We must not cancel the past

I am white. I have never known prejudice based on skin colour. I have had the odd moment where I was looked down on because of where I came from. I still recall in bemused detail the occasion I was in the company of people who regarded themselves as being ‘posh’ and whose noses distinctly wrinkled with distaste when they realised I was a northside, inner-city boy and not from the leafy wealthy suburbs of south Dublin where they came from. But racism, no… I’ve never had to fight that horrible battle, thankfully.

Racism is a terrible thing. We should be rated by our actions and how we treat others, not on the colour of our skin. Racist behaviour should be called out, as should those who support it. But nothing – if you’ll pardon the expression – is ever really that black and white.

This is a blog about history, so it has pained me to see history being destroyed, as has been happening lately with the destruction of certain statues in various parts of the world.

History is the bedrock of who we are – warts and all. It’s an indicator of both our progression and regression as decent human beings, so to delete that history is to lose a sense of what we once were and what we have since become.

You don’t have to agree with what happened in the past, but it should be acknowledged, not erased. Those statues need not be torn down, they could be placed in museums, or given new plaques to put the life of the person being remembered into a broader context.

If we disagree with statues to those whose policies we find repugnant, do we then remove all art that refers to the era in which those people lived? Do we tear up the work of great artists whose paintings we may love but whose politics we disagree with?

Are all books to be burned that were written by people who may once have made derogatory comments about members of society or who supported organisations that were active in denigrating certain social strata? Do we ignore the positive or thoughtful messages that are also contained in the works of such authors? Where is the line to be drawn?

Who among us is perfect? We are all mosaics – our characters are shaped by a wide variety of experiences and emotions that we have encountered throughout our lives. Because we are always encountering new experiences – both positive and negative – our characters can change; it’s what makes us so fascinating… that most of us continue to evolve intellectually and emotionally.

However, those who wish to cancel history due to perceived slights ignore this fundamental aspect of human nature… that people can change, that opinions once held can be discarded and replaced by newer (more tolerant) viewpoints.

Black Afrika Korps soldier

A member of Hitler’s Free Arab Legion

Who among us can support slavery? Not me, nor the destroyers of statues, it seems. But if we are to destroy the statues of all those who once supported slavery, are we also to destroy references to Native American tribes, because they, too, practiced slavery. The Iroquois, the Creek, the Pawnee, the Comanche were just some of the tribes that enslaved their captives. Granted, these were not treated in the same manner as Europeans treated African slaves but it was slavery nonetheless.

I am not an apologist for the despicable regime that was Nazi Germany, but do we disown everyone who once, for a brief time, was connected to it?

If the answer is a resounding Yes, then we must also ‘cancel’ the history of all those black troops who fought for Hitler – the men who served in his Phalange Afrique Legion in his North Africa campaign in World War II, or the Free Arab Legion, which formed part of the force that occupied Greece and which fought partisans in Yugoslavia.

Mahatma Gandhi

Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi

Martin Luther King is rightly seen as a pillar of the liberation movement. Should Dr King’s great work be ignored because of his alleged penchant for extramarital affairs?

Should Mahatma Gandhi, the architect of non-violent protest, be cancelled from history because he used the term ‘kaffirs (a derogatory term for black people) when he worked as a lawyer in South Africa?

The point is people are nuanced creatures, with some aspects of our lives or personalities that can often prove disappointing. Unfortunately, nuance is the last thing to be considered by those who wish to cancel our past. The thing is, though, you can’t paint history in broad brushstrokes; it needs to be looked at critically and with care, no matter how unsettling that past may be.

A friend posted this on Facebook recently in reference to the destruction of statues…

“Every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered…History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.” – 1984, George Orwell

It seems that it’s not Big Brother that we should fear, but those who shout the loudest, those who are so confident in their righteousness that they close their ears to any opinion that is not in accordance with their own, no matter how subtle the difference.

Personalities and events from the past can illuminate the present and help us prepare for the future. Cancelling the past, therefore, can blind us to the pitfalls that may be repeated by later generations.

History should be picked at and challenged, but it must be protected, too, because it’s fragile. Erasing it completely only creates a vacuum. What’s needed is discussion and more research to reveal forgotten facts and stories that will further illuminate what has gone before.

Debate, not destruction, will enlighten us all.

About historywithatwist

I am a journalist, author and book editor. I have published five novels - four (Tan, The Golden Grave, A Time of Traitors and Patriots' Blood) set during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and the fifth (High Crimes), a modern thriller. I'm a history enthusiast who loves a good yarn.
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29 Responses to We must not cancel the past

  1. Cathrine Cornish says:

    Well said. We can only move forward by learning about the past

    On Mon, 29 Jun 2020 at 9:34 am, historywithatwist wrote:

    > historywithatwist posted: “I am white. I have never known prejudice based > on skin colour. I have had the odd moment where I was looked down on > because of where I came from. I still recall in bemused detail the occasion > I was in the company of people who regarded themselves as being” >

  2. I agree wholeheartedly. I imagine it is satisfying for you on many levels to have articulated this sentiment so thoroughly. And that’s just the key, isn’t it? I watch this out-of-hand destruction in America and barely know where to start! Irreverence bothers me. Disrespect comes to mind, but basically I am disillusioned that humanity can stoop so low. I mean, seriously, people have to be told you don’t go there? You’ve said this all beautifully, David, and be it known the subject will not be exhausted any time soon. I’d love your continued thoughts.

    • I think we’re all a bit disillusioned, Claire – those of us who watch the destruction and those who believe it’s the only response they can make in a society that they feel isn’t listening.
      I don’t think to tear a statue down will ultimately right any wrong, but then I’m speaking from what is termed ‘white privilege’ (how I hate that term, it’s so ‘right-on’ and ‘PC’ and is itself a pathetic Band-Aid for something that goes beyond race.
      There’s anarchy in the air, brought about by a volatile mix of race, economic conditions, a loss of identity (personal and national), confusion, general anger… the list goes on. BLM is the tip of a very long spear that people want to thrust into the diseased heart of… of… government and society.

      • Yes, “white privilege” is an assigned term, which is rather shaming and in no way makes it accurate. And, of course, we can’t discount the political motivation behind all this, as it is an election year, so this point in time operates on multiple levels.

  3. Such wise insight. So eloquently said.

  4. Patrick Brehon says:

    Politics is Power.
    Erasing History is Year Zero, this is nothing new.
    They are destroying the past as prelude to destroying the present – and genociding non elite whites.
    The power of Jacobinism, the power of Communism is exactly to destroy.
    Destroying all is Communism’s core product and service offering, the Communists or Jacobins who flinch end up like Danton or any number of Russians.
    As to your skin, that’s not the issue.
    Power is, and this is merely an excuse.
    Most of the protestors are White, 85% of the rioters are, and nearly always rich.

    This isn’t the IRA, these aren’t people who will make a deal.
    They actually can’t, they can’t show weakness to their side.
    You’re not looking at discrimination or racism, you’re looking at really what the Irish saw in Cromwell’s troopers when he sent them to Ireland. Genocidal Puritans, mind you this bunch has thrown down Jesus so it may be worse.

    In truth this is yet another episode of The English Civil War, part 2 was the last Civil War [Northeastern Puritans vs Southern Anglicans and Presbyterians]. Be happy there’s an ocean between you and us.

    • I do agree that there is more than race at play here. Perhaps power is at the core… For some time I’ve had an uneasy feeling about undercurrents in US politics… all those milita groups with their heavy weaponry. We’re heading towards some kind of reckoning. Who’s behind it all, I don’t know, but it is certainly unsettling. I don’t think the level it’s at in the US will mainfest itself on this side of the water to that same degree, thankfully.

  5. I don’t tend to think of a statue as history, though… more of a perspective of history at the time it was erected (something typically lost over time, and whose motivation is often intentionally buried — like the Confederate statues in the U.S., erected long after the Civil War by those of The South Will Rise Again mode — where they cease to define history and instead become those infamous dog whistles). I question the need for statues in general, simply because like cave paintings, they once served an illustrative purpose, and now do not even prompt questions or pondering…We need to rethink how we memorialize things in general. But if today’s newer generations (of the self-proclaimed short term attention spans) are not wont to look up historical references, let alone pause to read a plaque, perhaps we need to find another way of prompting discussion.

    I agree with you that we should not erase history. How we got here to this moment is always important and relevant in particular if we don’t want to repeat our mistakes… I just think there is a better way to do it — one where honesty is not served too simply on the apex of a statue, the edge of a rioter’s stone or a police baton. We all have things to be proud of. How we handle this moment will define whether we are entitled to our individual AND collective pride in the future…

    • I agree, KC, about the dog-whistle of the Confederate generals’ statues that have only relatively recently been erected. Maybe it would be an idea to have a term of time designated for the instalation of statues (10 years in situ after which a vote is taken for it to be removed and placed elsewhere). I like the permanence of monuments – just look at ancient ROme and Egypt, where monuments have given us many insights into lives once lived. True, they probably have distorted certain aspects of history, but without them we would not have had a dialogue in the first place.

  6. M.K. Tod says:

    Thank you for sharing your perspective, David. A thoughtful look at the role/purpose of history. I read a profound opinion piece in Sunday’s New York Times by Caroline Randall Williams, titled My Body is a Confederate Monument. Williams opens with “I have rape-colored skin. My light-brown-blackness is a living testament to the rules, the practices, the causes of the Old South.” My heart filled with sadness and a new understanding of life lived as a person of colour. I vowed to do better in my own little way.

  7. I am envious of this essay, Dave. It is thoughtful, timely, and truthful. It expresses almost exactly the way I feel about this subject, but is written better than I ever could have. Bravo!

  8. endardoo says:

    An interesting one, Dave … but I’m not sure we’re comparing like with like, when you ask if we take down statues of controversial people, should we not also tear up every book, trash every work of art by those with dubious pedigrees, taking in the context of the times, It’s one thing to paint a picture, it’s quite another for your effigy to be placed on a plinth in a public place venerating you if you are a known racist, or have been responsible for attrocities …

    • This is why David is such a great writer. He intuited there would be those to suggest this by including the following in his post: “Martin Luther King is rightly seen as a pillar of the liberation movement. Should Dr King’s great work be ignored because of his alleged penchant for extramarital affairs?

      Should Mahatma Gandhi, the architect of non-violent protest, be cancelled from history because he used the term ‘kaffirs (a derogatory term for black people) when he worked as a lawyer in South Africa?

      The point is people are nuanced creatures, with some aspects of our lives or personalities that can often prove disappointing. Unfortunately, nuance is the last thing to be considered by those who wish to cancel our past.”

      • endardoo says:

        Sorry Claire, but I would not equate extra-marital affairs with full blown racist, pillager, or other heinous crimes, even considering context and time … not quite of the same order … and Gandhi’s ‘racism’ is somewhat down the scale. I am not blind to David’s point, and know how well he writes, and how even-handed he is, but I do not like the idea of statues remaining on in public places just because they were always there. I would not want mobs to remove these statues, but rather that the state would when their time has passed. Nuanced enough for you?

      • I think the idea of removing statues after a fixed amount of time and then replacing them with some other type might be a way around it, and may keep everyone happy

      • endardoo says:

        It’s a tricky one, one course, Dave, … but I would have to agree. I think it should be an official thing … I’m uneasy about mobs removing them … but should be reviewed every so often

      • No need to say you’re sorry. And nuanced enough for me? Yes, I believe so.

      • endardoo says:

        Hi Claire. A tricky one!

  9. The truth that is history is inconvenient for many, but defacing memorials and toppling statues by undisciplined mobs, changing logos on commercial items, and banning books and films will not change events that have already taken place. There are those that are trying to rewrite and remove history, but they are on a fool’s errand, as history is part of all our lives whether we approve of it or not, and cannot be undone. Better to let these edifices stand in order to remind ourselves that, in today’s world, we can do better than we did in yesterday’s.

  10. Widdershins says:

    That quote from 1984 is truly terrifying.

  11. melissaamateis says:

    I left this comment on Mary’s FB post, but I’ll leave it here, as well. I disagree with you.

    David, I think you’re missing the very real reason for why these Confederate statues were put up in the first place. (I’m going to focus on those as they are the ones most in the news right now). They were put up at least 20 years AFTER the Civil War with the latest one being put up in 1970. Do you know why? Because they were to put black people in their place and show them that white supremacy was still the order of the day. After the Civil War and in the 1890s and beyond, black people were starting to make gains, though small, in obtaining civil rights and some vestige of being American citizens. This, of course, was not to be permitted by many Southerners, which is why they erected these statues. Please remember that the Confederate states were committing TREASON by seceding from the US. They wanted to keep black people enslaved – indeed, that is the main reason they went to war. Statues are erected mostly to honor people, correct? Why do we need to honor people who committed treason against the US? Who fought to keep black people enslaved? Largely because of the Lost Cause narrative which sought to rewrite the reasons for the South leaving the Union and fighting to keep black people enslaved. Now, imagine that you are a black person living in Nashville, Tennessee. You decide to go to the state capitol building. What greets you there? A bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the man who not only was a Confederate general, but who founded the KU KLUX KLAN. How would you, as a black person, feel to see that bust in YOUR STATE CAPITOL BUILDING? What does that bust represent? NOW do you see the issue? By taking down these statues – and yes, I think we could do it in an easier way than having a bunch of people decide to tear them down, though the American colonists also did this with a statue of King George III before the American Revolution – we are removing symbols of white supremacy. We are NOT erasing history. As a historian, I know very well you are not erasing history by removing statues OR destroying it. Do you see Nazi flags flying in Germany? Or busts of Adolf Hitler or statues of Adolf Hitler? Have we forgotten or destroyed that horrible history? No. It’s the same here in the US with these Confederate statues. They have no place in public.

    • Hi Melissa, I agree completely with what you say about the statues of Confederate generals – in a great many cases they are dog-whistles  to white supremacy. But the whole statues thing has expanded – honouring America’s founding fathers is also being called into question; statues of Washington are being vandalised. In Britain, statues of men who earned their fortunes through slavery are being pulled down. As I mentioned in my article, even Gandhi is being castigated and trampled upon for comments he made that were derogatory to black people.
      I have no problem in removing statues and placing them elsewhere (a museum perhaps), or in allowing a statue to stay in situ for a given amount of time before it is then replaced and moved elsewhere, or even in including a more detailed plaque that would sit beside a statue and elaborate further on the life of the person being remembered.What’s wrong is the erasing of these lives from history. You may say that a statue cannot stop the past from being remembered. I disagree. I look back to ancient Rome, Mexico and Egypt and I see statues and temples that honour people we still know little about. The point is though, that the discovery of those statues prompted further research, further dialogue to learn about what has gone before. Without those statues and busts from ancient Egypt, Rome. Mexico etc archaeologists would not have been as prompted as they are to research those people and their societies.I think statues are a useful tool to encourage us to be more inquisitive about our past. By all means move some of them elsewhere if they are offensive, but don’t erase them entirely – we lose so much of our historical context if that is the case. The same goes for the likes of Washington, Jefferson and any other person who profited from slavery (as I pointed out, some Native American tribes were also slavers, so should we lambast them, too?) – don’t cancel them from our history books or overlook their achievements because they profited from the misery of others. That misery is a terrible thing, but those slavers also shaped history in a fundamental and positive way, as hard as that may be to accept.  None of us are perfect, not even the heroes of the American Revolution. Their failings should be highlighted but their successes should also be celebrated or remembered.
      As I mentioned in my blog, it’s not as simple as black and white… life never is.

  12. Simon says:

    I also disagree, although I think you were trying to make a good point. First, neither Martin Luther King’s affairs or Gandhi’s slang are relevant to their ultimate life work. Neither oppressed anyone. Neither were responsible for innocent life being taken.

    The attacks on statues are not erasing history. I could wish that some of them were sent to museums, but some of them should never have been created at all. A statue of Leopold of Belgium is public recognition for a man with the blood of millions directly on his hands. Confederate generals and soldiers, no matter well intentioned, killed citizens of the United States. They fought to preserve human slavery as an institution less than forty years before my grandfather was born, so this is not a statue of Rameses II we are discussing. This is honor being paid to men who tried to destroy the United States over the preservation of a moral evil.

    I suspect there are few statues of Oliver Cromwell on public display in the Irish Republic. There are no publicly exhibited statues of the Nazi leadership in Germany. Eastern Europeans trashed images of Lenin, Stalin and the like as soon as it was possible to do so. A society chooses those whom it honors by statuary. It may be that we have outgrown the need for it, but if we are going to do it, then we need to make sure we know who we honor deserve it. In this country, statues were erected almost exclusively to white men throughout our history. In the South, where I live, most of the Confederate white men so honored had the statues erected as part of an attempt to rewrite actual history — the so called “Lost Cause” nonsense. And while they stand in front of our courthouses or on our avenues, our fellow black citizens are forced to confront the images of those who sought to enslave them in perpetuity.

    If the art is deemed good, museums. If not . . . slag heap. We will be reclaiming historical truth.

    • Thanks for commenting, Simon. As I said at the start of my reply to Melissa, I agree with the views being expressed about the statues of the Confederate generals in the South. What prompted me to write my article was how calls were now being made for the statues of other historical figures to be torn down or removed… specifically, in Britain, where statues of the likes of Winston Churchill (at one time he advocated the use of poison gas on tribesmen, he also set the Black and Tans on the Irish); Sir Robert Peel (two-time British prime minister whose father made a fortune from the slave trade); Captain Cook (who ‘discovered’ Australia and New Zealand, thereby leading to the subjugation of the Maoiri), Sir Francis Drake (16th-century privateer who before he twice circumnavigated the world, attacked native villages and captured tribespeople for slavery), Oliver Cromwell (destroyer of Irish towns and murderer of thousands of Irish people) were suddenly anathema.

      There have also been calls to remove statues of George Washington (slave owner), Abraham Lincoln (in one instance because he’s white and his statue stands on a high hill… a white person looking down on everyone is the reason being given for that removal of that particular statue, there is also the slave emancipation statue which shows a black person on his knees before Lincoln – I understand the optics in that one aren’t the best), and Thomas Jefferson (slave owner).

      The point I was attempting to make in my article was that the calls for the removal of these statues IS an attempt to cancel history – any other acts that these people did (whether one agrees with them or not) are now taboo because of their moral failure in some other regard. As far as I know, there are no monuments to Churchill or Cromwell in Ireland, but if I was living in England I would not be clamouring to have them removed.

      These people played a pivotal role in history – even if it meant the destruction of many of my fellow Irish). They are significant and I don’t see any problem in having a statue to them. A statue does not have to honour people, it can record their role… I’m guessing this, but I presume there’s a plaque on the Book Depository at Dealey Plaza, saying this is where Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly fired the rounds that killed JFK – is that honouring Oswald or is it recording an influential figure in history? Even if there isn’t, here are artworks about Oswald…

      https://www.google.com/search?q=lee+harvey+oswald+statue&rlz=1C1CHBF_enIE888IE888&sxsrf=ALeKk01f5-RqFi9D0ajfe8S3gscCxeouJQ:1593637977663&tbm=isch&source=iu&ictx=1&fir=C1NjjdAB3PNlLM%252CP80XjF7jaUoe6M%252C_&vet=1&usg=AI4_-kQsLDV22fXQF1fZsLfGLL-RdtKfIQ&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjAkryM_KzqAhV7SxUIHbpdAVoQ9QEwBHoECAkQDA&biw=1366&bih=657#imgrc=C1NjjdAB3PNlLM

      and

      https://www.google.com/search?q=lee+harvey+oswald+statue&rlz=1C1CHBF_enIE888IE888&sxsrf=ALeKk01f5-RqFi9D0ajfe8S3gscCxeouJQ:1593637977663&tbm=isch&source=iu&ictx=1&fir=C1NjjdAB3PNlLM%252CP80XjF7jaUoe6M%252C_&vet=1&usg=AI4_-kQsLDV22fXQF1fZsLfGLL-RdtKfIQ&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjAkryM_KzqAhV7SxUIHbpdAVoQ9QEwBHoECAkQDA&biw=1366&bih=657#imgrc=BZBV5Fngw8vLXM

      I have no problem with this art – it creates a dialogue – or should it be removed because it is offensive to some?

      If figures like the ones mentioned above (America’s founding fathers and Abraham Lincoln) are to be cast aside because they are deemed offensive, what happens when other people out there are offended in some other way by other figures from the past – are these also to be cast aside? Where is the line drawn?

      I absolutely agree with the anger towards and the removal of the Confederate generals (because of the dog whistle intent), but the calls for the others to go… respectfully, I cannot agree with.

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