Yes, we all know Donald Trump is an asshole, and almost certainly a racist. And his remark – that we should place blame for last week’s Charlottesville riots on “many, many sides” — would be ludicrous if it was not so chilling. Nevertheless, when Trump later attempted to “clarify” his initial remark about the riots, the jeers from “responsible” politicians and the media seemed self-righteous, self-congratulatory, and downright hypocritical.
For example, take Trump’s press conference on Aug. 15. . He asked the assembled reporters, with some justice, why it was OK to have statues of Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson – who were both slaveholders — but not OK to have a statue of Robert E Lee? (Trump might have also questioned the moral justification for statues of James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, Andrew Johnson, and – yes – even Ulysses S. Grant, all of whom were Presidential slaveowners.)
Trump was merely pointing out the hypocrisy – the double standards – of his interviewers. He was also saying, in effect, that one cannot erase history, let alone change it retroactively, simply by taking down a statue — any more than, say, Stalin could erase history by erasing the photographic images of disfavored members of the Politburo, or by tearing out their biographical pages from the history books.
One of the loudest denouncers of Trump’s blasphemy for daring to compare Robert E Lee to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (although Trump made it clear that he was only comparing their records as slaveholders) was MSNBC’s smugly odious Lawrence O’Donnell. Completely ignoring Trump’s point about slavery, O’Donnell argued that the statue of Robert E Lee deserved to be taken down – not so much because Lee was a slaveholder – but because Lee was such a good general. That is, Lee was a bad guy because his brilliant generalship enabled the South to fight on longer than it should have, causing more deaths than would otherwise have occurred. Presumably, according to O’Donnell, had Lee been a lousier general, and lost the war sooner, maybe we wouldn’t need to take down his statue at all.
But Trump neglected to ask another important question: Why stop with the removal of slaveholder statues? Is slavery the only reason to “de-memorialize” a historical figure?
I mean, take our seventh President, Andrew Jackson — a liberal icon and the founder of the modern Democratic Party. Jackson was acclaimed as a national hero for defeating the British in the Battle of New Orleans (the last battle in the War of 1812). But he was also a brutal slaveholder, and as President signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, forcibly ejecting tens of thousands of Cherokees, Muscogees, Seminoles, Chickasaws, and Choctaws from their ancestral homes, so that White settlers could seize their lands and profit from their extensive mineral wealth. Over 4,000 Native Americans died from exposure, disease, and starvation on the forced march – known as the “Trail of Tears” – to the arid, sun-baked reservations to which Jackson had exiled them.
We also know that Woodrow Wilson, another liberal icon, was a rabid racist who segregated the federal government; that Dwight D Eisenhower, revered by Democrats and Republicans alike, ordered the illegal overthrow of the democratically elected President of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz, and the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh, condemning both countries to decades of tyranny and dooming millions of their inhabitants to torture and death. We know that the equally revered Ronald Reagan abetted the rape, torture and death of hundreds of thousands of Central Americans during the Contra wars; that Lyndon B Johnson — who gave us the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Medicare — also gave us the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and the Vietnam War, resulting in the needless death of thousands of American soldiers and millions of Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian citizens. And the same Franklin Delano Roosevelt who gave us the celebrated (albeit increasingly dismantled) New Deal, cynically turned his back on the Jews of Europe during WWII, thus helping to enable Hitler’s Final solution.
And do we need reminding that the “good” George Bush — who integrated the federal executive branch, issued the first federal ban on racial profiling, and was awarded the highest honor of the Anti-Defamation league for his “inspirational leadership” and “commitment to Israeli-Palestinian peace” — was also the “bad” George Bush who lied us into the Iraq War, killing millions of innocent men, women and children, and destabilizing the Middle East?
But why go on? The list of American statesmen who have committed unstatesmanly acts is endless.
So which ones should we kick out of the Pantheon and cease to honor? Will America have any heroes left? In England, there is a growing campaign to rename buildings, streets and statues across Britain that commemorate men who may have been philanthropists, but who also owned and traded slaves. That’s what recently happened to Colston Hall, in Bristol. The performance venue was originally named after Edward Colston, a 17th-century philanthropist who gave great sums of money to the city, but whose money was made from slavery. As a result, the hall, which has hosted performances by giants such as Ella Fitzgerald, the Beatles, Bob Dylan and David Bowie, will reopen in 2020, after refurbishment, under a new but as yet unchosen name.
In the United States, as part of a similar campaign, Yale University announced that it was renaming Calhoun College. The College was originally named for John C. Calhoun, secretary of state, secretary of war, U.S. senator and vice president from 1824 to 1832 — who was also an ardent and effective supporter of slavery and White supremacy. The college’s new name will honor Grace Murray Hopper, a trailblazing computer scientist, mathematician, teacher, and dedicated public servant.
And Yale’s action is not unique.
The University of Texas at Austin recently took down a larger-than-life bronze statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, which had stood on campus since 1933.
Amherst College announced that Lord Jeffery Amherst, the 18th-century colonial governor after whom the city of Amherst, Mass., was named, would no longer be the unofficial campus mascot. (Although Lord Jeffrey led crucial British victories in the French and Indian War, he also ordered that Native Americans be given smallpox-infected blankets to hasten their demise.)
And the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill removed the name of William L. Saunders — a Ku Klux Klan leader and North Carolina secretary of state — from a building that had borne his name since 1922.
Most recently, on August 16, in response to the Charlottesville riots, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has asked the U.S. Army to change the names of Stonewall Jackson Drive and General Lee Avenue on Brooklyn’s Fort Hamilton Army Base, the city’s only active military post.
As these “shame and rename” campaigns increase in number and strength, will we soon see a movement to remove, from Mount Rushmore, the faces of slaveholder George Washington and slaveholder Thomas Jefferson (who, in the words of historian Stephen E. Ambrose, “regarded Negroes as inferior, childlike, untrustworthy and, of course, as property. . . . [and] embraced the worst forms of racism to justify slavery”)?
Of course, any serious campaign to sanitize our history by erasing the names and images of Unworthies will be a big job. The many statues of Washington and Jefferson that dot the American landscape, and the many cities, towns, villages, counties, hospitals, elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, academies, parks, tunnels, bridges, squares, highways, streets, and military vessels that are named after and/or dedicated to them must number in the tens of thousands – not to mention those named after and/or dedicated to America’s eleven other slaveholding Presidents.
As I said, a big job. So we should certainly proceed slowly. Maybe we could begin by renaming Ronald Reagan International Airport?