The lessons of history are not learned by wiping them out

Last week I was at a wedding reception in the US. Many were friends from New Orleans. They related how crime was increasing in the city and how the mayor had imposed a freeze on police recruitment while spending several million dollars on taking down statues relating to the Confederacy. Talk about political priorities for spending people’s money.

But the taking down of statues has become the latest craze. And it’s not restricted to America. It was not long ago that students at Oxford (or it may have been Cambridge) demanded that some busts be taken down. Yet, these same people were no doubt full of condemnation when ISIS ransacked and partially destroyed Palmyra and many other shrines because they did not fit with their particular values.

All countries have a history. And for most countries it is not always seen as a noble one when judged by today’s values. But it is always a mistake to judge the actions of the past solely by current mores rather than within their particular context at the time.

But more serious is the fact that trying to expunge the past is no way to learn from it. Germany today has become one of the bastions of modern democracy. Yet the country has never tried to wipe out memories of its Nazi recent past. On the contrary, the country makes sure that they are ever-present and that they should never be forgotten.

It is true that, as opposed to many of the statues of what may today look like an inglorious past, in Germany memories of Nazism are not glorified. They are placed in museums and in memorials of mourning. Some have argued that it should be the same with symbols of the Confederacy – that they should be put in museums as marks of shame. But where do we stop? How do we deal with all the atrocities committed during religious and other wars? Do we ban most of Shakespeare and much of world literature? Should Wagner forever fall silent? Should we blow up the pyramids of Egypt because they were built using slave labour in the most abysmal conditions?

Yes, we need to learn from what today we look upon as mistakes of the past. But surely we can do that in ways other than what is being suggested today. And, before we get too high and righteous, let us keep in mind that we have no idea whether our values and behaviours of today will be judged as being particularly noble tomorrow. Most likely future generations will look back upon us with shame and contempt. Some humility may be in order.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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