“Cancel Culture” and the Dangers of Losing Our Culture: A Careful Approach to History

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The more I learn about Teddy Roosevelt, the more I like him. Did you know that his political platform in 1912 called for universal healthcare, environmental protection, the adoption of public lands for preservation, and other similar issues important to progressives today? Furthermore, Teddy was also the first major figure in American politics to call for women’s suffrage and equal pay for women – which we still don’t have today. In fact, his 1880 college thesis was an argument in favor of women’s suffrage. TR basically drew up the blueprint for the New Deal and for the course of American progressivism for the next century. And what surprises a lot of people is that Roosevelt was a Republican. At first. In 1912, TR split from the Republicans and formed the progressive Bull Moose Party after he lost the presidential nomination of the Republican Party to his former protégé and conservative rival, incumbent president William Howard Taft. Of course, even if he had continued in the Republican party, the two parties hadn’t switched platforms yet. That didn’t happen in earnest until the 1960s. So it’s fair to assume that TR would likely be a Democrat were he alive today. It’s just amazing how ahead of his time he was, and how he was so often on the right side of history. Especially when it came to racism and slavery. In 1885, he publicly denounced former Confederate President Jefferson Davis – who was still alive at the time – and compared him to the American turncoat, Benedict Arnold. Davis angrily rejected the comparison, and initially tried to sue for libel, but eventually dropped the suit. TR called for the end to Confederate monuments, which were rapidly going up all over the South at that time, as Jim Crow laws were instituted and the KKK was responsible for hundreds of public lynchings. Teddy called out these racist Southerners, and condemned their statues – 120 years before the rest of the country finally woke up to our nation’s intrinsic racism and the shameful hypocrisy of such monuments.

At the time, Roosevelt wrote: “I certainly cannot be put in the attitude of in any way apologizing for or regretting anything I have said about Jefferson Davis. If secession was not a crime, if it was not an offense against humanity to strive to break up this great republic in the interest of the perpetuation of slavery, then it is impossible ever to commit any crime, and there is no difference between good men & bad men in history. Jefferson Davis for many years had intrigued for secession – had intrigued for the destruction of this republic in the interest of slavery; and the evidence is overwhelming to my mind that in his course he was largely influenced by the eager desire to gratify his own ambition. In public utterances of mine I grouped together Jefferson Davis and Benedict Arnold. As a matter of pure morals I think I was right. Jefferson Davis was an unhung traitor. He stands as an evil eminence in our history.”

Like many people today, I also understand and share many people’s concerns about the true legacy of Teddy Roosevelt. He was an unrepentant Imperialist, who hated Native Americans and brutally bullied Latin America. Roosevelt was a shameless nativist and nationalist, who believed in American Exceptionalism. His foreign policy was Colonialist and oppressive, and he firmly believed America had an intrinsic obligation to police the world and impose its ideals on nations everywhere. TR famously said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” Big Stick Policy, in American history, popularized and named by Roosevelt asserted that U.S. global domination was our country’s moral imperative. Much of the world disagreed, but cowered in its fear of the newly ascendent empire. Some of Theodore Roosevelt’s views and prejudices were problematic, at best, and abominable at worst.

Having said all that, I think it’s always important to keep things in perspective and contextualize the man in HIS time. Any person, for that matter. The world has a rich legacy of influential artists, authors, poets, politicians and the like, who have passed down their work through the millennia and is still warmly received today. We are still teaching many of these – admittedly white male figures – in school. The Western Canon has long been held up as the epitome of taste and culture. However, in the last few decades, that belief has rightfully come under fire. We are now carefully analyzing and parsing every historical figure’s words and deeds, and scrutinizing their every misstep. As we should be. We need to take a critical approach to our ancestors, and evaluate if they are still relevant and acceptable to our modern sensibilities. However, I do believe that it’s a slippery slope when we start unfairly holding our ancestors to our high ideals and standards of decency. Over millennia, we have evolved as a species – both physically and intellectually. It’s fair to say that we are much more enlightened today than we were a thousand years ago, and even just over a hundred years ago – while TR was still alive. While his views on Native Americans and Latin America were backwards and racist by contemporary standards, they were quite commonplace at that time. Imperialism and Colonialism were alive and well. And Teddy fell victim to that barbaric and primitive way of thinking. Sadly, like all of us, he was also a victim of his age. How will historians look back on us? Will we be “cancelled” and outright dismissed by our posterity because we were so short-sighted and primitive in our beliefs and priorities? After our fossil fuels all but deplete our oxygen and our planet becomes nearly unlivable – only to be saved by future technologies and forward-thinking people – will our descendants look back at us as we do the Neanderthals? Can our legacies be salvaged?

In regards to Teddy Roosevelt, despite his bigoted and myopic views of his nation and its role in the world, he was also ahead of his time on so many progressive fronts. Many of these issues still trouble us today, and haven’t even been addressed one hundred years later.

Personally, I think it’s dangerous to take historical figures out of the context of their time, and hold them up to our enlightened and egalitarian standards. If we do that with everyone from the past, we’d have no one left to celebrate or learn from. ALL of our ancestors were deeply flawed. Aristotle. Shakespeare. T.S. Eliot. Ezra Pound. H.L. Mencken. Picasso. DaVinci. Lincoln. Both Roosevelts. And on and on. These names are rife with sexists, antisemites, and racist authors, politicians, and artists. By today’s standards, NO ONE would pass the sniff test. No one. But I don’t think that’s cause to throw the baby out with the bathwater. These (mostly) men were of their age, but they also created art and policy that transcends ALL ages. In his eulogy to Shakespeare, Ben Jonson wrote, “Shakespeare was not of an age, but for all time.” As are all of these historical figures. Their work is transcendental, and we wouldn’t still be reading them or consuming their art today if it didn’t still speak to us.

In light of their sins of the past, we must not “cancel” or dismiss them outright, but attempt to understand them and reconcile ourselves with their often shameful and ignorant beliefs. Instead of eradicating them from our text books and tearing down their statues, we need to carefully teach these historical figures and contextualize their hateful and ignorant words and deeds. This is a teachable moment.

It all starts by expanding the canon, and integrating more women, people of color, and non-Westerners into our curriculums. We need to take a worldly and multicultural approach to the way we teach our young people. They need to learn the contributions of people from all different cultures, creeds, religions, skin colors, sexual orientation, gender identities, and more. Our education system needs to embrace the artist and politicians of the world who have helped shaped our society. The next step is to continue to ALSO teach the great Western masters – whose work has been passed down as sacrosanct and unassailable until now – but do so in a way that is thoughtful and instructive. There is a reason why we still read Shakespeare, even though he was a white Christian male. We shouldn’t cancel him because he may have been antisemitic and sexist. We must firmly place these individuals in their time and place, and educate our students about the attitudes and mores of the day – however repugnant. We must not cower and hide from the sins of our forebearers and all the past atrocities that may have inflicted on the world. We must examine their unique zeitgeists, and teach our students that they were, unfortunately, products of a less enlightened and deeply bigoted era. As Confederate monuments are being torn down across the country, it is even more imperative that we learn to be critical in our understanding of the bigoted and racist views of nearly half the country at that time. For the record, I adamantly support the tearing down of Confederate monuments and statues. And the removal of Confederate names from military bases. And the renaming of streets, schools, and everything else that may bear the name of these hateful forerunners. We shouldn’t celebrate either traitors OR racists in this country. The Confederacy was an illegitimate country sprung from the loins of slavery and built on the backs of enslaved Black men and women. Those people do not deserve our admiration and praise. And they certainly don’t deserve monuments celebrating their accomplishments. However, I also don’t necessarily believe they should be melted down or destroyed altogether. There’s history there, and lessons to be learned.  I am of the opinion that these statues belong in museums and on battlefields where men on both sides died. That would be a fitting reminder of America’s original sin, and the people that perpetuated those atrocities. We need to remember them and learn from them, but no idolize and celebrate them. Just because Germany has no statues of Adolf Hitler doesn’t mean that they don’t learn about him and study the past. There’s a marked difference between recording the past and celebrating it. These statues need to come down NOW!

Things get a little more problematic when we start talking about the Founding Fathers. They were not traitors, and over the last 250 years, they have been lionized and celebrated for their unparalleled achievements, and the unimpeachable mark they left on the world. And yet, for all their high ideals, these men were deeply flawed and are rightfully problematic today. Many of our American heroes were slaveowners, and Thomas Jefferson was particularly bigoted, racist, and virulent in his private correspondence and journals. Reading his works beyond the masterful Declaration of Independence is frustrating and infuriating. How could a man that wrote so eloquently: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” also be an unrepentant slaveowner and horrific racist? What’s more, one that slept with an enslaved woman on his plantation and fathered her children! What hypocrisy! Are we supposed to hold that kind of man close to our bosoms? And yet, are we to tear down all the statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson too? Surely their sins are comparable with those of Jefferson Davis and other traitors of the Confederacy less than a hundred years later. But does that mean we rename Washington DC? And schools and streets in every town and city in America? Is that even possible? How do we erase our “Founding Fathers” and not erase our mythic ideals of the birth of this nation at the same time? Like it or not, our unique American identity is inextricably tied to those who founded this nation and launched the longest continuous Democracy in the history of the world.

What if we continued to celebrate their accomplishments and teach them through an evolved and enlightened lens, putting them in their times, and being critical of their racist views? I prefer the latter. How could anyone reject the beautiful words Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence? And yet, those words did not apply to Black men and women, or women in general. We must learn from those egregious oversights.

Problematic and deeply flawed individuals litter our history, and can often make us feel uncomfortable at best or rageful at worst. These days, it’s hard to fathom these individual’s racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, transphobic, and bigoted views any more than we could our next door neighbor who voted for Donald Trump. Wrong is wrong, right? And understandably, many people who have been historically disenfranchised and marginalized throughout history, want to cancel these ancestors of ours, and erase any contributions they may have made. But people are people. Humans are flawed, and much more complex than our myopic history books tell us. That is why we must rewrite our curriculums, and teach these people in a way that embraces their accomplishments, while rejecting and learning from their hateful views. We must take this opportunity for a teachable moment, and use it to educate and enlighten today’s generation, for the sake of future generations. We must not erase our history and culture, but contextualize it and surround it by works by those who may have punished and oppressed by those ugly beliefs and actions. We must provide a holistic view of history, and take these moments to learn from our mistakes. I feel very passionately that we shouldn’t ‘cancel’ problematic figures from our history. We should teach them.

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