The imperfection of history

 Sam Smith – The decision in San Francisco to rename over 40 schools – including ones named for George Washington and Abraham Lincoln – brings to the fore the arrogance with which we often view history.

If there is one consistent thing that history teaches us it is the imperfection of it and the people who create it. If there is one consistent thing that makes us feel better about this is that many of these imperfections are now past, which is why we call them history.

But the current trend to judge those in the past by current standards lends us little judgement for dealing with the present. What are the issues we are ignoring that some day will be considered essential?

And it is far more complicated than many would have us believe. For example, the properly praised Frederick Douglass supported women’s suffrage but, as Black Past notes,  “in 1869 he publicly disagreed with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony who called for women’s suffrage simultaneously with voting rights for black men, arguing that prejudice and violence against black men made their need for the franchise more pressing.” Do we take his name off all buildings for this?

A more sensible approach is to accept human imperfection and praise the occasional escape from it, despite the fact that the praised of the past may have ignored their children, lied on their tax returns or engaged in marital infidelity. We are not honoring the whole individual but specific good that they did.

As a long time activist. I’m conscious of how dramatically the status of an idea can change over time. For example, fifty years ago few supported DC statehood or legalized marijuana. Those of us who did were considered kooks at best.  I know some well known groups and politicians who opposed DC statehood long ago but now support it.

Politics is like that. You can’t be a successful politician without making some of the mistakes that the time you live in seems to demand. And goodness is rare enough that we should celebrate it even if it does not define a whole life or its viewpoints.

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