Learn From History But Don't Try to Teach The Dead

Updated: Oct 5, 2020

By Oliver James Pike

Alexander Solzhenitzyn once said that “To destroy a people, you must first sever their roots”. The left has been doing this for years. Whether it is national heroes, the nation's literary cannon or the history taught in schools, anything that fails to fit the new consensus that the west and all its values and heritage are inherently evil, is purged from existence. Statues are toppled, curriculums edited and heroes debased.

A recent example from the UK demonstrates this Stalinist erasure of history. In 2018 Students from Manchester University defaced a wall displaying in the poem “if” by Rudyard Kipling in their student union building. They did so because they believed the poem was inappropriate due to the “racist” views Kipling held, pointing to his poem “The White Man’s Burden” in which he encourages America to enact imperialistic policies in the Philippines. The students replaced the poem with one by Maya Angelou in order to promote marginalised voices. They agued that the union should represent the wishes of the students and the students had not been consulted. Fair enough. Yet the students should have gone through official channels before taking matters into their own hands. Furthermore, the real problem here is not the paint job but the worrying sentiment behind it.

This is but another example of a worrying trend where people look back at artists, writers and politicians of the past and take umbrage with some of their views. Are the views outdated? Yes. Are they incompatible with 21st century values? Yes. However, we should not be surprised that people who are long dead held views which, while being acceptable at the time, are no longer respected. Kipling’s imperialistic views were common place in the 1800s and acceptable for a long time after that. We should not attempt to hold the people of the past to the same standards as we hold those living today. If we do then we risk purging a great deal of the art, music and literature we inherited from history.

Perhaps we should ask those who point out Kipling’s imperialistic views if they are Disney fans. If they are then they may be surprised to learn that Walt Disney was accused of being a racist and an anti-Semite for the stereotypes presented in many of his work. The “song of the south” or the Jewish stereotypes in his early films are to Disney what “The white man’s Burden” was to Kipling (A stain visible only to those looking back with feverish virtue). Yet Disney films are beloved and continually praised by young and old. The depictions of these minorities in this manner were common place at the time. Many have suggested that Disney wasn’t a racist but was just racially insensitive. Yet they apply a modern-day definition of “racially insensitive” to a different era with completely different values. While we should learn from the mistakes of those who came before us we should not attack and purge any good work associated with them simply because we have the benefit of hindsight.

Perhaps the voluntary decorators of Manchester student union were not Disney fans and would condemn his work to the same fate as Kipling’s. However, many involved in such protests may be pro-abortion and support the work of Margaret Sanger the founder of Planned Parenthood (the American organisation that provides women with contraception and abortions). Due to the progressive nature of the protesters the answer would likely be yes. However, they may be interested to hear that Sanger supported euthanasia and promoted increased access to contraception to prevent “the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.”. Not only did she once speak in front of a KKK audience but in a letter that many suggest points to her desire to reduce the African American population Sanger wrote “We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population”. Those in favour of abortion would call her a hero and praise the good work she did in promoting feminism and women’s rights and yet many would not offer the same level of forgiveness to Kipling.

What about Abraham Lincoln one of the greatest and most famous US presidents of history. The students concerned with the voices of minorities will likely praise Lincoln for his actions which led to the liberation of black slaves in America. Yet they probably wouldn’t be pleased to know that he was noted to have said ““I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favour of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races—that I am not, nor ever have been, in favour of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.” Such views are outdated yet Lincoln held incredibly progressive views for his time and is considered a historical hero.

Perhaps they would say Sanger and Lincoln were evil like Kipling and Walt Disney, but that you can’t just paint over societal progress like you can a poem. We should then ask them if they have taken as much care in the design of their own bedrooms as they have the union building. Perhaps the socialists amongst their ranks might have a poster of their communist idol Che Guevarra adorning their walls. Perhaps they would be interested in their hero’s views on black people whom he referred to as “Those magnificent examples of the African race who have maintained their racial purity thanks to their lack of an affinity with bathing”. I guess the students of Manchester will need new posters. Mao? Stalin?

Perhaps having stripped their rooms of communism, our friends from Manchester will need a break. Perhaps they like reading. The Grimm’s Fairy tales are the basis of most of the famous and popular stories from snow white to Cinderella. Perhaps they would like to read a lesser known story from the Grimm brothers “The Jew in the Brambles” in which the protagonist forces a Jew to dance amongst thorns. People in Germany in 1812 wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at such content but it’s best not to read that one in 2020. But can you enjoy the other stories knowing the authors were, like most Germans at the time, anti-Semitic? How about something more cerebral? T.S Elliot is considered one of the greatest poets of history but unfortunately also accused of being a prolific anti Semite.

The trend of looking for backwards views in the past has extended to more recent history. For example, the Simpsons was criticised for its character Apu being an Indian Stereotype even though the entire show hinges on stereotypes of all colours and creeds and that when such humour was conceived society had a far more relaxed approach to comedy. Even more recently the ABBA song “when I kissed the teacher” was edited for the recent Mama Mia movie because it was simply to outrageous for modern times. Even more notably the song “Baby its cold outside” was transformed from a light-hearted song in a romantic film into a twisted rape fantasy by retrospective feminist perspectives. Examples range from episodes of friends to statues in public squares. If we rid our history of art, music, ideas and film simply because the people involved held views that while unacceptable today were common place for their time we risk losing a great deal of history and culture. Should we refrain from talking about these views? No, we can learn from the mistakes of those who came before us and have open discussions about things we don’t like, but bulldozing over heritage and art without any attempt at dialogue is a dangerous game to play.

Those quick to judge the views of those in the past should consider what will be thought of their modern and progressive views. Perhaps the protesting students will become the bigots of 200 years ago for the generations of the future. It may be our books, poems, films and paintings that the future generations will attempt to remove because we were complicit in a form of bigotry or backwards thinking not yet considered by humanity.