And he lies scarcely at all…

Scene 1: Saint Peter and a few angels are performing the daily ritual with some dice and a chart of the cardinal sins. They throw an 11, look at the chart and see what vice is on special today.

Scene 2: George Washington, having recently died, comes before Saint Peter’s professionally stern gaze. Saint Peter checks the chart to see what today’s heinous sin is and breaks out into a lovely beatific smile. “You’re in luck,” he says to President Washington, “Today’s special sin is deceitfulness and it says here that you never told a lie. Go on in.”

There are so many silly things about that little fantasy that it is hard to know where togeorge 2 start, but it came to my mind because one of the routes I frequently ride goes past the intersection of Sandy and 57th, where this statue is normally located. I guess parts of it are still located there.

It was “desecrated” this last week as part of a protest against racism. I’d like to spend a little time on “desecrated”—such an odd word in this context—and then return to my heavenly fantasy and the reason for beginning there.

George Washington is not “sacred” to me, nor should he be. [1] He provided a substantial service to the rebellious colonies and to the fledgling republic and I think he should be honored for that. By being a successful general and a very stabilizing president, he gave us a gift without which we would not be in our present situation. There was no substitute for him.

One of the great uses to which he and his memory have been put is to serve as the exemplar of attitudes and behaviors the society needs. The legendary George Washington, by contrast with the historical George Washington, was dignified, humble, practical, and, above all, truthful. It is his legendary truthiness that I make use of in the heavenly scenario with which I began.

What is “sacred” is the use we agree to make of our great women and our great men. It is our adherence to the virtues we claim they exemplify that enables us to survive as a society. The social norms held at least partially in place by this practice allow us to live together with much less coercion than would otherwise be necessary. They allow us to cooperate more fully than otherwise, to adjust and innovate more fully than otherwise. The “great people” of our past—those who by our consent [2] evoke one or another of the crucial virtues—serve us by helping us define and support the values our society requires. I can come a lot closer to calling that function “sacred” than I can come to calling any person from our past “sacred.”

So to George Washington is attributed a wholly pure and entirely unlikely truthfulness. The well-known legend of the cherry tree can serve as an example. George is also extraordinarily lucky that on the day he came up for judgment, the virtue of the day was “truth-telling.” So he was declared “worthy of entering heaven,” [3]

Had he come on the next day, when the special virtue was “kindness,” George, as a slave-holding Virginia planter, might have had some difficulty. The current round of protests against our best-known leaders is that they were “racist.” Without question, George Washington violated that standards that are today thought to be indicative of racism.

george 1But let’s look at where this leads us. Racism is just today’s fetish. [4] What about tomorrow’s? Let’s say that sexual fidelity is the next virtue. This is sexual fidelity as it was understood in the late 18th Century, of course. Cadres of zealots, now comb through the “great men and women of our past” and locate those who offended sexual fidelity. It is time now for their statues, the erection of such statues serving as the kind of honor we pay them to remind ourselves of how important that particular virtue is, to be torn down. They are no longer worthy to represent us.

Fine.

The next virtue is, let’s say, charity.[5] We require, in this round of our purging of publicly honored persons, that they take special note of the poor among them and that they are noteworthy in caring for them as they should. Not all of our great men and not even all of our great women were unfailingly charitable. So…”off with their heads!” and where possible, their bases as well.

Fine. Next.

You see where this goes. Every round of purging will remove another category of statues until there are no more. You might think, I suppose, that new heroes will be created to mirror the newly ascendant values, but it takes only a moment of thought to understand that their time too will come when our attention as turned to a new virtue.

So the routine desecrating of our public statues, and thereby our common heroes, leads to a common celebration of no one and nothing at all. There is no common celebration. There are, of course, private celebrations. There may well be family celebrations and clan celebrations, but if the population we have in mind gets too large and/or too formal and particularly if public resources go into the construction and maintenance of such statues, we cross the boundary into George Washington territory—the racist planter who never told a lie.

In this scenario, we are without exemplars, except, of course, iconoclasts. We can still celebrate the people who pull down the statues, I guess. But we are without the common, the “public,” way of treasuring the virtues they stood for. Just what virtues they stood for is mostly, you recall, a fabrication of later generations. There are still private virtues, but there are not virtues that help us to shape our common polity, our common culture. [6]

This is a wholly needless problem. The solution is to value our forebears for what they have done, for their contributions to us. There is no need for them to be saints. We will weigh, for them as for everyone else, the good against the bad. We will not throw dice as St. Peter did in the example. We will not judge the paragons of an earlier era as if they should meet the standards of all succeeding eras.

In Portland, there are a lot of high schools named for presidents. A lot of our presidents suffered errors of judgment and flaws of character. They are, in that way, a good representation of the people who tore down their statues.

[1] He is, for one thing, “a graven image” is the most literal sense.
[2] I don’t want to overdo this. There needs to be some social reality that binds the virtue we prize to the life or the writings of the great one. You can’t just hand any virtue on the memory of just any person.
[3] A theological disaster, but the St. Peter metaphor requires it.
[4] I don’t call it a fetish because it is unimportant. I call it a fetish because of all the other virtues is displaces to become the only virtue worthy of our energies.
[5] There is really no need to focus entirely on sins of commission. Many of our leaders, faced with great opportunities, failed to achieve them through lack of imagination or failure of courage. Their statues too should be forfeit.
[6] Under normal circumstances, I would have added “our common economy,” but the common economy is an artifact, we are told, of the confluence of private greeds, so not a common economy in the same sense as the polity and the culture.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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