Why Not Rename the Capital, Then?

The logical outrage that has accompanied the murder of George Floyd has had the side-effect of reigniting the statue police.  The activist groups have destroyed the public property that are those statues and have galvanized those in power to act similarly.  The United States Congress, for example, has proceeded to vacate the Capitol Building of statues of Confederate generals, the mayor of London has created a commission to investigate the renaming of landmarks, and so forth in many places around the globe.  

But it seems these activists have fallen short.  There are many Christopher Columbus statues still erect, and many statues of slave-owning Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin.  And why stop there? Clearly there is no need to glorify slave-owning John Hancock, so they must demand the National Archives relinquish the Declaration of Independence so that that document which showcases his signature can be shredded.  While they are at it, they should petition that the capital of the United States be renamed because there is no reason for anyone to live in a city that is named after someone who owned people! 

Columbus Statue in Defeat

Actually, I don’t believe they should do that.  Yet I also think they should stop their war on landmarks altogether.  The problem with the iconoclasm crusade is that it removes the possibility of conversation and learning, and thus eliminates the opportunity of acquiring context and nuance.  It essentially deprives us from understanding our history and diverts our attention into destruction as opposed to thinking of ways to make our future better through the contextualization of our past.  

Otherwise we ought to ask who should determine how history be understood? Who decides if Robert Lee should be remembered as a segregationist, and have his statue destroyed, or as a dignified and respected educator? Who will decide if Christopher Columbus should be remembered as a tyrant or as Europe’s greatest explorer? Who is going to tell us if Benjamin Franklin should be considered a racist on account of him owning slaves, or as America’s greatest founding father? Who shall decide our morality for us? A group of itinerant bureaucrats? A tyrannical majority? Certainly not the mob on the streets, right?

History cannot be scrutinized as good versus bad and heroes versus villains.  Shades of gray exist; hence we cannot allow ourselves to castigate and obliterate aspects of our civilization’s past just because in our view of history we don’t like it.  It is foolish to try and eradicate figures that might offend our modern sensibilities, just as it would be foolish to try and eradicate works of art and literature that might speak in insensitive ways to the modern public.  The often-repeated adage, the sun is the best disinfectant, really is true.  If a figure really is wicked, inquiry and exposition will reveal it for what it is better than throwing its sculptured memento into the river.  

Also, landmarks themselves allow room for interpretation.  The place, and especially the attitude one directs towards them, can achieve different effects.  Perhaps, as Borges once remarked, indifference is the best revenge.