Moral Tests

This is a letter to Bishop Jackson and a group by the name of Ministers Taking a Stand, written by the director of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Kim Sajet, regarding their request that a bust of Margret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, be removed from the Struggle for Justice gallery because of Sanger’s involvement in the eugenics movement and her racist motivations for that involvement.

The letter is not long, but allow me to quote the portions that contain the argument used to defend the Smithsonian’s polite refusal to remove the bust as requested: 

Her [Sanger’s] association with the eugenics movement shadowed her achievements in sex education and contraception, making her a figure of controversy, one whose complexities and contradictions mirror her times.

There is no “moral test” for people to be accepted into the National Portrait Gallery. Instead, we try to draw attention to those who have made a significant impact on American history and culture, and that includes both the accomplished and reprehensible. We recognize Sanger’s advocacy on behalf of women’s health and education whilst acknowledging her sometimes deplorable beliefs.

The most admirable aspects of American culture are that we attempt to acknowledge past mistakes, engage in open and civilized discourse, and set a path towards a better future. Removing those people from the Portrait Gallery who have been less than perfect would deprive future generations of valuable lessons concerning personal ambition and achievement on one hand, and human imperfection and fallibility on the other.

For those wondering, this is a picture of the Smithsonian’s bust of Sanger:

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WAIT! Oooops! Please disregard that picture. It seems that I downloaded the wrong image. How embarrassing!

There she is, the correct image. She was nothing like those other guys. The memorial to those nasty rednecks certainly does not offer a complex message “concerning personal ambition and achievement on one hand, and human imperfection and fallibility on the other.” Nope. Just straight hate. Completely unlike dear ol’ Margaret.

[Sarcasm disengaged]

In a way, I actually appreciate the Smithsonian’s stance on images not being removed just because they’re controversial, erasing history because it’s ugly and uncomfortable to think about. On the other hand, I do not feel very safe around the Smithsonian’s standard (or perhaps, lacking standard) of, “we try to draw attention to those who have made a significant impact on American history and culture, and that includes both the accomplished and reprehensible.” It seems, then, that a gallery for which “there is no ‘moral test'” would have no issue with the addition of —

[Godwin’s Law engaged]

— I don’t know, maybe a Hitler bust. As one commentor on an article regarding this same subject pointed out:

He gave us the V2 (although some would have an issue with the method at first) that led us to the moon program…..
He helped the country get out of the great depression by creating a need for massive government spending…..

…… which led us to the greatest post-war economic boom and tax rates of up to 90%.

It could be argued whether the tax rates were a plus or not, but the point stands. The Smithsonian claims no moral test, but that simply cannot be true. Otherwise, we would need to usher in a celebratory bust of Qin Shi Huang for the way that his complex history as both a merciless, murderous ruler and a national reformer contributes to the history books educating our American students. We would need to erect a monument to Kermit Gosnell, who, though we disagree with his methods and standards of practice, was only offering a service in the name of women’s healthcare, that great cause that earned Margaret her honorary bust. If it were true that no “moral test” is used, I would feel even more unnerved than I do now about the fact that the woman who started an organization that cuts with scissors through the faces of born-alive infants (infant: from the Latin for “not able to speak” — a quality we are abusing) in order to harvest their brains for sale has a bust in honor of her Struggle for Justice. But seeing that there is a moral test being made, however subtle it may be made, I am comforted slightly. Most of it is due to the fact that the teams are a little easier to identify for it.

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