Over at the Guardian, Kenan Malik writes with his usual good sense about judging historical figures by today’s morality—something we just read about this morning vis-à-vis Darwin and other evolutionists.. Malik’s particular subjects are Napoleon and Churchill, both in the process of being found “problematic”. Unlike many of the “decolonizers”, Malik is willing to tolerate some ambiguity. And why shouldn’t we, given that morality evolves and was never in the past identical to what it is now?
Malik on Napoleon, with a soupçon of Churchill:
Those who laud [Napoleon’s] legacy claim that he projected France on to the world stage and laid the foundations of a strong state. The Napoleonic Code, a sweeping array of laws covering citizenship, individual rights, property, the family and colonial affairs, established a new legal framework for France and influenced law-making from Europe to South America.
Stacked against this are shockingly reactionary policies. Napoleon reintroduced slavery into French colonies in 1802, eight years after the national assembly had abolished it, imposed new burdens on Jews, reversing rights they had gained after the revolution, strengthened the authority of men over their families, depriving women of individual rights and crushed republican government.
To the far right in France, Napoleon is an unalloyed hero. To many others, his is a troubling legacy. To be wrapped in a complex legacy is not, however, unique to Napoleon. It is the fate of most historical figures, whether Churchill or Wilberforce, Jefferson or Roosevelt, Atatürk or Nkrumah, all of whose actions and beliefs remain contested. Biographies rarely cleave neatly into “good” or “bad”.
Many, though, feel the need to see history in such moral terms, to paint heroes and villains in black and white, to simplify the past as a means of feeding the needs of the present. National and imperial histories have long been whitewashed, the darker aspects obscured. How many people in Britain know of the Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica or of the “Black War” in Tasmania? We want to preserve our national heroes untainted, none more so than Churchill, the man who saved “the nation… and the entire world”. Attempts to reassess his legacy can be dismissed as “profoundly offensive” or as “rewriting history”.
At the same time, those who seek to address many of these questions often themselves impose a cartoonish view of the past and its relationship to the present, from the call to take down Churchill’s statues to the mania for renaming buildings. The complexities of history fall foul of the political and moral needs of the present.
There’s more, but you get the gist of it.
The more I think about it, the more opposed I am to spending a lot of time denigrating people whose ideas we teach in class: people like Ronald Fisher, Charles Darwin, Thomas Jefferson, and so on. Yes, a mention or two might be sufficient, but today’s “decolonized curricula” seem to spend more time on the odious history of famous people who advanced good ideas than on the ideas themselves. And yes, Charles Darwin confected (along with A. R. Wallace) the theory of evolution, but he was also a racist, somewhat of a misogynist, and one who believed that white races would supplant others. (I can hear the Discovery Institute licking its lips now: “Coyne admits Darwin was a racist!”).
But these are issues not for science classes, but for ethics classes, where nuances can be discussed and developed. And remember, as Steve Pinker reminds us endlessly, morality has changed substantially, and improved, in the past few centuries. What that means is that things that we do now (is meat-eating one?) will be regarded as odious in 200 years. Who can we celebrate today, knowing that in the future they can (and probably will) be demonized. Will Joe Biden be seen as a barbarian because he enjoyed an occasional pork chop? What this all means is that there is nobody we can admire today except insofar as they conform to a quotidian morality that we know will be supplanted.
Further, I can’t help but feel that a lot of those engaged in denigrating people like Darwin, R. A. Fisher, and George Washington are doing so for performative reasons: to tell us, “Look, I can see how much better we (and I) am today than our forebears.” Now clearly, for someone like Hitler or the slaveholders of the South, we need not celebrate them at all, for there’s no good that they did to be celebrated. But to deny Darwin some encomiums for what he did, or even Jefferson? For those people surely did do some good things, and their statues are not erected to celebrate the bad things they did.
As I’ve said repeatedly, here are my criteria for celebrating, via statues, plaques, and so on, somebody of the past:
My criteria so far have been twofold. First, is the statue celebrating something good a person did rather than something bad? So, for example, Hitler statues fail this test, though I hear that some Nazi statues are simply left to molder and degenerate rather than having been pulled down. Second, were the person’s contributions on balance good or bad? So, though Gandhi was a bit of a racist towards blacks as a barrister in South Africa, the net amount of good he did in bringing India into existence through nonviolent protest seems to me to heavily outweigh his earlier missteps. Gandhi statues should stay.
What if someone was bad on balance but did a very good thing—should that person be celebrated? That would be a judgment call.
In general, I err on the side of preserving history, for statues and buildings are a mark of history—of times when our morality was different from what it is today. And it’s useful to be reminded of that rather than simply having our past, especially the bad bits, erased. History, after all, isn’t all beer and skittles. We don’t want a lot of Winston Smiths operating in our culture.
So no, Sheffield, don’t spend a lot of time reminding me what a racist and misogynist Darwin was, all of which will be done at the expense of telling us what Darwin accomplished. All you’re doing in effect is showing that, over time, morality has improved.