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The danger of judging the past using today’s morals and standards

August 2017

In the wake of the violence at the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, I unequivocally condemn the racism and violence of white racist groups like the KKK, neo-Nazis and white nationalists, just like I condemn racism from all ethnic groups and races.

The focus of the protest originated out of a Charlottesville City Council decision earlier this year to remove a statue of Confederate Civil War General Robert E. Lee.  As the Associated Press points out, Lee has gone “from hero to racist icon.”

Reportedly Lee was against erecting monuments in his honour, so maybe he’d even agree with the plan to remove statues of him.

Now Canadians are jumping on the bandwagon, with the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) calling for the removal of Sir John A. Macdonald’s name from schools bearing his name because our first Prime Minister and Father of Confederation supported Indian Residential Schools, an action that is supported by Perry Bellegarde, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.  Who’s next in this purge of history?

We do need to be careful about judging the past using today’s morals and standards.  Yes, there are some things in the past that were truly reprehensible, like slavery.  However, slave ownership was once not only legal, but socially acceptable. 

Lee was simply a product of his times, as was George Washington, who also owned slaves.

Some would argue that Lee was an honourable man fighting for what he believed to be an honourable cause.  He graduated second in his class at West Point and served with distinction in the Union Army during the U.S.-Mexico War.

With the war looming, Lee was offered a position leading the Union Army by his mentor General Winfield Scott, but he declined.  Although Lee was against secession, he didn’t wish to fight against his native Virginia.

Just because Lee fought for the Confederacy, doesn’t mean that he was a terrible person.  He just fought for the losing side.

Officials from Gettysburg National Military Park have stated that they will not be removing any Confederate statues from the park.  That is right position to be taking as to do anything else would be essentially erasing history.  How can you tell the story of the Battle of Gettysburg without telling the Confederate story.

The Virginia Monument at Gettysburg, dedicated to General Robert E. Lee, features Lee atop his horse on a pedestal, with a collection of generic Confederate soldiers at the base of the pedestal, representing the average citizen who left jobs and family to fight for the Confederacy.  Were these people also “racists” or were they just fighting for a way of life that was legal and socially acceptable in the southern states at the time.

Lieutenant General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, an icon of Southern heroism and commitment, has also been targeted for removal.  Ironically, historical accounts record that Jackson was revered by many blacks, both freed and slaves.  He had been active in the establishment of Sunday School classes for blacks.

Dr. James I. “Bud” Robertson, Jr., a noted scholar on the American Civil War and Professor Emeritus at Virginia Tech noted:  “Jackson neither apologized for nor spoke in favor of the practice of slavery. He probably opposed the institution. Yet in his mind the Creator had sanctioned slavery, and man had no moral right to challenge its existence. The good Christian slaveholder was one who treated his servants fairly and humanely at all times.”

While it could be said that Jackson still thought of blacks as inferior to whites, his views were quite in line with the contemporary view of blacks.

Similarly, Sir John A. Macdonald’s views on Residential Schools or even his opinions of Aboriginal people were in line with others of his time.  That’s not to say that things like Residential Schools or slavery weren’t reprehensible, but societies evolve and some things that were acceptable even 10 years ago are no longer acceptable today.

Up until about a decade ago, smoking in bars and restaurants was acceptable; today it’s prohibited.  Maybe in another 10 years, smoking with be illegal everywhere except in your own home.

Does Tommy Douglas, the “father of socialized Medicare in Canada” get a pass?  He is a hero to many Canadians, not just those of the left, yet in his day, he advocated for labeling homosexuality as a mental illness.  This was a very progressive opinion because homosexuality was considered a criminal offence at the time, so despite the repugnant nature of this opinion by today’s standards, it was a step forward.

Douglas wrote his master’s thesis in Sociology supporting the then popular social philosophy of eugenics, the idea that the genetic quality of people can be improved by interning in camps those deemed “subnormal” (those of low intelligence, loose morals or suffering from sexually transmitted diseases) and sterilizing those judged “mentally defective.”  Eugenics was something the Nazis practiced.  Was the socialist Douglas a Nazi supporter?

How about Nellie McClung, a Canadian feminist, politician and social activist?  McClung was an activist who promoted social and moral reform movements prevalent in Western Canada in the early 1900s and one of “The Famous Five” who launched the “Persons Case”, a constitutional case that declared women were eligible to sit in the Canadian Senate.  Well, McClung also espoused eugenics and she contributed to the passage of eugenics legislation in Alberta.

How about celebrated Mohawk warrior and political leader Chief Joseph Brant (Mohawk name: Thayendanegea), who fought with the British forces during the American Revolutionary War. Brantford, Ontario and Brant County are named in his honour, as is Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington, Ontario, which occupies part of the original land grant given to Brant in recognition of his service to the crown. Brant was a slave owner, so should he be erased from Canada’s history too?

On Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the building known as the Langevin Block, which houses the Prime Minister’s Office, will be re-named because The Prime Minister’s Office because the building’s namesake, Hector Louis Langevin, a father of Confederation and member of Sir John A. Macdonald’s cabinet, was also a proponent of the Residential Schools.

Egerton Ryerson, the namesake of Ryerson University in Toronto, was also had an influence in the creation of the Residential Schools.  Should Ryerson University be forced to change their name too?

So if it’s appropriate to remove statues and monuments to people like Lee or Macdonald, how about the great Civil Rights leader Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, who was against homosexuality.  Should we remove monuments to him, like the one recently unveiled in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia?

Where does this erasing of history these virtue-signalling do-gooders find detestable end?

Bottom line, all these people were products of their times.  While some people throughout history have been truly detestable people, most were just following the social norms of the time.  If we are going to denounce those from the past whose views and actions we disagree with now, where do we stop?

In some cases, like the Residential Schools or the treatment of the mentally-ill in “Lunatic Asylums”, people promoting these policies were convinced they were doing the right thing for the people affected.  We now acknowledge policies like these were misguided or just plain cruel and inhumane.

Getting back to Charlottesville; white supremacists are scum and need to be condemned, but where is the outrage at the irony-challenged ANTIFA activists, the ones who claim to be anti-fascist, yet use the same violence and intimidation tactics that fascists use?  As reprehensible as the white supremacists are, many independent accounts of the day note that they were peaceful until attacked by ANTIFA and Black Lives Matter activists.  Why is there no condemnation of their actions too?

As the Toronto Sun state in their editorial “ETFO’s motion is a disgrace” (24 August 2017), “That is why we study history, to understand and learn from the past, so that we do not repeat its mistakes in the present, or the future.”

I hope James Fields, Jr., rots in Hell for what he did.  That said, it is interesting to note that despite it being reported that Fields suffered from schizophrenia, none of the usual (wrong-headed) apologists are coming forth claiming that he’s not really a terrible person because he’s mentally-ill, just like every time there is a “lone-wolf” attack by a Muslim extremist?

If Fields truly is mentally-ill, I hope he gets the treatment he needs in prison.

Sources:  “From hero to racist icon” – Associated Press, “Tommy:  The life and politics of Tommy Douglas by Walter Stewart, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stonewall_Jackson#West_Point, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_E._Lee, “Statue of Martin Luther King Jr. unveiled in his hometown”, Associated Press, 29 August 2017, https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2017/06/21/in-deference-to-indigenous-peoples-trudeau-strips-langevin-block-name-from-pms-office.html.

Re:  “Past comes back to haunt” (Brian Lilley, 11 June):

We really do need to be careful about judging the past using today’s morals and standards.  Yes, there are some things in the past that were truly reprehensible, but if we are to tear down statues and re-name everything dedicated to people who held views that we now view as repugnant, where does it end?  You can add to Brian’s list: Tommy Douglas, the “father of socialized Medicare,” for his negative views on homosexuality and pro-eugenics stance (FYI:  eugenics was something the Nazis practiced), Nellie McClung, a Canadian feminist, politician and social activist, who was also pro-eugenics, and of course, Sir John A. Macdonald, who has already been subject to scrutiny.

Many of these past historical figures whom we wish to condemn held views that were common and quite in line with their contemporaries.  Instead of trying to erase these people from history, we should focus on how our societal attitudes have changed for the better.  Of course, we must never forget our past, and not downplay what these people did, but sometimes you really need to be careful what you wish for.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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