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In defense of history

The attempt to record objective accounts of the past is an important and noble pursuit. That said, it’s a fact that countries typically promote, either explicitly or implicitly, a national mythology that is selective — one that disproportionately emphasizes its positive attributes and is meant to strengthen its self-image and the country’s sense of solidarity. And in this regard, the United States is no exception. What is often taught in early education and reinforced by folklore is a sanitized version of our history. That idealized view of the country’s past can have a damaging effect. So, too, though, can the overreaction to the objectionable aspects of the nation’s icons and its past.

So what does this all mean in today’s atmosphere of statue-toppling and seemingly unbridled criticism?

The danger of tampering with our history is best exhibited by the two extremes: a bloated self-importance that provides fodder for such things as international recklessness and the mirage of non-discrimination; and conversely, the tendency to embrace a simplistic historical narrative, devoid of context and historical perspective. The former enables the ill-fated adventures like the Iraq invasion and the myth of a color-blind America. The latter treats history as a bludgeon used to judge and to criticize figures of the past by 21st-century standards and, in today’s cancel culture, punish those who are not sufficiently apologetic for the sins of our ancestors.

American hubris is well documented, and there are certainly those who wrap themselves in the flag and are willing to justify every manner of past misbehavior at home and abroad. However, the recent epiphany of the masses professing that there are wrongs to be righted and statues to be toppled has overtaken any sense of excessive national hubris. And I believe that it is this misplaced fervor that currently presents the more important risk of misinterpreting our past.

While there are clearly icons to be toppled or replaced, the indiscriminate use of contemporary litmus tests doesn’t withstand close inspection. Certainly, the elimination of symbols such as the Confederate flag, the statues of its generals and their names on military bases are sufficiently offensive to warrant elimination. However, once the high priests of historical condemnation step outside the bounds of such symbols, their sense of self-righteousness overtakes good judgment. I refer to the condemnation of those consequential historical figures guilty of moral failures who have exhibited substantial redeeming qualities –and whose failures are made unredeemable by the standards of those fortunate enough to sit in judgment decades or centuries after the fact.

Toppling statues is not a new phenomenon. In periods of reaction and revolution, it has been common. Whether Saddam Hussein more than a decade ago, Stalin a decade before or French kings 250 years past, it has been a common feature of reaction to a then-vilified past. It’s been noted that even the Romans embraced the practice. Interestingly, that practice in antiquity was referred to as “the condemnation of memory.” It’s a term worth considering since it implies the erasure of the past, a suppression of the facts. It’s a process that is diametrically opposed to understanding history — a form of airbrushing that is no more helpful and educational than a blameless national mythology.

Reducing historical characters and events to absolutes simplifies the narrative and reinforces the self-righteousness of the madding crowd, but it does little to understanding. Those “consequential figures” — whether a Jefferson, a Lincoln or a Churchill — should not be defined simply by their faults, especially when to do so ignores civilizational contributions that are unarguable. It should be understood that the progress experienced through the centuries are due to contributions of many of these supposed “malefactors.”

To those who wish to promote progress, I would recommend thoughtful reflection on the past. Employing historical perspective and consideration of “the full measure of the man” may not be satisfying to today’s self-appointed arbiters of history, but to do so is not only an honest endeavor — it is a better use of energy in pursuit of the truth.

William Gole lives in Lake Placid.

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