“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Ralph Waldo Emmerson in Self-Reliance
While it is widely discussed what Mr. Emmerson meant, the general consensus seems to be that one who takes what is perceived as a popular position because it will make them feel a part of the crowd, or more importantly out of fear of being perceived as callous, unfeeling or even bigoted, is being foolish or unthinking.
We seem to have a great deal of that going on right now. Before you get your knickers in a twist, please note that I have long thought the reverence for the Confederacy was ill-conceived. You can read my previous piece on the Confederacy and my family’s relationship to it.
All that being said, are we now being foolishly consistent? Yes. While the statues of Confederate Generals and officials that were placed as some sort of reverence to a lost cause should be moved to a place where the purpose is to make them a part of history to be remembered and studied, the repeat of which should be avoided, the monument removal process seems to have born us down the road of knee jerk actions.
The removal of the statutes of the founders of the United States create a different matter. Yes, they, in many cases, held slaves, they did some bad things, but lost in the discussion is that they were flesh and blood men, making decisions based on what they knew, what they had been taught and consistent with their times.
They were, in many ways forward thinking. All you have to do is read the Constitution to see that. It gave us the framework for the government and, in many ways, today’s way of life. However, in that same document, they made mistakes, most obviously that slaves were counted as 3/5 of a person and women and slaves were not given the right to vote. (Keep in mind here, also, that black males were given the right to vote long before women of any race and even Frederick Douglass thought this was fair.)
It is the Constitution that these flawed men cobbled together that put in place the mechanisms that allowed our country’s evolution and allowed for amendments to be added that uplifted and changed the lives of people and made possible the discussion we are having today. Thomas Jefferson noted, in a letter to Samuel Kercheval, in 1816, the evolving nature of the Constitution and that he, along with others, were not the final arbiters of all things, when he said: “But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, a keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilize society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” Clearly, Jefferson, flawed as he was, saw that the evolution of the United States in thought, deed and action was inevitable and, in fact, desirable. However, if we listen to much of the rhetoric today, this seems lost.
The logical, or I suggest illogical, next step would be to stop referring to the Bible as holy and Jesus as perfect, because the Bible, both old and new testaments, specifically refers to the obligation to be a good or dutiful slave. Exodus 21:2; Exodus 21:7; Exodus 21:20; Exodus 21:32; Leviticus 25:44; Deuteronomy 15:16; Luke 7:2; Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 6:5 and on and on. There are well over a dozen references to being slaves and the obligations as a slave in the Bible. It is worth noting that the Bible was used as a justification for slavery by many, yet, the present day appreciation of the teachings of Jesus have evolved to the point that we understand that the subjugation of our fellow man is fundamentally wrong.
This demanding that people be perfect is not new, but it is unrealistic. We have free will and, as a result, will make mistakes. While we are discussing the Bible, maybe the reference to “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” should come in to play.
It is this same mindset that wants to re-write Twain because his books were often written in dialect, reflecting the language used by the people of the time in which the books were set, solely because some might be offended. I can only imagine Twain looking down from his place in the after-life laughing aloud at the people who would want to make his works less offensive.
I read where the late Ray Bradbury was approached by people to allow the re-writing of Fahrenheit 451 to make is less violent in that the scenes of burning books and the houses where the books were found might offend some. He, of course, would not give permission to soften his book, instead that the violent nature of restricting thought was the whole point of the book. (It is worth noting that it was not the government that wanted the books burned in Bradbury’s book, it was the people).
The present-day, popular position is that we should remove all monuments to men, or women, of the past who, while doing great things, did bad things as well, because the bad always cancels the good. In the present discussion, will the evil always out-weigh the good. Should we disregard Jefferson’s accomplishments and contributions because he owned slaves, or Frederick Douglass because he was willing to have women wait to get the vote or Jesus because he noted the obligations of a slave.
Does anyone of us want to be judged in, say 2320, for our actions in 2020 using the standards that have evolved over 300 years? I suggest not.
Should we have reverence for the accomplishments of the men and women who made possible the United States? Yes.
Should we, in discussing these people, acknowledge and discuss their shortcomings in light of what we now know? Yes.
Should we acknowledge the progress of the human mind, the more enlightened nature of our being and how it has developed over the last 250 years? Yes.
Should we try to make decisions, today, that, when evaluated by history, will seem enlightened and progressive by whatever future standards have evolved? Yes.
Will we fail in our efforts to make only good, enlightened decisions? Absolutely.
As individuals and as a nation, can we shun the tendency to be “foolishly consistent” and avoid the “hobgoblin of little minds”? That remains to be seen.