George Orwell’s dystopian book 1984 famously observes, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
I’m reminded of that quote more and more these days as I watch systematic attempts to erase the memory of historical figures, works of art, celebrities or politicians from our collective consciousness because they’re no longer deemed acceptable under the social norms of 2019. It’s as if they’ve been abruptly vanished from our history, never to be spoken of again for fear of evoking an inevitable social media backlash.
One recent example is my Daddy’s favorite singer, Kate Smith, who in 1982 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. At the time, President Ronald Reagan lauded her as “an undying reminder of the beauty, the courage and the heart of this great country of ours.” This year she become an outcast, an unperson, interred deep in the dustbin of history for recording a racist song as a 24-year-old in 1931. Also likely destined for the same dusty tomb will be her signature song “God Bless America” the most patriotic anthem ever released (excluding the National Anthem).
So, what are we to take from our new American landscape of toppled or defaced statues, cleansed murals, edited films, reimagined histories and banned books? Where do we stop? Taken to its extreme, one could argue that the Old Testament’s King David was a distinctly flawed individual for his role in committing adultery and killing the husband of Bathsheba. In such a world, we’d rip out the Psalms from our Bible, some of the most inspiring words ever written.
As a young person, I enjoyed John Milton’s Paradise Lost and like many, found Satan by far the most intriguing character for his unforgettable observation that “it will be far better to rule in hell than serve in heaven. I found that statement, and his horrific personage quite fascinating and thought provoking.
The truth is that all of us are flawed people and have fallen far short of the ideal throughout our lives. And yet we get to be part of history. History is rich with lessons from the horrible inventions or behavior of people whose more beneficial contributions came to shape our modern world: think John Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, who’s legacy today lives on in the prestigious prizes that bear his name.
I fear that when political correctness is used to shame those of us who live in the present for the sins or mistakes of those who came before us, we and our children risk repeating the same mistakes of the past. I agree with the philosopher George Santayana who said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Erasing history risks a future reality when decision makers who did not live through difficult times of political unrest may follow the same road to perdition. I struggle with the decision to tear down Confederate monuments because I fear in future generations, our prodigy not understanding the horrific battles and human loss, could easily repeat it.
Our celebratory stories and our deadly, horrific stories of the past both positive and negative should be taught in school classrooms at the appropriate grade levels.
My husband, 1st Lt. James L. Hull was killed in the Vietnam War, which is not a conflict many celebrate these days. I will never forget the heartache that to this day pops into my brain regarding the dishonesty and lies told to coverup the debacle of the War. But I choose to embrace his love of country and his service, as well as that of all the men and women who served. If our service personnel decided to serve or not to serve based on a whim, or their personal belief that they didn’t agree with their orders, our country would not enjoy the freedoms and opportunities Americans enjoy.
So I choose to focus on my writing, storytelling and work to promote healing, while humming the tune that begins with the words, “God bless America, land that I love; Stand beside her and guide her; Through the night with the light from above. From the mountains to the prairies; To the oceans white with foam; God bless America, my home sweet home; God bless America, land that I love Stand beside her and guide her; Through the night with the light from above.”
© Tyra Manning 2019