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History Unplugged Podcast

with Scott Rank

Which Statues Should We Take Down? How To Fairly Judge Historical Figures by Today’s Standards

00:00 38:25
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In the United States, questions of how we celebrate – or condemn – leaders in the past have never been more contentious. In 2017, a statue of Robert E. Lee was removed – leading to a race riot and terrorist attack. But in 2020, statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Christopher Columbus, and even Ulysses S. Grant were defaced or toppled. All of this comes to the question of how we judge the past. When are the morals and ethics of people born centuries earlier excusable for the conditions of their birth, and when are they universally condemnable? What separates a Thomas Jefferson from an Emperor Nero?
To discuss this incredibly challenging topic is someone perhaps nobody better qualified: Dr. Victor Davis Hanson. He is an emeritus classics professor and author of books on the Peloponnesian War or assessing the ancient world’s best military leader. He was also awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 and was a presidential appointee in 2007–2008 on the American Battle Monuments Commission.

We discuss the following:

•Times when American’s feared the removal of Jefferson or Theodore Roosevelt statues in 2021 (or their toppling in riots). But we have also celebrated statue removal, such as the removal of Saddam Hussein’s statues after the fall of his regime in 2003 or the removal of Marx/Lenin Statues in Eastern Europe in 1991. What is the difference?
•The criteria for a community to remove a statue in a healthy way
•How we judge those of the past and determine that some character flaws are due to their times of birth, while other character flaws are universally condemnable – Essentially, what makes a slave-owning Jefferson a product of his time while, say, a Nero, is universally understood as cruel
•The dangers of canceling anyone who doesn’t meet our 21st century standards; conversely, the dangers of slavish worship of them
•Who deserves more statues today
March 17, 2022
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Meet Your Host
Scott Rank is the host of the History Unplugged Podcast and a PhD in history who specialized in the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. Before going down the academic route he worked as a journalist in Istanbul. He has written 12 history books on topics ranging from lost Bronze Age civilizations to the Age of Discovery. Some of his books include The Age of Illumination: Science, Technology, and Reason in the Middle Ages and History’s 9 Most Insane Rulers.. Learn more about him by going to scottrankphd.com.
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