I am deeply troubled by the recent call to rename Massey University, on the ground of racist utterances made by New Zealand Prime Minister William Massey a century ago.
There is not a single historical figure, of any race, nation, culture, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or political creed, who could possibly stand the test of absolute ideological purity by modern standards.
Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi both advocated forms of racial segregation and discrimination. Should their homelands therefore stop honouring them as national martyrs and liberators?
We have a statue of Gandhi at Wellington Railway Station. Quick, tear down the statue of the racist Gandhi.
As for names of New Zealand places or institutions, Abel Tasman, the Duke of Wellington, the Earl of Auckland, Viscount Palmerston, and Queen Victoria all held opinions that would today get them banished from polite society.
We must rename Wellington. Never mind his victory over France changed Europe for the better and secured peace for decades. He opposed Jewish emancipation so must be condemned.
If we must shun every great man or woman of the past whose views did not precisely match our own, the only solution is to declare a Cultural Revolution, a Year Zero, and simply wipe the slate clean.
But the Greeks and Romans understood the importance of showing respect to our ancestors, without being blind to their shortcomings.
Theseus, the legendary architect of the Athenian city-state, once kidnapped the future Helen of Troy, among other unsavoury exploits. The first act of Rome’s eponymous founder, Romulus, after erecting the city walls, was to kill his own brother Remus in a fit of rage.
To be fair Remus had it coming. He criticised Romulus’ wall.
Of course, there are limits to our duty of respect. No sane person today would revere the blood-soaked memory of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot. The Romans honoured their first king, Romulus, but not the last, Tarquin “the Proud”, whose tyrannical behaviour led to his overthrow and the establishment of the Roman Republic. Similarly, while Augustus’ merits far outweighed his crimes in Roman eyes, Romans abhorred the names of brutal tyrants like Caligula and Nero.
I see no evidence, however, that Prime Minister Massey was in fact such a monster. Rather, I see an effective leader of his country in war and peace, who expressed views about race that are now extremely offensive, but that were shared with most of his contemporaries.
There were indeed many aspects of our past that were neither “good” nor “beautiful”; I’m sure that our descendants will find just as many things to condemn in our own age. But we can never move forward as a nation by spitting on the legacy of the men and women (however imperfect) who helped to build it.