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Dumping Abraham Lincoln? A word of advice to the ‘cancel culture’

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In January 2021, a committee appointed by San Francisco’s school board will vote on whether to remove 44 names from public schools of men and women they’ve deemed guilty of racism. This list ranges from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to none other than Abraham Lincoln.   

Ironically, the indictment against Lincoln emphasizes not his alleged failure to recognize that “Black lives matter,” but his treatment of Native Americans during the Civil War. After 1862’s Sioux Uprising in Minnesota, caused by white encroachment on Dakota lands, a military tribunal sentenced 303 warriors to death. Lincoln personally reviewed the sentences, commuting the sentences of 265 but permitting 38 to be hanged. 

As Lincoln’s life ended on April 14, 1865, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton announced: “Now he belongs to the ages.” Lincoln was vilified during the Civil War not only by Confederate rebels but by northern abolitionists who thought his prosecution of the war was lax. After the war, the assassinated president was credited with “belonging to the angels” even by former slave owners.

African Americans freed from slavery were almost unanimous in holding out Lincoln as a latter-day savior until around 1900, when W. E. B. Du Bois, a founder of the NAACP, pivoted away from sainthood, yet acknowledged that Lincoln was “a big, inconsistent, brave man.”

Still, Lincoln’s near-immaculate reputation continued with the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922 in our nation’s capital and with the completion of the Mount Rushmore Memorial in 1941. His image in Hollywood’s Civil War epics also was that of a martyred saint. Born in 1950, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. recalls: “When I was growing up, his picture was in nearly every Black home I can recall, the only white man other than Jesus himself  to grace Black family walls. Lincoln was a hero to us.” 

By the 1960s, young Black militants were not so kind to Lincoln, whom they sometimes called “a white honky,” a slur popularized by H. Rap Brown. In 2005, another senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, said, “I cannot swallow the whole view of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator.” By 2009, however, Obama chose to use Lincoln’s Bible to be sworn in as the first African American president of the United States.

Viewed in the light of history, it’s not surprising that after this year’s nationwide demonstrations over George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, Abraham Lincoln once again would be viewed with a mixture of ambivalence and even disappointment. So where should we go from here? For full disclosure, we warn against the current “cancel culture.”

A core takeaway from our Torah (the Five Books of Moses) is that Judaism does not believe in saints, only in flesh-and-blood human beings striving to do the right thing, some even trying to do saintly things.

Simply put, there are no perfect specimens — no saints, but amazing heroes. They may be flawed, but they are heroes nonetheless. The Hebrew Bible goes to great pains to expose the flaws of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, their wives, and children. Even Moses — liberator, teacher and lawgiver — had his doubts, his anger, his familial failures on full display. From Sarah to Rebecca, to Joseph, to Kings David and Solomon, their narratives depict them — warts and all.

Indeed, it has been argued that the shortcomings of our heroes is what makes them and their achievements so accessible, from generation to generation.

It is perfectly correct to review and revise our opinions of past American heroes — from George Washington to Franklin Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Martin Luther King Jr., and Barack Obama. We do not serve them, or ourselves, well by making them out to have been more than human in their political lives.

But a word of advice and caution to those who would cancel all of yesteryear’s heroes. Be sure you aren’t removing something even more precious than old textbooks and weather-beaten statues. Do not cancel the very concept of memory. Without it, we have no collective future. There is an old Jewish saying: “In remembrance lies the roots of redemption; in forgetfulness, the roots of destruction.” 

In 2021, Americans must get back to the hard work of building a more perfect union by utilizing and learning from the past — past injustices, past mistakes and, yes, past heroes, flaws and all.  

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the associate dean and director of global social action for the Simon Wiesenthal Center

Dr. Harold Brackman is senior consultant for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance.

Tags anti-racism protests Barack Obama Cancel culture Dianne Feinstein

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