Erasing History: The 2017 Version

“In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on to the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old Town Square. That was the great turning point in the history of Bohemia. A fateful moment.

“Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing close by him. It was snowing and cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald’s head.

“The propaganda section made hundreds of thousands of copies of the photograph taken on the balcony where Gottwald, in a fur hat and surrounded by his comrades, spoke to the people. On that balcony the history of Communist Bohemia began. Every child knew that photograph, from seeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums.

“Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history, and of course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on that balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall. Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald’s head.”

                                                  —Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgettingch. 1

“Prominent dissident Liu Xiaobo, the only Chinese citizen to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize while still residing in China, has died at age 61. Liu died Thursday while on medical parole in northeastern China’s Shenyang city, where he was being treated for liver cancer. He was serving an 11-year prison sentence for trying to overthrow the government. . . .

“In a document written on the day of his trial titled ‘I Have No Enemies: My Final Statement,’ Liu said, ‘I hope that I will be the last victim of China’s endless literary inquisitions and that from now on, no one will be incriminated because of speech.’

“In the same document — which also served as his Nobel Peace Prize lecture a year later, read in his absence by Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann — he brimmed with confidence that the rule of law and human rights would someday prevail in China. ‘There is no force that can put an end to the human quest for freedom,’ he wrote, ‘and China will in the end become a nation ruled by law, where human rights reign supreme.’

“For now, Liu Xiaobo remains largely unknown in his own country, and his name has been erased from the country’s Chinese-language media and Internet.”

                                                                                                —Anthony Kuhn, NPR, July 13, 2017

“In a move that sparked the ire of Chinese activists, authorities apparently ensured that [Liu’s] ashes were buried at sea and not on Chinese soil. Acclaimed artist Ai Weiwei, who lives in Germany, said the move was aimed at denying Liu’s supporters ‘a physical memorial site’ and that it ‘showed [how] brutal society can be.’

“‘It is a play,’ said Ai. ‘Sad but real.'”

                                                                —Ishaan Tharoor, The Washington Post, July 21, 2017

I am a Social-Security-card-carrying member of the Baby Boomer generation, which came of age during the chilliest years of the Cold War. I was born in small-town America in 1953; in that place and at that time, the Communist threat was part of the Zeitgeist. In Sunday school, we learned to fear an insidious Soviet influence from the parable of the boiling frog. In school, we learned to fear nuclear attacks from duck-and-cover drills. Even in the park on quiet summer evenings, we learned to fear a Russian victory in the space race from watching Sputnik crossing the night sky.

One of the more subtle and enduring lessons we learned in that strange crucible was that history must not be altered to suit the whims of those in power. Our teachers told us in elementary school that the Communists falsified their own history books and the events reported on the nightly news. Therefore, when we entered high school and became old enough to read  1984, we understood instinctively the chilling evils that ensue when truth is malleable and history is only a tool of propagandists.

Of course, we had our own Ministry of Truth. Our bedtime stories and history lessons deified Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator but viewed the South through the lenses of Margaret Mitchell and Joel Chandler Harris;  glorified the American expansion from sea to shining sea but minimized the slaughter of native peoples who got in the way; vilified those who operated the crematoria at Auschwitz but lionized those who incinerated the ordinary citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

By the time I came of age, however, that belief in American infallibility was changing. Klansmen were killing little girls at Sunday school in Alabama, National Guardsmen were killing unarmed students at Kent State, and classmates were killing babies in Vietnam. We began to reëvaluate the history we had been taught because of the news we saw for ourselves on the television screens in living rooms across America.

Significantly, though, we had the means for that revision only because the records had been preserved. Documents had not been burned, and photographs had not been altered. Scholars began combing through slave narratives and judicial proceedings, recording oral histories and prison music, documenting native-American massacres and Japanese-American interment.

By the time I was at university under the tutelage of John V. Mering, I learned the most valuable lesson of all–that history is interpretation and that the most valuable history is therefore historiography. From Dr. Mering, I learned the importance of locating as much information as possible, listening to all sides of the debate, being aware of one’s biases, and evaluating the data as objectively as possible–realizing that a thesis must be supported with evidence. He never gave multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank tests, but his daily quizzes and memorable final exams required that we provide ample factual data to support our answers to the exam questions that aways required us to take a stand. And I have used those lessons in a 25-year career of teaching college freshmen how to write persuasive essays.

This congeries of contradictions sums up my education in the process of critical thinking. I have learned in this convoluted process that an incontestable construct known as history is not only a pipe dream, but an impossibility. We can never know all the facts, and we can never be free of the lens of subjectivity through which we filter all experience. Our duty to capital-T Truth, then, is to fumble as we must towards it with open eyes and receptive hearts. And our concomitant duty to capital-H History is to shine a light on every piece if information we can find–no matter how inconvenient or painful or reprehensible.

These sacred duties precipitate my newest fear about the direction of our shared history. No, I am not referring to the ludicrous controversies over “alternative facts” and “fake news”; neither mis- nor disinformation breathes long in a free marketplace of ideas. Rather, what is chilling to me is the efforts of my own ideological bedmates to alter the history of the United States by renaming buildings and toppling statues and banning books. We are still horrified by the efforts to rewrite history commemorated by Kundera; first-time readers of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting might mistake its opening for fictional license. We rail against the Isis militants who destroyed a 900-year-old mosque in Mosul, Iraq.  And we still find it noteworthy that the Chinese have erased the name of a dissident from the media and the Internet.

Removal of Robert E. Lee statue in New Orleans AP Photo/Scott Threlkeld, May 19, 2017

But now we have decided to erase our own history. I saw my first defaced statues when I visited New Orleans in 1977, when we still had he grace to attribute such acts to the mentality of the mob. In 2017, it is the cool heads of city hall who oversee the removal of those same statues–often under the cover of night.

Renaming Saunders Hall
Harry Lynch, “The [Raleigh] News and Observer,” August 13, 2015

My own alma mater, bastion of resistance to the 1963 North Carolina Speaker Ban Law, has replaced the name of a campus building because the eponymous William L. Saunders, class of 1854, “a man acknowledged as a leader of his time–a Civil War colonel, longtime UNC trustee and a North Carolina historian of the highest order,” was also a reputed leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

Yale has replaced the name of proslavery orator, Senator, and Vice President John C. Calhoun on one of its residence halls–but not, significantly, the name of slave trader Elihu Yale on its letterhead. The school system in Palo Alto, California, has decided to rename two middle schools because Stanford founding president David Starr Jordan and pioneering educational psychologist Lewis Terman were leaders in the eugenics movement.

Fortunately, reason has prevailed in a few of these controversial efforts to erase the past. Princeton decided not to remove the name of its most famous alumnus, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and president of the university and the United States, Woodrow Wilson, from campus buildings, deciding instead to use the opportunity to redouble its “commitment to diversity and inclusion.” Similarly, Richmond, Virginia, has decided that rather than demolishing the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue, the city will provide information as context and “recast . . .  Monument Avenue in the public eye not as a corridor of honor but as an outdoor hall of history.”

The history of the United States is replete with dishonor, and her garlanded heroes all have feet of clay. Their most glaring offenses relate to the topics of race in general and slavery in particular. Twelve Presidents owned slaves, eight while in office. One of those, the author of the Declaration of Independence, owned 200 of them and freed two–his own progeny–in his will. Another proposed the Three-Fifths Compromise (article 1, section 2, clause 3 of the Constitution), which counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of taxation and representation. Still another enshrined American imperialism in the Monroe Compromise and gave his name to the capital of Liberia, where the American Colonization Society sent more than 13,000 free-born American blacks and freed slaves between 1821 and 1867.

The Great Emancipator, though not a slaveholder himself, was a Kentucky-born Southerner whose “embarrassing contradictions” on slavery and race are well documented in Richard Hofstadter‘s American Political Tradition: “In northern Illinois he spoke in one vein before abolition-minded audiences, but farther south, where settlers of Southern extraction were dominant, he spoke in another.” Hofstadter then juxtaposes two of Lincoln’s speeches, a little over two months apart:

Chicago, July 10, 1858:
Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man, about this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore must be placed in an inferior position. Lest us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.

Charleston, [Illinois,] September 18, 1858:
I am not, nor have ever been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races; . . . I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people. . . . And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there most be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. (149-150)

I will wager that most of those on the front lines of today’s misguided effort to purify American history with sledgehammers would be surprised to learn of Lincoln’s equivocations. They might be willing to spray-paint hate-mongering slogans on the memorial dedicated to their one-time hero; they might even advocate removal of that memorial, along with two others in the nation’s capital dedicated to the memory of evil slaveholding Presidents.

But erasing the past, even in favor of the marginalized and the oppressed, is never a solution. Toppling statues and renaming buildings, altering photographs and rewriting history: Wherever and whenever they occur, all represent the same tyranny that members of a free society must oppose.

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