October 17, 2018

Should History’s Greats Be Judged by Modern Standards?

“Twitter’s teapot held a new tempest Sunday, this one brewing over astronaut Scott Kelly’s approving quote of Winston Churchill. Within half a day, buffeted by digital waves of outrage, Kelly retracted his words, tweeting that he did “not mean to offend by quoting Churchill” and pledging to educate himself “further on his atrocities.”

Was Churchill a “grotesque racist and a stubborn imperialist, forever on the wrong side of history” — or a stalwart defender of freedom against the evil of Nazism, a man prone to the errors of his age but admirable nevertheless? The same historical record undergirds both assessments, and their divergence raises questions larger than Churchill’s legacy alone: Should history’s greats be held to today’s standards of offense? Is the past to be interpreted via the present’s ethical lens? If we know something to be wrong now, can we blame our ancestors for failing to know it then?

Christopher Columbus, whose federal holiday fell on Monday, was weighed and found very much wanting (eyewitness accounts and the man’s own journals detail unspeakable cruelty). But what about the more complicated cases?

Should we honor someone like Thomas Jefferson, the slave-owning advocate of universal human rights? What do we make of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s alleged infidelity and plagiarism? Or Martin Luther’s gross antisemitism, or the rank sexism rampant among classic philosophers and theologians? Or — well, you can find any number of lists of other important historical figures who don’t conform to the present-day ethical consensus.”

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