“Children are watching and history will judge us,” wrote columnist Peggy Noonan.
We should all remember that when enthusiastically endorsing the removal of elements of American history that may reflect on disturbing times and actions.
The school board of three elementary schools in Portland’s Centennial District should have thought of that when proposing that the school names be changed because they included the word “Lynch” and claiming that the removal would be justified because many newer families coming into the district associated the word with America’s violent racial history.
The censorious policing of language in order to spare sensitive young minds does the children no favors. Instead of protecting the delicate young souls, it lays the foundation for later insistence on trigger warnings, objections to micro-aggressions, the shouting down of controversial speakers, the removal of statues of people associated with slavery and the unfortunate spread of presentism, the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.
The other day I was talking with a group of twenty-somethings about the horrific events in Charlottesville. Their unanimous view was that the white nationalists should not have been allowed to demonstrate. The consensus was that reprehensible people had no right to express their views publicly. Who taught them that?
After the horrific events in Charlottesville, the race is on to remove or stop public support of all the Confederate-related remnants of the Civil War.
New York Governor, and presidential hopeful, Andrew Cuomo signed onto the trending issue of the moment, sending out this tweet:
Robert E. Lee served at Fort Hamilton before the Civil War. Fort Hamilton roads include General Lee Ave. and Stonewall Jackson Drive.
The U.S. military has previously rejected the same demand from some members of Congress. The streets at Fort Hamilton — General Lee Ave. and Stonewall Jackson Drive — honor fighters who were “an inextricable part of our military history,” the Army said.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has even jumped on the bandwagon, calling for the elimination of statues in the Capitol tied to supporters of the slave-holding era.
“The Confederate statues in the halls of Congress have always been reprehensible,” Pelosi said in a statement. “If Republicans are serious about rejecting white supremacy, I call upon Speaker [Paul] Ryan to join Democrats to remove the Confederate statues from the Capitol immediately.” (She’s apparantely unaware that that the decision on which statues go into the U.S. Capitol come from state General Assemblies)
Pelosi didn’t make clear whether John C. Calhoun, a pro-slavery figure who served as a senator, secretary of war, secretary of state and vice president, was in her sights. His portrait hangs just outside the LBJ room in the Senate.
She may not know, or care, that in 1959 the Senate named Calhoun, despite his slavery views, one of just five of the Senate’s “most outstanding” former members. A five-member Senate committee led by then Senator John F. Kennedy struggled for two years to name the “famous five.” The Senate decided that the greatness of Calhoun and the other honorees included “acts of statesmanship transcending party and State lines.” It defined “statesmanship” to include “leadership in national thought and constitutional interpretation as well as legislation.”
If only we had similarly open-minded leaders today instead of hordes surrendering to the frenzy of presentism, interpreting historical events without any reference to the context or complexity of the time.
One thing children and adults need to learn is it’s that it makes no sense to see the world entirely in the present tense. It is critical to acknowledge the degree to which our position and experiences color how we look at bygone days, places and people.
Presentism “…encourages a kind of moral complacency and self-congratulation,” said Lynn Hunt, president of the American Historical Association. “Interpreting the past in terms of present concerns usually leads us to find ourselves morally superior…”
Many of our forbears espoused racial views that are today considered abhorrent, including people we still consider exemplars of the American experience.
In addition, somebody’s historical goodness and worth should not be based on just one criteria.
As David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, said, “…making race the only basis of judgment…does violence to the spirit of historical investigation, because it reduces complex individuals to game show contestants who must simply pass or fail a single test.”
The people who tore down the Confederate Soldiers Monument during a Monday protest at the old Durham County Courthouse in North Carolina, we’re not a group of concerned citizens, bug a mob. “Historians can no longer afford to sit idly by as uninformed or misinformed tyrannical mobs seek to stamp out the history they do not like,” wrote Paul Bartow of the American Enterprise Institute. “It is a threat to the preservation of the past. It is a threat to free speech. It is a threat to proper historical understanding.”
If adults don’t understand this, how will our kids?