In On the Concept of History, written at the end of his life by the German Jewish philosopher, Walter Benjamin, (1892-1940), he noted “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” If that is true of what we do in history, is it not also as true of us who make history? Certainly it was true in a demonstrable way of Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), soldier, statesman, conservationist, and the 26th President of the United States (1901-1909), now in the news this week because of the decision to remove his monumental equestrian statue (photo) from the entrance to New York's famed Museum of Natural History.
I have walked past TR's statue many times over the years, without paying all that much attention to it, except perhaps being favorably reminded by it of his family's connection with the museum and of his own noteworthy role as an early environmentalist (or, as we would have said then, a conservationist). His great-great-grandson, Kermit Roosevelt III, who supports the statue's removal, seemed to me to strike the right balance. "That's a statue that people thought at the time was celebrating about him, but people's thinking at that time was very inflected by white supremacy. ... He wanted a society where what's best about our natural parks, our natural resources was shared widely and available to everyone and I think he should be remembered as an egalitarian and a conservationist."
I think Kermit got it just right. TR represented - embodied even - both what was best and what was worst about the Progressive Era in American politics, its morally advanced aspirations and its morally problematic prejudices. He himself embodied that ambivalence in his own personality - a stalwart supporter of progressive policies and advocate for economic and social justice, whose "cowboy" thinking about foreign relations was infected with an excessively aggressive appetite for ostentatious military conflict and with then widely shared racial prejudices.
TR's example ought to remind us of something which should be of no surprise to those who still believe in original sin - that good and evil impulses continually coexist in most of us and thus also in the societies and institutions we create. When reckoning with the legacy of monumental historical figures who have made a major impact on our society and need to be remembered, the honest thing to do and the most culturally constructive thing to do is to acknowledge both the good they did and aspired to do and the darker side of their legacy and that of their contemporaries - and not to allow either to cause us to forget or ignore the other.
Memorials to TR abound in this country - from his hometown New York City to Mount Rushmore. This particular monument, with its problematic images of other races, no longer serves a suitable social purpose and will properly be moved to some less ostentatious location and more socially sensitive context.
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