Should some subjects be off-limits for the good of humanity?
History can be a very strange place. The further back we go, the odder things seem to our modern sensibilities.
Incidentally, the further back we go, the less attached everyone is to long-standing historical narratives. Almost no one cares if the earliest kings of ancient Egypt hailed from an advanced African civilization further south along the Nile, in what is now Ethiopia- as they probably did.
Christopher Columbus has few defenders in modern society; Columbus wasn’t an American, anyway. And he didn’t discover America. Plus, he died centuries ago. His kids, their kids, their kids’ kids- all gone, his “discovery” grown well past the tenuous claim of one opportunistic explorer.
Thomas Jefferson and George Washington get a bit more pushback, at least from an American History standpoint.
Washington, while he was indeed participating in the woeful enslavement of human beings, was also the first President of the United States. Since no amount of revisionist history can alter that fact, the tour guides of George Washington’s estate show visitors the cramped quarters where enslaved Africans were once forced to live before they are shown Washington’s private study, where he fathered a democratic nation by doing the unthinkable:
Refusing a kingship.
How many in a million could have done it? How many in a million wouldn’t have felt deserving of a kingship, after such an astonishing military victory?
The British monarchy hadn’t just sworn out a warrant on Washington, either; this was back in the day of drawing and quartering. Washington and his early American cohorts faced a fate worse than death during the war; extradition, public torture and a drawn-out public execution as traitors to the crown.
George Washington, we know from the preservation of his personal papers- which thankfully have not been destroyed because of his transgressions, grave as they were- refused the kingship because he wanted to see power peacefully pass from one democratically elected U.S. President to the next.
When told that George Washington, after winning the Revolutionary War, turned down the kingship and planned to return to farming, the King of England remarked in wonderment: “If he does that , he will truly have won the war.”
History is another country. A nuanced view of George Washington can include the facts of both his participation in slavery and his role as founding father.
Washington is hardly alone in history: A great many storied historical figures and even whole institutions have grave past sins to contend with.
When the headline, “This Monument to White Supremacy Hides in Plain Sight,” appeared in the New York Times, readers might have wondered which intrepid young journalist was daring to be the first to acknowledge that the New York Times, Paper of Record, denied the holocaust during World War II.
But alas; the Times wouldn’t print such an admission. Safer to stick to an obscure cross monument located somewhere in a San Francisco Park in Nancy Pelosi’s benighted district, presumably in plain sight of the roughly 8,000 people who sleep nightly on SF streets.
Abraham Lincoln might have to go, if we expunge George Washington. The North has its own revisionism, like elevating John Brown to the status of cultural hero because he claimed to be terrorizing and murdering for a just cause.
True; John Brown was a committed proponent of abolition and fought for the freedom of enslaved persons at great cost to himself and his family. That doesn’t mean he was a saint. Jim Jones of Jonestown-massacre infamy was a committed socialist and a radical desegregationist in his time. Jones and his wife were the first white couple in Indiana to adopt outside their race.
That doesn’t mean Jim Jones wasn’t a cold-blooded murderer who massacred scores of innocent people, including the elderly and children.
At the close of the Civil War, some Union prisons were filled with starving, tortured Confederate soldiers who looked not at all unlike the survivors of concentration camps at the close of World War II.
No one has the franchise on atrocity; even vaunted liberal institutions aren’t immune to a searching moral inventory using the benefit of our scorching historical hindsight.
Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, is being quietly dropped from promotional material by that organization and her name is being erased by the company she helped start. Why? Because it is a well-documented historical fact that Margaret Sanger started Planned Parenthood because she was a virulent racist committed to stamping out people she considered inferior to herself via the wholesale termination of their unborn babies.
Anyone with access to Google can discover in under five minutes who Sanger wanted to eliminate from the gene pool.
Using the Washington/Jefferson Standard of Revisionist History, she has to go and so does Planned Parenthood as fruit of a poisoned tree.
The feminist movement, and especially the women’s suffrage movement in the U.S. will have to go, too; plenty of racism to be found in those beginnings.
Even American philanthropy went through some dark iterations in the early years as wealthy dilettantes with more money than sense or decency tried first to treat, then to eradicate the root causes of generational poverty…by forcibly sterilizing poor people.
Society’s collective vision, improved by a hindsight heretofore utterly unknown to human history, and a diversity of viewpoint that transcends every barrier of race, nationality, color, creed and country- which is also heretofore unknown to human history- is a powerful new tool.
With it, we can build something better; but we have to build on what others have left, imperfect as they were. We have no other choice. The crimes of the past cannot be undone; the results of those crimes are indelible.
In Roger Shattuck‘s seminal book, Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography, the author posits the age-old question of whether or not there should be safety limits placed on human knowledge.
Are there some things we shouldn’t be allowed to know? Should there be limits on human knowledge?
Is some knowledge too dangerous?
Is it dangerous to know too much about George Washington’s contributions to America? The enduring legacies of Thomas Jefferson- like the Library of Congress he founded?
Is it equally dangerous to know about Margaret Sanger’s racist motives, lest it jaundice views about Planned Parenthood?
Is it dangerous to examine the shortcomings of those who fought- or claimed to fight- on the side on righteousness?
Does their intent, their character, even matter?
If Washington, Jefferson, and even Sanger and John Brown are eventually banned from the public square, from polite discourse and denied a place in history, who will be elevated instead?
Many figures in history could be said to have represented dangerous ideas; should the knowledge of such people be considered forbidden?
Are they only to be examined through a negative lens- and any accomplishments or laurels cancelled out by their general unworthiness? If so, how are future generations to understand why any such persons managed to shape a nation in the first place.
Without a commitment to a full, nuanced view of history- in all its conundrums, contradictions, beauty and atrocity- something is bound to be lost, as it has been before.
The past cannot be ignored or replaced, and those who fail to remember it can often be said to repeat it.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)