With regard to the modern-day controversy over statues and monuments in government/taxpayer-funded spaces, hopefully society is learning that no matter what human is the topic of an existing or proposed statue or monument, truly in-depth research will likely reveal significant flaws. In fact, any human that took risks to significantly impact their community or society probably made some fairly significant mistakes, errors, and outright bad decisions. 

Given this reality that every human in a leadership position is flawed and tainted in some ways, I propose two improvements to our modern-day resource allocation to monuments and statues: 1. Stop dedicating such government/taxpayer-funded objects to individuals and instead celebrate collective efforts of the non-elite society members that get things done on a daily basis, in the same way that some of the war memorials in Washington, D.C. memorialize the infantry and enlisted humans that have defended our country; and 2. Before demonizing or cancelling the historical leadership of certain individuals by removing existing statues or monuments, consider whether their troubling or questionable behaviors or words were outliers from the norms of their time periods, which is what I call “temporal” relativism. 

Doing so will not excuse the human flaws, sometimes tragic in nature, of historic leaders. Nor will doing so change the horrific, evil facts of notorious leaders because their acts were horrific by the standards and norms of any time period; Hitler and his followers were evil under any time period norms and should never be memorialized other than to educate future generations, and those who perpetuated slavery, racism and exclusion should be called out for doing so.  But while the ongoing existence of Confederate statues and monuments is nonsensical and offensive and these should be removed from any publicly-maintained space, it also seems nonsensical to fail to differentiate between humans like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, whose leadership accomplishments are extensive, albeit tempered by their acceptance of the norms of their time period, and the very different more-clearly evil nature of the major career efforts of Confederacy generals and those intent on perpetuating the slave economy then, or unjust exclusion of certain groups today.

Hopefully as a society we stop dedicating monuments and statues to individuals, given that we are all flawed, regardless of our accomplishments and strengths. But until then, it seems to make sense to differentiate between outright maniacal, sociopathic historic actors and those somewhat tainted due to an inability to recognize the flawed norms of their own time periods.  I know that I would not want some of my own behaviors to be judged in retrospect by the norms of 200 hundred years from now, which will likely be much different than — and improved from — the norms I live under today!

James (Jim) Lane ’92
Westfield, N.J.