Tearing Down Statues and Monuments May “Feel” Good Now, But It’s a Bad Idea
Updated: Aug 27, 2020
We can’t become a better society by censoring our past
This week, Princeton University announced that it would strip the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs of its namesake based on his long history of racist opinions and policies. This was the latest salvo in a concerted attack on statues and monuments erected to honor Americans who were once deemed worthy of remembering but now leave a sour taste in our mouths. Like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, they are luminaries and geniuses we used to admire until we found out who they really were.
Princeton’s decision is personal to me because I’m a “Woody Woo” alum. When I was admitted to the prestigious program in my sophomore year, Wilson’s legacy hung thick on campus — not just as a former president of the country, but also as a former president of the university. The legendary statesman inspired awe and respect among students and faculty. He was a Princeton icon in every sense of the word.
As a naive college student in the 1980s, I only knew Wilson as the man portrayed in history books. I never knew he had “another” side that was far less flattering and, in many ways, reprehensible. Decades later, I would learn that the man whose name I proudly advertised on my resume would have thrown his dead body in front of the stone tigers at the campus entrance to keep me from entering. I would learn that Wilson sympathized with the Ku Klux Klan and saw black people as “ignorant and inferior.” His bigotry wasn’t limited to blacks; he had a similar distaste for eastern and southern Europeans, whom we described as “men of the lowest class.”
We’re talking about a man who definitely wasn’t “woke.” The kind of man who wouldn’t last a day in modern America. If Wilson were alive today, he’d find himself throttled in social media, and his political career would be torpedoed. At best, he would become an inconspicuous side note in history.
Scrutiny of Wilson’s character once again raises a question that has taken center stage in recent years: do people who weren’t “woke” decades and centuries ago deserve a place in our history books, memories, and public spaces?
As the old saying goes, “history is a set of lies agreed upon.”
It’s no secret that the people who determine how we remember our past have always distorted it in a way that suits them. This distortion is especially common when it comes to describing figures who have played an important role in shaping history—which brings us to Christopher Columbus, the man whose statues have suddenly gone missing around the country.
By all accounts, Columbus wasn’t a saint. There’s good reason to believe colonists brutalized and enslaved indigenous tribes under his watch, and that his expeditions brought diseases that nearly exterminated entire populations. Oh, and as it turns out, he didn’t actually “discover” America; that honor belongs to the Vikings.
But Columbus wasn’t the only 15th-century explorer who misbehaved; Spanish conquistadors and missionaries routinely enslaved, tortured, and murdered native peoples in their conquest of the New World. The slave trade was also rampant in British and French colonies, with the blessing of European monarchs who reaped the rewards of their labor.
In other words, 600 years ago, “woke” men were in seriously short supply.
Yet despite his embarrassing record on human rights, Columbus accomplished something worth remembering because it dramatically altered the course of history and affected the lives of most of you reading this now: he unlocked the door to the New World.
Even as the Catholic Church and the scientific “experts” of the 15th century insisted that nothing lay beyond the European horizon, Columbus proved them wrong. And while his first voyages never took him further than the Caribbean, he inspired Juan Ponce de Leon and Amerigo Vespucci to discover lands that would change the course of history and billions of lives (Note: these dudes weren’t “woke” either: de Leon became a slave owner, and Vespucci, who viewed natives as primitives with no understanding of “natural law,” profited heavily from the slave trade).
Fast forward six centuries to Woodrow Wilson.
While the 28th president of the United States was slightly more enlightened than Columbus by today’s standards, it’s important to keep in mind what the social landscape looked like 100 years ago. Back then, white men could tie a black man to a tree and beat him like a dirty rug, grab any part of a woman’s body if she aroused him, and spit on a queer he passed on the street.
In other words, a century ago, “woke” white men were still in short supply. And the kicker? White men could do these things with impunity. It wouldn’t be breaking news in the media. No one would shame them. No one would care.
Of course, it’s easy to forget this today when white men’s careers are obliterated for making careless Tweets or having consensual sex with co-workers. But once upon a time, we lived in a different kind of world. And in our relentless pursuit of a better world, we’ve somehow forgotten the ugliness of the one we’ve left behind.
In this miserably primitive landscape, Wilson stood out — not for being as “woke” as white men are encouraged to be today, or even as “woke” as some other men of his day were with regard to race — but for being progressive on other levels we take for granted now.
Wilson was a staunch advocate for women’s rights when they were considered second class citizens, and his decisive support led to the passage of the 19th Amendment granting them the right to vote. He was instrumental in advancing child labor laws and securing an eight-hour day for railroad workers. He fought to keep America out of World War I. He spearheaded the creation of the League of Nations to maintain world peace after the war. And he nominated Louis Brandeis as the first Jewish judge to the U.S. Supreme Court in an age of rampant anti-Semitism.
To be clear, I’m not defending Wilson’s racist past; I’m making the point that, as is often the case with noteworthy people throughout history, his legacy is complicated because human beings are complicated. If we dig deeper into any historical figure’s accomplishments, we will inevitably learn things that inspire and disgust us. History isn’t made by heroes and villains; it’s fashioned by flesh and blood people like you and me who have strengths and weaknesses, enlightened thoughts and blind spots, accomplishments and failures.
In reckoning with the messiness of human nature, we need to ask ourselves whether the flaws of a historical figure should carry higher weight in our collective memory than their accomplishments. Because as the “woke” train accelerates and we dig deeper into our past, we’re going to uncover many things that will compel us to tear down more statues and monuments.
It’s only a matter of time before most Americans learn that their first president, George Washington, owned slaves; that half of the most prominent Founding Fathers — from Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Franklin — held slaves; that William Clark, one half of the legendary team that explored and navigated America’s western frontier, did so with the assistance of a black man he “owned.” Not every white man kept slaves 300 years ago, but some of the most famous ones weren’t among the “enlightened.”
But does this mean we shouldn’t honor these men for launching a groundbreaking experiment that would ultimately entitle every person, regardless of sex or color, to be treated equally? Does this mean we shouldn’t memorialize a man who spent three years in an unknown wilderness, bravely forging a path that would allow settlers to build the western U.S.?
If we lift the hood and dig into the personal life of every white man on a statue or whose name adorns a library or school, we’ll find that almost none of them were “woke.” If we continue down this path, we’ll be compelled to completely “re-brand” America — stripping the faces of the men on our money, laying waste to monuments around the country, and tediously renaming parks, highways, and courthouses. Because the only white men “approved” for long-term public memory in America will be the ones born sometime after 1980.
Where will it end?
If we erect a monument to someone who discovers a cure for cancer, will we tear it down after we learn he made his female co-workers uncomfortable? Should our descendants remove it they discover he engaged in behavior that’s commonplace now but considered offensive decades later?
What price should those we honor today pay for not living up to the standards society sets tomorrow?
Distorting our past has never been a good thing, but what’s happening now is far more unsettling. By excising names and faces from public view, we’re effectively allowing our history to be “censored” like fake news and allowing others to determine who we remember and who we forget. Editing our past to make it more consistent with our current values may make us “feel” good about ourselves, but it sets a dangerous precedent. Today we’re tearing down statues and monuments and stripping names from buildings, but how much longer will it be before we reduce pages in history books to paragraphs, and then sentences, and then…nothing?
There’s another reason to hit the “pause” button on our history editing binge that we shouldn't lose sight of in our quest for a better world: society doesn’t benefit when we delete historical figures from our collective memory.
Keeping these names and monuments in public view invites a conversation and prompts us to ask questions. At that point we have a choice: we can believe what we’re told about these people, or we can dig deeper to learn more about who they were and what they did. We may not like what we learn, but the information can give us a better understanding of current events and how we ended up where we are now.
But when we systematically remove people from our history, we’re less likely to dig or ask questions.
There’s another old saying: those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. By removing the legacy of people we now find offensive, we run the risk of forgetting our collective mistakes. And if we forget our mistakes, then we’re more likely to repeat them in the future.
Monuments to horrific battles like Gettysburg or D-day aren’t intended to glorify the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of men, but to remind us what led us there and why we should do everything in our power to avoid going there again. The Jewish community is committed to memorializing the atrocities of Nazi Germany, not because memorials, documentaries, and museums elicit nostalgia or pleasant thoughts, but because they’ve vowed never to forget what human beings are capable of if we’re not vigilant.
Confederate flags, plantations, and monuments to slave-owning Founding Fathers and explorers shouldn’t stop us from being better people today or becoming better people tomorrow. To the contrary, they can help us in our efforts because they are reminders of the people we used to be, but no longer are. They are mementos of times that brought us to the place we are now. And we can’t appreciate how far we’ve come unless we remember and understand where we’ve been.
Human beings are more than the sum of their bad deeds. We need to honor the accomplishments of people who move society forward on a broader level — even if their personal lives are a train wreck, even if they fall short of being the people we wish they were. Like the human beings who shape it, history is complicated. It documents the expanse of our evolution: our battles, our hatreds, our anger, our loves, our discoveries, and most importantly our lessons. Our history should be as complete as possible and include or best moments and our worst because that’s the only way we can progress.
Instead of removing pieces of our past, we should fill in the missing gaps and capture who we are now. Instead of tearing down statues, we should build new ones honoring women and people of color who have moved our country forward in the past and will continue to do so. Rather than stripping names from buildings, schools should consider affixing the name of someone other than white men when they build libraries and dormitories.
We can continue down this road, removing memories that “offend” us and choosing not to honor people for failing to meet the expectations of modern society. Or we can accept the people who shaped history as the less-than-perfect human beings we all are, honoring them for their accomplishments and vowing to avoid their mistakes. I hope we find the courage to do the latter because we can’t build a better future by ignoring our past. Censoring history is just as offensive and dangerous as censoring speech. It just isn’t American.
We can be better than this. We must be better than this.