John Andrist: Celebrate or Tear Down Our History?


Groundskeepers remove a plaque commemorating Robert E. Lee outside of St. Johns Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, Aug. 16, 2017. In the days after a white nationalist rally to defend a statue of Robert E. Lee led to violence in Charlottesville, Va., monuments to Confederate leaders came down in Gainesville, Fla., Baltimore and elsewhere. (Sam Hodgson/The New York Times)

Some people call it revisionism. Others prefer the term re-writing history, but by any name its a slippery slope on which we are riding these days.

Revisionism was once a practice employed only by tyrants and revolutionaries, who wanted people to believe there was nothing before them, nor to follow them. Today it has become much more pervasive.

One form of it is tearing down statues. Another is writing fake stuff. These days it is done for both money and political advantage.

With the internet and Twitter it is a simple thing to practice under a shield of anonymity.

Want to remove a statue? I’ll bet you can just manufacture a story that will quickly incite a band of activists to show up with saws and sledge hammers.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the sinister movement to destroy past heroes and tear down statues, and I got one response telling me what a horrible person Christopher Columbus was, a murderer and a rapist.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]These days you can make more money and make it faster writing about the dark side of people, than you can writing about the heroic. And you can also more quickly get a response.[/mks_pullquote]

So I played for a while on the web where there is years of reading about Columbus. The most reliable post was a 24-page report by an Eastern Illinois University professor, titled “Examining Historical (Mis)Representations of Christopher Columbus within Children’s Literature.”

It covered a lot of territory and included a bibliography of a couple hundred books, much of it not complimentary, but nothing scandalous.

The same critic said he couldn’t bear to have a statue of Robert E. Lee looking down at him, because he defended slave ownership.

I guess that means we should remove all statues of people who lived in the south in the first century of our republic, because they all either owned slaves or condoned them. That was the culture, folks.

Many North Dakotans are heirs of the Vikings, who did more than their share of raping and pillaging.

I’m waiting for protesters to blow up the Jefferson memorial one of these days, because much has been written about Jefferson’s slave holdings and a sexual relationship that has more recently been sensationalized.

Forgive me for not having open minded objectivity, because he was such a brilliant thinker and leader who, warts or not, we owe so much.

These days you can make more money and make it faster writing about the dark side of people, than you can writing about the heroic. And you can also more quickly get a response.

And getting a demonstration going — good or bad — is far easier than indulging in a study of “why.”

Culture runs deep. Can anyone fully understand the culture of a given people who lived in the middle ages? Or in colonial days, for that matter? Were they all bad people, because they believed or condoned a value system we reject today?

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if we could celebrate more things, like:

  • We now reject not only slavery but also segregation, and white only restrooms.
  • We have legalized gay marriage and all its baggage.
  • Women can now legally drive a car in Egypt.
  • Just about the entire world now prohibits genital mutilation.
  • Japan and Germany, once the paragons of inhumanity, are now among the most peaceful on our planet.

These are all victories of humanity, and we could fill this page with other examples. What is it about the command to let those who are perfect throw the first rocks?

We did terrible things to our Native Americans. They took more than a few scalps of women and children themselves. But isn’t it wonderful that we quit doing it?

Our world is beset by so many problems. Instead of changing holiday names, we should make them a celebration of the good things we have accomplished.

We don’t have to re-write history  and destroy the image of everyone who did great things, yet didn’t totally measure up.