Editorial: It's appropriate to review merits of historical memorials, but with thoughtful discussion

  • Princeton University students walk through an exhibit titled, "In the Nation's Service? Woodrow Wilson Revisited" in 2016 at the former Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in Princeton, N.J.

    Princeton University students walk through an exhibit titled, "In the Nation's Service? Woodrow Wilson Revisited" in 2016 at the former Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in Princeton, N.J. Associated Press FILE Photo

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 6/30/2020 5:05 PM
This article has been updated to clarify that the Roosevelt statue is at the American Museum of Natural History.

Let's start by acknowledging that it's long past time that Mississippi removed the emblem of the Confederate states from its state flag. The image represents a cause that took up arms against the United States, insisted on the right to enslave other human beings and is a direct affront to more than a third of the state's population. Eliminating it is not eliminating American history but eliminating the celebration of a blot on American history.

From there, however, the picture grows increasingly murky as calls have grown in recent weeks to end memorials to historical figures ranging from Christopher Columbus and Andrew Jackson to Ulysses Grant and Abraham Lincoln. Unfortunately, the issue -- like so much in today's public dialogue -- has become a strict cultural dividing line rather than the call to thoughtful reflection that removing monuments to public figures ought to arouse.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Conservationists have good reason to celebrate Theodore Roosevelt, so it is not surprising that a statue of him would be chosen to grace the entrance of the American Museum of Natural History. But the image of the former president on horseback as an African American and Native American walk behind? Suddenly, the merits of that particular monument feel, at best, in need of qualification and interpretation.

Or, consider the decision by Princeton University's board of trustees to remove the name of former President Woodrow Wilson from its school of public and international affairs based on his record supporting Jim Crow segregation. University President Christopher Eisgruber wrote that Wilson's racist record "disqualifies" him from being honored as "a model for students who study at the school." Understood. Keep in mind, though, that Wilson was an ardent advocate of women's suffrage, and his views on international affairs -- the reason for Princeton's original use of his name -- were far ahead of his time and might even have staved off World War II if he'd had more success pressing them in America and abroad. Again, we see those confounded "ambiguities," to quote former President Barack Obama urging more nuanced discussion of social issues last October.

The former president, by the way, drew some heat from self-proclaimed progressives for asking people to remember that "people who do really good stuff have flaws," a consideration that surely must apply to the debate over memorials, as should the notion that virtually all of our heroes are both innately flawed humans and unwitting captives of their times. That does not excuse bigotry, to be sure, but in decades and centuries past, it would be an extraordinary person indeed who fought against the grain of his or her era's views on minorities, women, non-Christians and more. Were none of the people who grew up amid those views heroic in any way?

At least the Princeton and Museum of Natural History decisions followed periods of debate and deliberation. Unfortunately, a thoughtful process void of arbitrary decree is often what's missing from actions involving monuments and memorials that become the subject of some controversy. Instead, removal of remembrances in general -- rather than a considered discussion of any individual tribute -- becomes a marker of one's degree of wokeness or patriotism, and then plays out as a duel of ideologies in 280-character assaults and counter-assaults on social media.

The opportunity to learn from history, not just blindly honor or disavow it, is thus obscured, and we are derailed from what really ought to be the prime consideration in determining the fate of individual remembrances -- making the right choices.

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