I want to start this article with three vignettes. I recently talked with a colleague who teaches sociology, and she mentioned that the students in her class are very quick to criticize their teachers, their parents, or anything in the past or present, except themselves. They have almost a perfect picture of themselves.
In one of my classes, we discussed the separation of Baptists in the South and the North over the issue of owning slaves and sending missionaries to other countries. My students were justifiably critical of those who supported slavery. However, when I asked if they were aware that there are more slaves today than in the days of President Lincoln and what they are doing for those who are enslaved now, there was complete silence in the classroom.
Monmouth University recently decided to change the name of Wilson Hall because Wilson was a segregationist. The same discussion is going on at Princeton University because their graduate-level international studies program is named after him. In New York City, Mayor DiBlasio agreed to remove a statue of Roosevelt because the Native American and Black man who are also in the statue are in an inferior position to Roosevelt on his horse.
How can one group of people arrogate so much power unto themselves? If statues of Roosevelt and Wilson are removed based on their relationship with Native Americans and Black people, then by the 4th of July we should logically remove all statues of Presidents Washington and Lincoln. Our first president first owned slaves and sought to find the ones who escaped, and Lincoln vacillated about emancipation and finally enacted it because it would be politically advantageous.
There is a story that the Catholic sociologist Andrew Greeley asked his friend what he thought about his books. His friend said that he liked Greeley’s books, but he did not need to write every thought that came into his mind as a book. I worry that we are jumping to remove mention of all of our American historical figures, both their prejudices and their accomplishments.
I discovered that I had to think hard and listen even harder. As a child, I lived under a communist regime and rejoiced when the statue of Lenin was pulled down in various countries. But I did not have the same feelings when statues of Roosevelt and Wilson were removed. I was especially troubled when people were trying to deface statues of Churchill in Europe.
In my pondering, I came to three conclusions. The first thing I remembered was that Theodore Roosevelt was a person of his day, just like all of us. We live in a context that affects us with its good and its evil. Yet, in the midst of that context, we as Americans have benefitted so much from some of the decisions that Roosevelt has made. I am willing to take his accomplishments and his imperfections because of the good that he has done for future generations.
If we remove the names from our lecture halls and the statues from our streets, have we eliminated what happened in the past? According to George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The statue of Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, D.C. was made by a Chinese sculptor named Lie Xisin. Before the statue was unveiled, Xisin and the committee were criticized because Xisin was not Black or even an American. He was criticized again because Martin Luther King Jr. did not look “black enough.” His wise statement was that King does not belong only to Black people—he belongs to the whole world.
I thought of Xisin and his statue when I read about the criticism of Wilson. In his politics, he was not only for America, he was for the whole world. Was he a perfect man? No way! Wilson founded the League of Nations. While it has had some good moments, it has not always been the best organization for the world. In both cases, we have ideas that have benefitted more people than just the students who no longer want a hall named after Wilson at Monmouth University or a department of international studies at Princeton University.
Who could survive the new bulldozing and tearing down of historical figures? One young man was asked who is next. In his ignorance, he answered that it is time to tear down Jesus and his white mother from our churches. When this young man has pulled down all the statues and stained glass windows, I wonder what he will put in their places. Would it be a statue of the young man and his friends pulling down the previous statues?
There are clearly people in our past who should not be venerated. We do not need statues of communist dictators or mass murderers to remember those dark times in history. But I wonder about the distinction between people with no redeemable actions and those who tried to do good in the context of their period in history.