There was an obvious and apparent danger that many of us were delicately attempting to point out when the Black Lives Matter crusade turned its anger towards stone monuments two summers ago. When you start yanking down statues of individuals who have made positive contributions to society because it was discovered they were imperfect, where exactly does it stop?
No one seemed overly interested in addressing that legitimate question.
While the riotous hordes hurling paint at Chris Columbus's face or wrapping nooses around the neck of Robert E. Lee weren't inclined to listen to anything except the grunts and profane chants of their own contempt, too many figures in position to influence our national dialogue were paralyzed with their own fear of the mob to address it. Instead, they dismissed the logical questions we asked as mere "slippery slope" fallacy.
It was never slippery slope; it was always a sober prediction based on the obvious logical conclusions of what we were witnessing.
"But these are Confederate monuments," it was suggested. "These are statues honoring traitorous men who loved slavery and tried to destroy our country."
In the absolutist mind of an activist such calculations seem simple. But ignoring the reality that life in the real world is far more nuanced is a recipe for a host of unintended, long-term consequences.
Take the monument-razing throng's prime target as an example. If you could justify tearing down a monument to Robert E. Lee, a hero of the Mexican war, a man who decried slavery as a "moral and political evil," and one of two men responsible for healing the fractured nation following the Civil War, all because he took up arms to defend the cause of his home state of Virginia, whose monument would be safe? Whose past was free from any moral pockmarks, whose history avoided all ethical errors or missteps?
- Should Dr. Martin Luther King's monument be demolished because of his noted history of misogyny and adultery?
- Should Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony monuments be removed because they descended into racial slurs as they lobbied for white women's right to vote before former slave voting rights?
- Should all Henry Ford monuments be dismantled because of his well-known anti-Semitism?
- Should all George Patton monuments come down because the general was notoriously cruel to sick soldiers and excessively profane?
- Should monuments to Mohandas K. Gandhi be wrecked because the moral leader who pioneered peaceful resistance liked to sleep with very young girls?
- Should the Jefferson Memorial in D.C. be bulldozed because the author of the Declaration of Independence and our 3rd president owned slaves?
At least on that last question, we now have an answer.
Slippery slope, indeed.
Asked about whether this affront to American history was acceptable in his sight, the current President of the United States, Joe Biden – a man whose own past comments have been anything but racially sensitive – responded, "It depends."
Assuming Biden actually understood the question and was giving a lucid response, that cowardice is appalling (even if unsurprising). Like all the media figures who failed to resist the BLM statue mobs, Biden fears angering the online rage-merchants more than erasing the impact of Thomas Jefferson from the pages of our history.
One of my yearly classroom routines is to show my students a recorded reading of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence done by a group of Hollywood actors. Before the recitation begins, Morgan Freeman offers the introduction. His words seem prescient for our current moment, so I'll share them here:
"Thomas Jefferson was not ignorant of the problem of slavery of course. He called it a moral and political depravity. And in the original draft of the Declaration, denounced the slave trade as a cruel war against human nature itself. But Congress thought better of this particular item, and deleted it.
In fact, there is no mention of slavery, or black people, or of women for that matter, in this preeminent statement on the equal rights of man. So it makes you wonder, how can a man who himself held slaves write with such incredible passion and eloquence about human liberation and the promise of a democratic republic? Why, some may ask, do I bring up such embarrassing truths on this glorious occasion?
I answer: the real glory of the Declaration of Independence has been our nation's epic struggle throughout history to close the gap between the ideals of this remarkable document, and the sometimes-painful realities of American life.
The Declaration symbolizes the birth of our nation of course, but also the constant struggle to achieve its ideals. Consider, the words of this document inspired the French Revolution in 1789, 200 years later the revolt of Chinese students in Tiananmen Square. It inspired Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, Martin Luther King, Jr. to fight for civil rights, and women's suffragettes to fight for the vote.
This business of fulfilling the Declaration of Independence is a difficult struggle. But it is also an ennobling struggle. Jefferson called the Declaration an expression of the American mind. It is why this nation is so great, and why I am so proud to be an American."
This is the type of conversation that Americans of all colors, ethnicities, backgrounds, and creeds should be having relative to Jefferson, Lee, and all the flawed figures of our civilization's illustrious history. Instead, we have opted to become slaves ourselves. Slaves to the moment and the passions of mindless mobs who choose emoting over thinking, rage over reason, and who think erasing our history will make us better people than understanding it.
Which means, as unthinkable as it should be, get ready: George Washington is next.