OPINION: History is complicated. We shouldn’t reduce it to binary terms.

It’s a complicated reality of life that unwelcome aspects of an issue often come hand in hand with welcome ones.

Across the country this spring, administrators and faculty at colleges and universities are forcefully imploring, “Enough is enough!” After students at Stanford Law School in March persistently heckled a Trump-appointed judge who had come to speak, Dean Jenny Martinez apologized to the judge for her students’ lack of consideration for the judge and their lack of understanding of the concept of academic freedom.

At Cornell in March a student resolution insisted that faculty include in syllabi a trigger warning for any course content that might be traumatic for some students. Cornell’s President Martha Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikoff immediately struck down the resolution, saying it would infringe on the academic freedom and freedom of inquiry which lie at the core of education.

Administrators at Harvard, Penn State and a host of other universities have issued similar rejections of “woke” resolutions and actions in recent months.

Often enough such situations come down to weighing the benefit against the disadvantage. Which is worse: Some people being offended or other people being enlightened?

We have a related situation here in Alaska. The Juneau city manager and city government, responding to an impromptu public meeting called by Rosita Worl of Sealaska Heritage Foundation, have said they will submit to public process and a vote by the Juneau Assembly a proposition to change the name of Seward Street in Juneau to Heritage Way. The change, Worl and city manager Rorie Watt say, is because Seward pursued manifest destiny, which involved the theft of Indigenous lands, and because he was a white supremacist. These are wholly inconsistent with the rights, dignity and resilience of the Tlingit and Haida people, they say, and for that matter, all of America’s Indigenous citizens.

Worl and Watt are right: Manifest destiny was a destructive force of racial nationalism and settler colonialism. The notion that it was the destiny of the United States to spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and that such destiny was manifest in the inexorable westward spread of predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon citizens and European immigrants, rested on the assumption that the Indigenous people in the way of that spread either would assimilate or would die out, and that the Hispanic people, Mexican residents, were unassimilable. The journalist John O’Sullivan, who coined the term in 1845, proclaimed that the “empire of liberty” being established by migrating settlers was “entirely based on the great principle of human equality.” But like the equality and freedom proclaimed by Southern slaveowners to be the bedrock of the American nation, it was equality and freedom only for some.


But there is another side to the story of manifest destiny. From the beginning, American culture embodied the tenets of classical liberalism: individualism, freedom, equality, democracy and capitalism. These values spread west with American expansion. From the beginning they have freed countless human beings from a stifling ignorance and oppression in which cultures of the world had been steeped for millennia. And the spread of American culture brought not just freedom of expression and mobility, but the prosperity, innovation and creativity generated by economic freedom and independence. These are rightly a model for and envy of people across the planet. America is the bastion of and defender of those values.

As with the rejection of college trigger warnings, although the costs of manifest destiny were devastating, its positive benefits outweigh the alternative possibilities.

In addition, historians warn against imposing on generations of the past our values in the present, which those previous generations would not have held or understood. The evolution of culture has brought us to understand the past in ways those who lived it did not, could not. Most historians today write within a post-colonial context, acknowledging the injustices of the past and helping to point the way to a more just present. Such is the case with manifest destiny.

What the people of Juneau choose to do with Seward Street is their business. But any suggestion to go beyond that has implications for the rest of Alaska. Renaming the town of Seward, or the Seward Peninsula, is not something that should be considered, both because Seward acted in the context of his own time, not ours, and because both have rich histories under his name. Moreover, the two Seward statues in Alaska should not be molested, for the same reason.

Reality is not simple; it is, inevitably, complicated. Rather than try to erase history, the better course is to accept that bad often comes with the good. Understanding and accepting — that is how we learn to do better.

Steve Haycox is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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Steve Haycox

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.