In the history books we grew up with they are heroes celebrated for their ideals and accomplishments. In the minds of many modern detractors they are miscreants decried for owning slaves or refusing to grant equal rights to all. So were any of the past US presidents pure enough of heart and flawless enough in deed to deserve celebration?  

Yes, is both the obvious answer and the correct one. That does not mean re-evaluating historical figures has no merit: that’s the point of studying history. But such updates must be tempered by an understanding of historical context and a cognisance of the human condition, along with a bit of common sense and humility.

We are all flawed; the men who established the legal and political framework for this nation, the masses who built it and the current generation judging them. Even our heroes cannot avoid serious missteps, and few fare well when actions deemed acceptable in the distant past are judged by modern standards.

Try explaining that to the San Francisco school board, which in 2018 created a school names advisory committee to “engage the larger San Francisco community in a sustained discussion regarding public school names”. Instead, that committee did a bit of shoddy research and on January 28 overwhelmingly voted to rename 44 schools, more than a third of the city’s total. 

Since the vote some criticism has focused on the committee’s process, and rightly so. But such nitpicking, while fair, misses a larger point. The movement to take down statues and rename schools began with a push to stop celebrating traitors who waged war against the US for the right to own slaves. These men and their Confederate battle flag and rebel nickname were often chosen to spit in the eye of black Americans and integrationists, honoured for their worst acts and traits.

But now that movement has mushroomed, and increasingly seems to suggest that no historically powerful figure in the US, particularly if white and male, can be worthy. Most Americans don’t believe this. A vocal minority shouldn’t be able to impose it. History is rarely kind to politicians caught up in irrational mob mentalities. /San Francisco, February 14


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