By Trevor Busch
It is a curious phenomenon that each new generation takes it upon themselves to judge the mistakes of their historical forebears with an often savage eye. All generations, to one extent or another, choose to rewrite history through the lens of their own high-powered introspection, unblemished — or so many choose to believe — by the tainted decisions of generations governed by a leadership that was a product of their time, not the mandate for unquestionable truth and right that is often perceived to reside solely in the present.
Historical revisionism, to be fair, is hardly a new development. There is always something that ensuing generations will choose to point to and condemn about the missteps of their parents’ misguided societies. There’s a touch of the arrogance of youth here, of lagging teenage rebellion transformed into infallible belief in the promise of themselves, their own success, and that nothing will corrupt them into susceptibility to the human frailties of the past, responsible for so much of the darkness that has accompanied man’s march through time — greed, prejudice, hate. All of which could be taken as a generalization about youth — but younger generations do often seek to change the interpretation of history to meet the needs, desires and politics of the present.
Throughout 2017, historical revisionism has become a hot-button topic in North America, as many in the former Confederate south seek to exercise the demons from a still-raw defeat in the American Civil War, despite it having ended over 152 years ago. In Canada, we have our own perceived demons, whether it be the legacy of the residential school system, recent criticisms of our first prime minister John A. Macdonald for racism, colonialism and misogyny, or a made-in-Alberta controversy over another Father of Confederation, Hector-Louis Langevin, whose name was emblazoned on a Calgary bridge until it was re-named Reconciliation Bridge earlier this year after protest arose over the fact that Langevin had been one of the architects of the residential school system.
And these are only a few high-profile examples. Across the nation, the armies of political correctness have been in marching formation, ready to blot out the more unsavoury aspects of our past so as not to insult the innocent eyes of our impressionable youth. There is a danger in this kind of selective memory editing, because while we choose to eliminate from the present what has been ruled unacceptable, and want to view our history through a clouded lens that purges the negative — how then do we pass on the knowledge to learn from those mistakes, if we are so obsessively preoccupied with erasing them? Revisionism is a double-edged sword that cuts both ways.
It is all part of a growing movement that seems to want to see historical events portrayed in the starkest terms of black and white — evil incarnate on one side, the noble forces of good on the other — when in reality the truth of history is actually vastly more muddy than most would have us believe.
Let’s examine the American Civil War, for example. A conflict that was for generations viewed as a triumph of the forces of good over evil through the elimination of slavery. And while this was certainly the central backdrop of a conflict that pitted brother against brother, there were other important factors involved, both before and after. While solving the slavery question was a righteous cause on the just side of history, those in the southern states obviously saw things differently. The elimination of the agricultural plantation system and the slave labour needed to fuel this huge undertaking would, it was feared, collapse the entire southern economy into chaos and destroy a way of life that had endured for more than a century.
It was more, in the end, than Southerners were willing to accept, and the whole bloody affair has taken on an almost romantic air in the early 21st century. More than slavery, more than economics, however, the conflict also had roots in simple human nature: Southerners were unwilling to accept Northern interference in what they saw as their own affairs, nor were they ready to be dictated to by the moralistic Northerners who accused them of a crime against humanity for seeking to preserve a way of life that was all they had ever known. Today, many still see the conflict as the victory of the modern and progressive North over the traitorous Southern rednecks bent on their evil way of life, when in fact many then (but few today) saw the conflict in terms of “northern aggression” and defiance in the face of Washington’s tyranny, with slavery simply serving as the tinder box that set off the conflagration.
It is this clouded history that Southerners are still struggling to come to terms with in 2017, just as modern-day Germans struggle to come to terms with the excesses of their Nazi past. And this is really where conflicting viewpoints and interpretations of history meet head-to-head in the battleground of political correctness. Confederate flags that have flown from state legislatures for a century and a half have been descending for the last time. Statues of famed Confederate general Robert E. Lee have also been removed in several southern cities. These controversial moves strike to the heart of how many Southerners view their identity. Is it wrong to celebrate the victories and prowess of their most successful military leader in the conflict, simply because he defended a cause that we now judge to be morally reprehensible? Unfortunately, the histories of wars are invariably written by their victors, but this also allows them to shape the narrative that emerges for decades to come, usually to the detriment of truth.
Purging some of the last vestiges of low-browed racial hate in a post-Civil Rights movement South might not be the most ignoble goal legislators have ever embarked on. But if it seeks to suggest that modern-day citizens of the South can’t take pride in aspects of their past because they’re perceived to be on the wrong side of history, this is taking revisionism too far. Sports channel ESPN, for instance, recently sidelined an Asian-American sportscaster, Robert Lee, during a University of Virginia football game in case the sensitive eyes and ears of American viewers be insulted by any association of his name with Confederate general Robert E. Lee. One would hope most Americans should be able to tell a white, Anglo-Saxon Civil War leader who died a century ago from an Asian-American journalist, but maybe the executives at ESPN never got that memo.
Back in Canada, we have our own set of skeletons in the closet. Should we condemn and ostracize former Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, simply because we now know him to have been a virulent anti-Semite in his private life? Or right here in Alberta, how do we recognize the character and contributions of feminist, politician, author, and social activist Nellie McClung — one of the “famous five” — without acknowledging her unflinching support for a eugenics program in the province, which eventually led to mass sterilizations of “undesirables” and other abuses that continued until 1972?
And the list could go on and on. The trouble with revisionist history is that once you crack open the Pandora’s box to apply modern moral judgements to historical events, somewhere the actual truth is being altered or filtered or even ignored, because it might be considered “too controversial” or “racist” or “not in keeping with modern interpretation.” Or it might be that we prefer our heroes to be pure as the driven snow, not harbouring dark endorsements of Nazi-era scientific pseudo-philosophy, like McClung.
We cannot simply view the past through the narrow lens of political correctness, or we risk losing the truth of the past, and the lessons that truth can teach us. Sometimes it can be disturbing, depressing, but often illuminating, and attempting to sweep it away in an effort to somehow protect the present is a crime against future generations, all of whom seek their own truths, and new truths, in their own ways.
What is often missing from this debate is a sense of historical context, or the acknowledgement that people and events are often creatures of their own time, with prejudices and hatreds that might have once been commonplace, but are viewed with abhorrence in modern times. We sitting in lofty judgement from our perches in the present need to remember that ensuing generations will place our own actions under a historical microscope, and we can rest assured they may not always like what they find there.