Painting Over George Washington
The energetic campaign, on campus and off, to promote “diversity” as the greatest of American civic goods has many hands and fingers: probing, pointing, squeezing, exhorting. Those perpetually busy with the task of dismantling our memories as a people are the most ludicrous of the lot.
That’s the problem. Invitations to ridicule the ridiculous can obscure how decidedly un-funny are the implications of allowing American history to be portrayed as a saga of oppression and injustice. The project of retelling our story in such a way as to embarrass and appall us is, not to put a particularly fine point on it, robustly malignant. It deserves widespread recognition as such. Equally it deserves concerted pushback. Maybe that’s coming, because the malignancy has spread.
We owe it to ourselves, not to mention those destined to succeed us in life, to keep abreast of this stuff: the clown show in San Francisco, for instance, featuring the school board’s pious overpainting of a Depression-era mural in George Washington High School. There—there on the school’s very wall, for goodness sake—the Father of Our Country was shown dismissively allowing west-bound settlers to march past the body of a Native American. Elsewhere on the mural, enslaved persons were depicted as picking cotton at Mount Vernon. Somehow these anti-racist touches from the past became, in the eyes of critics, examples of white imperialism.
The first question that leaps to mind is how San Francisco’s school board of 80 years ago got by with allowing a Russian-born communist and Diego Rivera associate, one Victor Arnautoff, to do a job on the high school’s namesake. Yet get by with it they did—notwithstanding that Mount Vernon produced wheat, corn, and pasture grasses, rather than the cotton shown as a symbol of oppression. The second, more obvious question is, what problem was the present-day board trying to solve?
An ad hoc Reflection and Action Working Group saw the previously unnoted problem as the mural’s glorification of “slavery, genocide, colonization, Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc.” The concluding “etc.” leaves ample space. It took 80 years, after all, to discover the moral distortions of an artist so left-wing that he was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the ’50s.
The hoopla over the Arnautoff mural barely preceded the resounding trumpet blast in Charlottesville, Virginia, over a local holiday—one designed to honor a famed local son who wrote the Declaration of Independence and served subsequently as third president of the United States. Observance of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, on April 13, had been instituted after the Second World War. Fine, you would have supposed. Not so fine at all, the city council decreed this past spring, voting 4-1 to call off the Jefferson holiday and replace it with Freedom and Liberation Day, on March 13, in commemoration of the freeing of the slaves in 1865.
So Jefferson founded Charlottesville’s signature institution, the University of Virginia. Yeah, so what? He owned slaves, forfeiting thereby his right to moral honors and emoluments within the city’s gift. Says the new mayor: “We’re making sure the historical perspective is told from the black viewpoint, and being unwavering about our viewpoint of that.” Unwavering, uncompromising, un-what-else? Unconnected to reality? That would be one way of putting it.
Then along comes the frontal attack on Teddy Roosevelt at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History: the object of offense being a 1940 equestrian statue of our 26th president, flanked by walking representations of an American Indian and an African tribesman. The statue, writes Wall Street Journal art critic Edward L. Rothstein, troubles the museum and, by extension, city government, due to its seeming embrace of TR as great white father. An explanatory exhibition at the museum, mounted in response to the critique of a mayoral commission, lamely tries to give some context to the matter, noting Roosevelt’s commitment to conservation but also his now-alien-seeming racial attitudes. (He was a proud and bold American.) Nor, possibly, is this the end of the affair. Various influential New Yorkers want the statue taken away.
We may get the careless impression that the furor is mainly about statues—say, of Confederate heroes, who have attracted their own contingent of vilifiers. It is not. It is bigger, deeper, wilder, and crazier than that. Its implications stretch ahead and way out of sight. Rothstein writes: “The problem is that for a generation or more, our culture has been preoccupied with a particular theme: If hierarchy of any kind exists, it must be a sign of iniquity and also of racism. And that assessment eclipses all others.” It all makes, to the open eye and the wide-awake mind, no sense. A statue, or just a name, perpetuates and stimulates active injustice against particular Americans? It makes no sense, in that there is no sense to be made of such mental overreaction.
We live in a wild and crazy time, disordered for many reasons. Of these, the newest is the disposition to put the dead on trial for offenses that were not offenses at the time of commission and would seem to require, at most, some thoughtful contextual explanation: certainly not prosecutorial hand-waving. The matter does not stop there. Raising public calls to battle, and especially civil war, is an occupation that requires careful and judicious thought, not offhanded and spontaneous eruptions from the gut. We are presently being called to battle as a nation by people who for the most part should know better—people who have had a little education, who have read some books and maybe done consequential things in life. Swords, drawn and flourished, can slice and maim. A strong presupposition exists to the effect that we are maiming our country, and our national life, without a plausible account of the reasons for so doing. There is great danger in what has taken place, without effective dissent, in San Francisco, Charlottesville, New York City, and in towns and cities throughout the South.
First, there is the emotional immaturity of the whole business—the lack not just of motive but of actual purpose. The reason my hometown of Dallas purportedly had to remove and sell an equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee, sometimes called the best of its kind in the country, and dedicated by that notorious white supremacist Franklin D. Roosevelt, was…well, um, what was it about, exactly? The purpose, it seems, was to remove a moral eyesore. But when did the statue, situated on a green swathe of parkland, become such an eyesore? Not when FDR blessed it. Not when hippies, in the early ’70s, tossed frisbees and smoked dope around it. Rather, it became an eyesore after a Lee statue in Charlottesville became a magnet, as we all recall, for the Unite the Right rally and counter-protesters. Which meant (so it was related by the mayor) we had to preserve civic peace by giving General Lee the bum’s rush. Additionally, his removal would enhance racial peace and understanding. It would? How, exactly? By stirring up, as was the case, resentments on both the pro-statue and anti-statue sides? All the fond predictions of racial progress came to be seen, predictably, as so much hot air. Nothing has come of removing the statue, so far as I can see, apart from the flourishing of contempt for local hot-air merchants determined to find fault with a past no one personally remembers.
Second, our sudden focus on symbols and representations as hindrances to racial progress lets far larger culprits off the hook. The calling-out of Jefferson as unworthy to be celebrated in his hometown goes a long way, does it not, toward restoring absent black fathers to their homes and families and parenting chores. Robert E. Lee, I tell you, has a lot to answer for, having failed to foresee that zero-tolerance legislation in the 1990s would enhance African-American mass incarceration, working one more hardship onto the stability of black families.
Scapegoating, to be sure, is an ancient human pastime. But it butters no parsnips, sharpens no mathematical skills, opens no broader views of the world, creates no opportunities for growth and reflection. It does distract. It affords escape hatches for failed or negligent leaders. The racial angle is key in this context. We can’t ever be allowed to forget that the abolition of slavery took place a mere 150 years ago. There is a complementary consideration. Whites are at the bottom if it all, oppressing first slaves, then factory workers, then unfairly tending to their own privileges. Sort of like Kirsten Gillibrand in one of the Democratic presidential debates, as she pleaded guilty to “white privilege,” and offered, if elected, to explain the matter to similarly privileged white women with large homes and BMWs.
Shelby Steele, in White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era, portrays liberals—white ones most of all—as so writhing in the jaws of guilt that they can’t escape save by perpetual confession and self-abasement. “The very legitimacy of the American democracy in this post-civil rights era,” he says, “now requires a rigid, if not repressive, morality of racial equality…. Race simply replaced sex as the primary focus of America’s moral seriousness.” Adios, Teddy Roosevelt, you old imperialist, you; you tribune of white supremacy.
There is, nonetheless, worse to be toted up against the vogue for rewriting history: not so much the reinterpretation thereof (inasmuch as reinterpretation is the honored pastime of scholars) as the omission, the blotting out, of non-approved portions of the narrative. Take Jefferson. You can say that St. Thomas, as we frequently have conceived him, with temples both in Washington, D.C., and Monticello, warrants regular and realistic appraisals, for the sake of wiser understandings. That is not, of course, what the city of Charlottesville is up to. What Charlottesville is up to, in thumbing its nose at the original source of its distinctions, is putting the author of the Declaration of Independence in his place as an oppressor.
You would have to call this, would you not, an overreaction of literally historic proportions. The Declaration of Independence? Forget it. The presidency, the Louisiana purchase, the enduring words of counsel to his own time, handed down to succeeding generations, such as “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man”—none of it matters? The Declaration may or may not deserve the status many would bestow on it as America’s main founding document, eclipsing even the Constitution. However, to treat it as a moral nullity, proceeding from the pen of a slave owner, incapacitates the American quest for self-understanding, and hence for the activities that proceed from self-understanding. If it comes to that, maybe the slave-owner legacy of Thomas Jefferson establishes America’s basic badness. Light on a hill, indeed! Maybe we should just go out of business as a country: quit pretending American ideals amount to anything other than sheer imposture.
The propulsive idea behind the historical rewrite is, broadly speaking, that we’re not nearly the generous, freedom-loving land we thought we were, and that we have a lot of making up to do. A lot of reparations to pay, if you want the truth. The appearance of proposals for reparation payments to the supposed descendants of supposed slaves is one more indication that many among us want their guilt washed away, with a flood of, mainly, other people’s money. He who says this kind of thinking is civically useful, or emotionally healthy, should give the matter a second thought. Untethered from reality is what it is, with consequences unknowable and, for that reason, terrifying.
A related point comes to mind, which is that what you start you don’t necessarily get to finish. An invitation to rewrite other people’s history is an invitation to have your own worked over at some future point—made consonant with whatever ideological purposes may show themselves. The Left exults that the forces of oppression, after centuries of sticking it to the downtrodden, are getting paid back in their own coin. But that’s for now. Once you fling open all windows for the casting out of old-fashioned, if imperfect, heroes, you will find your own heroes worked over by generations with new and variant interpretations, intent on business of their own. These folks won’t see what you see. They’ll feel free to overturn your suppositions, to lynch your heroes—and denigrate you in the process. Not to mention accelerate social and political rivalries and divisions—to what end no one can readily say.
They’ll do so the more easily, the more fluently, on account of your success, if success you call it, at clearing away even older suppositions—the supposition, say, that the rule of law, however uninteresting to the generation that pulls Jefferson and Washington from their pedestals, is a great pan-historic legacy of value wherever it takes root. Its value will be harder to discern on account of the energy and passion that have gone into the rewriting or extinction of stories about more reverential processes of change. The hurling of chairs through windows, to get a certain kind of job done, owes its inspiration to the feeling that it’s fun to hurl chairs through windows.
Americans, it seems safe to say, won’t readily distinguish between norms and ideals worthy of preservation and those that just kind of hang around due to social inertia. Gone will be the old guardrails that kept us, one way or another, from lurching over the cliffs. We, or our near descendants, will be on our own—making it up as we go, in a thoroughly modern spirit, figuring heroes to be just another name for dead people with questionable ideas.
Dumb is dangerous. This is the point to keep in mind as we turn American history over to the cultural politicians for a thorough rewrite job. These people out, these people in charge. The irony of the whole thing, to be sure, is that, broadly speaking, the intellectual set—college-going, college-educated—likely lends more firepower to the project of repainting and repapering America than does any other social segment. How’d they all get to be so smart, doing such dumb and dangerous things? Maybe the question requiring a new answer is, who are the genuinely smart people in our intellectually challenged time, and when are they going to say, enough already?
William Murchison is a nationally syndicated columnist and author, most recently, of The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson.