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On tearing down the past

On June 12th, 2020

Recently, in the ongoing protests over the wrongful death of George Floyd, protesters have turned from tearing down statues of symbolic ‘heroes’ of the past to demanding the removal of culture that depicts racism.

Recently, for instance, a jittery HBO has just removed the classic film ‘Gone with the Wind’ from its streaming services, because of its clichéd and racist depiction of black people.

I’m not going to wade into the debate about whether it was justifiable for an angry mob in Bristol to fling a statue of a notorious slave trader like Sir Edward Coleston into the Bristol harbor.

What I’m more concerned with is the underlying attack on free speech here, the enormous implications of attempting to ban or erase parts of history and literature that are racist or in some way reprehensible to modern sensibilities.

When history is censored

Let’s compare two obvious examples of what censoring history can lead to: how Germany and Japan handled teaching the history of World War II to subsequent generations.

For many years after the war, there was no standardized national approach to teaching modern German history; authorities of individual federal states were free to interpret Germany and the German people’s role in WWII in whatever way they pleased.

During those first postwar decades, many West German historians writing textbooks – themselves teachers in the Nazi era – chose to repress the worst atrocities of the past.

It wasn’t until 1991 that the federal government insisted that Hitler and the Nazi regime be given an ‘intensive and thorough treatment’ in schools and the ‘memory of the Holocaust be kept alive.’

Today, nothing is whitewashed; high school students are required to take classes on 20th century German history during the 1930s and 1940s, which includes a matter-of-fact depiction of the full unvarnished truth: the complicit role of individual Germans, the Nazi race laws, the German companies who contributed materials used in the death camps, and of course the extermination of six million Jews.

School children are asked to tackle complex moral questions, such as ‘Who knew what?’ and ‘Who joined in and who resisted?’ And, most of all, ‘Why did it all happen?’

More recently, Germany put a replica of Hitler’s bunker in the last years of the war on display, and his manifesto Mein Kampf, banned for 70 years after the end of the war, has now been reprinted.

Japan’s method of teaching its role in World War II is very different. As Mariko Oi wrote for the BBC in 2013, only 19 of her history textbook’s 357 pages concerned the events between 1931-45.

Of those brief entries there was but a single sentence on the atomic bombs dropped by Americans on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and only a footnote about ‘comfort women’ created by the Imperial Army of Japan.

It was only after she’d moved to Australia and could find out more about details of her country’s history that Oi finally discovered the truth about war crimes such as the Rape of Nanjing: that 200,000 Chinese and Korean women in Japanese-occupied territories were forced to become sex slaves for troops.

As recently as 2007, the Japanese prime minister was eventually forced to apologize for casting doubt about the existence of these ‘comfort’ women.

As Oi says, although Japanese children aren’t taught much about Japanese war crimes like this, South Korean, Taiwanese and Chinese children are.

Consequently, she says, many Japanese young people fail to understand why territorial and other disputes with some of their neighboring countries cause such emotional outcries or why the Chinese are still bitter about historical war crimes.

Even today, the current prime minister accuses their neighbor’s method of teaching history as too ‘anti-Japanese.’

Some historians even believe that these gaps in the Japanese education system and its teaching of history are responsible for a number of difficulties in the country’s foreign relations.

A slippery slope

Rewriting history and censoring literature certain historical portrayals, such as the ugly way black people were treated in ‘Gone with the Wind,’ is the beginning of an extraordinarily slippery slope.

Here’s the sort of thing it can lead to.

In Germany at the moment, many far-right groups such as the AfD and Poland’s ruling party, the right-wing Law and Justice Party, are attempting to cast doubt on the existence of gas chambers and minimizing the crimes of the death camps during the Holocaust as a way of developing a positive new national narrative.

The Polish government has even made it a criminal offense to suggest that Poland (the home of 457 death camps during the Nazi occupation) was guilty of any crimes during the Holocaust.

My point here is simply this: as soon as we attempt to expunge from our history and literature anything that we find personally offensive – as soon as we determine that our view of what should be read and seen is the only ‘proper’ version – we deny a future generation every opportunity to learn from it.

History is highly nuanced and famous historical figures extraordinarily complex and multi-dimensional. For instance, was Thomas Jefferson a racist? Absolutely. Do we then refuse to laud him for his role in initial drafts of the Declaration of Independence and the founding of America?

Was Churchill a racist? Many comments of his would definitely point to a belief in white supremacy. But had he not played a central role in winning the war and the Nazis prevailed, they would have gone on to kill millions of people of color throughout Britain and the rest of Europe.

The philosopher George Santayana famously said: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

Unless we are able to discover and accept the complicated and often contradictory truth about people or situations in our history books and our literature, we will never have the opportunity to understand – much less do better.

16 responses to “On tearing down the past”

  1. Michael says:

    I agree with your comments and I think we have to look unblinkingly at the history of this country's colonialism, murder of native American people, development of authoritarian structures that profess to be for the people but instead dominate and oppress the people ('public servants ' provide for themselves and consolidate power and privilege while proclaiming to be servants; police are consider authorities rather than servants; wealth and privilege are synonymous, for example). It's all very well to speak of foreign abuses, but we too easily paint America as the land of the free and home of the brace, while we exploit our own citizens and people throughout the world, economically, socially, racially and spiritually. I think each individual person has to step into personal responsibility for living in a consciously loving and caring way, and we each need to speak truth to the corruption that governs much of America today. I think, and I may be wrong, that most people are genuinely caring and compassionate, but we have given our power to man of the few who are not so and who seek power for their own benefit. We are at a point in history where we must decide to care for all people everywhere, to seek harmony and healing for those who are damaged or disadvantaged and we need to live justice rather than seek retribution and call it justice. We need to grow beyond law and into love.

  2. Diana says:

    Thank you for taking a stand to protect our precious freedom of speech and speak for the people who no longer have a voice. It’s respectful, cerebral, and articulate. If our society continues to allow this type of radical sentiments to destroy civilization, our nation is in grave danger.
    It is so sad to see this kind of things happen in this great nation. It had happened elsewhere before which had led tremendous destruction to civilization and murder of human lives.

  3. Dear Lynn,
    First and foremost thank you for all of the work you have done and will continue to do.

    Your blog post, the responses above, and mine as well speak to the immensity of the issues at hand of domination, imperialism, genocide and the false notions of supremacy. This I feel in my is a moment, a reckoning triggered by specific incidents of police murder against African Americans, It has prompted a massive global response and has called millions to explore the multitude of ways that racism (hate) and empire have impacted our human family.

    While we can debate the secondary issues regarding actions and responses to this unfolding global experience, in my heart, I deeply this moment gives us all an opportunity to explore and heal the consciousness of race, hate and separation that have falsely identified and defined us and how we engage with our world.

    This is no easy task, especially for those who have benefited from the system that has caused such great harm not only upon people of color, but Mother Earth as well. As long as we function in a consciousness that separates us from our true spiritual identity and connection to life itself, we and Mother Earth remain at peril.

    I have great hope and deep pain. But my hope allows me to place this all in a context that serves and uplifts my desires, that one day in the not too distant future, we will all see and experience each other as the Great Spirit and Creator intended for us-connected in love as one loving family.

  4. I thoroughly agree with you. When we first moved into rural Wales 28 years ago the community was closed and many people had little idea of life beyond their own. My father in law lost most of his family in the Shoah and was on the last kindertransport to the UK. Although not Jewish ourselves my husband and I took care to teach our children, when they asked, the horrors of what had happened to their great grandparents and family.
    They still suffered taunts and racist insults from some school peers since they have an unusual Jewish surname rather than a local one. I truly believe that the only way to prevent any similar attrocities from being repeated by future generations is to fully inform them of the reality of the past.

  5. Susan Borsch says:

    If they got rid of all the older movies and TV shows that depict women as subservient to men, we'd be out a lot of classics! "I Love Lucy" for one...

  6. Estela Reveles says:

    the point isn't to expunge or rewrite unpleasant historical facts as it is to correct outright misinformation and propaganda written by the those in power. This is the opposite of censorship

  7. Well said!

    While i can understand the desire to "burn" representations of oppression (having often had that desire myself), to erase them would also erase the accountability that's required.

    If the next generation didn't learn the history of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., the context of many lives would be erased, and the sensitivity around these issues would be completely misunderstood.

    Not to mention that if we forget or choose to forget what people have been capable in the past, we pave the way for similar abuses in future.

    That said, anything that actually honours the abusers for their abuse -- we could safely do away with. Statues commemorating the slave trade? We're better off without them. It's further abuse to leave them in a place of honour.

  8. Laurine Melenka says:

    Thank you for writing this. As a writer I respect and agree with your opinion.

  9. Virginia Gleser says:

    Well said. I agree with your view on history. We must not hide it, so we don't repeat it. Your power of 8 group that we started a month ago is awesome and miracles are happening. Making a difference. Love to you.

  10. Derek Kinsolving says:

    Nietzsche said that the history of mankind is nothing but "Shame, shame, shame." We have to accept it, and strive to be better, not pretend it never happened. Who knows, but certain aspects of modern sensibilities will be unacceptable in the future? Do we know what those sensibilities will be? How can we be expected to conform to them, then?

  11. Gifi says:

    In America, people who are calling for removal of Confederate statues are not calling for erasure of history. We’re asking that bastions/relics/upholders of racial crimes not be celebrated. When you erect statues of these people, you give them a place of honor that they do not deserve. We aren’t saying that they shouldn’t be studied. Of course they should be studied so that society can learn how not to be hateful.
    As for the erasure if history, take that argument up with school systems who’ve had school books rewritten to say that Native Americans volunteered to move so that white settlers could have a place to live. They most certainly did not volunteer - they were killed - either outright or subjected to biological warfare - or forcibly removed from their ancestral lands and forced to walk The Trail of Tears. Let’s not erase that history.
    Let’s call for a stop to textbooks that say that enslaved Africans in the Americas lives to do “chores on the farm”. No they didn’t. They were forced into a lifetime of enslavement and forced labor and the threat of death.
    Let’s take issue with those erasures of history, not with those who are only calling for taking down of tangible signs of racism, and for the dismantling of the acceptance of institutionalized racist attitudes in society.

  12. Katrina Sharratt says:

    I agree with Lynne that we can not erase history or it will repeat itself. However, all the statues and street names must come down. They can be put in a history museum about the civil war. There are many photographs . These Confederate statues should not be in the public domain. You definitely don't have Swastikas and statues of Hitler and Goebbels in Germany.

  13. I agree Lynne. We need to teach children critical skills in school so they can challenge historical narratives. Those same critical skills that question dominant narratives in history give the children the capacity to question what's happening in the society. It's analagous to teaching a person how to fish rather than just supplying the fish. These skills enable us to ask (and to listen to) challenging questions about the past rather than taking the 'dominant narrative' path of simply writing history books that follow either the white washed version (pun intended) or the uber politically correct version.

  14. Iris Liebner says:

    I have no issues if they want to put up indigenous statues and believe it to be the right thing to do
    but there is no need to knock down Columbus. We would not be here if it wasn't for him.
    We are all born into a culture and a history. Reconciling the past with the present takes effort and an openness to honest dialogue.
    The idea of equality is thrown about like a football but in reality, what exactly does that mean?
    We are all different. As per Charles de Gaulle, "Vivre la difference". Many interpret equality as doing what those in power
    are doing. So, women wanted to have positions (and behave) like men, thus repeating the errors of the past. Topple the old order so that those who have felt powerless
    and victimized can take over. It's a long road and demands introspection. Rome was not built in a day. Do you treat all your subpersonalities, those that live inside
    your head and body, equally? Now if the word 'equality' was changed to 'respectfully', I would be much happier even though that too takes time
    and a commitment to self, social inquiry, and justice, a commitment to change. I am concerned about all the impulsive childlike behaviour
    that is going on, the acting out. I think a good thing may be to take these 'racist' statues off their pedestals and educate people on the effects of culture born
    of prejudice. We are often immune to our participation in prejudice by virtue of its invisibility.

  15. Carolyn Yorke says:

    I very much admire Lynn McTaggart's work and did not feel in any way that she was being racist in her article. It is always more difficult to express ourselves in writing than face to face, isn't it? Words are so often misunderstood at the best of times. I would be STUNNED if she were to remove any response that was well meaning. There is so much sadness, hurt and anger now around this whole issue. I for one just want to practice more and more getting in my heart space and sending out love!! Am finding it more of a challenge right now but is the best answer I believe. It warms my heart to see so many people peacefully demonstrating for positive change!! Helps me to feel more positive as well. LOVE is the ANSWER!!

  16. Lynne McTaggart says:

    Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. As I made clear at the top of the article, however, this blog was emphatically NOT about whether it is justifiable to tear down statues of people we no longer venerate, such as slave traders. I’m not talking about statues of all. My comments focused on the sure and steady erosion of free speech (and as an author, journalist, publisher and speaker, this indeed is my business), which is occurring in the name of racial and other equality. I’m not just concerned about Gone with the Wind; I’m concerned about the growing view – in universities and in the media, that things that offend our modern sensibilities, whether in history or in literature, must be censored. The point is that artists and writers, and major figures with vital roles in history oftentimes aren’t very nice people. That doesn’t mean that the work they did, the things they wrote or painted or accomplished – don’t have value. In fact, we would have no art or literature if we judged the authors of great literature by our modern values. (How many great writers in the past, for instance, believed in equality for women or that women should even have the vote? Not many, I would wager.) The other point is that the history of virtually every country in the world is never pretty. But we can’t edit any of it. We need to know every last bit of it, warts and all – whether from our literature or our history. In some cases that means no longer whitewashing the ugliest aspects of it, in others it means examining people and their actions through the lens of the accepted views of the time – in order to understand, evolve and never repeat the same mistakes again.

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