The “Problem” of Recognising History

The problem of recognising history is a non-problem. Let’s state its common formulation.

“This is the 21st century. In our day we should not have statues and other memorials which honour past figures who are (deemed) odious.”

The contention, as stated thus or like this, arises fairly regularly as a topic of concern in current affairs discussions across all the media here in UK. It is considered always to be an issue which needs addressing.

Some examples of late have been:

Bristol is a large UK city, whose wealth originated quite significantly by it being a key port of call on the routes for the 18th century slave trade to the plantations of The Caribbean and Southern USA (is it is now called).  A certain concert hall here had been built by slave trader money and the hall had been named after man who was the donor. The contention was that the hall should be renamed, because at present it honours the memory of a slave trader.

Of all places, an Oxford University College lately had a spat about a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a man who was a colonial administrator of the nineteenth century, active in creating British colonies in Africa.  There was a movement recently at the college pressing for the statue to be removed.  (Since then the college administrators have voted to retain the statue).

Let’s just take apart a little this idea of ‘no longer honouring certain historical persons and events.”

There are several large issues which arise straightaway.  I think the main ones are:

  1. Is this in effect ‘whitewashing’ history? Sanitising it?
  2. What are the likely effects of any such whitewashing?
  3. By what standards is an “unhappy” historic event or person to be considered unworthy of remembrance?
  4. What solid justifications can be raised to support these standards?
  5. What does advocating such standards say about the advocators?

First then; is this a whitewash?

Taken to its logical extreme, for society to “adjust” public acknowledgements of history in this way, would mean that are retained only memorials of events and persons, which are those approved by the current parties holding the relevant standards and in positions of power to act.

The questions arise:  

  1. Are there any downsides to doing this?
  2. Is not its performance open to abuse?
  3. Is it a permanent “solution”?

As regards downsides, consider a memorial of the Nazi persecutions of Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals, Marxists, and other “undesirables”; such a memorial does honour in remembrance of the victims of persecution; but at the same time it represents and holds in the historic memory of a society the fact of Nazism and what it meant in all its horror.

True it is not a statue of an SS Officer; but conceivably such a statue of an SS Officer might play a similar role of remembrance of an abhorrence called Nazism? And so act as a cautionary tale, a warning from history. Not quite as forcibly as say a Concentration Camp turned museum but still with some power.

Likewise is it not possible that sympathisers of Nazism alive today might equally admire a statute of an SS Officer as make their visits to a Camp now museum and for the wrong reasons?  Who is to say this does not happen, has not happened?

Thus we have the issue arise concerning the assumed purposes of such memorials; because these memorials are in fact strictly non-determinative of the attitudes of the beholders of and visitors to them.  The old and true saying that “Even the devil can cite scripture” applies.

Now another point – is a set of persons open to being corrupted or even to exercising a well-meaning abuse, by it having power absolutely to decide which memorials survive and which are pulled down, which new memorials are erected and which dismissed (which power would be logically necessary as an adjunct to power of selection of the fate of present monuments)?

What might constitute abuse here?  Being kind, a society which is being directed into certain paths by its leaders might just be deemed by those leaders to obtain benefit from a campaign by the leaders of destroying undesirable monuments by the use of a clandestine agenda for destruction; one which targets those memorials whose destruction favours the furtherance of the paths chosen by the leaders?

Being unkind, there might be the same scenario excepting that the paths being directed by leaders are self-serving and are aiming to line their pockets or allow them to commit crimes with impunity.

Two important things have come out of our discussion so far:

  1. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” – which is to say, even a shocking memorial meant to admonish humanity and deter us from repeating the horrors it reminds of, is able to be seen in completely the opposite ways to those that were intended by its erection and opening to the public. Further, no doubt, it is seen by some as such.
  1. To take the act of selection of memorials to its logical end shows that power of such selection being open to abuse, or else to misplaced political-missionary zeal, by those who wield it, raises the questions: who is capable of making a ‘right’ selection? And in the light of point 1 above: “what criteria are able to be applied to such items as these which essentially are non-determinative in their beholding and in their received purposes?

As regards criteria – where stands an objective and therefore permanent, measuring rod of what is laudable and desirable, and what is pernicious and abhorrent?  The Letter to the Hebrews tells us famously that: “Here is no continuing city” – and indeed this is correct  And what is it above all things secular which tells us that this statement is true? History no less

Our Lord Jesus tells us that “God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire…..”….and is it not like this also for all things in the world created by Him?  It is almost a given thing to most of us that what was popular last year in the clothing shops is old-hat today. Who wants yesterday’s newspapers?  Three centuries ago most of us were on the land working the fields to keep body and soul together. Today most of us live in cities, commute on vehicles, and use multifarious electrical appliances in our daily round. 

Who is able to keep up with everything that is changing about us as we journey through our lives? Who even is aware of them all – or of most or many of them? Look how the Internet is at present untamed, untameable by law and governments; how it is a stupendous force for good and ill, because it reflects humanity in all humanity’s depravity and glory at once.  The Internet has run away with freedom of expression and uncensored materials. It is a place where no secret is safe and no bolt-hole secure.

The authorities have not kept apace with, caught up with, technological change.

And this rapid rate of change we are experiencing is meaning for us that new fashions, mores, dilemmas, hopes, cautionary tales – all being new in kind and not just adapted incarnations of former states of things – are arising and falling away at a tremendous rate. They bring with them and take away with them changes in thought and feeling which bond or have acted to bond us together as a society or else to divide and disintegrate us as a society.  No-one knows any outcomes to come – or even whether such a final thing as an outcome is possible in and for the future?

Us now transposing this intense level of future uncertainty into the present, wherein it is being generated, would mean that any person(s), authority or power, whom one is able to nominate, is able to foresee beyond what? – a few hours sometimes – and never more than a year or two at very best.  Just as Roosevelt said famously: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” so we can use the counterpoint in these words and say in a parallel vein: “We know nothing of change to come except that there will be change”

How then is it practically possible, and in what degree is it worthwhile, to attempt to anticipate how we shall be thinking and feeling in say 10 years from now.  Will Cecil Rhodes have been rehabilitated; be again a great colonial hero of our past?  Will that concert hall in Bristol UK again be a building feted because funded for its erection by and named after a (presently notorious) slave trader of two or three centuries ago?

Woody Allen in an early movie of his “Sleeper”, has a guy awoken out of a suspended animation he was place in some ages ago, and the guy refuses to eat a pork pie, on grounds he holds that such pies are very unhealthy food and clog arteries etc.  The “Sleeper” is told by a doctor that his views are outdated and that pork pies are proven nowadays to be amongst the healthiest foods a human is able to eat!

Now – What does advocating these criteria for dismissing certain memorials of history and extolling others actually signify? The persons who push this particular kind of issue, what drives them?

I would reply there is a kindly view of these advocates and there is a less kindly view to be had; some of them falling into one camp; others into other camps; and maybe some others confused and so situated between camps.

The kindly interpretation applies to people of whom might be said, as the poet Wordsworth wrote: “The world is too much with us late and soon”.   Being ‘in the swim’ of life, what busy people like to call ‘engagement’ in events and fashions and current fads, is for many people pretty much the whole excitement of life, and is often their sole involvement.  Their assumption here commonly is that in some way today’s attitudes and feelings, mores and fashions, comprise the definitive set of social mêlée, which are:

  1. Better in quality living than any ever held beforetimes
  2. Because this mêlée represents real and tangible human progress
  3. Therefore history has been a benighted period and probably the further back one goes the moreso
  4. And the implicit assumption is that these present enlightened days can only be improved upon by way of adding embellishments on the same themes to those which are being experienced right now.

And so it is in fact a delusion that these people are living under.  It is a historical fact that:

  1. The great mathematician scientist Bertrand Russell around 1930 stated publicly that science was nearing the end of its voyage of discovery; and that soon everything in science will be known so as to require only the fine details left over to be filled in
  2. Most of us think ourselves wiser, better-informed, more capable, more enlightened than were our forebears, and
  3. Generations wayback were primitive, and intellectually benighted, compared to ourselves
  4. That in The Book of Job in The Bible, and written around two millennia ago, Job protests angrily and satirically against his friends who are presuming to think themselves right and himself in error; “I see that ye are the people; and that wisdom will die with you”
  5. A great 17th century Englishman Oliver Cromwell once said to a friend of his who was hell-bent on a bad course of action: “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ; think that you might be mistaken”

The common thread which passes through these five instances of presumptuousness of superiority and which I have exampled – each of which shows itself to be assuming a self-righteousness which its perpetrator arrogates to themself – is a lack of humility, an inability to see oneself as Douglas Adams put it, as being “just some guy”.

And paradoxically it is too often persons who have sought least after learning, who have taken little care to ascertain the facts of a situation, to think through positions they hold, or to teach themselves some understanding of things and of the past; it is this section of people who are most liable to presume upon their own opinions as being the correct, the definitive ones.

One thing which life is able to knock into us as it catechises us and chastises us is a sense of our insufficiency to ourselves, of our flawed nature and of our many mistaken thoughts and deeds, had in our pasts, still having, in our presents and futures. St Augustine told us all: “Humility is endless” and again “Do not presume – one thief was damned; do not despair – one thief was saved” 

In regard to the more unpleasant interpretation of the reasons why some people advocate the sanitisation of historical memorials; I say that their chief motivation usually concerns the control of public moods and thoughts, opinions and feelings. These controlling people might be said it to have agendas for changing society in directions they themselves prefer to see come about.

At present, and I make no praise or aspersion here by stating the directions in which we here in UK have experienced being pushed by such agendas of powerful people:

  1. Pluralism of sexuality and gender
  2. Feminist opportunities in higher public life
  3. Exclusions to extinction of a Christian presence
  4. Creating new and more opportunities for disabled persons
  5. Encouraging a premier platform for a demotic populist voice and vote
  6. Disbelief in the possibility of and so an equivocation on truthful discourse
  7. Liberalism degenerating into free-license (and a consequent libertinism)

This set of people, thank goodness their influence is waning now I believe, and their programmes of action have not been utterly acceptable to many people here; they are about control; though themselves will say their vision for society is ultra-rational and of a course inevitable.  It is important to say here that this set of persons as it sees things considers itself to have a right to drive society in these directions; that they are helping to fulfil the inevitable. 

But their own participation in any such inevitable future state of society is a reserved and segregated position, and they do not see themselves mucking-in with the larger population nor with that social vision they have for us. By right, being the people in charge, and being a set of people which intellectually is superior and aware, they would claim exemption from that same “inevitability” which drives their own social programme.

Their vision thus seems to depend on their having a controlling hand which acts mutatis mutandis to create a new society. However, in practical terms there is no such thing as mutatis mutandis, because to have an occurrence or object having had “the necessary changes having been made” to it, i.e. to our society, represents in the final instance an impossible fiction. This is because such a hypothesis assumes a capability of absolute control being available to the changers; and this is precisely what this set of would-be controllers towards the inevitable assume and demand as being their right and their tools of use and choice. 

This is one important reason why their whole thing is a lie. I think in many cases their rational positions of principle are in fact cases of doublethink. I think that its advocates and promulgators think themselves, in an almost godlike hubris, to be a sect of discrete members of an elite, and so are privileged to able to live in a radically different manner to the way the larger populace lives – having no need to join in with it because, as it were, different in kind – this is a doublethink.

Two other doublethink lines of thought:

That this sect can control and direct inevitably and absolutely the future; and yet as a sect member each of them suffers no inevitability that forces them to join in with the future they are making for others. 

That concerning their directing the society their control is absolute and the field of possibility wide open – human nature can be anything they chose to fashion it to be – yet they themselves remain free agents and not susceptible to such programmes of social change

One should note that this set of persons would consider themselves to be the crème de la creme of the intellectual world; progressive and ascendant.

A fourth doublethink may be that their study to ignore, and their consequent ignorance of, history – which has been their deliberate rejection – “it can teach them nothing” – is their own very loss and lack of that which is available to them, and required by them, to allow to them some level of freeing up of their minds from their presumptions and assumptions – and this lack and loss is this very same study of history.

Their self-righteousness and hubristic pride in self-belief is their ignorance which is driving them and their agendas. 

The Oxford students clamouring for the fall of the Cecil Rhodes statue thought themselves assured, superior, righteous, certain; but the college authorities, older men and women, and having seen more, denied their clamour and cause. Quite correctly so

There are issues of broad mindedness and of toleration of difference, of acceptance of others and of history, and of our own weak and silly natures; and above all of a plain and grateful thankfulness for the graciousness of The Lord Jesus by which regenerates us.

His first miracle was to turn water to wine, as St John tells us: This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory”

His first miracle then was a sign showing in a deed which had no motive to heal or to revive, that here is truth, justice, love, freedom, forgiveness, grace; all those incontestably objective and absolute entities – requirements for everyone for ‘life in abundance”. It is an announcement which displays to, shares with, the world, that here is a new way of life, as far away from our commonplace lives as Lazarus in the afterlife was seated from Dives. A life whose quality is vast in its difference from our sublunary lives; a blessed life in Jesus  

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