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Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.
“That’s all she wrote.”
In explaining this familiar American sentence, a British authority wrote that it means, “it’s all over; there’s no more to be said.”
That’s what we used to think about history. You found out what happened and wrote a big book about it.
While that belief was never true, it is now strongly rejected. These days people take a new look at history in an effort to realign the past with present opinions.
It can result in misjudging historical leaders. New research and experience may help us understand what they did and why. But we might also measure them using standards likely to have been unknown to them. Or we may resist any new historic understanding and continue to glorify the past.
The most obvious case of taking a new look may be the elimination of the Confederate flag on state banners and the removal of statues of rebel leaders. They have been memorials to an armed attempt to preserve slavery and destroy the Union. Venerating them amounts to keeping the rebellion going.
While eliminating the symbols of an unjust and inhumane cause is reasonable and necessary, it leads to confrontation between those defending the symbols, supposedly because they are part of history and those opposing them in light of a reinforced awareness of their lingering effect. As a result, they become elements of today’s political clash.
At the time that slavery was acknowledged in the Constitution, most drafters knew it was wrong. But they regarded it as necessary to ensure the participation of southern states, which believed it essential to their economies. It lasted until the Civil War and, in practice, a century more.
Even at the outset, one general saw it differently and upon his death, his slaves were freed. Six decades later, another general led his state’s soldiers in rebellion against his own country to preserve slavery. Both were Virginians and both are respected. Washington and Lee University recognizes them. Only one deserves a statue.
Taking a new look at Robert E. Lee to deflate his high reputation may be seen as “cancel culture” by those who believe he should be honored for being committed to a worthy cause and a classy loser.
Giving new consideration to the historic role of leaders makes sense, provided today’s analysis takes into account human understanding and sensitivity as it existed at the time. To reject such analysis, which some dismiss as “cancel culture,” is dangerously simplistic.
The term “cancel culture” is not just about fighting to preserve history. It is a rallying call for those people who support discredited movements or events and amounts to barely disguised support for lost causes. Its advocates misleadingly dismiss their critics as merely being “politically correct.”
On the other side, those who simply condemn historic figures based on their own current views also misuse history. They resort to shortcuts that are meant to appeal to their audience.
The heated debate is selective, based more on today’s politics than on a broad, new look at accepted history. The cases pulled out for new consideration or subjected to claims of “cancel culture,” are more likely to legitimize the current political needs of their partisans rather than being part of an academic effort to reappraise past scholarship.
Today, some people may be shunned as objects of “cancel culture” because of their past statements or writings. If they persisted, shouldn’t they be rejected? If they repented, do they deserve still to be rejected? (Still revered, Lee never repented.)
Recently, the head of Planned Parenthood wrote one of the most balanced views of a troublesome history during these times of “cancel culture.”
Margaret Sanger was a nurse who opened the first clinic dedicated to birth control in an effort to promote it as a way to improve women’s lives. She founded Planned Parenthood and gained a widely, but not totally, favorable reputation.
Beyond women’s health concerns, she saw birth control as a way of limiting the growth of the Black population and she associated with white supremacist groups. She also supported a Supreme Court decision allowing the involuntary sterilization of “unfit” people and testing a birth control pill on unsuspecting Puerto Ricans.
“Sanger remains an influential part of our history and will not be erased, but as we tell the history of Planned Parenthood’s founding, we must fully take responsibility for the harm that Sanger caused,” Alexis McGill Johnson, the organization’s president, wrote.
If the furor over “cancel culture” has brought more attention to understanding our history, including Sanger’s conflicted role, it may be useful. Debating the past educates us, and that’s needed, because schools pay too little attention to American history and civics.
Frequently, leaders hail the shared “values” that supposedly unite all Americans, but then skip the sometimes clashing specifics of how they played out in history.
That failure leaves people ignorant of history and vulnerable to political exploitation. It allows “cancel culture” to flourish and history to be used as a weapon.