Ben Shapiro makes too much sense to have any effect on campus.
The newfound enthusiasm for erasing history is meant to serve two purposes: first, as a final acknowledgment of the evils of American history; second, as a revisionist desire to wipe away the change and complexities inherent in American history.
It’s the second element of erasure that sticks in the craw of so many Americans. Clearly, John C. Calhoun wouldn’t be honored with a statue today; nobody is clamoring for a John C. Calhoun School of Law. But leaving his name on a building at Yale helps teach us how far we’ve come. More important, it recognizes that we must be ever wary of evil — that we shouldn’t be so benightedly complacent about our own moral standing, so confident that we would never make the moral errors of our forebears.
Calhoun’s name on buildings reminds us that Calhoun was once honored for his perspective rather than derided for it. It is a reminder that evil once held sway in our world, and that we cherished it. It also reminds us that brilliance and patriotism and good and evil can all exist in the same human being: Calhoun’s slavery advocacy existed alongside his desire to build up a strong, robust American military; he created the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the same time that he stumped for the expansion of slavery into the Western states.
One of the goals of chopping away at history is to simplify it into a simple battle between the good, who remain, and the evil, who are wiped away. But that’s not the way history works, nor is it the way politics works.
That’s even clearer with regard to Woodrow Wilson, a dyed-in-the-wool racist who screened Birth of a Nation at the White House and worked ardently to re-segregate the federal work force, but who also presided over America’s victory in World War I. Wilson’s vision of a progressive government led by experts still defines our political debate today, for good and ill. We shouldn’t chisel his name off buildings in an effort to disassociate him from ideas that are now discredited.
History is important only if we recognize that it isn’t some sort of Punch-and-Judy drama to be acted out with puppets in black hats and white. Most human beings throughout human history have stood with an evil of some sort or another. …
Leaving names on buildings, and flags in churches, and statues on campuses isn’t about honoring those names, flags, and statues. It’s about recognizing the past, which is brutal and complex. Doing so reminds us that our present isn’t too clear-cut, either, and that anyone approaching current events with the smooth self-assurance of ultimate virtue simply hasn’t been judged by history yet.