Change Culture; Don’t Cancel History

In 2008 I was teaching at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, during my sabbatical year. One course was a research seminar entitled “Zionist Intellectual History.” I had nine students – seven Jewish, one a Catholic, and one a Native American. I invited them for an erev Shabbat dinner at our home, where they could relax with their “professor.” During the meal, I asked the Native American student (who happened to be the best one in the class) why he was taking such a course. His answer floored me: “My goal in life is to help my people, but they are not at all united; I wanted to understand how Herzl united the Jews and started them on the way to their own sovereign state!”

I was doubly impressed. First, about his lofty (if probably unattainable) goal of uniting the First Nations into a political force to improve their lot. Second, because here was student willing to learn from history – and not only his own nation’s. The study of history is not normally high on the list of things that today’s students are interested in learning about. Which brings me to what happened next…

A couple of weeks later, he approached me and noted that he couldn’t make the next week’s class. I asked why. “I am leading a protest against Columbus Day,” came his reply. Once again, I was taken aback. 

What he (and his fellow protesters) obviously hadn’t taken into account was the fact that Rhode Island had the proportionally largest Italian-American population of all fifty states! To put it mildly, the protest was not very popular.

That was then; today there’s “Indigenous People’s Day,” as an alternative to Columbus Day (each state or city can take their pick – or celebrate both). My question is whether this will stay as a double commemoration, or whether we are halfway to the cancellation of Columbus Day. To be clear, this is but the tip of the iceberg; America’s society is starting to run aground of a Titanic crash in many walks of life, called “Cancel Culture.”

The problem is not that progressives want to be sure that we remember the dark sides of our history (whatever nation we belong to) – that is not only worthy but also socially cathartic. The problem starts when they want to delete history e.g., tear down statues, expunge historical people from the history books, etc. Replacing one “narrative” with another unidimensional, counter-narrative is illogical and even self-defeating. Illogical because you cannot argue that history is multi-dimensional, and then go ahead and replace it with a different, unidimensional history. Self-defeating because if one expunges the darker sides of history, we lose the ability to properly learn from those past mistakes. As the 19th century, Spanish philosopher George Santayana opined: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

And there’s another negative aspect to Cancel Culture: the feeling of moral superiority and lack of historical perspective. Cancel Culture progressives feel that their stance not only takes the ethical high ground, but that it is the only high ground to take. There are no other ideas permissible or even thinkable. This in turn leads to the lack of self-reflection: whether anything they stand for will actually hold up in the future – or will their progeny look back with dismay at their supercilious approach to social morality, and whether things that they believe in today might not stand the test of time.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t get rid of any historical statues (or similar cancelling of other historical mementos)? Not all. The basic criterion has to be what was considered acceptable at the time – not what we anachronistically evaluate through the prism of contemporary mores. Otherwise, we have to cancel the Hebrew Bible (slavery was sanctioned!), the entire Hellenistic world (Greek women were not allowed to vote in the Agora!), the Catholic Church (supporting the Inquisition!), and the list goes on (potentially endlessly).

I’m all for Indigenous People’s Day. But it should be a celebration of First Nation culture and history, and not a cudgel against European Colonizers and their supposed genocide (95% of Native Americans died from European plagues from which they had no immunity, not in warfare with the Europeans). Similarly, Columbus Day is an excellent opportunity to not only highlight the travails of the early settlers trying to tame a harsh physical environment but also to note what such colonization ultimately meant for Native American society.

No one can change the past, but we can influence the future. However, that will only succeed if we commemorate and remember all of history. The good, the bad, and yes – even the ugly.

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