CLAY JENKINSON: Erasing The Past

Students at Columbia University recently put a Ku Klux Klan hood over the statue of Thomas Jefferson that stands in front of the journalism school.

The group, known as Mobilized African Diaspora, declared that “Jefferson’s statue makes it clear that black students are merely tokens of the university.” MAD argued that “venerating” Jefferson “validates rape, sexual violence and racism,” which they say is at odds with the university’s pledge to provide a safe and inclusive environment for all of its students. They are demanding the removal of the repugnant statue of the author of the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty and the Bill for the Government of the Western Territories.

The subtlety of righteousness: Jefferson with his KKK hood at Columbia University.
The subtlety of righteousness: Jefferson with his KKK hood at Columbia University.

So let me get this straight. Jefferson must go, because he was a slaveholder, but Alexander Hamilton gets to stay at Columbia, even though he despised democracy, distrusted the people, sought to overturn the election of 1800 after the New York results were in, called the Constitution a “shilly shally” thing, advocated a hereditary monarchy for the United States, wanted U.S. senators to serve for life and believed that adventuresome militarism was a primary path to American glory. Hamilton attended Columbia, then known as King’s College, before he became history’s greatest advocate for handing America over to what he called “the rich and the well-born.”

Students shame Jefferson with Post-its at the University of Missouri, on land purchased from Napoleon by Thomas Jefferson in 1803.
Students shame Jefferson with Post-its at the University of Missouri, on land purchased from Napoleon by Thomas Jefferson in 1803.

A KKK hood over Jefferson’s head at one of the premier academic institutions of the United States? Columbia, I thought you taught your students to think, to discuss, to reflect, to ponder, to debate, to imagine, to explore rather than merely to posture in righteousness. Really, the students of Columbia are now joining the new American Culture of Outrage? I thought Columbia was above cliché.

Here are five reasons this is a bad idea.

The “racist scum” who wrote the most important 35 words in the English language: “We hold these truths be be self-evident …”
The “racist scum” who wrote the most important 35 words in the English language: “We hold these truths be be self-evident …”

First, if you cover Thomas Jefferson with a KKK hood, what’s left for the KKK? There is a proportionality issue here. Jefferson did some ignoble things, but he never burned crosses on the lawns of his enemies. He never turned attack dogs loose on black men accused of a crime. He never burned down the barns of Catholics and Jews in Virginia. He never sent thugs to beat up individuals who called for general emancipation. He never set fire to polling places, tortured prisoners or joined a squad of sheeted goons on horseback who ran down a black man accused of a crime he may or may not have committed, tied him to a tree, gouged out his eyes and castrated him with a butcher knife and then poured kerosene on him and lit the pyre. For that matter, he never put a hood over the statue of someone he disagreed with.

Second, there is no way we can erase the past. Slavery doesn’t go away even if you pluck down Jefferson’s statue. Jefferson’s life and achievement are inextricably bound up with slavery, but in this he is not alone. To be logically consistent, we’d have burn images of George Washington (the strategic genius who won the Revolutionary War), James Madison (the father of the U.S. Constitution and the author of the Bill of Rights); James Monroe, who declared that the Western Hemisphere was off-limits to any future European colonialism; John Marshall (perhaps the greatest justice in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court); and Patrick Henry, our greatest revolutionary orator.

Wipe them off the map, them and many more, but that doesn’t change the fact that the United States was complicit in the systematic enslavement of millions of Africans and African-Americans between 1619 and 1865, and our civilization has not achieved racial equilibrium yet. I’d rather keep the Jefferson statue (and the Robert E. Lee and the Stonewall Jackson and the Jefferson Davis statues, too) and argue in front of them every day until we make things right, than rip them all down and pretend it never happened.

Third, when J. Robert Oppenheimer was being tried in 1954 for some radical associations he had formed during the 1930s, long before he was asked to head up the Manhattan Project, his countless defenders invoked what they called “the whole man theory.”

Taking Oppenheimer’s life and achievement in their entirety, his degrees, his books, his teaching, his research in quantum mechanics, his masterful management of the most significant engineering project in American history, his mentoring of young scientists, his profound ethical musings on America’s role in creating the greatest weapon of mass destruction the world had ever seen — given all of that, how much weight should we give to one or two minor incidents that did no harm to America’s security but did not exhibit Oppenheimer in the best possible light?

Taking Jefferson’s life and achievement in their entirety, what weight should we give to slavery? If we apply the whole man theory, does his complicity in slavery force us to erase him from Mount Rushmore, to raze Monticello, to throw paint on his statue at the College of William and Mary, to rename Jefferson high schools for someone better?

Or on balance, do we still need, respect, and even celebrate Jefferson, in spite of slavery and Sally Hemings, for the long list of his undeniable contributions to American civilization, from the Library of Congress to the University of Virginia?

The Declaration he wrote in 1776 did more to free American slaves than all the pamphlets of all the abolitionists combined. Plant the seed of universal liberty, and the rest is sure — sooner or later — to follow.

Surely, Jefferson can never again be seen as a flawless American hero. But to make him a leering, raping, horse-whipping fiend like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Simon Legree is as silly as it is easy for those who would rather dismiss than discuss the blemishes of American history.

Fourth, what makes these students believe they are morally superior to Thomas Jefferson or any number of other figures from American history? What part of the human condition do they think they have avoided? I’m with Jesus: “He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.” All you have to do is get off your soapbox long enough to ask, “What will the future say of us?” — and if you are like me, you will just want to shrink away to your fracking rig, or your air conditioned Walmart in Phoenix, or your spring break in Cabo or your plastic water bottle, or perhaps start removing your clothing made in Taiwan or China under labor conditions we have not permitted in this our happy republic since 1905.

Really? We can be righteous, we who have caused the vast majority of the world’s scientists to warn that we are edging to global climate catastrophe?

I’m with Hamlet: “Use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping?”

Finally and most important, a mature response to the dark side of human behavior is not to turn away in smug superiority and disgust, but to wrestle with those impossible questions of human imperfection.

Why did LBJ jeopardize his magnificent vision of a Great Society to wage a war in Southeast Asia he knew to be unwinnable the moment he inherited it? LBJ’s decision left 58,000 American dead, a million or more Vietnamese, and yet he said from the beginning in 1965 that the war could not possibly be won.

Just for a moment, compare that legacy and those numbers with Jefferson’s admittedly damaging relationship with slavery. Why did FDR put more than 120,000 Japanese, many of them Japanese-Americans, in internment camps during World War II? How could Bill Clinton’s sole dream, from the age of 16, have been to become president of the United States, and then he jeopardized the whole progressive dream to diddle interns? How could Martin Luther King, Jr., who delivered one of the handful of greatest speeches of the 20th century, have plagiarized his doctoral dissertation? How could Theodore Roosevelt have dishonorably discharged 167 African-American soldiers for a riot in Brownsville, Texas, when even he was pretty sure they were not guilty of the crime?

The list goes on and on. Shakespeare said, “We are all men frail, and capable of frailty.” George Washington told his niece, Nelly, there is something combustible in human nature, so we ought not play with the matches of temptation.

We humans are strange, paradoxical and wayward creatures, full of sound and fury and whopping moments of darkness and self-destruction. As Huck Finn said, “Humans beings can be awful cruel to one another.”

Who shall scape whipping?  Not I, that’s for sure. My great mentor Everett C. Albers always said in moments like this, “Judgment is Easy, Understanding is Hard.”


I’m Clay Jenkinson.

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