By David Seidemann
I was born in Columbus, Ohio. So were five of my siblings. My parents lived there for almost 42 years. Some of the fondest memories of my entire life were formed in that city.
Quiet at times, bustling at other times — your typical Midwestern city with the right blend of small-town values and some big-town opportunities. As capital of the great state of Ohio, it is home to the famed Ohio State University and great research and science centers. The mere mention of the name of the city has always flooded my mind with warmth as I am transported to my youth.
All of that might soon change. Many expressions about changing the past have surfaced. One such petition or movement is to change the name of my birthplace, Columbus, Ohio, to another name.
My hometown, named after Christopher Columbus, needs to be changed, according to some, because Mr. Columbus held views or practiced actions that are offensive to many. I don’t deny that; I do not know enough about his life and the times in which he lived to evaluate his actions and views in the context of what was occurring at the time. I am committed to researching the matter and finding out for myself, and perhaps it will lead me to the same conclusion — that is, that Columbus’s behavior was offensive to the point that he does not deserve to have statues, monuments, pictures, and, yes, entire cities, named after him.
Columbus is not the only subject of intense scrutiny. Roosevelt, Washington, Jefferson, and many of the personalities who formed our country are having their legacy reviewed in an effort to ascertain whether mention of their name is appropriate, whether they deserve recognition for what they did to build this country.
Statues and memorials are being torn down nationwide in this period of intense social reckoning. Some are being defaced and removed by lawless methods, some through a more legitimate and deliberate process.
To be sure, the voices that want to see what is perceived as tributes to villains removed cannot be dismissed out of hand. Can you imagine how incensed we would be if a city carried the name Hitler or if a statue of Hitler adorned a public square?
So I get it, and it does not hurt to take a second look at some of our historical figures and review their actions. Were they proper? Should they be viewed objectively and by today’s standards, or should they be viewed in context of the times in which they lived?
Are there some behaviors that are so abhorrent, that cause such pain to those alive today, that the names of the perpetrators warrant erasure? Or are we going too far in this newfound analysis? Is it possible to display a portrait of a man who did good for our country while he also held some views that are disturbing to particular groups?
Where does it end? Theoretically, every small group of people could band together and find something hurtful or offensive to any other person, group, movement, societal norm, or law.
We could deteriorate into an entirely nameless and faceless society, as every social interest group could demand the erasure from our past, present, and future of every person, place, or thing that gives them angst. I am not defending those persons whose legacies are now being examined, nor am I belittling the pain of racism, discrimination, victimization, and abuse that segments of the population felt and still feel generations later.
I do wonder, however, if, in the process of legitimate review, we are opening the floodgates of a concerted effort to rewrite history. Is it not possible to acknowledge the existence of a founding father and have his plaque contain an entire true history of his life — with all the good and all of the bad? Would that not serve this generation better?
We might not want a city named after Hitler, but to erase him from history is to remove the opportunity to educate the masses about his atrocities. So there really are two issues here. Is erasure from our history the best option when dealing with a figure whose actions range from less-than-stellar to downright offensive, or is a complete description of their behavior and mindset a more appropriate way to shape our history and educate the next generation? Secondly, are special-interest groups that are intent on dismantling our country taking advantage of this time period to rewrite history in a narrative that paints benign behavior as criminal?
Today there might be many who want to “edit” history. That’s O.K. It’s fine to add footnotes to the recorded history of Washington, Roosevelt, Jefferson, Lee, and even Columbus. But we cannot fall into the trap of rewriting history, of erasing history, of obliterating history at the hands of those whose intent in rewriting the past is to control the present and future of America.
David Seidemann is a partner with the law firm of Seidemann and Mermelstein and serves as a professor of business law at Touro College. He can be reached at 718-692-1013 or firstname.lastname@example.org.