And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. “Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. “Reality control,” they called it: in Newspeak, “doublethink.”
I have a memory problem. My memory is too good. When a few years ago I became interested in the history of the American Civil War and read a lot of books, saw a lot of documentary films and the like, the culture wars hadn’t reached that area of history yet. And so my memory tells me that in those unpolitical history books Robert E. Lee was depicted as a decent person. Yeah, sure, he was fighting for the losing side, and the losing side was obviously pro-slavery and thus on the wrong side of history. But history, before it got redacted by “the Party”, said that Lee wasn’t a political firebrand. He only entered the war reluctantly, out of a sense of duty to his state. He was a slaveholder in a state where everybody who had any social status was a slaveholder. At the time history still judged him on his actions as a general in the war. And on that count he wasn’t doing all that badly, being both competent and humane. If you took history documents from a decade ago and judged by them who the more decent human being was, Robert E. Lee would probably win over William T. Sherman, who was fighting on the winning side, but with far more brutal methods.
Of course that was a decade ago, and I really need to reformat my memory. Today the party line is that the statue of William T. Sherman in New York Central Park is honoring a hero, while the statues of Robert E. Lee are being torn down everywhere for being too offensive. An Asian American ESPN sports commentator, who unfortunately has the name Robert Lee, was pulled from a game because his name was considered too toxic to be on TV.
Now statues of the losers being torn down is quite a usual occurrence after a war, don’t we all remember the pictures of people tearing down statues of Saddam Hussein? What is somewhat weird is doing it 150 years after the war ended. Hey guys, we just discovered that Robert E. Lee was fighting for the slave-holding South, so we need to remove his statues now! Sorry we didn’t notice that earlier! What on earth has Robert E. Lee done in the past years to deserve such a fate now that he didn’t deserve a decade ago?
Although blaming “both sides” apparently isn’t politically correct any more either (or maybe it is if the other side is the “right” one?), I would say that the extreme right rallying around confederate symbols is of course a major trigger to those symbols suddenly becoming politically incorrect. That makes Robert E. Lee a victim, being caught in the middle of a culture war. It might have some rather hilarious results if the extreme right would chose symbols that more difficult to tear down, like the American flag. To some extent the Constitution of the United States of America is already a symbol of the extreme right, if you find somebody with a copy of it in his pocket he probably is a Trump voter. Or an immigrant in the process of learning it by heart as part of the naturalization process. Or a supreme court judge. So fortunately we don’t have to burn it yet in order to be politically correct.
Nevertheless, as a student of history I find the efforts to change or re-interpret history 150 years later somewhat worrying. Imagine we would tear down the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, because Napoleon lost his wars 200 years ago, and for some reason we now find his symbols offensive. When the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan, we lamented the loss of history. Isn’t the preservation of history a bigger value for humanity than the need to remove anything that could be deemed offensive? If the culture wars rage back and forth, with both sides being in power at some point, aren’t we in danger of losing all our history, because it doesn’t fit with some party line? If history is offensive, which it certainly sometimes is, aren’t we still losing more by erasing it than by preserving it as a reminder to do better next time around?