The iconoclasts are back. Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Francis Scott Key and dozens more must be canceled — centuries after they died.
A strange hubris has descended on a segment of our American society ― that they are the ultimate arbiter of truth, righteousness and justice. All those who fall short of their recently discovered but unquestionably pure virtues must be stricken down.
Now petitions and counter-petitions are circulating to tear down statues of Christopher Columbus in Syracuse and in my own home city of Utica. Absurdly, the Utica petition faults the explorer for causing the massacre of 100 million natives, and in Syracuse the statue is called “a symbol of Indigenous genocide and erasure.”
Putting aside such absurdly false claims, Columbus and his crews were not responsible for the crimes of subsequent conquerors and settlers, let alone the diseases which were the real root of much of the suffering of the New World’s inhabitants.
Facts seem to be no bother to the “history eaters” who devour the heritage and legacy of others as if completely meaningless.
History is our collective memory — it is the sum of our experiences whether they be triumphs or tragedies, common or extraordinary. We cannot control the events of the past any more than we can blot out the sun or drain the oceans. To pretend otherwise is more than folly, it is downright dangerous.
But that does not mean we must endorse the past as wholly good or ill. It was lived by imperfect beings, just like we are — frail and fallen. They achieved great things and committed terrible offenses.
Columbus’ dangerous and daring journey opened up the New World and laid the groundwork for the founding of our great country — the only nation ever founded on an idea that liberty and equality are man’s birthright from God. We have not always lived up to that high-minded ideal but we continue to strive toward “a more perfect Union” because we recognize our faults — we do not ignore them.
And that is what the pursuit of historical truth requires — that the good, the bad, and the ugly be laid bare and we seek to do better.
My community which erected that monument to Columbus is not blind to his faults but it refuses to judge him only by his sins and erase his great feats. Central New York and the congressional district I served, and seek to serve again, have some the of the largest concentrations of Italian-Americans in the country. They are rightly proud of a man of their heritage that changed the world and opened the door for their ancestors’ and their own opportunities in our land of promise.
I, too, refuse to ignore the true facts. Instead, I seek to understand, appreciate, and improve.
The French statesman Alexis de Tocqueville famously wrote, “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
To do that, we must remember. Those who want to force us to forget leave no room for the wisdom of the past to shine through or the revisions of the future to be written.
That these would-be statue-smashers might not have the full, immutable truth in their grasp is lost on them. So, they destroy — without hesitation and without self-reflection.
I choose not to live by such haughty, oblivious terms. As Americans, we should live up to our charge — and make our nation more just and free.
The plight of Native Americans — who these erasers claim to speak for — is one place where I have devoted a substantial amount of my time and free legal skills to make a difference in the now. I have advocated for a full-blooded Oneida Indian tribal leader, Melvin Phillips, for over a decade to secure his ancestral Treaty land against eviction by corrupt casino interests. Phillips seeks to honor and preserve the land and culture of his ancestors from powerful and wealthy native interests who seek to cancel their noble history. Like Phillips, who is disabled and lives modestly, the fate of millions of proud but powerless people is so often forgotten by the powerful and the supposed “social justice warriors.”
I ask them — before they throw paint or hack at a century-old statue with a pick-ax — why don’t they build up instead of destroy. Help others who do not have power or privilege realize the promise of this country.
Killing figures like Columbus is simply erasing our imperfect history, instead we should be writing the next chapter in bold colors.
Remember our country is not perfect, but we earnestly strive to be.