Much of the country has demanded the elimination of references to, and images of, people of the past – from Christopher Columbus to Robert E. Lee – who do not meet our evolving standards of probity.
In some cases, such damnation may be understandable if done calmly and peacefully – and democratically, by a majority vote of elected representatives.
Few probably wish to see a statue in a public park honoring Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the founding members of the Ku Klux Klan, or Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney, who wrote the majority opinion in the racist Dred Scott decision that set the stage for the Civil War four years later.
But cleansing the past is a dangerous business. The wide, liberal search for more enemies of the past may soon take progressives down hypocritical pathways they would prefer not to walk.
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In the present climate of auditing the past, it is inevitable that Margaret Sanger’s Planned Parenthood will have to be disassociated from its founder. Sanger was an unapologetic racist and eugenicist who pushed abortion to reduce the non-white population.
Should we ask that Ruth Bader Ginsburg resign from the Supreme Court? Even with the benefit of 21st-century moral sensitivity, Ginsburg still managed to echo Sanger in a racist reference to abortion (“growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of”).
Why did we ever mint a Susan B. Anthony dollar? The progressive suffragist once said, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.”
Liberal icon and Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren pushed for the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II while he was California’s attorney general.
President Woodrow Wilson ensured that the armed forces were not integrated. He also segregated civil service agencies. Why, then, does Princeton University still cling to its Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs? To honor a progressive who did a great deal of harm to African-American causes?
Wilson’s progressive racism, dressed up in pseudo-scientific theories, was perhaps more pernicious than that of the old tribal racists of the South, given that it was not regionally centered and was professed to be fact-based and ecumenical, with the power of the presidency behind it.
In the current logic, Klan membership certainly should be a disqualifier of public commemoration. Why are there public buildings and roads still dedicated to the late Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd, former “exalted cyclops” of his local Klan affiliate, who reportedly never shook his disgusting lifelong habit of using the N-word?
Why is 20th century Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, once a Klansman, still honored as a progressive hero?
So, what are the proper rules of exemption for progressives when waging war against the dead?
Do they tally up the dead’s good and bad behaviors to see if someone makes the 51 percent “good progressive” cutoff that exempts him? Or do some reactionary sins cancel out all the progressive good – at least in the eyes of self-styled moral superiors to those hapless Neanderthals who came before us?
Are the supposedly oppressed exempt from charges of oppression?
Farm-labor icon Cesar Chavez once sent union thugs to the border to physically bar U.S. entry to undocumented Mexican immigrants, whom he derided as “wetbacks” in a fashion that would today surely earn Chavez progressive ostracism as a xenophobe.
Kendrick Lamar, one of the favorite rappers of former President Barack Obama, had an album cover featuring a presumably dead white judge with both of his eyes X’d out, surrounded by black men celebrating on the White House lawn. Should such a divisive racialist have been honored with a White House invitation?
What is the ultimate purpose of progressives condemning the past?
Does toppling the statue of a Confederate general – without a referendum or a majority vote of an elected council – improve racial relations? Does renaming a bridge or building reduce unemployment in the inner city?
Do progressives have their own logical set of selective rules and extenuating circumstances that damn or exempt particular historical figures? If so, what are they?
Does selectively warring against the illiberal past make us feel better about doing something symbolic when we cannot do something substantive? Or is it a sign of raw power and ego when activists force authorities to cave to their threats and remove images and names in the dead of night?
Does damning the dead send a flashy signal of our superior virtue?
And will toppling statues and erasing names only cease when modern progressives are forced to blot out the memories of racist progressive heroes?
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author of “The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won,” to appear in October from Basic Books. You can reach him by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.