“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.” George Orwell, 1984
These words were written by George Orwell to describe the dystopian fictional society of 1984. It is a place where the endorsed ideology matters above all else. History, heroes, rights, and wrongs are illegitimate in the face of the Party’s ideology.
It continues to strike me as uncanny how, in a society so fearful of authoritarian rules, we are slipping further and further down the path that Orwell described in his novel with the best of intentions.
American history is being erased today. Sometimes this is done with good intentions. American history is full of its own shames and disgraces. But I do not agree we should deny these things occurred by erasing them from our record and memory. We should remember our culture’s mistakes. Don’t tear down the monuments. Keep them up but tell the truth about what they mean and the true stories that occurred which we might have forgotten, or perhaps were never told.
Recently the American Civil Liberties Union asked Virginia’s governor to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from Monument Avenue in Richmond. Several years ago, I was in Richmond and noted that statue. I considered what it would be like to be a black man and raise my children in its shadow. What would I tell them about it? What does it say about us as a society? I believe that would be problematic, to say the least.
At the same time, Robert E. Lee is a central piece to the history of Richmond and Virginia and the Confederacy that was headquartered there. We do not have to be proud of that history but do we disservice our children by erasing history and pretending it never happened?
Last summer the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that 110 Confederate statues and monuments had so far been taken down across the southern states. More are coming.
It is not only Civil War history that is being erased. In 2015, protests at Princeton University resulted in changing the name of many buildings and locations on the campus including those which carried the name of former President Woodrow Wilson who had served as a President of Princeton University. Wilson was racist in many of his perspectives (he was the first southerner elected to the US Presidency after the Civil War). The protesters at Princeton in 2015 believed the campus should reflect greater diversity by erasing America’s 28th President’s lingering presence from the campus.
In 2018 the American Library Association voted to remove the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder from a major children’s literature award (the author of the Little House on the Prairie books was the first recipient of the award in 1954). The move by the ALA was based upon recent controversies and outrages regarding how native Americans are referred to in the author’s books about life on the old west prairie.
Earlier in 2018, an idea was floated to rename the capital city of Texas as the founding father of Texas for whom Austin is named after was a proponent of slavery.
We don’t need to tear down monuments or erase history. We need to be better taught, know, and remember our history.
Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative produced a landmark research project that details the history and locations of lynching in the American south during the Jim Crow era. Through their research 4,075 racial terror lynchings of African Americans that took place between 1877 and 1950 were identified.
Monuments should be erected at the location of each of these horrible events, honoring the dead and reminding the descendants on both sides of the crimes of our shared history. We gain nothing by removing old Confederate statues. More than 4,000 monuments to the lynching of African Americans in the shadow of the monuments to Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and the many others of the Confederacy already standing might cause us and our children to question the disparity. Why were the Confederate statues put there in the first place? The lynching monuments would remind us that the south is about more than a lost cause. Its history also includes some pretty horrific terrorism.
When we erase history, we don’t simply shield ourselves from a frustrating and offensive past. We make ourselves more ignorant and shield ourselves from the questions we should be asking to make sure we do not repeat the worst episodes of our history. The purpose of history is not to make us feel good but to help us learn from the mistakes of the past.
In an ironic twist and proof of the ignorance we are producing with this current standard, vandals in North Carolina recently attempted to burn a statue of General Lee. To the frustration of the local historical society however, the vandals did not know their history well enough to even attack the correct statue. The General Lee whose statue they attacked commemorates a World War II veteran who is known as the father of the US Army’s airborne infantry. It was not General Robert E. Lee of the Confederacy and there is no relation between the two men.
The stories we choose to tell and the stories we allow to be hidden or forgotten is the nature of history’s retelling. Ignorance is not the only crime being committed when we allow history to be erased. Even in the selection of which history is retained and which is hidden away, a narrative is being established.
Robert E. Lee, Woodrow Wilson, and Laura Ingalls Wilder are being hidden away. The critics contend that these symbols of American history represent racism insensitivity and should not be honored. But what about those who are not hidden away and are in fact still honored.
Margaret Sanger was a famous women’s rights advocate in the early 20th century. She was also an influential writer and nurse who advocated for sex education and birth control. It was Sanger who popularized the term “birth control.” The organization she founded in 1921 became the modern-day Planned Parenthood.
Every year Planned Parenthood presents the Margaret Sanger Award to recognize leadership, excellence, and outstanding contributions to the reproductive health and rights movement. Hillary Clinton was a recipient of the award in 2009; Nancy Pelosi in 2014.
Margaret Sanger was also a bigot and a racist. As a supporter of eugenics, she believed in radical population control to perfect the design of the human race. Among her writings, she wrote that the United States should bar certain immigrants “whose condition is known to be detrimental to the stamina of the race, such as feebleminded, idiots, morons, insane, syphilitic, epileptic, criminal, professional prostitutes, and others in this class barred by the immigration laws of 1924.”Abortion should be used to “defend the unborn against their own disabilities.” In other words, the disabled should be killed.
In her book Woman and the New Race she wrote:
Birth control itself, often denounced as a violation of natural law, is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit, of preventing the birth of defectives or of those who will become defectives…
Margaret Sanger was an advocate for people needing a license to reproduce. And she advocated for a Baby Code which would move for “selective births” and “protect society against the propagation and increase of the unfit.”
Sanger is honored today. The organization she started received $1.5 billion in taxpayer dollars between 2013 and 2015. There is seldom any mention of her extremist and bigoted beliefs that she held to her death in 1966.
Why do we remember parts of Sanger’s history but insist upon forgetting other parts? Why is Sanger honored and other bigots are removed to the dust bins of history?
The establishment of the permitted narrative is the telling of history itself and it tells a lot about our own modern society. The efforts to hide parts of our history are not simply to protect us but to tell a new story and define a new future. It is a strategy that has been used before and it has always led to disastrous results.
The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history. George Orwell 1984