Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: History

Each one of us has a personal history, and amidst that history is a story. I can recall very well in the nineties, when I thought the politically correct movement was at its highwater mark—never could I have anticipated the inundation of our current day, so high up on the mountain that its waters have created a generation of snowflakes—that some wanted to make a false etymology of history and create a category called herstory; i.e., the important contributions women have made to the world. The spirit of that venture was, of course, quite well justified: how often women are ignored, how often their talents and accomplishments are overlooked because of piggish, sexist attitudes that are, all too often, endemic to any given culture. And as much as has been accomplished, in part driven by a strong politically correct agenda, there is yet more to do. A woman is too often underpaid for the same work as a man—need I even mention (quite liberal but apparently not liberated) Hollywood as the locus classicus for this imbalance?

Yet the larger history—the one that is both ugly and beautiful, noble and ignoble, joyous in victory and often sad in defeat—that history, the one related not to “his” and “hers” but to the Greek word historia, meaning “witnessed events,” things that were seen (derived from the word eidon, the aorist of the Greek verb horao, meaning “see”), is another matter. It isn’t biographical, as “his” or “hers” might be. It is rather a wider narrative, involving men and women, social trends, economic trends, technology, even animals—need I mention the Zion Mule Corps at Gallipoli (Curious Autobiography, p. 256)? It can be looked upon askance, it can be extolled, it can be argued over and, most importantly, it can be learned from. But it can’t be unwritten.

Which brings us to Frank Rizzo. Elaine Jakes was no fan of Frank Rizzo. Though she lived in New Hope when he was the hardball mayor of Philadelphia, she and a number of other folks in that distant Philadelphian suburb felt that he was, by extension, their own mayor, as Philly was the nearest big city to Bucks County. Frank Rizzo is dead now, long dead, and though his body lies decaying in the grave, his aura, it would seem, has not passed away. There is a statue in Philadelphia to that former mayor, and a large mural on the wall of an apartment building. Yet it has become the fashion to deface such monuments, particularly if they are images of folks with whom you might disagree. Even if the vast majority of those protesting the mayor’s statue never knew him as mayor, or never knew him at all. I understand, of course, that Delbert Africa, was beaten badly when Mr. Rizzo as mayor ordered the eviction of the Move members from their squalid abode. But I rather would love to know if, when they are protesting, the vast majority of the protesters actually know about Delbert Africa, and even if they do, what removing Mr. Rizzo’s statue will accomplish. With the removal of Mr. Rizzo’s statue, to some extent we also remove the memory of Mr. Africa, and we remove dialogue about Mr. Rizzo’s legacy that is likely to have been both good and bad. We do not change history; rather, we suppress dialogue about it. If that’s not quite removing history, it is certainly whitewashing it.

Take God, for example. Perhaps one can see, after Hurricane Harvey, why someone might blame God for these disasters—certainly, if he is the God associated with the Bible, he could have prevented Harvey from ever happening. And it’s easy to blame God and religion for nearly all the atrocities that humans inflict upon each other. Don’t competing religions, after all, produce conflicts? Wasn’t Christianity responsible for the Crusades? Aren’t many of the terrorists of today, in places like Ireland at least, Christians? Isn’t at least some of the bombing that goes on nowadays done by radical Muslims, for example? Thus, one solution that some have advanced is simply to remove any hit of God or religion from monuments, schools, mottoes. Surely removing God from a motto, as Harvard did for its own in 2011, is more likely to produce a fundamental shift in society than simply pulling down a statue of Frank Rizzo or Robert E. Lee, for that matter.

Pulling down a statue of Robert E. Lee

Not that Frank Rizzo and Robert E. Lee are really all that comparable, other than the fact that both of their statues have come under fire—one actually already toppled, the other likely soon to be. I base this lack of comparability not on Elaine Jakes’ dislike of Mayor Rizzo, but on her admiration for General Lee, even though she obviously disagreed with him on the issue of slavery. Though she herself was quite unpolitical and, if anything, rather left-leaning and quite hopeful when Mr. Obama was first elected president. Elaine believed fervently that one could disagree with someone but still respect them or at least respectfully discuss their legacy. She saw the good of and, to some extent, contributed quietly to what was called the Women’s Liberation movement in the 1970s. She greatly admired Martin Luther King Jr. She loved the Kennedys and the democrats of the 1960s, save President Johnson. She even threatened to move to Canada when Mr. Nixon was elected president in 1968. (I was young and didn’t understand that she was only joking; when I went to school and told my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Hendrickson, that we were moving to Canada she had a going away party for me in mid-November of 1968. Poor Mrs. Hendrickson never understood why I never left.)

But Elaine never thought for a moment that you shouldn’t even listen to the other side. Had she had such an attitude, she herself would never have changed her opinion on the abortion issue (cf. Curious Autobiography, p. 100) or any other. She never thought that a statue of someone you might have disagreed with should be pulled down. She hated racism, despised and resisted what she would have called “male chauvinist pigs” (and Mr. Rizzo likely qualifies under both of these categories) and would speak up for the oppressed at any and every turn. But she did not and would never have advocated rewriting—or worse—suppressing history. There are lessons embedded in our history, lessons we can only learn if we acknowledge the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the insipid and intelligent in history. These things, the Greeks would remind us, are not myths but they were witnessed. We have written testimony about those who witnessed them. They are not matters of opinion, like “God must not exist because there was a flood or an earthquake.”

No, history is something that was witnessed and, for better or worse, is something to be remembered. Monuments can be despised, but do they need to be removed? Not if we are to remember our history, for history is a shared experience with good and bad, a positive and negative legacy for all, not just for some. If we lose our shared history, we shall never, I ween, have a shared future. May that future be our shared story, as well.

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