We’re all imperfect so beware retroactive moral judgment

They say life imitates art. If that is true, are we about to establish a Ministry of Truth and enter an era of goodthink?  

Maine Democrats have their first annual Mitchell-Perkins dinner on Friday evening. This replaces their decades old Jefferson-Jackson dinner. Why? Because our nation’s third and seventh presidents owned slaves, and Jackson fought against the Cherokee. Apparently that history suddenly makes these men unwanted by their party.

Columbus Day has been renamed in certain places. Why? Opponents believe a day named after the Italian explorer “ignores a violent past that lead to hundreds of years of disease, colonial rule and genocidal extermination.” Who knew moral culpability derived from unknowingly spreading disease, especially before the advent of germ theory? Since disease killed 90-95% of Native inhabitants, there must be a lot of culpability.  

Now, protesters at Princeton University want the name of our 28th president stricken from their campus. Why? President Woodrow Wilson was a bigot in a bigoted time. The progressive era — and concurrent rise of eugenics — brought significant, government-imposed racial policies. How many today recognize the minimum wage was crafted, in part, to keep races deemed “defective” — Africans, Asians, Irish, Jews — out of the workforce?  

If the argument underlying these movements is, essentially, moral failings make individuals unworthy of public honor, then many others must be removed from our holidays, buildings and events. George Washington owned slaves; he’s clearly out. John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were philanderers — time to abolish everything we named after them. James Blaine was brazenly anti-Catholic, so we’ll need a different moniker for the governor’s residence in Augusta.

Those renaming efforts have not yet gathered steam, but they represent their logical continuation. And, when coupled with the ongoing demands on some college campuses for “safe spaces,” life begins to imitate art. In 1984, the Ministry of Truth would continually revise historical information to fit the narrative of the omniscient “Party.” The motive was to prevent thoughtcrimes by ensuring goodthink. The Party-determined truth was all that mattered; independent thinking was punishable by torture.

The imposition of modern social mores on our predecessors revises the historic context in which they lived. And, in the words of advocates, “safe spaces” are places which “strongly encourage everyone to conform to majority opinions.” Voicing thoughts deemed objectionable — like colleges might be a place where provocation can be safely expressed — results in demands for people to lose their livelihood.  

This is the slippery slope about which Aldous Huxley warned us. If expressing objectionable thoughts leads people to lose their job, what is the next step? And lest people chalk it up to mere student activism, we should remember the tale of Brendan Eich. Mr. Eich was the CEO of Mozilla in 2014. He was forced to resign under pressure for having expressed his (now unpopular) opinion. His thoughtcrime? Donating $1,000 to oppose gay marriage in 2008. Nevermind that his position was shared by 52 percent of Californians, as well as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at that time.

Differences of opinion should be expressed respectfully, but a true “safe space” is one where people are free to disagree. Similarly, the efforts to strike names from public view presents problems. The protesters are correct in pointing out our historical leaders were not unwavering paragons of virtue. We must recognize their strengths, successes, and flaws. Human nature rarely changes, and, if we are to learn from history, we need to understand all its facets, good and bad.

But by judging individuals against today’s standards, we inflate their failings and trivialize their successes. Actions can only be understood in the context of their time. The greatness of the Declaration of Independence is only truly appreciated if you understand its radicalism. In an era where kings ruled by divine right and nobility was hereditary, the political notion of equality itself was revolutionary. Jefferson’s failure to live up to his own words does not mean he must be relegated to the ash heap of history. It means he was a product of his time, and was not strong enough to overcome the moral wrongs of the world as he found it.

The fact is a person can do both great and terrible things; none of us are without fault. And we can celebrate people from the past without closing our eyes to their failings. If we demand unwavering moral clarity before we honor someone, the list gets mighty short. There was only one perfect person to ever exist and His birthday celebration is this month. But that raises a different question: is it still okay to wish you a Merry Christmas?

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.