Blasting the Faces Off Mount Rushmore: Can “Honest” Abe and the Boys Survive Cancel Culture?
Trump Predicts Doom
During his most controversial rant in 2017 — “very fine people on both sides” — Donald Trump asked this series of questions while railing against the removal of Confederate monuments:
“Was George Washington a slave owner? … Are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? Are we going to take down his statute…because he was a major slave owner?”
At the time, I chuckled. I’d grown accustomed to hyperbolic, apocalyptic slippery slopes as standard operating procedure for conservatives. I thought, “Nobody is going to mess with the four dudes whose faces we chiseled into a mountain!” (Washington is on the far left with Jefferson, fittingly, looking over his left shoulder).
So when President Trump refused calls to remove Confederate war generals’ names from U.S. military bases yesterday, my reaction — and I would wager that of many left-of-center folks — was “Who cares about those losers?!? They attacked America fighting for slavery. No consolation prizes!”
Plus, other than the Dukes of Hazzard car and Stonewall Jackson, nobody knows those generals’ names or deeds. Without a Google search, what percent of Americans who aren’t Ken Burns can honestly tell you a single thing about messieurs Bragg, Hood, or Benning? (Sure, we know Nathan Bedford Forrest but only because “stupid is as stupid does”).
USC Checks Its Bad-Blooded President
But yesterday something happened that gave me pause. The University of Southern California (USC) removed the bust and name of Rufus Von KleinSmid, its 5th president who served from 1921 to 1947, from a building. The reason? He was a eugenicist (the study of organizing reproduction to increase desirable traits and eliminate undesirable ones). Read this quote:
“I will say then I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the whites and black races — that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be a position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
Pretty disgusting, huh?
Except those words came from the mouth on the far right of Mount Rushmore, Abraham Lincoln. He uttered them during his 4th Lincoln-Douglas debate in Charleston, Illinois, on September 19, 1858.
If we take down statutes NOT exclusively because people are traitorous losers, but rather, because their personal ideologies are so repugnant to a modern era, what distant figure survives cancel culture in a nation with the enduring (and ongoing) sin of racial discrimination, no matter how revered by white America?
Lincoln versus Von KleinSmid
Yes, Lincoln did not personally own slaves, and he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but many contend it was solely a military exigency, a theory bolstered by the fact that it did not apply to Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, or Missouri, states who were loyal to the Union.
Was Von KleinSmid worse than Lincoln? In a paper UNcontroversial enough in 1913 to prompt the Cincinnati Academy of Medicine to invite him to read it, he writes that “the defective classes breed like rabbits.” Oh, here we go! Here comes the racist ish!
Except the paper never references race. In fact, he talks at great length about cousins intermarrying, and if we learned anything from Deliverance, it’s that “kissin’ cousins” and banjo playing are white phenomena.
KleinSmid, in fact, never identifies the “defective classes” with reference to any ethnic or racial trait. He says they are “those found wandering about neglected or cruelly treated; those who are habitual drunkards; idiots, persons so deeply defective in mind as to be unable to guard themselves against common physical dangers; imbeciles, persons incapable of earning their living by reason of mental defect; feeble-minded persons capable of earning their living in favorable circumstances, but incapable of competing on normal terms with their fellows, or of managing themselves or their affairs with ordinary prudence; moral imbeciles who display mental defect coupled with vicious or criminal propensities, on which punishment has little or no deterrent effect; the mentally infirm, who, through age or the decay of their faculties are incapable of managing their affairs.”
This phraseology describes half of my family and me on numerous occasions.
Also, while eugenics became the intellectual underpinning of the Holocaust, Von KleinSmid condemned the discrimination against Jews. After a trip to Germany, he called the edicts against Jews “as terrible as they can be,” and this was before anyone knew they were being systematically murdered. In other words, he never embraced the Nazi wet dream.
Don’t get me wrong. Just reading any reference to sterilization as a remedy to “feeblemindedness” is horrifying, and we also know Von KleinSmid was overtly hostile to Japanese students. I won’t lose a millisecond of sleep seeing Douche Von KleinSmid disappear from all public recognition to the dustbin of history. Even if I’d gone to USC, he’d have been just another unknown name on a building. Good riddance!
Jefferson the Racist
But I can’t say the same about Jefferson or Washington, both of whom perpetuated greater sins, or Lincoln, whose rhetoric was more overtly racist than anything in Von KleinSmid’s article.
If we do not agree as a nation to grade on a historical curve that asks how a historical figure fared “in their time” relative to everybody else, how can we intellectually justify permitting Lincoln to maintain his steely gaze over the Reflecting Pool? How can Jefferson — the architect of one of the most masterful and internally illogical documents in history — stand proudly in the center of his own memorial in Washington, D.C.? How doesn’t Washington’s obelisk on the Mall become a monumental Altria (the rebranded name Phillip Morris gave itself to hide its acts of shame)?
At the risk of conservatives using one outlying opinion as common thought, CNN contributor Angela Rye in 2017 said we should do precisely what Trump feared. She got slammed, but CAN we meaningfully distinguish between Confederate generals and Founding Fathers whose personal ideology was equally racist? Isn’t co-signing a U.S. Constitution that established enslaved black people as 3/5 human sort of a case-closing exhibit? How much doubt is there that if Jefferson had lived 100 years LATER, he would have fought for his beloved Virginia in the Civil War?
If the onslaught of anti-Confederacy actions taken this week are only about removing “traitors” from our public squares, it’s easy to applaud North of the Mason-Dixon line. But interviews of proponents talk about eradicating any figure whose personal actions or ethos from a distant era evokes pain. I can’t think of a more noble humanitarian instinct. Who wants to hurt people? But, then, how do you arbitrate who stays in the public square?
Teddy and the Racist Bully Pulpit
What do we make of Teddy Roosevelt (the guy third from the left who looks like he’s giving Lincoln an ear exam)? In 1905, while advocating for economic empowerment for black folk, he called white people “the forward race.” Roosevelt also signed a law banning physically and mentally disabled immigrants, and he said Americans should only ever raise one flag and speak one language so that we would become Americans, not “dwellers in a polyglot boarding house.” Does Teddy R. sound like he hasn’t said hurtful stuff?
Does it matter that probably .1% of Americans know Roosevelt ever did or said any of this? Not when there is cachet in finding the offense, then educating the public on what it is they should be offended by. America will learn, and intellectual honesty demands we entertain the case.
But where is our dividing line? And will we afford credit for “good deeds” or personal evolution over time in some balancing test without making ourselves look like partisan hypocrites?
FDR Makes Profiling American Policy
After all, FDR made Von KleinSmid look like a rookie on anti-Japanese sentiment. FDR pioneered racial profiling by interning Japanese in 1942. Does the fact FDR helped us win World War II and gave us the New Deal save his Memorial in Washington, D.C.?
The U.S. Supreme Court co-signed FDR’s racism in 1944 in Korematsu v. U.S., an opinion even Neil Gorsuch, with the benefit of eighty years of racial progress, pairs with Dred Scott as the Court’s two worst opinions. Some of the most revered intellects in American jurisprudence — Hugo Black, William Douglas, Arlen Stone, and Felix Frankfurter — joined that majority opinion. Black was a Klansmen in 1923, and he consistently opposed anti-lynching legislation during his senate career. Does his subsequent work on “one man, one vote” and the Equal Protection Clause suffice to keep his name on the federal courthouse in Birmingham?
My intent here is not to march forth this “parade of horribles” to give comfort to those opposing removing Confederate monuments or memorabilia. To the Johnny Rebs, I offer a genteel, “Deuces to you and your flag, defeated NASCAR homies!” as I sip my sweat tea.
But intellectual honesty demands I admit that if recent actions portend preserving public tribute only to those whose values we would be proud of today, in total, I cannot articulate a principled basis for not sandblasting all four faces off of Mount Rushmore.
Could the perfect solution for how we symbolically forge a more perfect union be living with imperfection, at least for four “winners?”
Do we really want South Dakota to be even more boring?