With President Trump attending an Independence Day celebration at Mount Rushmore ahead of the Fourth of July, The New York Times fired a broadside at the national monument. In its tweet, the newspaper linked the monument’s sculptor to the Ku Klux Klan and reminded us that two of the presidents memorialized in granite were slaveholders. The Times piece could be viewed as a direct incitement to “cancel” Mount Rushmore, to foster further discontent with our shared American history and to hasten the continuing efforts to erase our past.
In the aftermath of the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of a rogue Minneapolis police officer, some protests and demonstrations around the country gave way to riots, looting, and efforts to destroy statues seen as symbolizing oppression. Initially, these actions focused on monuments associated with the confederacy which fought the Civil War, in part, to oppose the abolition of slavery being thrust upon them by President Abraham Lincoln and the North. Statues of Robert E. Lee, Albert Pike, and Jefferson Davis were toppled in this manner; some desecrated by decapitations and hanging, after being felled. Many more were slated for removal by city councils voting under duress.
The Assault Upon History
Very quickly, these protest efforts moved beyond the confederacy to memorials of Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Francis Scott Key, and Juniper Serra, to name but a few. Many of these monuments have already been the subject of heated discussions about whether we should honor historical figures seen as playing a role in our legacy of racism toward Black, Hispanic, and Native Americans. George Floyd’s murder provided the ideal inflection point to shape these discussions into actions – lawless though they were in many instances.
With very little push-back from state and federal authorities – all of which seemed paralyzed with inaction – it was a natural progression for these efforts at erasure to scale up. As an initiative to officially recognize Juneteenth gained ground and cries to abolish Columbus Day increased in volume, The New York Times delivered its incendiary social media post to America with attribution to the paper at large. This was a boon to the Anti-Trump rally planned for July 4 in Keystone, located approximately two miles from Mount Rushmore.
Even Theodore Roosevelt has drawn the ire of activists who set their sights on Mount Rushmore and the granite tribute to him there rendered. Roosevelt’s statue outside of the Museum of Natural History in New York City is already scheduled for removal, as per the fiat of failed New York mayor Bill DeBlasio. Roosevelt’s attitudes toward the Native Americans of his day ranged from course to deeply problematic. And the fact that Mount Rushmore sits on land taken from the Lakota tribe makes the issue more problematic still, according to The New York Times.
Rejecting the Binary Choice of Good or Bad History
That Roosevelt’s animus toward Native Americans is objectionable by today’s standards, is not in question. Neither is the fact that he established the national park system, built the Panama Canal, and is considered the father of the modern conservation movement. Likewise, the truth about Washington and Jefferson being slaveholders cannot be ignored, nor the fact that they were colossal figures in American history who fought and won the Revolution and drafted the Declaration of Independence, respectively. At this moment, we are being asked to walk and chew gum, figuratively. Can we consider the good and the objectionable together and so understand our past in its totality?
What we need to reflect on honestly, in a less incendiary moment, is how we reconcile the imperfect lives, attitudes, and actions of our forefathers with their towering achievements. The mob rage that brought so many statues down around the country has to be understood side by side with the deep patriotism that erected them in the first place. While he signed an executive order protecting federal statues, President Trump also conceded that he could understand individual monuments being taken down – although he believed this should be done legally through a decommissioning process. In any event, Mount Rushmore itself appears safe for now as Governor Kristi Noem vowed to protect the South Dakota monument as long as she holds office.
The New York Times knows full well that while its tweet stopped short of advocating the destruction, desecration, or decommissioning of Mount Rushmore, the dog whistle inferred in its post did just that. This is both irresponsible and reprehensible of the paper, which, with alarming regularity, now favors hatred and division over nuance and discussion. The Times’ base reduction of debate in our public square to binary choices of good and evil, woke and ignorant, Left and Right does an immeasurable disservice to the many grey area discussions in which we need to engage – now more than ever. As Carl Jung said, “thinking is difficult – that’s why most people judge.” On almost every issue of national importance, The New York Times, it seems, has cynically abdicated its role as arbiter of informed public dialogue, in favor of cold judgment of an America it now appears to revile openly.
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