The Cancel Culture

What do you do with statues and buildings when you no longer approve?

Posted Feb 11, 2021

No more schools named after George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt — not in San Francisco anyway. That city’s school board has ordered 44 schools in the city be renamed after determining that these historical figures and other notables no longer were worthy of the honor.

While San Francisco’s action is extreme, it is part of a nationwide reconsideration of our past in light of our present values. Reassessments are good things, just as in our individual lives a periodic examination of our own behavior is called for. Religions provide a vehicle for this, such as in weekly confessions in Christianity and the annual day of atonement in Judaism.

No one is perfect; no one is without faults. No one, in biblical terms, hasn’t already cast a stone or hasn’t a mote in his or her eye. The flawless person doesn’t exist. So if you look deep enough, there is bound to be something in a person’s past that is at least embarrassing.

How bad must a person be to be barred from public honor? Aristotle condoned slavery, and neither the bible nor Quran explicitly condemn the practice that today no one defends. What male before the modern era didn’t accept as a given in nature that men were superior to women?

It is possible to extend this argument to many other spheres, such as the exploitation of workers or treatment of the mentally challenged. If historical considerations are tossed aside, only saints come out clean. But even saints don’t escape the process of re-evaluation. Many drivers who kept little statues on their dashboards were shocked to discover that the Catholic Church had removed Christopher with nearly 100 others from the universal calendar, in essence declaring that he was no longer a saint.

Naming schools after individuals is relatively new. I went to P.S. 159, in Brooklyn. Today the elementary school is P.S. 159 Isaac Pitkin. But what do we know about Pitkin other than he was an early real estate developer in East New York?

Universities face naming issues in a major way. In the near past, buildings were called either by their function or after an outstanding professor at the college. Now buildings go unnamed until sizable checks are delivered in exchange for having their names put on a building. So while Hofstra struggled for a number of years over what to do with a statue of Thomas Jefferson, eventually relocating him to an out-of-the-way place, there was no discussion about two buildings named for federal convicts—Joseph Margiotta (extortion) Hall and Charles Kushner (tax evasion) Hall.

One way out of the endless drive to find an unblemished person is to forgo naming buildings after people altogether. Let the accomplishments of the dead speak for themselves, in all their complexity. As for those engaged in a quid pro quo for having buildings named after themselves—I can’t think of a more debased way for colleges to carry out one of their primary functions. How do you teach good character in a democratic society when the message is that money is what matters?

The same goes for statues of people. Generic statues that commemorate a cause are one thing, but singling out individuals is another. This isn’t an erasure of past accomplishments but an honest recognition that history progresses by the efforts of many people. Role models are important; it is an important way that children learn what it means to be good. But placing a statue of an individual in a public space is akin to hero-worship. Hofstra, for example, could have provided an educational service by placing Jefferson near the Frederick Douglass statue, thereby engaging students in a real discussion about race in this country.

By looking at collective efforts, we honor not simply the leaders but also the many others who lent themselves to the betterment of humankind, the little heroes who also deserve to be honored.