Thursday, June 18, 2020


“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

I had it explained to me earlier this week that the current movement in this country to remove or destroy statues and historical artifacts is in fact “good”, “necessary” and “fair.” It’s rather like a coast-to-coast fire sale.  From a statue of Christopher Columbus in Philly to Confederate generals on the side of Stone Mountain, Georgia to the old Spanish mission bells in California…”Everything must go!” Streets, bridges, buildings and army bases must be re-named. Our culture must be purged of past symbols of slavery, racism, and oppression.

Regardless how good the original intentions, it seems to me to be a very slippery slope indeed when we say that some history is “bad” and needs to be removed. Who decides and defines what is “bad” and what is “good” history? Who is the final arbitrator who decrees what can stay and what must go? What if our current rather chaotic and somewhat random standards of “good” and “bad” are viewed differently in the future? What if the history thus sanitized becomes unavailable to future historians, researchers, groups, or individuals? Where does it all end? Or does it? Will we tear down our entire past over the fear that someone will be “offended”?

I have a Lakota friend who knows first-hand that as recently as the 1970’s the teachers at his government-run Tribal school would whack the backs of their students’ hands with a long wooden ruler for the crime of simply speaking the language of their people. When he told me about this in 1992, I was shocked and horrified that it had gone on for so long and not a little pissed off that I had never learned of it in all my own years of schooling. At that time that it occurred, though, people in positions of authority in the government agencies administering these schools had decided the Lakota tongue was “bad” history and must be done away with. Do we leave the definition of good and bad history to unelected officials of some government bureaucracy?

From 1910 to 1945, the Empire of Japan occupied and ruled Korea as a vassal state whose people and resources were to be exploited for Japanese benefit. During this time only the Japanese language could be spoken or written in schools, courts, and public venues, some 200,000 irreplaceable ancient Korean texts, documents, and works of art and literature were burned, and the Korean people were forced to worship only in Japanese Shinto shrines. In Seoul, the 500-year-old Joseon Dynasty palace was deems a reminder of a more glorious Korean past, so the Japanese systematically demolished a large portion of the buildings and grounds to make room for them to build a massive and imposing new General Government Building to remind the people who now ruled. The Korean language, history and culture had been deemed “bad” history by the ruling power, which made strenuous efforts to eradicate it all. The emperor, the government, and apparently a considerable majority of the Japanese people approved of all this. By their era and standards, it was “good” and “necessary”. 

"Yes to decency and morality in family and state!"

10 May 1933: German “Student Groups”, actually puppets of the new Nazi Regime, marched in torchlight parades through the streets of 34 German university cities. With much fanfare, they gathered in the town squares to burn more than 25,000 plundered books that had been deemed “un-German” in order to “purify” or “cleanse by fire” the German language and its literature.  A crowd of 40,000 people gathered for Berlin’s book-burning, where Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels personally opened the festivities, shouting, “No to decadence and moral corruption! Yes to decency and morality in family and state! I consign to the flames the writings of Henrich Mann, Ernst Glaser, Eric Kastner!” Later, Nazi officials openly raided libraries, book stores, and publishers to confiscate and destroy “un-German” tomes. Naturally, a majority of the books destroyed were by Jewish authors, but the Nazis also sought to suppress such “corrupting foreign influences” as American writers Ernest Hemingway, Jack London and Helen Keller. Perhaps the most painfully ironic work burned was eighteenth-century Jewish poet Heinrich Heine’s play Almansor, which contained the eerily prophetic lines, “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.”

In Afghanistan’s Bamyan Valley two giant stone statues of Buddhas Vairocana and Sakyamuni, the largest one some 174 feet tall, had weathered in their cliffside alcoves all that the harsh weather of the mountains could dish out for centuries. They may have been as much as 1,700 years old. In March of 2001, Taliban leaders occupying the area decided to entirely destroy the giant Buddhas. After days of pummeling with artillery, anti-aircraft guns, and RPG rockets failed to obliterate them, the Taliban eventually lowered men on ropes to drill holes into the statues to insert dynamite charges to completely demolish them. Afterwards, they openly defended and justified their actions.  Mullah Mohammed Omar said, "Muslims should be proud of smashing idols. It has given praise to Allah that we have destroyed them.” Afghan Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawekel told the international press, “We are destroying the statues in accordance with Islamic law and it is purely a religious issue.”

Yes, admittedly these are rather extreme examples of what can happen when people seek to sanitize “bad” history. They do, however, show what can and has happened more than once in the past and just how fast a people can accelerate downhill once they step out onto the slippery slope. Today, viewed through the prism of our current standards, we naturally condemn these heinous examples.

Thus, it is worth considering how future generations might someday view our own current “righteous”, “good” and “fair” jihad against statues and symbols of generations past.

“War is peace.
Freedom is Slavery.
Ignorance is Strength.”

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