Monday, November 30, 2015

Anachronism, Stupidity and Futility

Certain of the more self-righteous and, I think, tiresome students (and professors?) at some institutions of higher education in our Glorious Republic, who evidently are not preoccupied by their studies, have taken to demanding that the names and statues of significant historical figures be removed from sight.  At Princeton, for example, the name and likenesses of Woodrow Wilson offend them; at The College of William and Mary and apparently elsewhere, that of Thomas Jefferson should be purged, or so it's urged.  They were racists, you see.

It must be wondered whether The College of William and Mary should be required to change its name as well, as it's quite certain that both William and Mary were racists under the current definition. The George Washington University, of course, is particularly problematic. 

I should note that I'm not very fond of either Wilson or Jefferson.  Wilson was a pompous ass in many respects, an egotist and a pretentious one to boot.  Lloyd George and Clemenceau made him look like a fool at Versailles nonetheless.  His messianic conceits so annoyed those in Congress that most of his plans came to naught. By all rights he should have resigned due to his incapacity after his return to the United States, but instead allowed his wife to act as President.

Jefferson was without question a man of genius, but he was also without question a hypocrite of the highest order, who did his best to rule as a tyrant once he obtained the presidency.  Although himself adept at defamation, he objected to criticism of any kind, and at one point even sought to change the law so that truth was no defense to libel.  His conduct in the matter of Aaron Burr was reprehensible for its disregard of the law.

It happens they were also racist.  But while I dislike Wilson and Jefferson (and racism) I dislike anachronism as well, except sometimes in works of science fiction.

What is interesting about this interest in erasure of references to figures of the past is that but a short time ago, relatively speaking, all or most people were racist.  Many still are.  If all who were racist are unworthy of honor, then it's arguably the case that nobody except some of those who have been alive in the past 50 years are worthy of honor, because only certain of those people would not be deemed racist by those who employ that term now.  Though it may be a surprise to those who seek to purge college campuses at this time, racism isn't exclusively European in origin.  All peoples have, at one time or another, thought strangers inferior and contemptible.

So those qualities of Wilson and Jefferson which cause students to fume at this time were likely shared by everyone in recorded history, except some of those of the current generation and possibly some of the last generation. The question arises:  Is it appropriate to condemn all those who have ever lived, or at least not to display them on university grounds, except those who lived recently, because they failed to believe as some of us do now? 

Curiously, it's probable that those who presume to judge those of the past by the standards of the present wouldn't dream of judging those living now by any standard.  They've been taught not to judge.  At least, they've been taught not to judge those living now because they believe or think differently.   Differently, that is, from those who are European or of European descent, whom the naive believe are the only racists ever to live on this planet.

There's apparently something about the dead that renders them subject to judgment due to their failure to recognize what has only been recently recognized by we the living.  And we came to recognize the evil of racism only after a long, hard and continuing struggle, usually by those who are dead as well.  We have no cause to be self-righteous; our enlightenment isn't our achievement, and it's fundamentally unfair to blame those who didn't have the benefit of our knowledge for failing to have our knowledge.

It is stupid to apply the standards of the present to the past because that is simply to fail to know and understand the past, thus dooming ourselves to repeat it, as Santayana put it.  It is futile to do so because it achieves nothing of significance now.

Wilson and Jefferson and the billions of others who have lived are not honored, or even thought of, for their racist views if they are thought of at all.  Those who do think of them for any extended period of time are most likely professors and students, who are of course exempt from criticism being the critics themselves and presumptively free of racism.  Taking names off buildings and pulling down statues won't make anybody less racist or more tolerant, as satisfying as those acts may be to those who deal in appearances and little else. 

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