Audubon’s cancellation proceeds as Seattle chapter ditches his name

July 26, 2022 • 11:30 am

From KOMO News (h/t Williams), we have this headline on a short article (click to read):

. . . and that tells it all.  An excerpt:

The Seattle chapter of the Audubon Society says it is dropping “Audubon” from its name because the man the organization is named after was a slave owner and opposed abolition.

KNKX reports that Seattle Audubon is one the largest chapters of the National Audubon Society, the nonprofit dedicated to protecting birds and their habitats, but Seattle Audubon is one of the largest in the country.

Earlier this month, the board voted to change the chapter’s name because the man the organization is named after – illustrator, painter and bird lover John James Audubon, author of the seminal work “The Birds of America” – owned enslaved people.

J. Drew Lanham, a former board member of the National Audubon Society and a wildlife ecology professor at Clemson University, called the move courageous.

Lanham, who has written about Audubon and left the national chapter over concerns the nonprofit was not doing enough about racial equity, says organizations need to grapple with what to do about problematic monuments.

(Let me remark that I don’t see the move as “courageous”, except in the sense that it may cost the Society members. It takes no moral courage these days to remove someone’s name from a Society because he enslaved people.)

There is no doubt that Audubon owned slaves; the Audubon Society itself admitted it in an article on the Society’s website. And that is an unmixed bad thing to do. Short of killing someone, making them into a slave is about the worst thing you can do: you’re taking away their freedom and treating them as property, for no reason (in the antebellum US) other than their race.

The question at hand, though, is whether effacing Audubon’s name from the Society and branches of the Society is something that is worth doing. I’ve pondered this at length, and for a while I could have gone either way.

My criteria for deciding whether someone should be “erased” for having done immoral stuff has alway been twofold. If both criteria aren’t met, there’s no reason to keep a name.

1.)  The name or honorific is there for the good things people did. (That rules out, by the way, Confederate statues, though I think it might be better if they were “contexualized”; see below).

2.) The person’s life constituted a net good for the world. This is hard to determine, since “well being” is measured in many currencies.

It’s clear that Audubon passes the test for #1. The problematic part is #2. Is slave-holding so bad that it can’t ever be compensated for by the good someone does? Most people seem to think that George Washington and Thomas Jeffrerson, who were also enslavers, did sufficient good to warrant keeping their names on things like the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument (not to mention the $1 bill or Washington, D.C.

Does Audubon fall in their class? I don’t think so, but he certainly did good things, awakening naturalism and conservation impulses that resulted in the Society that bears his name.

It’s a tough call, but I decided that the name “Audubon” should stay because of two considerations:

a.) You can and should contextualize his name, letting people know that Audubon did things that were seen as immoral even in his time. (There were plenty of abolitionists.) If you can contextualize history rather than erasing it, I’d prefer the former.

b.) Taking Audubon’s name off societies and the like is a performative, symbolic act that doesn’t do anything to achieve racial equality. If you want people to know about the bad stuff in history, contextualize it and condemn it rather than erase it. I would feel more strongly about removing the name if doing so was more than a symbolic act.

So my overall take—an I pondered this a lot vis-à-vis Audubon—is to keep his name on the Society and on Awards (see the list of distinguished awardees of the Audubon Medal, given for conservation efforts); but be sure that people know his history.

Readers may disagree, and feel free to do so in the comments.

63 thoughts on “Audubon’s cancellation proceeds as Seattle chapter ditches his name

  1. agree re Audubon. On a different topic of some time ago, Coffee Crisps are available on Amazon. Are they worth the moral hazard of supporting Amazon and Nestle? Pretty much Yes, though they are a bit too sweet. Coffee flavor is there. Does anyone know why Coffee Yogurt is so rare – around the NE, anyway? Americans are addicts so it ought to compete equally with all the fruit and sweet yogurts. (Some of us have sensitivities to caffeine but can do the yogurt). OK – enough with the fluff –

    1. I do the grocery shopping for my 94 year old mother. She loves coffee yogurt. Most weeks I can find Dannon coffee yogurt in Montgomery County Maryland.

  2. We’re going to end up by not honoring anyone anymore. No more naming things after human beings, since everyone will eventually be revealed as morally flawed and unworthy.

  3. What are they going to call themselves? Perhaps the answer is in the KOMO article, but I can’t read it because, like many U.S. news organisations, KOMO’s web site blocks visitors from Europe.

  4. I agree with our host that James Audubon is a difficult case, and also with his assessment re the two further considerations.

    I can’t help feeling that the energies of the Audubon Society and its chapters would be better used focusing on the Society’s actual mission statement: “To conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth’s biological diversity”.

    There’s a good (but pretty long) discussion of this kind of behaviour within various progressive charitable, and/or political organisations, (the Audubon Society gets a mention or two) where Woke staff and volunteers are indulging in internal social justice issues rather addressing the core purposes the organisations were formed to achieve, here: https://theintercept.com/2022/06/13/progressive-organizing-infighting-callout-culture/

    1. Funny, as I was reading that article, I received another monthly groan newsletter from my professional society.

      As it has gradually become the case, the cringe report was 99% about “reflecting on past wrongs”, various social causes, and opportunities “to reflect, learn and engage in the ongoing fight against racism and discrimination”. Within that cluttered mess of word salads was a good 1% of space dedicated to actual professional development.

      I have no doubt that our profession, which has survived since before Christ, will end up self-flagellating itself out of existence.

  5. D’oh – a stray comma and a missing word: *rather than addressing*. How I miss my lost edit function!

  6. I tried to finesse this comment as much as I could – but it still seems crude :

    Did Audubon use slavery to promote naturalism and conservation – or would it, as seems to me and everyone else, not matter?

    George Washington, Jefferson – same question as regards their respective contributions to society.

    The assumption being that no matter what their slaves did, presumably they couldn’t have gotten on in their lives without it. And it should have been credited, or something.

    1. I think that Audubon’s name could be kept, with some sort of contextualizing statement akin to a land acknowledgement. It would serve the purpose, and they could move on.

  7. At the Audubon site, Gregory Nobles, historian and biographer of Audubon, presents a disheartening portrait of him. Nobles relates that twice in his life Audubon bought and sold slaves. Unlike some slaveholders, he did not inherit slaves (such as Washington and Jefferson did) nor was he a small slaveholder that owned one or two slaves that he kept for life. No, he was the worst kind of slaveholder (if it is possible to rank them) because slaves were nothing more than a commodity to him. Apparently, he made no pretense that they were part of his family. He purposely bought slaves because it was in his financial interest to own them and sold them off when it wasn’t. Apparently, he had no doubts about the morality of slavery.

    Nobles says this:

    “Instead, he dismissed the abolitionist movement on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1834, he wrote to his wife, Lucy Bakewell Audubon, that the British government had “acted imprudently and too precipitously” in emancipating enslaved people in its West Indian possessions. It was with remarkable understatement that one of Audubon’s earlier biographers wrote that ‘Lucy and John Audubon took no stand against the institution of slavery.’”

    Nobles goes on:

    “They took a stand for slavery by choosing to own slaves. In the 18-teens, when the Audubons lived in Henderson, Kentucky, they had nine enslaved people working for them in their household, but by the end of the decade, when faced with financial difficulties, they had sold them. In early 1819, for instance, Audubon took two enslaved men with him down the Mississippi to New Orleans on a skiff, and when he got there, he put the boat and the men up for sale. The Audubons then acquired several more enslaved people during the 1820s, but again sold them in 1830, when they moved to England..”

    I didn’t know much about Audubon before reading this article, but if Nobles’ portrayal is accurate (my assessment of Audubon is based on this), I would agree to remove his name from the society. As with many similar type of people, his professional work should be studied and admired, but he need not be honored. This is not erasing history.

    https://www.audubon.org/news/the-myth-john-james-audubon

    .

  8. The problem I have with all these cancellations is that they don’t really help anything. They are performative in the worst sense of the word. Is ditching Audubon’s name a warning to future slave owners? Is it a slam against Audubon’s descendants? How dare they enjoy name recognition derived from a slave owner in their ancestry! The act of removal changes nothing and directs energy away from useful actions. In the case of the Audubon Society, it will take away from its mission by reducing its name recognition. Perhaps they will mitigate the damage by adding “formerly the Audubon Society” to all their communications.

    1. Agreed. Ironically, this sort of erasure removes opportunities to talk about bad things in the past. We can just forget about all those reminders of slavery!

    2. I think the name changes or “cancellations” can be intimidating.

      Consider, our current popular entertainment of searching out relatives on the Internet, or with genetic ancestry services. To relatives of Audubon, or _any_ slave holders – toppling a big target like Audubon, or even products in grocery stores that used to have different logos – it sends a message : We took this Goliath down. You’re next.

      … makes me wonder, wouldn’t it be more effective if the Audubon society simply pack up and leave? Maybe that is what it is doing – or not? And if not, the Audubon Society is still using the big name for recognition. Oh, but not really because of slavery – but yes sorta because of his legacy of promoting nature.

      Which is it? and what’s in a name?

      So I reject the name erasure as meaningless – they don’t _mean_ it. If they meant it, they would be superseded by a completely different organization.

        1. I appreciate that.

          But I’d like to point out – after reviewing Wikipedia, and what I wrote – well, let’s say I was unaware that the guy on Cream of Wheat was not a chef.

          That is, the grocery store items are an entirely different problem from this. Distinction with a difference.

    3. The act of removal changes nothing and directs energy away from useful actions.

      Quite so. Does the name change rectify Audubon’s wrong actions, improve ornithology, make any discernible improvement to contemporary lives? Evidence please.

    4. I am fed up with all the moralizing, from people who judge others but hope that their own sins won’t be discovered. Virtue signalling is hypocrisy, nothing less. All of this shaming comes from humans who make mistakes, get angry, spank their children, own two cars, buy their kids $350. sneakers,
      couldnt care less about the environment or the planet, over consume as a matter of routine, have probably told lies at some point in their life, use curse words, support nuclear power and synthetic pesticides, hunt for trophies and pleasure, drive their car two blocks to the store, have a life style that contributes substantial CO2, throw plastic in the garbage and don’t recycle, vote for idiotic lying cheating lawmakers, think their ideology and faith are the only “true’ ones, cheat now and then as the opportunity arises, and in general lecture everyone else on their faults whether they actually have them at all. No one is going to tell me what to say or not say, do or not do, think or not think. No one.
      It didnt work with Stalinism. Why are we letting the neo Stalinists revive authoritarianism? Why do people not understand that the US is probably the main reason there is democracy anywhere in the world? What justice system is better than ours? What country has more equality than ours? Or more freedom? (No, Amy, Glenn, Jeremy, Jordan, Chris, John, not Russia).

    5. In the case of the Audubon Society, it will take away from its mission by reducing its name recognition.

      Whilst I agree fully with the sentiment of your comment, in this particular case, I don’t think name recognition is an issue. Before I read this post, I had no idea what the Audubon Society is or what it does. If I had thought really hard, I might have come up with “something to do with birds”. I think the vast majority of people in my country would be in the same position. I don’t know if Audubon has better name recognition in the USA, though.

      1. It is very powerful name-recognition.

        One might be unaware of what or who it is, precisely, but know it’s all about good Nature and Earth stuff.

        I imagine due to strong brand promotion, getting the name out … not sure! There are presumably marketing “experts” over the years that built the brand.

        Stickers on car windows – that is a big way to get the name out.

      2. In the US we don’t have high recognition of lots of Brit names either. Say “Boots” in the UK and everyone knows exactly what you mean. An American needs Google to find out it isn’t footwear. Audubon is highly recognized in the US.

      3. I had certainly heard about the Audubon Society before this in association with birds but I do live in the US. It has also been mentioned many times on this website, especially in “Readers’ wildlife photos” posts.

  9. I use the same two rules, Mr. Coyne and it’s not a tough call for me. Audubon’s incredible work over the years underpinns the mission statement of that Seattle club and so many others. That said, if Seattle can identify someone, somewhere with the same impact on our society in the areas of conservation and naturalism AND who never, ever did something ‘wrong’ based on our current zeitgeist, use his or her name in your fundraising efforts. I await the search results.

    1. I won’t hold my breath on them finding anyone that has never done anything in their past life that we today won’t consider “wrong”! 😜

  10. I would be interested to know what folks like Scott Edwards think of this: Black man, accomplished researcher on the evolution of birds, former UW professor and Seattle resident, now Harvard professor and curator of ornithology (a la Mayr) at the MCZ. Does he think this renaming addresses the historical wrongs done to other Black people by other ornithologists? If he has good reasons to think it does, then I could be persuaded that the renaming is a net good thing.

  11. History is history. Regarding racism, our efforts should be on racism today. How integrated is Audubon staff? How has Audubon reached out to non-whites?
    Don’t know about Audubon, but often the staff of foundations are bloated and self-serving at the expense of their stated mission.

    1. Yes, the good old guys are still in control. Why is racial balance desirable on its own, when it
      pre empt impartial assessment of a person’s expertise? And by the way, as a professional environmental activist for about fifty years, I still dont understand why blacks never joined environmental groups if they thought that the group’s leadership was too white. Was it because they
      didnt want to work in white groups at all, and preferred to be top gun in black groups and communities. Staying apart from white groups was a deliberate choice even though they still loved to blame the groups for having too few members or staff of color. No one and nothing stopped blacks from joining or supporting environmental groups, local or national Nothing. Except their desire to
      be in control rather than just one hard working underpaid volunteer…which I was for one of the big national groups for about three years before I got a job there (at very low pay). Who lands top jobs before they know what they need to know to work in an organization? How about EXPERIENCE?

  12. I abhor our history of slavery and am disgusted with the continuing treatment of blacks in our society.

    But what does this accomplish to “punish” those who did things in the past that we abhor (slavery back then was unfortunately “legal”) that do not conform to today’s “standards” (and yes, we still have a long way to go)?

    What I like about Audubon is his artistry, his love of birds & the contributions he made to birds that survives to this day. I like the organization for the same reasons.

    I personally think it is rather silly to take actions to “judge” and “punish” those who lived in a different time and perspective … particularly as it will have no practical effect today other than to diminish the Audubon organization.

    I do agree with adding such information to the biography of him on their site … let people make their own decision whether they will reject the Audubon Society because of the past … or whether they continue to support the society because of all the good it accomplishes for birds today. In my own case, their efforts for birds today totally outweighs their namesake’s past history.

  13. The society is in a tight spot if they wish to continue operating while retaining cachet and credibility. Whatever their name will be henceforth, it must carry an indelible asterisk, and prominently so.

    – If they want to retain the name, the asterisk must explain that their namesake was an unapologetic slaveholder and that they have now distanced themselves from his objectively bad deeds, and are focusing (as ever) on the good that he did.

    – If they want to be known under a different name, the asterisk must explain that “yes, we were formerly named for that bad person”, plus the same as above.

    It’s a tough call.

  14. Our host says:

    “a.) You can and should contextualize his name, letting people know that Audubon did things that were seen as immoral even in his time. (There were plenty of abolitionists.) If you can contextualize history rather than erasing it, I’d prefer the former.”

    I agree with the point about contextualizing history – but the problem is that this only goes halfway down the road to contextualization.

    The question – not just with Audubon, but with Jefferson, Washington, and lots of other people – isn’t just whether slavery was seen as immoral, but HOW immoral it was seen as being. And in those terms, it seems pretty obvious that it wasn’t anything like as bad as it is seen as today, even by most abolitionists.

    If you or I or any of us knew someone today who kept a slave (and this isn’t theoretical, slavery goes on even now), we would ostracize them, we would be horrified, we would refuse to associate with them. But hardly any abolitionists ostracized slave-owners in the 1830s or 1840s – they disapproved, but it didn’t reach that kind of level of disapproval. That is why, for example, the passionate abolitionist Lafayette could retain a close life-long friendship with the slave-owner Jefferson, despite strongly disapproving of his slave-owning.

    So it is a huge mistake to summon up contemporary abolitionists as a reason to say that Audubon is worth “canceling” now – because hardly any of those contemporary abolitionists would have thought it right to “cancel” Audubon. And if they wouldn’t, I don’t see how we can do so without simply imposing our own anachronistic standards of morality on the past.

    Hence for me this isn’t even a close call: it is obviously ridiculous to change the name of the Audubon Society on that basis.

  15. The question – not just with Audubon, but with Jefferson, Washington, and lots of other people – isn’t just whether slavery was seen as immoral, but HOW immoral it was seen as being. And in those terms, it seems pretty obvious that it wasn’t anything like as bad as it is seen as today, even by most abolitionists.”

    “But hardly any abolitionists ostracized slave-owners in the 1830s or 1840s – they disapproved, but it didn’t reach that kind of level of disapproval.”

    Your above two statements are simply untrue. The abolitionists of the 1830s and 1840s, such as William Lloyd Garrison and Fredrick Douglass, considered American slavery as extraordinary horrible, repulsive, and immoral. One needs only to look at their writings to see this. As far as ostracizing slaveholders, they had no power to do this. Unable to journey South, at the peril of their own lives or ostracize those northerners not particularly concerned about slavery, they were confined to condemning slavery by the power of their pens.

    1. I said “MOST”, not ALL, and I said “HARDLY ANY”, not NONE. William Lloyd Garrison was hardly typical of MOST people who were anti-slavery in the 1830s and 1840s – I mean, he didn’t merely ostracize slaveholders, he claimed that the entire US government was illegitimate because of slavery (and other things). And Frederick Douglass is even less typical (at least within the social circles of Audubon, Jefferson et al.), for reasons that should be obvious.

      I acknowledge that it is possible to find a tiny minority of unrepresentative people who were anti-slavery in the 1830s and after who would surely have supported “canceling” slaveholders given the power to do so (John Brown might be mentioned as another). Almost all of that tiny minority of radicals, as you point out, lived in non-slave states and had no regular contact with slaveholders that would make the question of ostracization a practical one. But I still maintain that in the social circles within which people like Audubon and Jefferson lived and moved, while there were many people who thought that slavery was wrong, hardly any of them would have thought it was SO wrong that the people who did it should be ostracized or “canceled” – and that was true even of very strong and passionate abolitionists like Lafayette. In which case it is still an anachronism to “cancel” people nowadays on the basis of the existence of anti-slavery sentiment at the time.

      Perhaps the most basic question: if you had been a white in the pre-Civil War South, do you think you would have been an abolitionist, against the grain of the society you lived in? Why should we condemn people to oblivion who simply followed the social norms of their society?

      1. From your comment I am not sure if you conflate abolitionists and anti-slavery people. But, to be clear: they were NOT the same group of people, although people today wrongly use the terms interchangeably. This differentiation was understood at the time. Historians do not make this mistake. Although they had many internal disputes based on strategy (including whether or not participation in politics was the way to effectuate abolition) and personal differences, abolitionists were united in their call for the end of slavery as quickly as possible based on moral grounds. In contrast, anti-slavery people (much larger in numbers than the abolitionists) despised slavery as well, but not only for moral reasons. Of course, Lincoln is the symbol of that group. He also hated slavery, but other considerations such as preservation of the Union trumped any desire for the immediate end of slavery. Anti-slavery people despised slavery and the South for additional reasons such as resentment of the South dominating national government and that the spread of slavery threatened free white labor. Anti-slavery people were willing to make political deals with the slaveholders (through the various compromises); most abolitionists were not. The former did not call for the immediate end of slavery in the states where it already existed. They primarily wanted to stop the spread of slavery and will were willing to wait for some hazy future for slavery to fade away.

        So, both groups (that blended together at the margins) hated slavery, but not necessarily for the same reasons. The anti-slavery people and the southern slaveholders came to hate each other with a passion. Violence was not uncommon in the halls of Congress as documented by Yale historian Joanne Freeman. So, I stand by my comment. Even in Audubon’s time, there was a large segment of the North (that grew with the passage of time) that hated southern slaveholders. The contempt was mutual. But, to talk about slaveholders being ostracized or not is irrelevant to a discussion of the era. Northerners that hated slavery for whatever reason, had no power to ostracize or cancel slaveholders.

  16. Keeping the name and contextualizing it on the web site would serve an educational purpose that will live on as long as the Society exists. Removing the name will cause a momentary rush but the singular act of contrition will be quickly forgotten.

    Keep the name and let it play a role in never forgetting the abomination that was slavery.

    1. Spot on Norman. The people in charge who made this decision get to flaunt their virtuous natures, improve their CVs, embellish their diversity statements, and boost their ‘inclusivity quotienst’ ready for their next job application. But the real good that could be achieved, e.g. by conveying examples of historical injustices, giving a voice to those that suffered, educating youngsters etc. That just gets ignored; it would take far too much effort, and wouldn’t be as good for their CVs.

    2. The National Audubon Society has a mission to protect birds and their habitats, not to remind people that slavery was bad. If the name becomes a distraction from the society’s mission, then, regrettably, the best course of action is to change it.

  17. Agreed, slave holding is odious . He was a man of his times and his contribution to natural history cannot be overstated. He was an extraordinary artist /illustrator. Your comment that his legacy should be contextualized is correct. The Audubon Society is busy cancelling virtually all the 18 and 19th century naturalists who’s names are attached to many, many birds in North America and elsewhere and renaming them with politically correct monikers, for a myriad of reasons, many with nothing to do with slavery. They also were men (and women) of their times and reflect attitudes and opinions of their times.
    What will the “woke” of two hundred years hence have to say about us.?
    Also, in their time no one had 10X40 binoculars or cameras ,let alone digital cameras with telephoto lenses. Telescopes were primitive and very hard to use looking at birds. Images were upside down.
    Audubon shot thousands of birds so he could get the details right. How about that? I’m sure he ate many of them.

  18. No “good” person, no “saint,” is in reality all good, or saintly. That’s human nature. The kindest, most generous, compassionate person in the world always—in every case—also has flaws.

    Audubon was a man of his time, and he unfortunately bought into widely (but not universally) held ideas about slavery. Following the dictate of Sinclair Lewis, here’s betting (but not excusing) that he also had incentive to hold onto those ideas.

    But is that all Audubon was? Or did he do anything else with his life? You know, things that might cause other *&^%$@!! flawed humans to name an important bird-conservation organization after him?

    One of the greatest mistakes that the new moral crusaders make is the assumption that they are themselves moral exemplars, whose example will stand for all time.

    Nope, ya ninnies. Just nope.

  19. My first question in these re-naming campaigns is, “Who is driving this?” The next is, “What is their motive?” I never believe on face value that the reason is to make amends with history. There is always a power struggle going on: who gets to show that they make the rules?

    While Jerry’s two-question formula is a reasonable way for an outsider to judge the man (or woman) at issue, the insiders actually fighting about it aren’t playing by those high-minded fair-play rules. They are playing to win something. They see you folks of generous spirit merely as sometimes-useful ingenues who are more often in the way. They would actually rather you just kept your noses out of their game. Getting a minister of the Crown to grovel is cool, but everyone knows it’s not his decision.

    (Of course, in this case, if any readers are members of the Seattle Audubon chapter, or better on its Board, you might have had influence. You never know. It might have been a militant faction of two or three Board members who pulled this off, with the rest of the chapter going along so as not to be smeared as making excuses for slavery. But on the other hand, maybe you were already driven away by the preceding politics.)

    The best response to a campaign to re-name something is just, “No.” You can always change it to Yes, but never the reverse. The winner-insiders are going to do what they want anyway. Our first prime minister and Father of Confederation has been almost totally erased from our history over just the past 10 years, with no pretense that public input was to have any role in any decision. “We have to made amends.” Hasn’t made anybody any better off but it shows who can’t be opposed.

  20. What a pretentious, chicken-sh*t, and completely ineffective way to fight racism. Costs nothing, risks nothing, and accomplishes absolutely nothing. If my local Audubon society were to follow suit, I would immediately cancel my membership…and I’m a Lifetime member!

      1. I think the name change is a way to appeal to younger candidate members.

        So they change the name, a old members leave, b young members join. What is the more reliable source of funding? b young members over more years.

        Call it cynical, call it dismal, but I think the decisions of not-The-Audubon-Society marketing/business office is parallel to Turner Classic Movies’ decision to moralize on old films so they keep an audience and don’t go out of business.

        1. Really, it does make a difference what they plan to rename it. A quick google search of Audubon logo reveals numerous branches with their own logo, but all centered around the word Audubon. Rebranding them all will be a pricey proposition.

          Will the “new” organization fundraise off of the bones of the old one? Anything they send to existing members will have to be sent out using existing letterhead, else how will I know it’s not some phising scam? They’ll have to explain why should I give my $ to this new organization. If the old one was rotten to the core, why now?

          What will be the pitch? The appeal that… they won’t hold slaves??

  21. 1st, I don’t have a strong attachement to either side of the issue. I do suspect the motivation for the name change is as much or more economic interest rather than moral rectitude. As covered above, it seems likely the name change is more likely low cost virfual signalling than a commitment to consistently address racism. There is a tricky balance distinguishing what level of social offense demands action versus ignoring distracting offenses that are unrelated to an organization’s purpose. I thnk the Audubon Society should change their name and keep a reference to their former name.

    1. While I agree that this is very clearly virtue signaling, I disagree that it is low cost. There are far more people who will not contribute to an unknown “Notubon Society” than would refuse to contribute to the old familiar Audubon Society because the name was once attached to a slaveholder. The very fact of his status as a slaveholder was/is no doubt unknown to most members because the reason for the Society’s name has nothing to do with slavery. This will be very much a high cost action. And nobody will actually benefit from it being taken. This isn’t remotely a form of reparations.

  22. I agree with PCC both with respect to his overall conclusion and to the fact that he found it “a tough call”.

    Some good points have been raised in the thread in opposition to ‘erasing’ Audubon and I broadly agree that changing the name of the society is not justified. However, I do think that removal of statues, re-naming buildings/awards/societies etc is justified in some cases. I suspect there are few people on this thread who would object to the removal of virtually all the statues of Stalin and many of the statues of Lenin that once proliferated across the Soviet Union even though these two men undoubtedly both played highly prominent parts in the history of that union. Clearly in that case the harm they did was enormous and hugely outweighed any good. Removal of the statues did not bring back any of those murdered under the communist regime but leaving them in situ would not have simply been a record of history but would have been a continuation of an honour to the two men that was an offence to the people who suffered (or whose families suffered) under their tyranny.

    With Stalin the net good:bad ratio is very clear and many of the people coming under scrutiny in the present climate were much more ambiguous in terms of their moral legacy. We should be careful to avoid pointlessly tearing down every memorial to people who lived in times with different values and preoccupations to our own but I think the case of those dictators shows that it is not necessarily self-evidently ‘performative’ and unjustified to re-evaluate the reputation of ‘heroes’ from the past and remove the memorials that honour them if it turns out the harm they did outweighed the good.

    1. I agree, in general, with this argument but I think it is really much simpler. It all comes down to why the person is remembered. If it is for being a traitor to his nation (Confederate generals) then there should be no statue. If it is for being a leader in documenting natural history, then the honorific should stand. Sometimes it will be a narrow call, but rarely. Finding unsavory facts that are irrelevant to the reason the honor is given isn’t cause for “cancelling”. IMO.

      1. GB, excellent comment. U got it down to a simple basic concept which is based on “why the person is remembered.”

      2. I am certainly not proposing widespread removal of statues but I stand by the suggestion that there are cases where we can legitimately consider whether it is appropriate to continue honouring someone. Take a recent case that received a lot of coverage here in the UK. The city of Bristol had a number of institutions (including a school and a concert venue) and a prominent statue celebrating Edward Colston (1636 – 1721). He was remembered in this way for various generous financial endowments to the city. No-one disputes that he made these endowments and so by your argument he should continue to be honoured but his fortune that allowed him to be so generous was substantially contributed to by his activities as a slave trader. As a result there has been increasing pressure on the city authorities to remove the statue and re-name the various landmarks. This came to a head at the time of the George Floyd riots, when a crowd took matters into their own hands and hauled down the statue and threw it into the harbour. Since then the statue has been recovered and placed in one of the city museums – with the graffiti and damage still in place and contextual labelling – and the various buildings have been re-named.

        Whilst one can debate whether the crowd taking matters into its own hands in the case of the statue was the right way to proceed or not, I believe that Colston represents a clear case where ‘what he was being remembered for’ was not sufficient justification for continuing to honour him and it was appropriate for Bristol to reevaluate its veneration of Colston.

        1. I’m not sure your Colston example carries the weight you think. Consider the difference between Colston and Audubon. The former’s generosity is the direct product of his role in the slave trade. This is not so for Audubon, as far as I understand history. Audubon’s naturalism was not the product of owning slaves. A Bristol citizen, looking at the Colstons Almshouses, would rightly say “He built that with the profits of selling people”. I don’t think a birder in Seattle would reasonably say the same sort of thing while looking at a painting of a Great Blue Heron.

          1. “I don’t think a birder in Seattle would reasonably say the same sort of thing while looking at a painting of a Great Blue Heron.”

            Nor do I. Thanks for the advice but I have already considered the difference between the Colston and Audubon cases. If you read my first post you will see that I stated that I agreed with the conclusion of the OP that the Audubon name should stay. My post was a response to the view that seems to be held by at least some of the people in this thread that name-changing or statue removal is only ever performative and achieves nothing of value. There are cases – and Colston is one such – where there is a justification and a value in tearing down the statue. I think therefore that the Colston example carries exactly the weight I placed on it.

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