Sunday, April 25, 2021

We are allowed to take down any statue we want. We should start with Governor John R. Rogers



I am grateful for
the work Anna Schlect and Russel Lidman put into researching the Gov. John R. Rogers. I went on a Rogers reading kick last fall, and learned a lot about Washington's only third-party governor. The time he lived in and who he was are fascinating. But I am ashamed I never came across the anti-Semitic quote they did.

And I would like to join them in calling for the removal of the John R. Rogers statue from Sylvester Park. Governor Rogers' is best known for his support of the "Barefoot Schoolboy" bill that expanded education in Washington before Rogers himself became governor.

Schlect and Lidman point to other parts of his legacy we should consider:

As in the attached excerpts from Rogers’ book, “The Irrepressible Conflict or the American System of Money” (John R. Rogers & Company Publishers, Puyallup, 1892), he was unambiguously clear who he blamed for the woes of the U.S. economy: Jews.

To cite excerpts from this book, Rogers wrote, “Gold is shipped to Europe and the ability of our people to buy and sell or exchange labor and the products of our labor is to be still further reduced by making all money scarcer and harder to get. The excuse offered is “Europe wants our gold.’ And because Europe — or the Jewish Money Lords of the world — can thus interfere in American trade and take from the American laborer his opportunity to labor …”

I want to split my argument up into two short points and a much longer argument.

1. We don't have to go very far here, that Gov. Rogers was an anti-Semite disqualifies him from being the subject of a statue on our town square. It doesn't matter to me at all that because of our status as a state capital, that our town square also happens to be state property. He believed the Jewish people to be behind a world-wide financial conspiracy to hold down mankind. Whatever else Gov. Rogers did does not earn him a statue.

2. The statue was built in a moment of high political emotion in Washington. Gov. Rogers died quickly and while he was still in office. Have you ever heard the phrase, don't make decisions when you're angry? The same should go for statues. Don't build statues for people right after they die.

3. And yes, we absolutely can take into consideration someone's era to judge them today. To do that, we need a much better understanding of Rogers beyond one bill he helped pass before he was Governor.

But let's unpack this argument a little before we go too far. Oftentimes you'll hear people excuse slaveholder founding fathers. That their other non-slave-holding activities excused any actual slave holding that they did. I think we should consider the entire person. But we need to focus on the sins, not brush past them on our way to build or defend statues. 

In the case of the slaveholder, we need to focus on  our society once allowing human bondage. We always have ties to our past, and we need to explore those ties. For example, do you have less expensive insurance now because an insurance company in the 1800s was able to make a bank on the slave trade

History isn't wiped clean when we are born or when we moved to a place. History has inertia that carries us in our own lives. We need to recognize how that inertia delivered us to our current station and where it is taking us. So, slave holding or anti-Semitism are part of who we are now because our history contains them. We owe a fealty to our history and our neighbors. And because we're all trying to get better, we need to know where we came from. We need to use what power we have to redirect history towards equity.

It is ironic for this argument to be occurring around Rogers' legacy when it is clear where he would stand. One of Rogers' favorite quotes was Thomas Jefferson's: "The earth belongs in usufruct to the living; the dead have no right or power over it."

It is as if Rogers himself is telling us we don't owe him a statue. We owe ourselves a decent education of our community and where we're coming from, but a statue does not help that. A statue is an honor.

So, we need to know the entire Gov. John R. Rogers, not just the man in a statue who sent Barefoot Schoolboys to school. Gov. Rogers' life carries through a problematic era of our state's history that we can and should continue to draw lessons from. Most importantly, it shows how the striving for purity of political philosophy, against the actual needs of people at the moment, is actually evil.

Despite being remembered as a sort of big-government progressive, Rogers' actual political philosophy was "individualism," something like today's libertarianism. His political philosophy was shadowed by the accomplishment that we honor him for. Although he came to power as a member of the then ascendant Populist movement, he was a member of the right-wing of the Populist movement.

Rogers' right-wing populism falls within the bounds of populism because it emphasizes the anti-institutional, and pro-individual strain of populism. To be populist, you don't just need to bring up the many (as they argued), you need to bring down the few. Now you can also see that his anti-Semitism is not a weird outlier in his political beliefs.

Where we see strains of the Populist movement still in Washington politics are in the existence of port districts, which were meant to dilute the railroads control of the waterfront. We also still see it in our tendency towards open primaries, which dilute the power of political parties. We see it in the initiative and referendum processes, which dilute the power of the legislature. 

But, we also need to center Rogers into the Populist political movement, which included several efforts to forcefully remove residents of Chinese descent from our communities. Quaintly called "Chinese expulsions," riots in the 1880s and 1890s broke out in Washington cities, and force Chinese residents out of town.

There is definitely a connection between the Knights of Labor that attempted to drive all Chinese from Washington in the 1880s and the populists 10 years later. But the relationship I can best describe it is a "hands off" one. The Populists in Rogers' cadre drew on the same support that the Knights drew from, but did not stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them. By the time John R. Rogers led the populist ticket that united some Democrats, some Republicans and a lot of Progressives to take state government in 1896, the political inertia that started with the Chinese expulsions 10 years early was dissipating. 

This does not excuse Rogers, but it underlines how complicated the progressive movement was. It is worth noting that Roger was also a member of the Greenback Party when he lived in Kansas. That party had a strong "send the Chinese back to China" platform.

Local populists also had complicated relationships with American politics, some of them praising the former Confederacy. More broadly, many of the most prominent populists across the country of the era were in fact former Confederates.

This entire broader view of progressivism at the latter part of the 19th century, when put in context, helps explain Rogers. It also puts the era into the much deeper political context of the Oregon black exclusion laws and the racial battle lines in Southwest Washington during the Wobbly labor wars. That racial animus was contained by progressive economic arguments does excuse it.

But it also helps us look our own politics today. There are many places in our state that brush past our obvious issues with race. There are a lot of arguments we're having about economics and race that some arguers would like to remove race from entirely. By looking Rogers straight in the eyes, we can see our arguments more clearly. And also our path forward, hopefully.

This hopefully also brings forward a public conversation about who exactly we can honor with a statue if we have to take their historical context into consideration. Maybe no one, but I doubt that.

Rogers is only the lowest of hanging fruit in Olympia. We need to reconsider Washington on street signs and schools, Wilson on the street I grew up on, and Thurston for our entire county. But we can take care of Rogers' first. It'll be easy, it's just a statue.