By Fr. George W. Rutler
Fr. George W. Rutler is pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. He is the author of many books including Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press) and Hints of Heaven (Sophia Institute Press). His latest books are He Spoke To Us (Ignatius, 2016); The Stories of Hymns (EWTN Publishing, 2017); and Calm in Chaos (Ignatius, 2018).
Truths become truisms by being true. Shakespeare may have got some of his Aristotle through Ben Jonson; but, in any case, he has Polonius quoting the philosopher’s truism about night following the day.
This is a roundabout way of saying that certain untutored impulses are inevitable, and one of them now is the annually predictable petition by “virtue signalers” in New York City demanding the removal of the statue of Theodore Roosevelt in front of the Museum of National History.
That great museum is replete with engraved lines from his speeches, defiant of today’s political correctness—for instance, his address to the Boy Scouts in 1912, praising the strenuous life and stressing the importance of self-defense comingled with chivalry. This was not bravado, butwhen morality is elastic, tenacity of purpose is suspect.
The fuss about the statue predates the recent iconoclastic hysteria that has pulled down statues across the land. To a purely aesthetic eye, few could match for quality that of Nathan Bedford Forrest in Memphis, which was removed notwithstanding the fact that Forrest tried to disband the Ku Klux Klan (which he had led) because of its violence.
There remain over 50 buildings, parks, bridges, and monuments dedicated to Senator Robert Byrd: an Exalted Cyclops of the KKK who led the opposition to the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, which the Republicans were able to pass only through a final faltering of hostile Democrats. Virtue-signalers should cut Forrest the same slack they did for Byrd, but as virtue-signaling is the display of moral superiority by asserting a virtue without having to practice it, it provides no harbor for logic.
Moral hauteur can be highly arbitrary. For example, it was morally invigorating for Yale University to erase the name of John Calhoun, who defended slavery, even though a committee headed by John F. Kennedy in 1957 ranked Calhoun as one of history’s five greatest senators. But Yale keeps the name of its eponymous benefactor who made a fortune with the East India Company trafficking in slaves. Virtue-signalers in the #MeToo movement should also deplore the way Elihu Yale abused his wife by keeping, not one, but two mistresses.
There will always be contradictions if those of great accomplishment are expected to be flawless diamonds. To be consistent, the #MeToo movement should have something to say about the undisciplined priapism of the aforementioned John F. Kennedy and, if emboldened by honesty, Martin Luther King.
Nor should the virtue-signalers in the Black Lives Matter movement give a free pass to the 77% of Democratic whom voted against the 13th Amendment in 1865, and who unanimously opposed both the 14th Amendment overturning the Dred Scott decision, and the 15th amendment granting suffrage to black citizens.
Our academic institutions are glib when rationalizing the inconsistencies in their virtue signaling, as was Princeton University’s official explanation for why it would not remove memorials to Woodrow Wilson, who instituted Jim Crow in federal institutions and screened “Birth of a Nation” in the White House. “It is important to weigh Wilson’s racism, and how bad it was, with the contribution he made to the nation,” administrators explained
That generosity of spirit should also apply to the Theodore Roosevelt statue. As a work of art, it is a tour de force sculpted by James Earle Fraser and unveiled in 1940. His most famous works are the Indian head on the “buffalo nickel” and the poignant figure of an exhausted Plains Indian, “End of the Trail.”
Fraser had grown up in Minnesota, familiar with the local tribes and enamored of their culture. This is evident in the figure of a generic Plains Indian in the Roosevelt group—the epitome of noble dignity—just like the African American figure, the third of the group, classically handsome and powerful. The platitudinous objection now is that Roosevelt is the only one on a horse, loftier than the others as one would expect to be in saddle, and thus, according to detractors, posing as superior in race and culture.
Isolated from the conditions of earlier generations, it is hard to appreciate efforts of Roosevelt to make progress in racial matters. In 1901 he was the first president to invite an African American—his friend and advisor, Booker T. Washington—dine in the White House. He was widely rebuked for doing so, most violently by those outside the Republican party.
In 1929, when First Lady Lou Hoover invited to tea the wife of the only African American member of the House of Representatives—the Republican congressman Oscar de Priest—it occasioned a vicious poem by a man in Missouri, which Senator Hiram Bingham of Connecticut call “vicious, obscene doggerel.”
Roosevelt’s handling of the Brownsville Affair of in 1906 has been considered a low point in his race relations. He dishonorably discharging over a hundred black troops, but from a later remove, his insistence that his decision was free of racial prejudice, was not an exception to his characteristic honesty.
Living in the Dakota Badlands, and familiar with distorted tales of the Indian wars, Roosevelt had an unbecoming animus. “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians,” he once said, “but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”
But that was when he was twenty-eight. By the time of his bombastic second inaugural parade in 1905, he had five tribal chiefs as marshals of honor, along with Geronimo, who was a leader of the Bedonkohe band of Apaches. Geronimo had made a career of shooting Mexicans in retaliation after they killed his mother, wife, and three children, and extended his slaughter to unmitigated attacks on white people. He remained a prisoner of war head in custody at Fort Sill under benign conditions and was granted a temporary leave for the parade. His esteem for Roosevelt brought him to baptism in the president’s Dutch Reformed church, from which he was expelled four years later for gambling.
During Roosevelt’s glory days in the Spanish American War, his eclectic Rough Riders included Cherokees, Chicasaws, Choctaws, and Creeks. The charge up San Juan Hill was joined by two of the four “colored” Regular Army regiments: the 9th and 10th Cavalry, who were crucial to victory. But for the best of intentions, the president’s policy of assimilation based on the General Allotment Act of 1887 as a precedent, to the extent of requiring that tribesmen get western haircuts, was devastating for tribal culture
Roosevelt was a child of his time like everyone else, but he was one of the rarer types who also changes the times. He never shook off his early noblesse oblige, but natural virtue shaped his development.
It is unlikely that these considerations mattered to the anonymous virtue-signalers who defaced the Roosevelt statue at the museum two years ago under the cover of darkness. None would have qualified as Roosevelt’s heroic “man in the arena,” and he certainly would have disdained their used of fake blood. The inflated syntax of their press release said that their “counter-monumental gesture” was intended to do “symbolic damage to the values [the statue] represents: genocide, dispossession, displacement, enslavement, and state terror.”
Genocide came close to the one fault they overlooked in the man on the horse: eugenics. While Roosevelt thought that Darwin’s confidence in the inevitability of human progress was absurd because it was based on biology rather than virtue, he did join the faddish eugenics movement.
The young Winston Churchill did the same. Churchill’s mentor, the Irish-American congressman Bourke-Cochran took Winston to Albany in 1900 to meet the governor. No one had a greater influence on the formative Churchill, and he would quote Cochran in his 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech.
But the meeting was dismal and Roosevelt told Henry Cabot Lodge: ”He is not an attractive fellow.” In words that Winston might have thrown back at him, Teddy objected to his “levity, lack of sobriety lack of permanent principle, and an inordinate thirst for that cheap form of admiration which is given to notoriety.” Among their differences, Roosevelt supported women’s suffrage, which Churchill opposed. And he complained that Churchill did not rise when a lady entered a room.
As for moral inconsistency: in their selective obloquy, the virtue-signaling critics of the Roosevelt sculptural group did not object to Roosevelt’s flirtation with eugenics, which he never completely repudiated. Similarly, Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty, attended the first international Eugenics Conference 1912, along with Alexander Graham Bell, Charles Eliot of Harvard, and Sir Willam Osler, a founder of the Johns Hopkins Hospital and later Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford. The Conference’s president was Charles Darwin’s son, Major Leonard Darwin, who proposed “flying squads of scientists” to test for intelligence, in order to prevent the reproduction of the “feeble minded.”
For George Bernard Shaw, “The only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialization of the selective breed of man.” Bertrand Russell would require “procreation tickets” for those who wanted children. In 1915 even the deaf and blind Helen Keller disconcertingly embraced eugenics, arguing against life-saving medical procedures on infants with severe handicaps on the grounds that their lives were worthless and they would likely become criminals.
Chesterton’s pithy objections were ridiculed by the Anglican dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, William Inge, who called him an “irrational prophet.” Opposition from the Catholic Church was dismissed as beneath consideration.
The term “eugenics” had been coined by Darwin’s half-cousin, Sir Francis Galton, meaning “good genes”—and, in fact, the criteria for superiority had more to do with social class than intelligence. While many like Churchill demurred from sterilization, distinguished ranks did not: Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Harold Laski and John Maynard Keynes were all pro. By 1927, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes would famously opine on forced sterilization in Buck v. Bell: ‘Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” In a vote of 8-1, the sole dissenter was Justice Pierce Butler, a Catholic.
Alexis Carrell often is extravagantly heralded as the model of a Catholic scientist because, having lapsed from the Faith in early years, in Lourdes he witnessed and acknowledged as miraculous the cures of a woman with tubercular peritonitis, and an 18-month-old blind boy. In the year of the first Eugenics Conference, he received a Nobel Prize in medicine for his work on vascular anastomosis.
However, he was not received formally back into the Church until 1942 by a Trappist monk, Alexis Presse. Meanwhile, he embraced eugenics, and recommended gassing “undesirables.” He invented the first perfusion pump in collaboration with the proponent of Nazi racialism, Charles Lindbergh. A collaborator with the Vichy Regime and head of Petain’s “French Foundation for the Study of Human Problems,” he was placed under house arrest after the war. Only Father Presse, who gave him the Last Rites as he died before standing trial, may know if he recanted.
Then there was the other Nobel laureate, Francis Crick, discoverer of DNA, who wrote after the war: “The main difficulty is that people have to start thinking out eugenics in a different way. The Nazis gave it a bad name and I think it is time something was done to make it respectable again.” He died 18 years after Margaret Sanger, whose bust in the Smithsonian Institution and statue in Boston’s Old South Meeting House are unscathed, but lack her line: “A marriage license shall in itself give husband and wife only the right to a common household and not the right to parenthood.”
These architects of the Culture of Death have memorials far and wide. Virtue signalers who want real targets, need not waste artificial blood defacing James Earle Fraser’s statuary group. If they consider themselves beacons of virtue, they should first learn what virtue is.