Erasing the past

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Washington#/media/File:Gilbert_Stuart_Williamstown_Portrait_of_George_Washington.jpg, Public Domain

With friends on both sides of the aisle, you occasionally get forwarded articles with a particular slant on the news.  This week, it was news that some folks wanted to erase a mural that depicted George Washington having slaves, and showing some of the realities of how people treated Native Americans.   The commentary article was here, and the original article was here.   The second, original article is worth a read, since it brings up some more detail about the artist (no right winger, by any stretch), and some other solutions (like covering up parts of the mural with a screen) that weren’t as drastic. The comments on the original article, some by the school’s alumni, clearly refer to erasing the past not being the best of plans, and that seems to be the general response.

Erasing the past isn’t a particularly good idea.   Coming to grips with what we’ve collectively done is probably the most constructive way of handling these issues.   There are some issues where a plaque, another piece of art, or a sober explanation can do wonders.  My first reaction when reading the first article was to think of how modern collections of older cartoons have a small introduction which recognize the era they came from.  Whoopi Goldberg (another certainly not right-leaning icon!) did a bit on Tom and Jerry cartoons; it’s been done with others. The folks having issues with George Washington might have put up a plaque or something else, but tearing it down?  Washington was the man who declined a crown, set the stage for being president, and gave his all for his fledgling country.   This story alone makes you wonder what the country would be like without his character.

Questions:

  • What is the cutoff between celebrating the past, and remembering it?  Germany bans Nazi iconography unless it is used for “art or science, research or teaching.”   How about the Confederate flag?
  • What is going on with the people who are suggesting these more extreme courses of action?  Are our echo chambers becoming so well “echoey” that we can’t see or hear the questionable logic that is underpinning these arguments or suggested irreversible actions?
  • If we start erasing the past, or how other eras remembered the same pasts, won’t we walk straight into philosopher George Santayana‘s oft-quoted observation that “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it”?  Modern Germans seem to have a plan that works.
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