Time passes and values change. Things our parents and their parents held dear, beliefs and heroes that they cherished, when viewed through the lens of contemporary culture, often no longer seem so heroic or worthy of adulation. No one is immune from this historical revisionism, even our Founding Fathers.
But it’s the Civil War that seems to provoke the most tension today. Whether you’re a good old boy with a Confederate stars and bars on your truck or someone whose relatives fought for the Union, there’s a lot more to your heroes and symbols than simply acknowledging the part they played in a long-ago war. English paraphernalia from the Revolutionary War? Spanish items from the Spanish-American War? Both are fine, even if they were anti-American fighters. WWII souvenirs from time spent overseas, whether in the Pacific or European theater? That’s okay too (with the exception of anything with a swastika on it).
But even in 2017, symbols of the Confederacy rankle, which is why some cities in the South are attempting to scrub clean any signs of the Civil War. The latest example was the surreptitious midnight removal of Confederate War statues from various locations in New Orleans, Louisiana.
To give a sense of just how controversial the removal was, the workers showed up “wearing masks and tactical vests” and were protected by police snipers stationed on nearby rooftops to ensure there were no incidents during the late-night work. The mayor explained that the city decided to relocate these particular statues because they “failed to appropriately reflect the values of diversity and inclusion that make New Orleans.”
This is the same rationale used on college campuses and cities throughout the United States to rename buildings that honor or celebrate heroes who no longer make the grade. Yale University recently renamed John C. Calhoun College because college trustees now view Calhoun as a white supremacist. Mulledy Hall at Georgetown University was renamed because Mulledy was president of the college back in 1838 and approved the sale of slaves to cover debt the college had accrued.
But while renaming a building or tearing down a statue might satisfy some activists, it also reveals an intolerance for grappling with our complicated, shared heritage as Americans, and a naïve belief that we should ignore history or rewrite it from the perspective of the oppressed to ensure that the underdog or victim is always celebrated as the hero. Winners, modern life seems to say, can’t possibly be real heroes.
And let’s be candid: renaming a building or pulling down a statue won’t make people less bigoted or more tolerant of diversity. In fact, they’re likely to exacerbate tensions, not calm them. It’s always important to consider someone’s actions and behavior in the context of their times, as historians are correct to remind us. Two hundred years ago no one at Georgetown University could imagine—let alone make choices based on—the rich, diverse culture we have in 2017, so how can we fairly apply the lens of current values and beliefs to their behavior?
There’s another aspect to this issue too: politics. Both sides of the aisle are quick to state that this so-called whitewashing of history isn’t political, but of course it’s political, and highly charged at that. There’s a reason the New Orleans workers were wearing masks and had an armed escort to ensure their safety.
Celebrating diversity should mean celebrating the diversity of our historical heroes and teaching tolerance while trying to understand their actions in historical context. Did Thomas Jefferson own slaves? Yes. Is that a bad thing? You bet. But at the time it was seen quite differently, and to judge him largely by that one part of his life neglects other, commendable aspects of his character and leadership.
America is a country of varied thoughts, opinions, and peoples. It always will be and indeed, that’s our great strength as a nation. But just as free speech means supporting the voices of those you don’t agree with, a free nation should be able to honor its rocky and diverse history, even when every historical figure doesn’t fit neatly into our current definition of heroic values.