As I’ve said several times during this era of cancellation, renaming, and statue-toppling, I would only favor this kind of “erasure” (usually not by straight erasure, but by giving “context”) when the person at issue fails to fulfill two criteria:
a. Are they being honored for their positive accomplishments? and
b. On balance, did their life and accomplishments make the world a better place?
If “yes”, let them stay. If “no”, erasure might be considered, though I favor the retention of history with, perhaps, an explanatory note.
Now, these are my own criteria, and others differ, but I’d say, for instance, that removing a Jefferson or Theodore Roosevelt statue because they were imperfect humans violates the two criteria above. Both men are “yes”s in a. and b. (I won’t argue about the way Roosevelt was depicted in the New York Statue, but see Gregg Mayer’s view here).
Denaming an animal named after someone who made racist statements is a judgment call (how many statements and what were they?), but a call I’d make using a. and b. above. I tend to be on the lenient side because, after all, we are judging people of the past by the morality of our own time, and what was once acceptable is no longer so.
Slavery is an exception to what I just said. Even in times of slavery, there were many who opposed it, and so it has to be counted as a severe moral deficit in anyone connected to the slave trade or to have had slaves. Slavery can’t be taken as “the general moral view of most people.”
Thisbrings up the matter of two of our most famous Presidents, both of whom were enslavers: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. This issue is part of what led Caleb Francois, a senior at George Washington University in the District of Columbia, to write the following op-ed in the Washington Post. Among other changes that Francois wants in light of what he sees as pervasive structural racism at George Washington University, Francois wants its name changed. Click to read:
I can’t comment on the racial situation at GWU s I haven’t followed it, but I’ll give you Francois’s take on the current issues and then the remedies he proposes:
Today, with Black enrollment at about 10 percent, Black students on campus continue to struggle for community. Despite alleged efforts by administration to enhance diversity, the admissions office continues to fail to ensure a student body with adequate minority representation
Black professorship also remains low, especially in the university’s International Affairs program. Limited Black professors teaching African and African American courses and the continued neglect of Black academia and Black professorship create a campus culture in which European studies and White perspectives are favored over Black perspectives. No African languages are taught at the university, and calls for reforms are often ignored.
These problems are rooted in systemic racism, institutional inequality and white supremacy. There are at least four ways the university could achieve progress: Decolonized university curriculum, increased Black enrollment, the renaming of the university and the selection of an African American President.
Now I’m not sure exactly what a “decolonized university curriculum is”, and I would suggest that more than white supremacy and ongoing systemic racism are involved, though nobody with a brain would deny that underrepresentation of black students and faculty is the result of racism in the past. What I want to address is the renamings Francois plumps for:
Just blocks from the main campus is the Mount Vernon Campus, named for George Washington’s former slave plantation. Every day, hundreds of Black students walk on a campus named after an enslaver of men and study at a site named after dark parts of history. Such sites, among other locations and buildings, are touted as glorified mementos here at GW. The indignity and injustice of such sites remain overlooked. The racist visions of James Madison, Winston Churchill and others are glorified through building names, programs, statues and libraries that honor their memory.
The controversial Winston Churchill Library must go. The university’s contentious colonial moniker must go. Even the university’s name, mascot and motto — “Hail Thee George Washington”— must be replaced. The hypocrisy of GW in not addressing these issues is an example of how Black voices and Black grievances go ignored and highlights the importance of strong Black leadership.
I won’t reiterate the accomplishments of Madison, Washington, Churchill, or Jefferson, but will say that their position of enslavers does count against them strongly, especially in part b. Nevertheless, I think these men are being honored for their positive accomplishments, and by my lights I judge them as having made the world a better place, even though they made the life of their slaves much worse. In my view, George Washington University should stay (and I suspect it will); Francois suggests changing the name to “Frederick Douglass University”. To be sure, Douglass was a great man, but I don’t much cotton to displacing George Washington.
That of course brings up another question: what about the name of the city. If George Washington needs to be removed from the name of the University, why not from “Washington, D. C.” itself? Or from the state of Washington? Or from the Washington Monument? I’d be curious to see what Francois would say about that. After all, wouldn’t it be hypocritical to take the name “Washington” off the University but leave it in many other places?
Cases like these are one instance in which I ask myself this question, “What would Hitchens have thought?”