Last semester I took a history of science class. During one discussion section we focused on Werner Heisenberg, the eminent German physicist who spearheaded the Uranverein (Uranium Club), Nazi Germany’s nuclear weapons project. Our T.A. asked us if Heisenberg should be held accountable for his actions. Many people, myself included, gave answers that basically amounted to no. “It’s not that simple,” I said, “They killed you if you dissented or tried to leave. I’d like to think that I would have stood up for what I believed in, but I can’t be sure.” Nate, the T.A., was surprised and a little affronted by what he heard. He claimed that we were being “good little millennial relativists” (or something to that effect). “He worked for the Nazis,” he said, “The Nazis. Jesus, I thought I’d have to balance out the conversation the other way.”
In the current social and political climate, this story is a germane one. In a philosophical context, relativism is defined as “the doctrine that knowledge, truth and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute.” It is a tenet of the modern American ethos. But how much moral relativism is too much? This question has been raised, both directly and indirectly, in relation to the recent controversy over Confederate monuments. The rioters in Charlottesville were rallying to the defense of a statue of General Robert E. Lee. President Trump said days later, “This week, it is Robert E. Lee and this week, Stonewall Jackson… George Washington was a slave owner. Are we gonna take down statues of George Washington?” Many of my more right-leaning family members seem to agree with his point. I believe that liberals need to get outside of our so-called “echo chambers” and engage with arguments from the other side. If we don’t, experienced conservative talking heads like Ben Shapiro will keep making us look like idiots on television. How can this one be refuted?
In a recent Chicago Tribune article, Northwestern Law Professor Steven Lubet explicitly disagrees with the above quote. He writes, “During his entire life, Washington was never exposed to the idea that slavery could be entirely abolished… [He] lived in an age when there were few who challenged slavery. Slavery was often considered distasteful, or even morally questionable, in Washington’s lifetime, but ending slavery was never actually a political issue. In contrast, Lee came into adulthood when slavery was the political issue dividing the United States.” Essentially, Lubet argues that the important difference between the two men is one of ideological environment. If that were the case, then picking out cultural heroes from our country’s troubled past becomes akin to another notorious redactional dilemma; voting steroid era baseball players into the hall of fame. “Bonds hit 762 home runs in the steroid era, more than anyone else. In any other era of baseball, maybe he hits about 600. He should be in Cooperstown. George Washington bought and sold other human beings, but everyone was doing it back then. If he lived today I’m sure he’d recycle. Let’s give him a statue.”
Professor Lubet’s argument is self-refuting. If, as he claims, individuals are products of the ethos of their time, then nothing is more important than an ideological paradigm shift. Our heroes should be the ones who do the incredibly hard work of overcoming their own social conditioning and bring about these shifts. In one of the great “atta-boy” moments of human history, a few people in Judea started a religion based on the teachings of one such man. There were such men in Washington’s time too. To say as Lubet does, that there were “few who challenged slavery,” is patently false; there were thousands of African slaves who did just that. Like Lee, Washington had the other side of the issue available to him. And like Lee, he refused to see it.
I’m not arguing that we should tear down statues of the founding fathers as a protest. What we should do is think more carefully about where people deserving of our admiration may be found.
Ara Hagopian is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Whiny Liberal appears alternate Fridays this semester.