History is so we don’t forget

An Englishman of some renown once wrote this in a book:

“It is unquestionably an advantage that the East African negro should develop a taste for civilized attire. In no more useful and innocent direction could his wants be multiplied and his desires excited, and it is by this process of assimilation that his life will gradually be made more complicated, more varied, less crudely animal, and himself raised to a higher level of economic utility.”

Sound racist? I thought so when I first read it and that wasn’t the only testy passage. The book, My African Journey, was published in 1908. The author? Winston Churchill.

A BBC poll declared him the greatest Briton in history. There are statues of him all over the world, not to mention the fact that streets, highways, buildings, public squares and even cities are named after him. No doubt, some think that recognizing a man who harbors such thoughts – or did when that book came out – is criminal and the whole lot of monuments, streets, what have you, should be taken down or renamed.

But Churchill is a monumental figure of the 20th century, maybe the monumental figure of the 20th century, and removing his statue from a park or expunging his name from a boulevard is absurd.

Fast forward to today when every statue or school recognizing a famous person is subject to the kind of scrutiny one normally sees in a courtroom murder trial. What started with the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia has spread like wildfire.

There are teachers in Canada who say we should reconsider anything named after the country’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, because of his alleged sentiments about the Indigenous people who, incidentally, used to be called Indians.

Likewise, an increasing number of Americans think that presidents who once owned slaves should be outed. Fine. Remove George Washington and Thomas Jefferson from Mount Rushmore, and in their place add presidents who didn’t own slaves. Let’s start with Richard Nixon and Donald Trump.

For what it’s worth, General George Washington oversaw the destruction of forty Seneca villages in 1779, and whether you like it or not, the world and beliefs back then were different. Just as they were when Churchill first travelled through Africa and when Macdonald engineered the creation of Canada two years after the end of the American Civil War.

Macdonald is largely responsible for Canada becoming a nation. The same may be said for Washington in the U.S. and for Churchill saving Great Britain from Nazi Germany in World War II.

Teachers, politicians and civic leaders who push for the erasure of such recognition don’t understand what history is about nor do they understand why it should be preserved.

However, naming a school after a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan is something else, as are grandiose monuments to those who once led the Confederate Army. But if you want a controversial statue, the memorial to Theodore Roosevelt outside the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City is a good one.

Proud Teddy sits astride a horse with a black man and a Native American standing on foot on either side of him.

While we’re at it, don’t forget that Churchill and Macdonald were drinking men, JFK was a serial adulterer, and the Vatican spirited many a Nazi out of Germany after the war.

So, which pope goes first?

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