“He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.”
– John 8:7
Despite the admonition of Jesus 2,000 years ago, many folks are grabbing up stones and warming up their pitching arms. A lot of rocks went airborne in January in San Francisco when the school board there voted to remove the names of “oppressors” from public schools, 44 of them.
The list of oppressors includes such evil people as Abraham Lincoln, Paul Revere, Thomas Jefferson and – here’s your daily dose of irony – Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
It’s called “cancel culture” because in many instances there is a great willingness to “cancel” out the contributions of great men and women if any flaw can be found in their past. Complete purity is demanded and nothing less will suffice.
The case of Abraham Lincoln is especially illustrative. Here is a man of great intelligence and compassion who rose from humble beginnings to become – arguably – our greatest president.
He kept the nation together in the storm of the Civil War and freed the slaves from bondage. That ought to be enough of a resume to keep his name on the local middle school, but I guess not.
Lincoln’s “great sin” comes from his role in the Sioux Uprising of 1862. In that conflict a tribe of Lakota (the more proper name, although some prefer Dakota) natives, being treated unfairly by whites, rose up and started a war in Minnesota. In the course of that conflict, over 500 white settlers died and 150 Lakota warriors perished.
The U.S. Army, already stretched with its conflict with the Confederacy, came in and suppressed the rebellion. Over 300 warriors were sentenced to death on charges of murder and rape. But rather than give in to the cries for mob-style vengeance, Lincoln carefully examined the evidence of each case and commuted most of them. Only the 38 for whom there was credible evidence of those crimes were executed.
Washington and Jefferson owned slaves. But they also freed their slaves in their wills and created the first mass democracy in world history. The nation they founded went on to end human bondage in that nation and defeat two of the greatest evils in human history: Nazism and communism.
Removing “problematic” names from schools and monuments is not entirely a bad idea. Robert E. Lee was a great general but he fought for one of the worst causes you can imagine: the “right” of a person to own another. Fort Bragg is named after Braxton Bragg, who was not only another Confederate general, but also a bad one at that. Sherman’s March through Georgia would not have been possible without the fumblings of Bragg.
But when you have the names of people whose contributions have massively outweighed their shortcomings, an impossible standard is being erected. Franklin Roosevelt helped lift America out of the Great Depression and led us to victory over fascism in World War II. Are his contributions to be cancelled because he never spoke up in favor of the rights of gays and the transgendered? What did Moses have to say about climate change and sustainable energy? Susan B. Anthony was a giant in advocating for the rights of women, but opposed abortion. Is she the enemy now, too?
It’s time to cancel “cancel culture” and return to a more balanced, thoughtful view of history. We are all flawed and in need of some forgiveness. We must put down those stones and open our hearts, and minds, a bit more.
Jim Tortolano’s Retorts column appears every other Wednesday, alternating with “Usually Reliable Sources.”