They say ignorance is bliss. It is not…it is dangerous.
Over the weekend it was announced that the New York Museum of Natural History, an institution all but created by former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, has decided to remove the statue of the former President and benefactor over the outcry from some.
“We have watched as the attention of the world and the country has increasingly turned to statues as powerful and hurtful symbols of systemic racism,” said the museum’s president, Ellen Futter. “Simply put, the time has come to move it.”
This decision comes after a week where statues of St. Junípero Serra, Ulysses S. Grant and Francis Scott Key were torn down in San Francisco.
Grant, of course, led the Union Army that accepted the surrender of General Robert E. Lee, and, as President, fought the newly established KKK in the South.
Apparently, that was not enough since he briefly also owned a slave, which he also freed.
Francis Scott Key, the author of the Star-Spangled Banner , was a lawyer and a slave owner. However, like many people of his time, or people of any time, his views on slavery and race were complicated and not one-dimensional.
He owned slaves but was one of few white lawyers who would go to court representing blacks trying to escape slavery, winning many of those cases. He would also represent slave owners trying to get back their so-called “property.”
He sparked a race riot in Washington, D.C. in 1835 for his aggressive prosecution of one black man, accused of trying to kill his mistress, but also stood firm in the jailhouse door, facing down an angry white lynch mob who wanted to dispense their own justice to the suspect on the nearest tree.
Francis Scott Key, like the rest of us, was complicated and full of contradictions. However, even as a flawed person, he made is mark on our nation and its history, which is why across the continent from his home in Baltimore, his statute stood…until last week.
As former President George W. Bush said in 2016 when he dedicated the National Museum of African American History (a museum he signed the legislation to create), “A great nation does not hide its history, it faces its flaws and corrects them.”
No nation is without flaws. History is a catalogue of suffering, injustice, brutality, and tyranny. The best a nation can do is honor those who, though products of their time, moved civilization forward a couple of inches.
Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. He also authored the Declaration of Independence which contained the formula which 89 years later would end slavery. A nation whose creed is “All men are created equal” cannot forever endure half-free and half-enslaved. His words would go on to inspire others towards freedom, and still do so today.
The mob has also torn down his statue in various places.
“Remembering is powerful. Remembering, forces us to become wiser,” wrote Sophia A. Nelson, and African-American author and journalist.
“We think of the words Never Forget and we instantly remember 9-11 or the Holocaust.” She continues. “We connect because we remember. We look. We learn. We discover. And hopefully, with a little faith, self-discovery and humility we grow into better, more loving human beings.”
While statutes of our past pay homage to great things the individual did, they do not hide the lessons they had yet to learn. We do not erect statues of perfect people, but flawed people. They are a reminder that anyone of us, no matter how flawed, can do great things. They help to open our eyes to the mistakes of the past, but also that our mistakes should not define us.
Forgetting our history does not erase the mistakes and misfortunes of the past, it just makes us ignorant to them. We suddenly lose that milestone, that marker where we got a little more civilized, a little wisdom, and more able to appeal to our common humanity, rather than the prejudices and hatreds of the old order. We learned to stop doing wrong, and learned to do what was right.
In a flash of mob violence, it has been erased.
However, as Sophia Nelson reminds us, "We do not learn when we run from our wrongs. We learn when we face them."
In the past, statues have been torn down as a symbol of regime change. Statues of Stalin, Lenin, and Marx fell when so did their inspired Communist governments. We cheered with Iraqis as the statue of Saddam fell when U.S. forces toppled his regime in Iraq. We should also not forget the statues of King George III that fell and were melted down into musket balls to fire at British regulars.
While racism and bigotry should be tossed on the ash heap of history, it is becoming more and more clear that this present violence is not about racism and bigotry, but about erasing America itself.
Attacks against symbols of the Confederacy have now given way to attacks on American history itself. When statues of Abraham Lincoln are defaced, statues of U.S. Grant are torn down, and statues of Theodore Roosevelt are removed, we are now engaged in wiping away our past, with a violent mob now setting us on a new course of history, one where the heroes of old must be erased and replaced, but who the new heroes will be should strike fear into the hearts of all who value freedom.
If the authors of our freedom are made to seem as degranged, cruel, violent, intolerant, racist, misogynist, greedy, and imperialist, then all they created, fought for, struggled against, and built up can be discredited in favor of the new order. They do this not because they know or understand the nature and purpose of the statue, but because they do not see why it was placed there anyway.
It reminds me of Chesterton's Fence. In G.K. Chesterton ’s 1929 book, The Thing, in the chapter entitled, “The Drift from Domesticity,” Chesterton relates a modern parable regarding a fence:
"In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, 'I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.' To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: 'If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.'"
Where elected city governments, mayors, and governors should be playing the part of the "intelligent reformer," too often they are standing weak and powerless, or simply joining the mob of "more modern reformers" who don't see the use of "this," and are simply clearing it away.
Clearing away the past will stemie future generations from being able to learn the lessons of history, leading our civilization into a vicious cycle of ignorance, permanently endangering the future of our culture of freedom, which we have have spent the past 244 years to perfect. The result of which will be a return to fear and tyranny, not Utopia.
That is why I will say, ignorance is not bliss, it is dangerous.