Tag Archives: history

Who Do We Honor?

I’m stretching the definition of the writerly blog for today. Bear with me.

Harriet Tubman has been in the news lately. Specifically, her relationship to the $20 bill. And also Andrew Jackson. XKCD sums the issue up nicely (actual newspaper link for those who want it).

It puts me in mind of this Stephen Fry interview, in which he makes many points that I think are intelligent, then illustrates them with examples that I think are terrible. He claims that people often seek simplistic solutions and black and white views of a world that is really very complex. He illustrates this with, among other things, the movement to take down the statue in Oxford of Cecil Rhodes. Stephen Fry doesn’t want a society where the bad things someone does are enough to erase the good they do, and I agree. But I think he is missing the point with that particular figure, just like those who moved Jackson to the back instead of removing him entirely.

He is right that historical figures are complicated. If we don’t have records of them doing a problematic thing, its because we don’t have very comprehensive records. Flaws are a side effect of being human. The women and queer folk and POC who I would like to see getting more honor all have their flaws too, and that’s okay. The problem is that for some of the great white men, if you stack their good sides up next to their bad sides, one tends to dwarf the other.

For example…

Andrew Jackson

Good; He was the first president to come from a fairly humble background, which is cool. Reformed some government policies that were tending towards cronyism and corruption. Generally kept the economy from tanking, which is good. It’s a thing presidents should do.

Bad; He was singlehandedly responsible for the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears.He used his power as commander-in-chief to march thousands of people, including children, into barren deserts. Over ten thousand human beings died along the way, because of him.

Cecil Rhodes

Good; He was very good at being a bureaucratic government-type person. Also set up a scholarship; not for people who are broke or anything, just Americans who want to study in the England and vice versa.

Bad; That bureaucratic talent was dedicated to colonizing Africa. He was a huge racist, so all of his policies were aimed at making sure whites had it better than blacks, and he considered that to be a great, humanitarian effort. Because, you know, Africans were too sub-human to effectively govern themselves. Even the Rhodes Scholarship had some icky racist elements in its founding.

If you look at the historiography of these men, its clear that their fame was not based in good things done despite their human failings. Historians of the past considered their crimes a positive good, and so they were lifted up. Similarly, historians of the past dismissed the achievements of those who weren’t straight white men whenever possible. We have only so much room for statues. We have only so many types of currency. We have no shortage of unrecognized heroes whose good sides aren’t inextricably tangled with oppressive ideologies, or whose bad sides don’t involve the deaths of any children at all.