Over the past few years, especially, there has been a renewed encouragement for what I call historical plastic surgery. Historical plastic surgery is when modern people call for a rethinking of a historical person’s legacy based on their views, especially views on race. The example that comes to mind is Winston Churchill, and I will use his history as an example of a larger point to be made.
Bad People or Bad Views on a Good Person?
Winston Churchill is the example that comes immediately to mind. Churchill, who fought in the Boer Wars and was highly involved in the British government’s participation in both World War I and World War II, had unflattering views of non-English speakers and racial minorities. He thought Indians and Africans were inherently barbaric and as such should be guided gently into mainstream Anglo society. He prioritized the welfare of white Britons in India over the Indians during the Bengal Famine of 1943. And he generally held what we can safely say today were imperialist and racist views of things.
But is that a reason to vandalize his statue or try and paint him to be a historically bad person? I mean, in addition to his racist, classist, imperialist views, Churchill also basically saved Great Britain and France during World War II long enough for the Americans to get involved. He also personally oversaw morale campaigns and is widely credited for being the beacon of hope during the war, for Great Britain but also for France, the United States, Italy, and even refugees in Germany. He also helped strengthen the “special relationship” between Britain and the US, which continues to be on such strong footing to this day partially because of the relationship Churchill had with President Franklin Roosevelt.
So it’s a bit of a balancing act, right? We can all acknowledge that Churchill had backwards views on race. We can also acknowledge that he was a brilliant leader during both world wars, a talented painter, a poignant social commentator, elite politician, and ultimately a big part of why World War II did not last much, much longer. So what is the scale for this balance? I would assert that with Churchill and others like him, he was a good person who held some very repugnant views.
Determining the Bad People
Some of the historical plastic surgery is good. Confederate generals don’t need streets named after them. Some people would argue that Robert E. Lee, who was a brilliant military tactician, should be excepted from this group, however. General Lee was, indeed, a brilliant military tactician, he did not like slavery, and I honestly believe he was fighting more for a slave-neutral states’ rights cause, but he was also a traitor to the United States and should be remembered as such.
Same thing with folks throughout history who were objectively awful people: Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Saddam Hussein, etc. No one should ever live at 123 Hitlerstraße or 742 Saddam Hussein Terrace.
But what about George Washington? Thomas Jefferson? Abraham Lincoln? Washington owned slaves. He claimed to be antislavery but that didn’t stop him from buying and selling human beings. Same with Jefferson. Lincoln positively hated everything about slavery, but his solutions were twofold: 1) allow slavery to continue but don’t let it expand into other states, and 2) stop the actual slave trade. He also for a time advocated colonization of black people to some Latin American nation because he did not believe that black people were ready to enter and contribute to American society. Granted, he held that belief because of how poorly slaves and free black people were treated, but his solution was a huge cop out.
But the point is, Washington was a great man and a great leader. Jefferson was one of the most brilliant government minds to ever live and did great things, including founding the University of Virginia. And Lincoln, of course, pushed for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, freeing all slaves in the United States. Is it okay that we have statues and schools with their names on it? I certainly think so.
And what about the bad ones? I personally think Andrew Jackson was a bad person with terribly racist views, and I don’t think he should be on currency or schools because he basically tried to eradicate whole swaths of Native Americans. Same thing with any given Confederate authority figure. Same thing with the men who pushed segregation in the South after the Civil War. It’s not difficult to determine who was mostly good and who was mostly bad, but we need to be diligent in doing so.
Plastic Surgery with a Mirror
We need to know that great people in history were flawed. We need to know that Churchill and Washington and Franklin Roosevelt and others were not perfect. Roosevelt was no champion of civil rights. It’s not only fair but arguably necessary that we broadcast the flaws these men had. But we cannot erase them from history or rewrite them to be more bad than good because that isn’t true.
It’s important when conducting historical plastic surgery to ensure that the face stays recognizable. If one were to paint Churchill has nothing more than a bigoted aristocrat, that is just as inaccurate as painting him as a perfect man who was no less than heroic and chivalrous. We all know and love someone who has views and flaws that we disagree with. But wouldn’t you hope that the good outweighs the bad? And wouldn’t you hope that if people are going to remember the bad that they should remember the good, too?
And moreover, don’t we all have some views that will some day be looked at as backwards? Maybe you’ve already realized you had some and updated them, even. For example, I grew up in a very conservative Christian town where, for a long time, there was a general feeling of dislike towards the LGBT community. But over the years I have seen many people who were staunchly homophobic adjust their views as they realized how unfair, unjust, and inhumane they were. Do those people deserve to be remembered for their worst opinions if they were otherwise good people?
Progress vs. Regress
The point is this: Progress is a good thing. Looking back on history and thinking the people of the time had some messed up views is a good thing. That means we’re moving forward intellectually, philosophically, etc. But if those past figures genuinely had otherwise good views and did good things, then why should their memories be tarnished to the point of being wiped out? This isn’t Joe Paterno who almost assuredly knew children were being raped in his field house. This isn’t Stalin or Mao or Hitler who had millions of dissidents killed between them just because they thought a little different. No, this is Winston Churchill, the guy who is probably most responsible for winning World War II, but who had some admittedly backwards, reprehensible views of other races.
Progress is good. But if progress is manufactured too hastily, it results in regress and whitewashing. When historians look back on Churchill they should see a brilliant government leader and a deeply flawed man. But his statue on government buildings is appropriate.
If we keep looking backwards, where does it stop? Do we take down evidence of the Romans because they enslaved people indiscriminately? Do we remove the pyramids and the Sphinx because the Egyptian pharaohs were warmongers and slaveholders? Do we take Martin Luther King, Jr.’s name off streets and schools because he was a homophobic womanizer? No, of course not. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great man who did wonders for this country. The fact that he had antiquated views of homosexuality is regrettable but not worth destroying the man’s reputation.
Let us accept the fact that we are a race of imperfect men and women, doomed to live lives of fallibility and strife, remembered for both the good and the bad. And let’s weigh each of these things. If a person held some bad views, let us also see if they held good views or did good things. If the balance is in favor of the good, let us remember and celebrate the good while never forgetting or denying the bad. If the balance is in favor of the bad, let us use the bad as an example for how far we’ve come or what not to do.
But tearing down statues of Winston Churchill and taking Thomas Jefferson’s name off of schools is not the answer. It is no more than historical plastic surgery, and if we’re not careful, we’ll forget what our face ever really looked like.