On Name Changing and Statue Toppling

People gather to protest for the removal of a statue of Confederate General John B. Gordon at the Capitol Building in Atlanta, Georgia, June 9, 2020. (Dustin Chambers / Reuters)

General David Petraeus wrote a passionate article in the Atlantic Ocean this week on the need to change the names of military bases that have been named after Southern generals for more than a century and to recalibrate iconic memories like statues commemorating Robert E. Lee at West Point – reference points he reminds us that were central to his own experience and career.

His relevant points were twofold and apparently rational: commanders such as Bragg and Benning (Petraeus also suggests renaming other bases of the same name) were not particularly effective commanders worthy of such a majestic commemoration. In some cases, as Petraeus points out, they were not even highly rated by their peers. No one would defend the worldview of a Braxton Bragg for sure. And, as Petraeus put it, as “traitors” they fought for a foolish thing that perpetuated slavery. (Of course, the logic of the renaming should apply to the Northern California community of Fort Bragg, also named after the unattractive Braxton Bragg – an idea some of the Democratic California legislators couldn’t win the mayor of the city in 2015 ).

I think Petraeus is correct in many ways about his fear. Still, the bases were named not so much to glorify overt racists, but for some more mundane, insidious reasons in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – from concessions to local southerners where many of these bases would become established to become bipartisan congressional support for their funding and to meet the need in the decades-long and bitter aftermath of the Civil War to promote “healing” among the still hostile former opponents.

We should note that not all Southern people were exactly alike in terms of our current moral re-examinations. General Longstreet differed from, for example, General Nathan Bedford Forrest, not necessarily on the basis of their undeniable respective ability or even clear guilt in continuing the war, but on their entirely different post-war relief and healing efforts. But on the other hand, such judgments would be to assume that we are all mortals and not gods.

Again, is this really the right time to start renaming bases and removing statues? We are in the midst of national frenzy and chaos, in which such important decisions are not always made systematically and carefully to heal rather than further inflame the country. I have long questioned the deification of Robert E. Lee, but after 150 years, I think we can wait a few more months for introspection and discussion before we can drive him out of his memory. This week, Christopher Columbus fell over – with the predictable answer, why not some of those statues in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection? That idea only sparked the next iconoclasm, which has quickly evolved into why not the slave owners Washington and Jefferson and their DC monuments of the same name, although perhaps cranes and waked engineers instead of just ropes and hammers will be needed to make an obelisk topple or crash a dome, alleged wills into slavery. Who says that one slave owner is different from the other, since mortal sin does not allow compensation or calibration, admission or distinction of a Jefferson from a Forrest?

In particular, on all fronts, military, educational and government, if we want to engage in iconoclasm, pride, damnatio memoriae, and to cancel culture, we need a common standard to weigh good and bad, to calibrate modern and distant morality, and to ensure that replacement names meet these new lofty criteria. Recently, our university community received an official letter from an administrator citing the inspiring ‘loving chorus’ from Ms. Assata Shakur, a terrorist and convicted murderer of a police officer and fugitive from the justice system living in Cuba. There were no public consequences for such approval.

In terms of 19th and early 20th century racism, it would be hard to match President Woodrow Wilson’s harmful efforts to poison race relations. He opposed integration into the armed forces and the civil service and reversed those efforts for decades. Harry Truman did what Wilson could have done more than three decades earlier.

In 2015, the Atlantic Ocean himself published an essay describing the extent to which Wilson has systematically institutionalized racial prejudice. In a way, he put race relations back as commander-in-chief far more than the openly racist Southern rebels of the 19th century who were defeated and dismissed their case. Still, Wilson remains a progressive icon as a pioneer of the League of Nations and author of the Fourteen Points. As president, he was not a rebel general, but in an all-powerful position to make the necessary racial change. He also benefited from the moral evolution of about 50 years since the civil war. Most damagingly, however, his racism was pseudoscientific, based on bankrupt progressive ideas about genetic purity and thus often exempt from liberal criticism of the time.

In many ways, Leland Stanford went far beyond the racist orthodoxy of the late 19th century in his demonization of Asians, without whose labor his railway empire and fortune that current Stanford University would have evaporated would have evaporated. So to what extent could we now correct the past in our time of self-introspection by quickly renaming the Princeton Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, of which Petraeus herself is a distinguished Ph.D. graduated, thereby ending our own compliance by perpetuating the wages of racism now manifesting on the street? And after Princeton, why not Stanford soon and maybe also with dispatch Yale?

I remember not long ago, in the rage of the Iraq war and the rage of the wave, at a time when the commander-in-chief was also mistakenly called a racist, a Nazi and a traitor, to which General Petraeus himself was subjected. sudden furore of contemporary resistance. The New York Times deleted the policy of avoiding ad-hominem ads to print a full page Moveon.org slander of “General Betrayus,” even as Senator Hillary Clinton in her anger to break the wave and leave Iraq, during her cross-examination of Petraeus in Congress, basically and falsely accused him of sworn allegations. As many of us wrote at the time, the nation was gripped by some sort of collective madness, to which Clinton himself contributed, by demonizing a heroic and gifted general tasked with pursuing an unpopular policy of a then widely ridiculed and discredited president.

In any case, let us reconsider the names of all military installations and the images of all of our alleged heroes and extend such control to all government agencies and higher education, public and private, as the latter depend on taxpayers for massive tax exemptions. on their gifts.

But let’s wait for the street fires, occupations, defacements, looting and violence to disappear, if only not to reward the megaphone instead of the majority vote of elected or representative bodies. Let us ensure that the logic of our efforts is systemic and generally applicable instead of ad hoc and of the moment. And finally, let’s ask why those who desire such quick action had not previously spoken out, in calmer times, a year, a decade, a generation ago when the current history of our counterfeit icons was well known but at a time when the backlash to such independent and principled lonely voices would have had many other professional consequences than this week.

On Name Changing and Statue Toppling

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the most recent author of The case for Trump.