Walk around any college campus, and you will see the names of distinguished faculty and generous donors adorning most of the buildings. Likewise, many campuses feature statues, memorials, or plaques dedicated to individuals or events of historical significance to that particular school, or the school’s home state. Such monuments typically seek to connect us with the past by preserving the memory of someone or something of consequence—institutional history.
Remembering the past is not the same as celebrating it, but erasing the past dooms us to forget the lessons it offers—both good and bad.
Although the coverage in the media has dissipated, the craze for monument destruction has not abated in the wake of the Charlottesville uproar this summer. Indeed it has spread, especially on college campuses. Oregon State University is just one school where the mania has reached a fever pitch. Not content to erase all memory of those with confirmed pro-slavery views (in a state that never allowed slavery), OSU has now moved on—in many cases without solid or tangible evidence—to remove the names of persons rumored or “suspected” of possibly harboring such regrettable views.
But OSU is not unique in its willingness to tear down its past.
In recent years, other universities—including my alma mater, the University of Texas—have begun renaming buildings and mothballing statuary recognizing Confederate-era figures who have fallen out of political fashion. The stated concern is that students with delicate sensibilities might be offended by a reminder of uncomfortable periods in history, in the unlikely event that they even bothered to notice the objectionable statues or were aware of the figures whose names are engraved on the pedestal or building wall. Texas was part of the Confederacy, so cleansing the UT campus of imagery related to the Civil War effectively expunges an important part of the state’s heritage.
I suspect that the real motive for removing historical references is not to make the campus “inclusive,” or to provide students with a “safe space,” but rather of advancing identity politics—pitting people against one another based on group characteristics. Another factor is a simple desire on the part of the Left—now dominant in higher education—to exert its power. As John Davidson has noted, “the purpose of this relentless war on the past is not really to adjudicate America’s historical sins or educate the young about them, but to justify political force in the present day.”
Moreover, the movement to airbrush unpopular historical symbols out of public view is a manifestation of the utopian notion that human beings, no matter how accomplished, must be perfect—by modern standards—to deserve our respect. This is a wholly unrealistic conception of history. All great men and women exhibited flaws, and judging them from the perspectives of today ignores the prevailing mores and attitudes of the past. Historians refer to this as the fallacy of presentism.
At UT, the process began in 2010, when the university renamed one of its oldest dormitories (Simkins Hall) because its namesake, a Civil War veteran and renowned member of the UT law faculty for 30 years (1899-1929), was—like Justice Hugo Black, Senator Robert Byrd, and many others liberal heroes from that time—involved in the Ku Klux Klan as a young man. The sanitized name is now Creekside Hall. This was the first domino to fall.
In 2015, another domino fell, in response to the church shooting by deranged loner Dylann Roof in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof, it may be recalled, had posed for a photo with a Confederate battle flag prior to the shooting. This prompted many timorous bureaucrats in Southern states to over-react, including UT’s President, Greg Fenves, who quickly sought political cover by appointing a task force loaded with administration cronies and progressive activists to recommend whether an assortment of Confederate-era statuary, which had stood on the campus’s main mall for 82 years, should be removed.
Fenves predictably acceded to the panel’s recommendation by ordering the removal of a bronze statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis that had stood on campus since 1933. A companion bronze statue of President Woodrow Wilson was also removed, in order to “maintain symmetry” on the mall. Both statues, by the noted sculptor Pompeo Coppini, had been commissioned by George Littlefield, an early UT regent and major donor. (The Italian-born Coppini also created the Alamo Cenotaph, sometimes referred to as the “Spirit of Sacrifice,” to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Texas’s independence from Mexico in 1836.) Fenves concluded that “it is not in the university’s best interest to continue commemorating” Davis on the UT campus, although Fenves pointedly rejected demands that four other Confederate-era statues by Coppini (including one of General Robert E. Lee) be removed from campus, on the ground that the four had deeper ties to Texas than Davis did.
Fenves’ show of resolve was short-lived. Earlier this year, following the violent altercation in Charlottesville, Virginia sparked by a protest against that city’s removal of a Lee statue from a city park, a squeamish Fenves abruptly had the remaining four Coppini statues—including one depicting a former Texas governor and UT benefactor—removed from campus overnight. Fenves explained that “those parts of our history that run counter to the university’s core values, the values of our state and the enduring values of our nation do not belong on pedestals in the heart of the Forty Acres. We do not choose our history, but we choose what we honor and celebrate on our campus.” Quite a pirouette! More dominoes fell.
A statue of George Washington remains on the UT campus—at least for now—as does a large fountain by Coppini, also endowed by Littlefield, whom the Left reviles as a former Confederate officer and sympathizer. (Fenves has already ordered an “offensive” inscription removed from the fountain that he previously said would remain.) Critics also complain that two UT buildings are named after alleged segregationists (T.S. Painter and Robert Lee Moore). Will these “sins” be corrected by removing or re-naming the offensive symbols? Fenves’ feckless record to date offers little reason to believe otherwise.
But if statues of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and other Confederate-era figures are undeserving of display on campus because they are imperfect—too flawed to warrant the public recognition once felt to be appropriate—one has to ask: Do any of our heroes meet this lofty standard? The UT campus also displays statues commemorating Barbara Jordan, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Cesar Chavez (among many others). Mega-donor Joe Jamail has two statues. Are these icons faultless?
Jordan was the first African-American woman from the South to be elected to Congress, but her views on immigration were unfashionably strict by present standards. If a thin-skinned UT student was so inclined, he could object to Jordan’s leadership of an immigration commission in the 1990s that recommended many reforms similar to those advocated by President Donald Trump, including a reduction of legal immigration, elimination of most family-based admissions, an increased emphasis on assimilation and English language training, and making illegal aliens ineligible for publicly-funded services. Like Trump, Jordan also opposed granting amnesty to those who entered the country illegally.
King was a courageous civil rights leader and important proponent of nonviolence, but he was also a plagiarist and notorious philanderer who associated with Communist agents. Chavez founded the United Farm Workers union, but his autocratic leadership accomplished little to improve the conditions of farmworkers and he worked to deport illegal aliens who didn’t honor UFW picket lines. Chavez’s biographer, Miriam Pawel, documents his corruption and self-dealing. Jamail, an impressive courtroom advocate, personified professional incivility, and was publicly admonished by the Delaware Supreme Court for his rude and vulgar behavior. I bring this up, not to discredit these liberal icons, but to point out that even “heroes” have flaws–and in some cases, significant ones.
Take Malcolm X, for example, who was a convicted felon and former pimp and drug addict. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Manning Marable documents that as a disciple of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X advocated racial separatism, black nationalism, and anti-Semitism, and proselytized that white people are “devils” and that blacks are superior to whites. Malcolm X, who denounced Rev. King as an “Uncle Tom,” was a complicated figure whose views evolved over the course of his life, and he is now regarded as an inspirational leader to many African-Americans. But he is hardly flawless. Yet, since 1995, UT has maintained a student lounge for black students named after Malcolm X. (As a thought experiment, imagine the reaction if UT (or another school) were to establish a lounge for white students and name it after Lester Maddox, George Wallace, or Bull Connor.) Again, my point is not to criticize Malcolm X, but to point out that this icon is imperfect.
The double-standard must stop. Otherwise, the historical monument demolition campaign will not end with Robert E. Lee and other Confederate-era figures. Statues of Christopher Columbus have already been vandalized elsewhere. At a Virginia church, historical references to George Washington have been removed because he was a slave owner—as were many of the founding generation. Are Jefferson and Lincoln, who were not saints, next? Ad infinitum, so the dominoes fall. Our entire national heritage—our collective memory—is at risk.