CSotD: Let Us Not Praise Famous Men

I suppose that, in a circular argument, it doesn’t much matter where you start, but let’s jump into today’s discussion with this Jeff Stahler piece, which asks an important question.

People keep saying, well, we’ll take them off the street and put them in a museum.

Without answering the question, “A museum of what??”

Most local history museums are small enough that dropping some equestrian — or even pedestrian — statue in the middle would completely dominate their collection.

And then how do you explain it?

There are museums or memorials that preserve, for instance, racist Jim Crow memorabilia, though the famous collection of anatomical oddities is only part of the Mutter Museum’s mission. There could be a Museum of Offensive Statues.

But to properly display them would require not just the larger-than-life bronze itself but the granite base upon which it stood and I suppose you could do it with an outdoor sculpture display but otherwise a few photos would likely accomplish the task and, besides, who’s going to pay to gather up and transport all those statues from around the country?


Especially if, as Mike Lester suggests, the Cancel Culture loses all sense of what should stay up and what should come down.

And, while I think most 19th century folks did some composting, there have been questionable calls indeed judging people from another era by the norms and morals of this one.

Which is not to justify slavery but to point out that history is a lot more complicated than the simpleminded elementary school lessons wherein kids dress up as happy cardboard Indians and Pilgrims at Thanksgiving.


That latter being a simpleminded lesson in pseudo-history defended by those who would ban it themselves if they realized it was a myth concocted to help increase immigration, a conundrum David Horsey riffed on a quarter century ago.


You needn’t go as far as Gary Varvel, and suggest that Satan is behind all this, though it’s true that a statue depicting Jesus as a blue-eyed blonde is more than simply inaccurate and is a way of suggesting that Western values are European in origin.

Then again, those who claim he was Black are equally foolish, and part of the problem in the streets is that too often we try to correct bad history with equally bad history, and that’s only a shift, not a correction.

Which brings us to our

Juxtaposition of the Day

(Dana Summers)

(Jimmy Margulies)

Most criticism assumes that the only way to teach history is through the “Great Man” model, and so we end up being more inclusive by adding “Great Woman” and “Great Person of Color” history lessons.

This is much like the point when astronomers began inventing elaborate mathematical explanations for the motion of planets because they couldn’t abandon the notion of a geocentric universe.

Once they shifted thinking and put the Sun at the center, the arithmetic got a lot simpler, and I would suggest that abandoning the Great Man paradigm would do the same for history.

After all, given that Vikings had already been here and given the explorations sponsored by Henry the Navigator and others, if Columbus hadn’t existed, someone else would have sailed to the New World within a decade or so.

Similarly, Newton and Leibniz pretty much came up with calculus simultaneously, just as Priestly and Lavoisier discovered oxygen at the same time, working independently.

It’s not that you don’t record their names or praise their work, but it would be better teaching to focus on what was going on in the world that brought about those advances, not on the individuals who happened to lead the pack.

Particularly since they were more in the lead than in charge. They simply got there first, and, had they stumbled, someone else would have.

Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott both got to the South Pole at more or less the same time, but Amundsen got there a few weeks sooner and then made it back while Scott’s team died on the return.

Which didn’t stop Britain from erecting statues of Scott and degrading Amundsen for having eaten his dogs to survive and let’s not even get into the Cult of Tesla, whose theories were fine but who was out-marketed by Edison.

I have it all on tape, but it’s a Betamax and so I can’t play it.


Jen Sorensen is right: We won’t get anywhere by quarreling over quarreling.

And it’s not that there isn’t a “Cancel Culture,” but rather that, as she suggests, it is not confined to one side of the spectrum.

Similarly, those who whine most about “political correctness” seem to be the ones who whine loudest when their own exquisite feelings are wounded.

Please fergawdsake don’t argue that point. Simply accept that there’s a lot of whining going on and we could all be making better use of our time and energy.

Start by teaching “Great Movement” history.

For instance, “It was inevitable that Europeans would come to the New World. Here are some ways it didn’t work. Here are some ways it did.”

And if you think the two lists have to be equal in length, you don’t get it.

And if you think it has to end in a hug and a happy ending, you really don’t get it.

And especially, if you think it will be easy to replace those statues with new thinking instead of new statues, you really, really don’t get it.

We’ve taught Great Man history for a very long time and a complete reordering of the process will be difficult to say the least.

Still, if not now, when?

Meanwhile …

Juxtaposition of Big Lie Theory

(Steve Brodner)

(Ann Telnaes)

Great Man History has been written at the direction of men who wanted to be thought of as great. Check out the versions of Constantine’s biography that Eusebius wrote as his sponsor grew in power.

A good dictator seizes the opportunity to control contemporary thought, placing himself and his goons on that pedestal and taking over the media to proclaim himself the very Great Man we’ve been searching for.


If you want me, I’ll be out with Mike Marland, improving the landscape and hoping for better times.

If seven Cinderellas with seven brooms would sweep for seven years, do you suppose, Bob Dylan asked, that they could get it clear?




4 thoughts on “CSotD: Let Us Not Praise Famous Men

  1. “People keep saying, well, we’ll take them off the street and put them in a museum.
    Without answering the question, “A museum of what??”

    Good question. It’s been answered in my hometown of Atlanta on every grade school field trip since Sherman left town. It’s called “The Cyclorama”. It’s been updated historically and morally over the years (The Atlantic wrote a flattering piece explaining) and is still as much a part of Atlanta school children’s lives as another historic field trip: the largest bas relief sculpture in the world on the largest outcropping of granite on the planet, Stone Mountain. Not many ways to sanitize it but Mt. Rushmore’s not going anywhere either.


  2. Good answer, Peter, but, as I said, you’d still have to do the fundraising to move and reset the statues. (My guess is that a lot of places would give you the land and tax breaks.)

    Plus, would you have the “Garden of Lee” sorts of places? Because there’d be a lot of statues of the same people. “Columbus Corner” might be a major part of the sculpture garden.

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