August 2017

It goes without saying that, like any reasonable observer of politics and public spectacle, I find Donald Trump the most exasperating figure of our time.  There have been more vile and destructive political actors – Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, just to name a few – but there has never been anyone so banal and ineffective in his misguided bombast and policy actions that you find yourself more exasperated than horrified.  And there is nothing more exasperating than his ability to periodically mindlessly stumble upon nuggets of relevance that give him a thin veneer of credibility.

In my blog post of October 2016, I talked about the fact that Trump’s inarticulate campaign pandering to working class Americans touched upon a reality of globalisation that has never been clearly acknowledged by any politician or party, which is that, although globalisation has truly raised all boats, the boats raised most dramatically have been those of Western capitalists and the working class in emerging markets and the boats raised only modestly have been those of the working class in the West.  While the policy prescriptions offered by Trump to address that reality – border walls, Muslim bans, protectionist trade policies – were both facile and dangerous, the absence of at least an acknowledgement of that reality and a vague commitment to address it by the Democrats left enough thoughtful Americans with a justification to hold their nose and join with the Trump base of xenophobes and malcontents to hand the White House to Mr. Trump.

And now eight months into a sideshow of a presidential administration, The Donald has predictably found himself trapped between the minimum requirements of decency and his commitment to his base.  His equivocation in condemning the clearly racist motives, words and actions of the most visible and audible of the Charlottesville protestors should leave little room for Trump to retain that small but critical contingent of thoughtful Americans who have been to this point remained willing to assume that perhaps some good could still be gleaned from this populist experiment.  I say should only because Mr. Trump’s rambling justification for his inappropriately weak response to unalloyed racism included a reference to an issue upon which there is not yet a clear policy answer and upon which those inclined to impute wisdom to his stream of consciousness pronouncements will undoubtedly yet again find reassurance.

You will recall that Charlottesville was not chosen as the venue for the gathering of the cream of the far right because of the citizens’ affinity for such ideology.  In fact, as the home of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville is by the standards of the still conservative south a haven for progressive thought.  In fact, it was that progressive thought that had moved its citizenry to propose the removal of a large statue honouring Robert E. Lee, the Civil War General who is arguably the most revered hero of the Confederacy.  It is of course difficult to square the clarion call of this issue to the placards and chants of the assembled celebrants, given that General Lee is not particularly remembered for his anti-Semitism.  Nonetheless, it is entirely plausible that some of those gathered in Charlottesville did so primarily to express opposition to this proposal.  And those that did can point to a question on which reasonable men can differ, and by raising the point even inarticulately in his response to the calls for unequivocal denunciation, it is exasperatingly possible that Donald Trump may yet again in some people’s eyes prove himself a reasonable man.

As Canadians, we are more than amused spectators to this display of political and social polarization.  We have our own version of this very question as it relates to the commemoration of our own political heroes who can be held to various degrees to have been complicit in the creation and implementation of policies that contributed to the cultural and economic impoverishment of our First Nations people.  What are the rules?  How do we honour the edifying aspects of our history while reconciling those aspects of that history that are in the context of the more enlightened thought of today morally repugnant?  It is indeed a thorny and important issue.

First off, it is important to recognize that this is not a problem that is relevant only to the reconciliation of those in the US that were brutalized by the institution of slavery or those in Canada who were stripped of their self-worth and family supports by residential schools and discriminatory social and economic policies.  The arc of history is happily haltingly but inexorably progressive, and there should be little doubt that future generations will find in our society and our leaders doctrines and actions that are inexcusably immoral in the context of the more enlightened world of tomorrow.

All of us can only be judged in the context of the times in which we lived.  As The Donald himself reminded his critics, both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slaveowners.  Should their portraits be removed from the White House, their Memorials on the National Mall bulldozed?  Should the US capital itself be renamed?  Even Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, harboured reservations with respect to the capacity and potential of the Black population that would be viewed as entirely unacceptable given what we know to be true today.

So how do we honour such imperfect historical figures?  Should we honour them at all?  The answer must lie in our judgment of them in the context of their own time.  Individuals that were on the trailing edge of a progressive notion by the standards of their own time should not be honoured, even where their service in the resistance to that progressive notion or in the advancement of any other progressive notion was significant, honourable and meritorious.  Hitler does not get a pass on genocide for making the trains run on time.

On this standard, no leader of the Confederacy can be honoured, as the very nature of the endeavour in which they attained their notoriety was in resistance to a progressive cause.  Washington and Jefferson served critical roles in the advancement of democratic government in North America.  Their failure to address the evils of slavery should not be ignored, but should be included as context in understanding the limitations of their vision not as a reason to disregard their contributions.

In the Canadian context, the standard should be the same.  Edward Cornwallis, Hector-Louis Langevin and Sir John A. Macdonald himself should each be judged in the context of his time.  If all or any of them can be fairly said to have been behind their time in terms of their views of Canada’s First Nations people, then their efforts and contributions as nation builders should not rescue their legacy.  But if they can be fairly judged to have made their contributions with the same colonial view of Canada’s First Nations people that prevailed generally at the time, their failure to be progressive leaders in this area should not overwhelm their contributions to the construction of the Canadian democracy.  That blind spot should, however, be acknowledged as part of the presentation of their legacy.

So what do we do with the statues of men (and perhaps women) who fail to meet that standard?  They should be removed, and perhaps relocated to a museum of reconciliation that examines and explains their inglorious role in the hopefully affirming resolution of an historical injustice.  And standing in their place should be new memorials to men and women who have served in the advancement of the cause against which the earlier honourees fought in vain.

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