majority. To imagine we in the 21st century are not prone to this same human tendency is the height of hubris.
Indeed, a later generation may look back at our own and judge our contemporary times as grossly immoral. Our descendants may wonder, for example, why we so stubbornly persevered in pursuing a culture of total sexual license in the face of such disastrous results. Divorce, the exploitative nature of pornography, and college rape culture are all fruits in one way or another of the sexual revolution. Future generations may ask why we were so blind that we ignored our culture’s own twisted understanding of sex, something so obviously at the root of many problems.
History via Aristotle and Aquinas
It requires strong, well-articulated conservative principles to defeat the gods of progressivist ideology outlined above. One of these is a proper understanding of virtue. Such guides as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas point us toward a more robust conception of right behavior, one that elevates justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude to the markers by which men are measured. These virtues, as Aristotle argued, lie in finding the mean “determined by a rational principle” between excess and deficiency. It does not require much contemplation to locate where contemporary culture has wallowed in excess or deficiency. When a society can properly judge and promote virtue, it is then able to discern what individuals are worthy of praise or censure.
As for the moral superiority of our own generation, the exercise of prudence should lead us to consider a more balanced, humble position that recognizes the likelihood that our own generation carries as many flaws as those who have come before. Is it not more reasonable to presume that in some respects we have achieved a moral improvement over our ancestors, while in other respects have deteriorated? Is anyone so arrogant as to presume he is an improvement over his father in every respect?
Nor is conservatism a blind acceptance of past beliefs and practices, as if the sheer fact that people or institutions are old makes them impervious to questioning. But it it is just, approaching the past with reverence and humility, beginning from the premise that the past has a richness and wisdom that must be properly appreciated and grasped before seeking to change or build upon it. It is just to honor tradition, what G.K. Chesterton called the “democracy of the dead.” Otherwise we succumb to the illogical progressivist dictum of change solely for change’s sake.
Lincoln, MLK, and a Warning
Such reverence for our ancestors can be found in the political thought of Lincoln, who honored his forebears while articulating a sophisticated criticism of some of their political decisions, especially the Constitutional permission of slavery. Moreover, it was Lincoln and his immediate successors who sought not to purge the losers of the Civil War from public memory, but to determine a narrative to which all Americans could subscribe. In such a unifying history, Americans could navigate a route to both recognize their nation’s failures and rejoice in their victories. Moreover, a century after Lincoln, Martin Luther King’s message of civil freedom and political justice were not an aberration from the principles of America’s founders — they were rather born and nurtured in the ideals of such men as we now seek to expunge from our collective memory. Central to the political vision of both men was a unique affirmation of the dignity of human person that is a cornerstone of America's founding documents.
Finally, a warning to those so eager to dispense with the memory of those whom previous generations honored in monument and verse: you would do well to remember that such an approach may reap unintended consequences. As much as you seek to relegate men like Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee, and J. Marion Sims to the dustbin of history, you may be setting an example for your our progeny. Indeed, we shouldn’t be surprised when those in future generations treat us with the same opprobrium and callousness (capital letters and all!) with which we treat those who preceded us. It would be just and fitting, in such conditions, that the sins of the fathers be visited upon their sons.