What should the proper attitude towards history be? Today, campus ideologues and Antifa iconoclasts are busily knocking down monuments or eradicating any positive memories of the past. Consider the case of Notre Dame University which recently covered over some century old murals of Christopher Columbus using the “doublespeak” mantra of, “not concealing anything but rather to tell the full story,” so claimed university president Rev. John Jenkins. (But how does erasure tell a story?) Such academic politicians are especially adept at distorting, altering, or re-interpreting genuine history as a cheap propaganda tool. I call it “weaponizing history,” using the past as a weapon to smite one’s opponents or, more often, to advance some favored agenda.
These kinds of historical abuses should raise serious questions about what is a proper attitude towards history in our modern world. Obviously a good faithful historian is truthful in so far as the limitations of documentation allows. But beyond that, good history neither embellishes the past needlessly nor is it used as a blanket condemnation of persons or events already transpired. It needs to be objective and fair minded, taking into consideration the context of culture, belief systems, even geography ~ all of which have enormous bearings on human activity in any age. But too often the grievance mongers only aim is to hijack history for personal gain.
One of the more egregious abuses of history in current vogue is to hold present day persons or institutions responsible for the attitudes and actions of their predecessors, several generations or even centuries back. This is when history degenerates from being a useful lesson to becoming a weapon. Demanding retribution or restitution from persons who may not even have been born when some distant infraction took place is the height of cynical intolerance, not to mention a manifest injustice.
Ideally, history becomes a consultation with our past, an opportunity to learn who we really are and why we think as we do. It warns us of potential excesses and points out our omissions. It allows us to take pride in who we are but also reminds us of the need to be respectful of others who may have different backgrounds. History teaches us that we are all fallible beings with the potential for both great deeds and shameful acts, often simultaneously enacted. It points out the curiously paradoxical nature of our being, a blending of virtues and vices. That is why weaponizing the past is so disingenuous, it bypasses any real self-reflection. Our Lord’s injunction, “Let him who is without sin be the first to cast a stone,” applies to every one of us after all.
Last summer’s sensational yet arguably distorted and biased release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report on clergy sexual abuse highlights this disturbing trend among progressive “culture warriors” to employ past wrongs as a cudgel in the discussion of current events. Having spent some time poring over that report, I was struck by the inconsistencies between its strident summary introduction, with recommendations, and the actual details contained within. Make no mistake, many of the profiles and catalogue of abuses described were truly nauseating and inexcusable transgressions by so-called men of God. What the report failed to do, however, was to place these offenses into any historical or social context. Worse, it clearly implied that such behavior continues to be the norm even today. In fact, upon close examination, the vast majority of cases involving some 300 clerics from six dioceses occurred from about 1965 to 19995. Very few had transpired before and almost none after that time window, particularly post 2002 when the American bishops approved the Dallas Charter for the protection of children.
You may well recognize that 30 year period as the golden age of the sexual revolution, a time when all societal restraints on sexual expression all but evaporated in this country. Divorce rates flew off the charts. Widely available pornography flourished alongside co-habitation and homosexuality which became the new cultural norm. Abortion rates soared. But in the depths of such societal moral depravity were Catholic clergy the only ones infected by such decline? That is the picture painted by the grand jury report. In fact, the 300 clerics accused of abuse (though in many cases never proven) represented something less than 2% of all priests ministering in the affected dioceses, and after 2002 the incidence of abuse shrank to negligible levels. But what did spike after 2002 was much belated reporting of cases of abuse. More than a third of the reports filtered in decades after the alleged abuse occurred. Yet the grand jury failed to note this reality, as though a steady stream of abuse has continued to this day, 17 years after the fact. And some of those allegations stretch back as far as 80 years.
The Grand Jury Report creates the deliberately false impression that that current conditions in Pennsylvania have not perceptibly changed since the 1970s. In fact, what the Dallas Charter did was to encourage former victims to come forward, and many did so, encouraged by the very bishops the report unfairly characterizes as stonewalling and covering up. The fault in this report is not so much what it exposes as what it omits to publicize, such as the 450 pages of documentation and rebuttals by various clergy which are never seen in the online publication which ends on page 866. In other words, the accusers are given full voice but any rebuttal or disclaimer offered by any accused is quietly and surreptitiously redacted from the public view. Such treatment reminds one of the “denouncements” during the reign of terror in the French Revolution where a simple accusations cost someone his head.
The Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report is a textbook example of weaponizing history in order to vilify persons or institutions for the sins of others from the distant past. In this case, the Catholic Church is made the object of shaming for what one suspects are purely political motives. History does in fact serve a useful purpose, as a warning to the present generation for sure, but also to give us a sense of continuity and identity. Our history has its moments of great moments and actors as well as cautionary tales of past failings and errors. It should never be solely read in a triumphalistic sense, nor is it all about assigning guilt. Ideally, history informs us but at the same time gives us a sense of balance and perspective. But it is a real abuse of history itself to use it as a club to pummel some other person or group in an orgy of communal shaming.
There are many other examples of this cudgel approach to history, using it as a weapon against one’s enemies. The current fad for monument destruction comes immediately to mind. Today it may be monuments to Confederate soldiers or generals such as Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson, men routinely tarred by self appointed “hate police” as being racists merely for having fought on the losing side of the Civil War. But as writer Robert Kimball points our, after the trauma of 600,000 American lives lost in that tragic conflict, perhaps “the memorials were part of an effort to knit a broken country back together. Obliterating them would also be an attack on the effort of reconciliation.” Is it not one of the functions of history to bring about reconciliation? But if it is simply keeping alive a list of grievances to be later used as a reservoir of land mines, then history has been twisted into an instrument of division rather than unification. Should the images of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson be chiseled from Mount Rushmore because the owned slaves, along with a large majority of signers of the Declaration of Independence?
History in today’s academia is rapidly devolving into what Mr. Kimball described as, “an attack on the past for failing to live up to our contemporary notion of virtue.” And the virtue warriors are everywhere now, busily feeling offended by everything from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn to dead white male’s such as William Shakespeare whose portrait was recently removed by the University of Pennsylvania English Department, apparently because he didn’t pass the student’s “inclusivity” standard. The past is something simply to be discarded or altered if it doesn’t fit the current mood. But when one starts to weaponize history rather than study it seriously fatal consequences may result. To weaponize history is to distort it for the sake of expediency, precisely what Hitler did in order to justify the extermination of Jews. First falsify history to create a narrative useful to one’s own cause and then leverage that narrative politically. Recall the Ministry of Truth on George Orwell’s 1984 where, “every book has been rewritten… every statue, street, and building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped.”
In the end the weaponizing of history results in the destruction of history altogether. All that remains is a fable. This slippery slope from facts to fables can have real-world social and diplomatic consequences. Consider the rapidly deteriorating relations between the nations of Poland and Israel occurring at present. The fact is that during the brutal Nazi occupation of Poland from 1939 to 1945 some 3 million non-Jewish Poles lost their lives. An equal number of Polish Jews likewise suffered the same fate so one would expect that the Poles and Israelis today would share a special bond based on their shared sufferings.
Enter in the revisionist historical mudslingers working hard to distort, insult, alienate. NBC’s reporter Andrea Mitchell recently announced over the air that, “the uprising of Polish Jews in the Warsaw ghetto had been against the Polish and Nazi regime.” In fact there was no Polish regime in Poland at the time. A Polish government in exile was based in London helping coordinate the Polish underground “Home Army.” This resistance group actually provided weapons to the Jewish fighters in that April 1943 uprising. Were some individual Poles guilty of collaborating with Nazis? Undoubtedly, but then again the Nazis also used pliant Jewish police to round up and load fellow Jews on to trains bound for Treblinka and other death camps. So it seems there were a small number of Jewish collaborators as well.
But Poles today rightly bristle at absurd claims that the Polish nation was responsible or co-responsible for crimes committed by the Third Reich. People who watched their neighbors being indiscriminately shot by Nazi thugs and their property confiscated can hardly be described as complacent or cooperating in the face of atrocities. In fact they were being terrorized by the daily brutality they witnessed, as any of us today would be. No doubt, today’s righteous left-wing virtue-crats would have acted differently looking down the muzzle of a Nazi gun. Incredibly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu validated Mitchell’s fictitious rendition of Polish history when he remarked, “The Poles collaborated with the Nazis,” a careless diplomatic faux pas made toxic by his own foreign minister, Yisrael Katz, who callously charged on Israeli television, “every Pole suckled anti-Semitism with his mother’s milk.” One could hardly falsify or weaponize history any more contemptuously than that.
History has long been considered one of the humanities, or at least it once was. But today’s implication is that it should be made a means of demonizing whoever we may disagree with. Whether it is a grand jury or a minister of state, or even a college president whose job is to “humanize” the next generation of leaders, history presents an awesome responsibility to accurately represent the truth as it works to bind together, not to tear apart society. But the abuse of that responsibility will have far reaching consequences and I fear that in the current climate such abuse points towards a repetition of those unhappier moments of human history. Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.
Francis J. Pierson +a.m.d.g.