There’s another problem with the removal of the statue of Thomas Jefferson by the New York City Council beyond its oh-so-articulate expression of elite power, about which I wrote here.
That other problem is the woke assumption, apparently without the least reflection, that it is appropriate to judge by today’s moral standards people of bygone eras. The recent Columbus Day was, of course, accompanied by the din of woke baying about his “racism.” Needless to say, the woke get their history wrong. (Do they ever not?) Columbus in fact expended considerable energy attempting to protect the indigenous populations he encountered from the depredations of his less scrupulous men. But never mind the wokes’ usual factual inaccuracies.
Whatever Columbus may have thought about the indigenous peoples of this part of the world, we cannot criticize him for failing to think what we think today. He lived in a vastly different time with different morals, a different intellectual milieu, different political and religious backgrounds, etc. As to slavery, up to his time, many people had fretted about the plight of slaves and sometimes laws changed to make their lot less degraded. But it would be almost two centuries before the idea that slavery was per se wrong gained a foothold on our consciousness. In short, Columbus did nothing morally or legally wrong, according to the precepts of his day.
And yet, it is part and parcel of woke discourse that, if Columbus or anyone else ever violated, not the morality of his time, but of ours, he’s fit to be canceled. No matter how great his contributions to humanity, and Columbus’ were many, he’s persona non grata to the woke.
At this point, I must ask if they apply the same notion to themselves. After all, a century from now and certainly five centuries from now, people will think differently about morality than we do today. Here’s a hypothetical, but entirely possible, example:
Right now, businesses are fabricating meat from cells. They’re refining the technology to entirely create marketable meat protein without raising or slaughtering a single cow, chicken, pig, lamb, etc. In Singapore you can go to a restaurant and order chicken that was never, well, a chicken.
I predict that, in the not distant future, most of the meat we eat will come from that source. Why? Because doing so will make sense in a number of ways. It will save from slaughter hundreds of millions of animals, drastically reduce the acreage used in their cultivation, allow greater reforestation and cut down significantly on the earth’s output of methane, a greenhouse gas. Let’s say that process takes 50 years to refine and popularize the products. Let’s further say that, in that time, it comes to be considered morally deficient to eat meat “off the hoof.”
Now suppose there is a scientist alive today who makes an important breakthrough in our ability to fight cancer and receives great public acclaim and the Nobel Prize in medicine for doing so. His discovery saves countless lives and much physical and emotional suffering. That scientist is entirely woke, but eats meat.
Fifty years hence, should he be canceled for doing so? After all, in that not-very-distant time, it will be considered immoral to slaughter an animal for food and yet our scientist’s diet requires that it be done and, after all, he could become a vegetarian. His consumption of meat today violates the future morality. So, according to woke precepts, he should be canceled for failing to live up to future moral notions about which he has no knowledge and despite his enormous contributions to humanity. Just like Columbus.
The points are two. First, no one can know today what morality far (or even not too far) in the future will consist of. Second, insisting on the cancelation of anyone who fails to achieve that impossible feat necessarily means the end of any public veneration of anyone at any time anywhere. After all, who knows what the future may bring?
But all that simply points out the extreme absurdity of woke ideas – not exactly news.
Now, Thomas Jefferson lived at a time when slavery was both legal and acceptable, but also beginning to gain ill repute. His was a time of transition from slavery’s unquestioned acceptance to its unquestioned rejection, an eventuality about which he could not possibly have known. Still, the Declaration of Independence calls all men equal, but Jefferson’s slaves were not his equal. So, while Jefferson clearly didn’t violate the moral standards of his time, he did violate his own and for that we rightly call his behavior hypocritical. Still, what he failed to do was put his own ideals into practice and in that he was exactly like every other person ever to have walked the earth (including today’s woke), with the possible exception of a few saints. As before, Jefferson’s cancelation argues for that of every single human, dead, living or yet to be.
The point being … what? That no one is, or can be, worthy of honor? That those who’ve accomplished the greatest things, made the greatest discoveries, advanced knowledge, saved lives, are not and cannot be considered respectable due to their failure to do the impossible, i.e., precisely anticipate and live by some unknown future morality? The notion is absurd and yet it is one of the core operating principles of the woke.
This article originally appeared at The Word of Damocles.